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Plymouth Rock Foundation’s E-News – May, 2011
by Dr. Paul Jehle, Executive Director
The 400th Anniversary of the King James Bible
May 2nd, 2011 marks the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. We don’t celebrate the Bible much anymore. It used to be a book reverenced, respected and used as an authority on everything from ethics to literacy. In addition, the Bible was known as the “book of books” because it developed the very language in which it was translated. The English language itself has been impacted by the translation of the Bible – and especially by the King James edition of 1611 – for no translation before it or since has combined both accuracy and literacy to such a degree as to impact the entire culture and its literary phrases.
Do any of the following phrases sound familiar?
- A drop in the bucket…
- A labor of love
- A two-edged sword…
- Seeing eye to eye…
- The root of the matter…
If so, you have been impacted by the King James Bible! Before we explore the relevance of this translation to the day in which we live, we need to find out why it was produced in the first place. If there had been no Geneva Bible of 1560, there would have been no King James Bible of 1611! King James was a highly educated individual, trained in the theology of the reformation. He was brilliant, able to debate, and intellectually astute. But though his head was well informed, his heart was far from God. He was proud, arrogant and virtually defined the “divine right of kings.”
The Geneva edition made the Bible common property. It was the first Bible to be fully translated from the original languages; the first small enough to carry, cheap enough to own, divided into chapter and verse for ease of study and to contain commentary notes from the reformers in its margins. It was the first translation produced by a committee (rather than one individual). In short, it was the first study Bible. It was also immensely popular. Why, if the Geneva edition was so good, you might ask, did King James want another translation? He wanted one precisely because it was popular among the separatists (pilgrims) and puritans who opposed him, and he didn’t like the notes in the margins!
Take, for instance, the marginal note for Exodus 1:19 when the Hebrew midwives disobeyed the edict of Pharoah to kill their male children. It states “their disobedience herein was lawful.” This is not the kind of comment King James would approve of – for he did not want the Biblical injunctions to be applied to his own administration! That is why, at the Hampton Court of 1604, when a new translation was suggested, King James stated “that a translation be made of the whole Bible, as consonant as can be to the original Hebrew and Greek; and this to be set out and printed without any marginal notes, and only to be used in all churches of England in time of divine service.”
The irony was obvious here. The edition of the Bible King James studied throughout his life was the Geneva, so popular in his homeland of Scotland that the Scottish Parliament required it to be owned by families! James’ anger toward the Geneva edition fueled the new translation. From 1560 to 1644 more than 144 editions of the Geneva Bible were printed before it was outlawed and the King James Version required as the only one to be read in church. The worldview in the margins of the Geneva edition, however, had already spread throughout England and Scotland! The common people of England were so in love with the Geneva edition they did not use the King James Version willingly!
“Surely the rage of man shall turn to thy praise, the remnant of the rage shalt thou restrain.”
“For the end shall show that the enemy was able to bring nothing to pass; also thou shalt bridle their rage that they shall not compass their purpose.” – (Psalm 76:10 and its Geneva marginal note)
This is the lesson for today. Regardless of how much it appears that the spiritual enemy of our souls, his influence in our culture, and his apparent success in deluding the world may seem secure, God’s sovereign purposes will prevail. All the enemy intends will not come to pass, but instead the purpose of God’s providence will reign victoriously! This is the story of the King James Bible we must remember as we honor its 400th anniversary. We do not honor King James or his declaration that just because he was king, he was the “voice of God” for his nation! Neither do we honor the anger from which he authorized a government sponsored translation! We honor God’s overruling Providence!
Providentially, the Geneva edition came first, with its reformed worldview notes. Every believer today should have the newly published 1599 Geneva Bible edition as a reference study Bible today. However, the literary expressions of the King James Bible, which were produced by the 47 scholars who worked on its translation, was specifically designed to be read orally in the churches (nearly 80% of the population was illiterate). More than 20% of the King James confirmed the Geneva, and 80% confirmed Tyndale’s version. As far as accuracy, the KJV affirmed the best previous editions!
The wrath of King James ended up praising the very God he despised in his heart. Consider…
- The lack of marginal notes helped inspire each individual to study the Bible for themselves;
- Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (1711) was based on the KJV;
- The first publication of the KJV in America was by Robert Aitken in 1782; the Congress made it the Bible of the Revolution, recommending it “to the inhabitants of the United States”;
- Noah Webster’s Dictionary (1828) defined words by utilizing the KJV version of the Bible;
- The KJV had 417,000 copies by 1845; many taken around the world by American missionaries!
- By 1850 the KJV Family Bibles became popular with genealogies in front and pictures within;
- Preachers and Presidents demonstrated the KJV’s influence in their famous speeches;
- Strong’s Concordance, published in 1890, linked the original languages with the KJV;
- By 1911 the KJV in America had united the culture in phrases, metaphors, stories and literature!
Though many versions exist today, not all are equal. Some are paraphrases, others are more like interpretations. Some are more accurate than the KJV in places, with more updated access to original manuscripts. We don’t worship any translation of the Scriptures, for only the original manuscripts are the ultimate authority. However, it is the opinion of this author that a Geneva Bible for its commentary, and a King James for its literacy, should be the anchor translations used for personal Bible study. The familiarity with the KJV helps one utilize the best tools in word studies as a bridge to the original languages. In addition, other translations can be used as companions for “in the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Proverbs 11:14). Let us thank God for the providential provision of His Word in the historic, classical translations that have changed the cultures of the world!