The King James Version: Its history and worshipers.

by K.W. Leslie, 14 January 2022

Most of the verses I’ve memorized were in the King James Version.

Hey, it’s my upbringing. The hundred English translations of the bible that exist nowadays? Weren’t around back when I was a kid. (’Cause I’m old.) There were maybe a dozen in the Christian bookstores.

But my church used the KJV, so that’s largely what’s in my brain. I later got a Good News Bible, then a first-edition New International Version, but when it came to memory verses my Sunday school teachers drilled us in KJV.

In adulthood, for a lot of years I memorized verses in NIV. (Which they’ve updated three times since, so sometimes my memory verses won’t match the current NIV. Thanks guys.) After I learned biblical languages I translated the verses myself, and memorized ’em that way—which makes it particularly tricky to look up memory verses in my bible software. Google isn’t so picky.

Still, I quote KJV a lot, which surprises a lot of people. They assume I’m more postmodern than that (whatever they mean by that term; I know what I mean by it) and supposedly a with-it guy like me should think the KJV is old-timey, or out of date, or not reliable. That once I left my Fundamentalism behind, I also abandoned the KJV.

Nope. I still like the King James Version. It’s a good translation.

Not infallible, of course. None are; there’s no such thing as an infallible translation. Yeah, there are people who insist the KJV is the only God-inspired infallible bible; not just the only reliable English bible, but the only reliable bible, period. I’ll deal with them in a bit.

But y’notice whenever I write about the scriptures and use my own translation, I usually compare my translation to the KJV. For four main reasons:

  1. I am not declaring my translation superior to every other translation. We’re supposed to compare multiple translations when we study the bible. So since I gotta use some translation, why not the KJV?
  2. For better or worse, the KJV is still the English-language standard for bibles. Including for pagans—if you don’t use proper KJV “bible English,” they’re gonna think you’re paraphrasing.
  3. Loads of Christians, especially Evangelicals, still consider it the authoritative translation of the bible. Even when they like other translations better; even when they think it’s out of date.
  4. Nearly every translation has, when in doubt or whenever possible, deferred to the way the KJV originally put it. They’re not gonna stray too far from that version.

The early days of bible translation.

King James Version adherents have their own bizarre little alternate history of the translation.

To their minds, God had the prophets and apostles write the original Hebrew and Greek books. But then the evil Roman Catholics got hold of it, corrupted it, and translated their corruptions into Latin so nobody but they could read it. (Even though everybody at the time read Latin.) But heroic English Protestants somehow got hold of the originals, good King James ordered them translated into English, the Holy Spirit inspired the translators to do the best job ever, and here we are with an infallible translation. All English translations since? Based on the corrupt versions. Don’t buy or trust any of ’em; get yourself a good ol’ King James.

That’s their myth. Here are the facts.

In 382, centuries before the Roman Catholic Church came to exist, Bishop Damasus of Rome (whom the Catholics retroactively call Pope Damasus 1; at the time these “popes” only ran the churches of Rome and its suburbs, not the entire worldwide network which exists today) tasked his assistant Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus to produce a much better Latin translation of the gospels. Up to this point there were various Latin partial translations of the bible floating around, and all were iffy. Damasus wanted a good translation. Hieronymus, whom we nowadays call St. Jerome, got to work.

Didn’t take long before Jerome realized he ought not translate the Old Testament from the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. He moved to Israel to get better at Hebrew, then translated the Old Testament from the original. Thing is, a lot of Christians in his day believed the Septuagint was an infallible translation—why learn Hebrew? Why study with Jews?—they’d only corrupt him into thinking like a Pharisee, not a Christian. It’s for this reason the Orthodox Church still only uses the Septuagint.

Jerome didn’t translate the whole bible; just a lot of it. Enough so he tends to get credit for the whole. The Vulgate—the Latin bible—became the go-to translation of the western Roman Empire, just as the Septuagint and the original Greek New Testament remained the eastern church’s bible. And when the church formally split into Orthodoxy and Catholicism some 700 years later, the Catholics, in order to show how Greek they weren’t, made the Vulgate official. For the longest time, Catholic bible translations were only based on the Vulgate. Not the original Greek and Hebrew.

Yes, there were ancient and medieval Catholic bible translations. Lots of them. (Still are.) Whenever the locals didn’t speak Latin, and priests figured the locals oughta learn what’s in the scriptures, they made translations. But all of them had to sync up with the Vulgate (and today, the New Vulgate). All of them have to be approved by bishops. That’s why certain translators fell afoul of the Catholics: They went rogue. John Wycliffe, who translated the Vulgate into Middle English by 1384, had his own ideas about the Catholics, didn’t trust bishops, and never sought their approval. So he was persecuted as a heretic, and his bible forbidden. Hey, would you trust a bible produced by someone who thinks your church is run by the Antichrist?

William Tyndale is another case. He became Protestant years before King Henry 8 of England did. He hid out in Germany, translated most of the bible, and published his New Testament in 1526. The English caught up with him, and he was killed as a heretic in 1536. Yet only three years later the Great Bible, the first official translation of the Church of England, was published—and it was largely based on Tyndale’s translation.

