Thursday 6 January 2011

(Yet) another post about the King James Bible...

There has been a lot of varied blog traffic on the KJV 400th anniversary, most of it guardedly hostile to the language of the translation, or the sexuality of King James IV/I, or the associated fundamentalism (the King James was good enough for Jesus so it's good enough for me) etc.

I am rather taken with the KJV, personally, and that's coming from someone who grew up in the post Vatican II catholic tradition, with never a glimpse of the KJV, other than the possible appropriation of elements (e.g. the doxology-free 'Our Father' in the English translated mass). Why am I taken with it? Someone lent me Nicholson's 'Power and Glory', an account of the process and context by which this bible was created.

It was created as a sort of settlement between the evangelicals (who wanted the Calvinist Geneva bible) and the more traditional-catholic-friendly wing of the English church (who had the not very good Bishops' Bible as an anti-Geneva prop). The scholarship applied to the KJV was seen as the leading work of its time (although it was basically a Church of England inside job).

When I was living near Bristol there was a big tower on a nearby hill - the Tyndale monument. William Tyndale was a 16th century Enlgish reformer who translated the New and Old Testaments into English and was executed, near Brussels, for heresy in 1536. Four years later Henry VIII authorised the publication of bibles in English, all based on Tyndale's work. The Bishop's Bible (the English base for the KJV) was developed from the Great Bible, which was developed from Tyndale's work. All a bit tortuous, maybe, but the fact remains that people were willing to die to hear the bible translated into their own language - in the 16th/17th century, Jacobean English. By the time of the KJV the worst of the religious persecution was passing (but it was not entirely gone...) but the memories of burnings were fresh.

The KJV is a wonderful example of scripture engaging with the culture of its time, to allow it to come alive and speak directly, of God, to the people. We continue to do this today - whether one prefers the REB, the RSV (my personal favourite for sermon preparation), the NIV, TNIV, NRSV, Message, Word on the Street - the list goes on and on, paraphrases and translations, each with its own particular style and context.

The KJV is a wonderful piece of prose - the iambic pentameters flow beautifully to attuned ears - but for me it matters because of what it represents. It represents humanity's desire to refresh and rediscover what the scriptures have to say to each new generation, at any cost. We forget the price that people of faith have paid over the centuries to hear and understand those inspired words.


  1. Thanks! A big surprise tied into the 400th anniversary of the 1611 King James Version Bible:

    Two scholars have compiled the first worldwide census of extant copies of the original first printing of the 1611 King James Version (sometimes referred to as the "He" Bible). For decades, authorities from the British Museum, et al., have estimated that “around 50 copies” of that first printing still exist. The real number is quite different.

    For more information, you're invited to contact Donald L. Brake, Sr., PhD, at or his associate David Sanford at

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