Supporters have called it “the book that changed the world.” Detractors have derided it as archaic and inaccurate. But few dispute the impact the King James Version of the Bible has made over the last four centuries.
Arguably, no other book has had the widespread influence and lasting significance of the King James Version of the English Bible,” said Jeffrey Straub, professor of historical theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Plymouth, Minn.
Although popularly known as the Authorized Version, the King James Bible of 1611—unlike the Great Bible of 1539—never carried an edict by king or bishop commanding that it be read in churches. Even so, for at least half its 400-year history, King James reigned over other translations.
How it was created
Contrary to popular misconception, King James did not translate the Bible that bears his name. But he assembled the committee that produced it over the course of seven years of translation, deliberation and review.
“It did not just drop down from heaven on a sheet and end up at the Red Roof Inn,” quipped Scott Carroll, research professor of manuscript studies at Baylor University.
When King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England after his cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, died in 1603, he inherited a divided Church of England. Puritans within the Anglican Church promptly presented King James the Millenary Petition detailing a long list of grievances.
In response, he convened a conference at Hampton Court the following January. King James dashed the Puritans’ hopes by rejecting virtually all of their demands and letting them know he would not tolerate religious nonconformists.
However, the king responded positively to a call for a new translation of the Bible into English. He saw it as a way to unify the Church of England and displace the Geneva Bible, which he believed undercut the office of bishop and divine right of kings.
So, King James assembled 47 scholars to work under the direction of Bishop Richard Bancroft to create a new translation, using the Bishops’ Bible of 1568 as their guide. In 1611, the King James Bible was published.
Within two generations, the translation’s language became part of the Book of Common Prayer. And within about two centuries, it beat out competing translations as the preferred Bible of the English-speaking world.
Literature & language
At a time when many people bemoan a general lack of biblical literacy in American society, speakers continue to quote snippets from the King James Bible—although often without even knowing it.
The translators of the King James Bible preserved Hebrew idioms such as “fly in the ointment,” “sour grapes,” “skin of your teeth” and “fat of the land.” They also contributed expressions such as “sign of the times,” “holier than thou” and “straight and narrow.” Some literary analysts have asserted the King James Bible is second only to the writings of Shakespeare as a source of common English expressions.
“The King James Bible brought about profound changes in literature,” said Lamin Sanneh, professor of mission and world Christianity and professor of history at Yale University. He spoke at a conference sponsored by Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, marking the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.
Indeed, from the speeches of Abraham Lincoln to the fiction of Herman Melville and William Faulkner, echoes of the King James Bible can be heard in American literature and language, said Robert Alter, professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley.
“If there is a single attribute readers attach almost reflexively to the King James Version, it is eloquence,” Alter told the Baylor conference.
Perhaps ironically, the King James Bible translators preserved the beauty of the original language in the Hebrew Bible most effectively in the narrative prose passages, rather than in its poetry, he noted.
“Homespun Anglo-Saxon vernacular offered a good English equivalent of the plain diction of Hebrew” in prose, he said. “It captures the evocative force of the original.”
But in the poetic passages—most notably Psalms and Job—translators demonstrated “indifference to the cadences of compactness of the Hebrew,” Alter said. Even so, they produced classic English in the process.
“After 400 years, its grand language still rings strong,” he said.
Impact on Great Britain
Until the 18th century, the King James Bible competed with multiple other English-language translations for use in churches throughout Great Britain, said David Bebbington, professor of history at the University of Stirling.
“It was not yet a sacrosanct cultural item,” he said.
However, as romantic sensibilities and “esteem for the old” grew in England, so did marked appreciation for the 1611 translation. Instead of looking down on the King James Bible as outdated and vulgar, it came to be seen as “freighted with wisdom,” he noted.
Particularly as revolutions occurred in the American colonies and in France, the British rallied around the Authorized Version as a national treasure “undergirding the fabric of the social order,” Bebbington observed.
When the British and Foreign Bible Society began printing and distributing copies of the Authorized Version, its reach extended to every part of the British Empire, he noted.
“The Authorized Version became a symbol of national culture,” he said.
Ironically, as new English translations have proliferated, the key defenders of the Authorized Version in Great Britain have been secular members of the “cultural elite” who view it as a literary treasure and a few conservative evangelical Christians who view it as divine revelation, Bebbington observed.
“In 2011, the Authorized Version is more warmly appreciated by public intellectuals than by believers in the pew,” he noted.
Impact in the United States
The King James Bible provided “an indispensable reference point” to Americans in the 19th century, said Mark Noll, professor of history at the University of Notre Dame.
In his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln spoke of the people of the Union and the Confederacy who “read the same Bible and pray to the same God.” Everyone understood Lincoln referred to the King James Bible.
“It’s not that all the people were Bible readers,” Noll noted, but a Protestant consensus rooted in a common Bible shaped society and culture. “That changed after the end of the war.”
Increasing numbers of non-English-speaking immigrants and the claims of higher criticism that called into question preconceived attitudes about Christianity and the Bible meant a diminished adherence to the King James Bible.
“Internal fault lines became permanent fixtures in American Protestantism,” Noll said. By the time the King James Bible marked its 300th anniversary in 1911, he observed, those fissures could be seen clearly in representative speeches by Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and William Jennings Bryan.
The social gospel civil religion expressed in speeches by Roosevelt and Wilson, as well as the anti-intellectual populism to which Bryan appealed, lacked the kind of deep biblical resonance and specific foundation in the King James Bible that naturally had permeated Lincoln’s speeches 50 years earlier, Noll concluded.
Today, the language of public speakers in the United States may be even more impoverished, because they cannot use allusions from the King James Bible with assurance their listeners will understand. Instead, they must rely on more generic references to faith.
“Platitudes, even when biblical, are platitudes still,” he said.