Yes there were English-language bibles before the KJV. In fact, one of ’em was the very reason the KJV was produced.

Competing with the Geneva Bible.

Your average KJV fan has never heard of the Geneva Bible, and if you mention it they’ll just assume it’s Swiss. It’s actually Scottish. (And yes, it’s written in English; that’s what Scots speak.) It was translated in Geneva by Scots who studied under John Calvin, Geneva’s non-Catholic bishop. Hence its name.

Published in 1576, the Geneva Bible was deliberately published for the public, not the churches. The goal was for every family in Scotland to own one. It was printed in a portable size, and cost less than a week’s wages. It had chapters and verses (unlike other bibles of the day) so you could find the address of every passage. It had illustrations and maps. It had study notes—a running commentary, written by Laurence Tomson, which explained every hard-to-understand passage.

A 1560 edition of the Geneva Bible, opened to Matthew. Check it out; it’s got notes and maps!—stuff King James wanted gone. Wikipedia

Brilliant idea, right? And it turned Britain into a biblically literate island. English and Welsh people bought copies too. It became England’s most common translation. William Shakespeare quoted it, as did John Donne and John Bunyan. Oliver Cromwell’s troops carried copies. The “Pilgrim Fathers” brought it to Plymouth on the Mayflower, and the Puritans used it for decades thereafter.

All to the great annoyance of King James 6 of Scotland, who after the death of Queen Elizabeth 1 became King of England as well. He wanted it gone.

Y’see, the Geneva Bible translates עָרִיץ/arích (KJV “terrible”) as tyrant—a rather loaded word at that time, because kings were regularly accused of tyranny. Especially kings who felt they shouldn’t have to answer to anyone but God. Kings like the kings of France, who were the absolute dictators of their nations; kings like James, who grew up in France and didn’t see why he should have to confer with any parliaments, whether Scottish or English. But the Geneva Bible’s notes deny kings have any such power. Any “divine right” the kings claimed God granted them, was bunk—as proven by the many, many times the LORD had to rebuke and punish Israel’s kings when they went astray. (And as an American, of course I’m kinda biased in favor of that interpretation. Only Jesus has the divine right to rule—and he follows the Law. Though to be fair, he is the LORD who handed down the Law in the first place. Still follows it though.)

Once James became king of England, he authorized a new translation—one intended to become as widespread as the Geneva Bible had become. It was to be based on the Bishops’ Bible, a 1602 update of the Great Bible. It was to conform to the teachings of the Church of England, not the Church of Scotland. The word tyrant was banned; you won’t find it in the KJV. And it was to have no study notes nor commentary: If people weren’t sure about a passage, they were expected to ask their priest. The version James authorized (which is why it’s also called the Authorized Version) was published in 1611, and commonly named after King James.

So how’d it overtake the Geneva Bible in popularity? Simple: Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud banned the Geneva Bible in 1637. No more competition.

But by that point the Geneva Bible had done its work. The English Civil War, in which Parliament overthrew and beheaded James’s son King Charles 1 in 1649 for crimes against the state, was only possible because the English-speaking people had learned no king is above the law. One step closer to democracy.

Those who use the KJV, including it’s biggest fans, are likely not familiar with its original 1611 edition. Its spelling was corrected and standardized in 1769 by Benjamin Blayney. Its apocryphal books—the books Protestants don’t consider part of the bible—were removed in most American editions. Otherwise it’s essentially same as the original, and it’s still one of the official translations of the Church of England.

After four centuries of English-speakers reading it, it’s had a profound influence on our language. To a large degree, it standardized English: Noah Webster defined words based on the way the KJV seemed to use them, and a lot of Americans still spell “savior” with a U because the KJV does.

And since it was deliberately translated to be read aloud—which is part of the reason it’s so memorable—a lot of the KJV’s phrases have become common English idioms and sayings.

Yes, it has drawbacks.

As I pointed out, the KJV was based on the Bishops’ Bible. Which was based on the Great Bible, which was based on William Tyndale’s bible. About 80 percent of the KJV is unchanged from Tyndale’s version. The translators only tweaked it where necessary.

How’d they tweak it? They compared the Old Testament with the Septuagint, the Vulgate, and Daniel Blomberg’s 1525 Hebrew Rabbinic Bible. The New Testament was compared with Robert Estienne’s 1550 Textus Receptus and Theodore Beza’s 1582 Greek New Testament. Rather than consistently sticking to one original text, the translators picked and chose which version they liked. When they chose to change a verse from the way the Bishop’s Bible had it, they sometimes didn’t even bother to retranslate it themselves: They just went with Tyndale, or the Geneva Bible, or the Douay-Rheims bible (an English-language Catholic bible—yes, Catholics had English-language bibles!—which had published the NT in 1582, Genesis through Job in 1609, and Psalms through 2 Maccabees in 1610), or even a recent translation of John Chrysostom’s letters which happened to include bible quotes. Look, there’s nothing wrong with doing this when the other translation is accurate. But it doesn’t really look like they were going for accuracy. More like they were rushing the job. More likely that because they had day jobs (i.e. supervising churches, teaching at university) they only had so much spare time to translate bible.

And mainly they were just making sure the KJV conformed to the Church of England’s theology. Rather than, appropriately, the other way round. Fortunately the translators were by and large orthodox Christians, so we don’t have to worry about heresy in the KJV. Just translation errors.

Of which there are some. (Remember, no translation is infallible!) The original-language texts Tyndale used to translate the bible, and the texts the KJV translators used to update it, are out of date. Thanks to the development of textual criticism, the science of studying ancient texts to determine what was originally written, editors began to revise the Hebrew and Greek texts based on new and better information. Archaeologists found older copies of the New Testament, dating to the 300s instead of the 1500s. Scholars compared them with the writings of the early church fathers, to find out what was written in their bibles. And way more people became language scholars. The upshot is today’s Hebrew and Greek texts are far closer to what the writers of the bible originally penned. And those texts are what our present-day translations are based on. (With the exceptions of the New King James Version and the Modern English Version, both of which stuck with the 1550 Textus Receptus for the New Testament… mainly ’cause their sponsors are paranoid about today’s critical texts.)

Then there’s this minor issue: The KJV’s language is now 500 years out of date. (Yes, I know it was only published 411 years ago, but like I said, it’s 80 percent Tyndale.) The average English speaker finds it just as hard to slog through as reading Shakespeare. A good education in literature, plus a good vocabulary, will make up for that. There’s no reason, with effort, you can’t read the KJV. But when you’re first presenting the bible to newbies, you shouldn’t have to first teach them KJV English before you can teach ’em bible. You need a bible which is in our English, like the NKJV, or other translations.

Yes, it has worshipers.

After the KJV was first published, it was a long time before anyone bothered to translate the bible into English again. After all, why? The KJV’s a good translation.

But remember how I mentioned how the original-language texts got updated? Once they were, scholars recognized a real need to retranslate the bible. The Church of England decided to update the KJV, and in 1885 the English Revised Version was produced. (In the United States it’s called the American Standard Version. And that was updated by the 1952 Revised Standard Version, which in turn was updated by the 1989 New Revised Standard Version, the 2001 English Standard Version, and the 2020 Legacy Stanrdad Bible. The ASV is also the basis of the 2000 World English Bible.)

If you’re the paranoid type, or the anti-intellectual type, you’re not gonna trust the scholars who updated the Hebrew or Greek texts. Or even think they need updating. Those texts are “the originals,” aren’t they? Why’re people monkeying with the “originals”? What’s their angle? Are they trying to corrupt the bible or something?

And multiple bible translations: What, are you claiming the KJV can’t be trusted anymore? That we need to throw it out? We’ve based our faith, our lives, on that bible, and now we gotta buy Revised Versions? What the what?

This was about the time the KJV-Only movement began. Their concerns were several. They believe—

  1. The original documents used for the KJV were best. Supernaturally preserved by the Holy Spirit for all those centuries, Ps 12.6-7 but now the textual critics are picking ’em to death and taking out words and verses. And comparing them with third-century copies of the New Testament from Catholic museums. Catholics! What’re you doing trusting Catholics? You heretics.
  2. Multiple translations of the bible erode confidence in the bible, and people will ditch Christianity over it. Or it’ll confuse people: When Pastor quotes the KJV, but your NIV or ESV says something different, or doesn’t mean at all what Pastor says it does… well, you have no business exposing Pastor’s lack of careful study confusing people like that.
  3. New translations don’t concentrate on how the bible sounds, when spoken aloud, like the KJV. Using commonplace words instead of formal words makes the bible sound less majestic, less honorable, less respectable. And using “you” instead of “thee” will confuse people as to whether “you” means one person or lots of people. (Which, I admit, is a good point.) Leave the bible as-is. Leave it grand.
  4. The translators of the KJV were inspired by God to produce a flawless bible. The KJV has no errors. It’s precisely as the Holy Spirit wanted it translated. Heck, you can even correct the Greek versions with it if you needed to.

Not every KJV-Only adherent holds to that last one, but quite a lot of them do. But that’s the line they cross between great respect for a good translation of the bible… and idolatry. More precisely bibliolatry, bible-worship.

And you’ll notice how the idolatry makes ’em weird. Rather than a civil, respectful disagreement about which bible translation is best, most of them are angry, hostile, vicious, rude, and slanderous, against any Christians who dare to use other translations. They’ll spread lies about ’em, call ’em antichrists and sell-outs, and say just about anything they can think of. Rather than quote the bible carefully and in context for their defense, they quote it like madmen, who think it means whatever they wish so long that they believe hard enough, and can shout loud enough.

Which is to be expected of an idolater. The lack of love, peace, patience, and kindness is a sign their close personal relationship isn’t with Christ Jesus. It’s with the King James Version.

Again, the KJV is a good translation. Even a great one. Not the best; there is no such thing. Certainly the one with the greatest cultural impact on English-speaking culture. Definitely one you can read and profit by, and get to know Jesus through. But forsaking all other translations, and claiming they’re of the devil? That’s where you’ve lost touch with reality—and with the Holy Spirit, who uses these other translations all the time to bring people to Jesus.