Do You Know the “King James Version?”
What do most users of the King James Bible not know about this translation? Do those who object to changing the King James Version know that it has already been changed in thousands of ways?
WHEN a modern translation of the Bible appeared in print not long ago, a young churchman thought to crush it by informing his people: “If the Authorized Version was good enough for St. Paul, it is good enough for me.” Aside from the fact that the English language, of course, was not even in existence in the apostle Paul’s day, the incident serves to prompt this truth: More people in the English-speaking world use and accept the King James or Authorized Version than any other single Bible translation. In fact, so highly esteemed is this translation that many persons venerate it as the only true Bible. This raises some questions.
Do these countless persons who use the King James Version know why, despite objections from churchmen, modern translations keep rolling off the presses? Do they know why the King James Version itself was once opposed by the people? Do they know why, despite vigorous protest and opposition, the King James Version entered into the very blood and marrow of English thought and speech? Do they know what illuminating document is probably missing from their own copies? In short, do they really know the King James Version?
To know the King James Version or, for that matter, any Bible translation, we need to know why the Bible was written. Jehovah God, its Author, caused it to be written to reveal himself to mankind and to express his purpose. Yes, God became the Author of this Book so that we could have the thoughts of God, so we could know the purpose of man, so we could know the destiny of both wicked and righteous men and so we can come to know man’s Creator, Jehovah.
The purpose of Bible translation, then, is to take these thoughts of God, originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, and put them into the common languages of today. Bible translation makes God’s Book a living Book. So true Christians read the Bible, not to be entertained by clever turns of expression, unusual words, excellency of style, striking rhetorical devices or felicities of rhythm, but to learn the will of God. It was for this reason that the King James Version came into existence. That was in 1611.
BACKGROUND TO THE AUTHORIZED VERSION
Even earlier, as we learned in the previous issue of The Watchtower, many English translations of the Bible had come into being. There were the works of Wycliffe, Tyndale and Coverdale. There was the Matthew’s Bible of 1537, the Great Bible of 1539, the Geneva Bible of 1560 and the Bishops’ Bible of 1568.
First among the so-called “authorized versions”—those translations authorized by religious monarchs or religious groups for use in their religious congregations—was the Great Bible. Second of the authorized versions was the Bishops’ Bible. This translation, however, was not very progressive in its improvements; it even ignored many improvements made in earlier translations. Also its phraseology was not as simple and direct as others; thus the Geneva Bible remained the people’s favorite.
Thirty-five years after the second authorized Bible appeared, King James I came to the throne of Great Britain. Since the Spanish Armada had been defeated in 1588, a period of comparative peace and quiet prevailed. This heightened intellectual effort. King James himself enjoyed Bible study and translation. He even wrote a “Paraphrase upon the Revelation of St. John.” Though interested in the Scriptures the king did not originate the idea for a third authorized version. From what source sprang the idea?
One day in 1604 the Hampton Court Conference was convened. King James presided. The king listened to the complaints of the Puritans. The complaints, touching on many subjects, finally came to the matter of the Bible. John Reynolds, Puritan president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, moved that there might be a new translation of the Bible. Why? “Those which were allowed in the raignes of Henrie the eight and Edward the sixt,” he said, “were corrupt and not aunswerable to the truth of the Originall.”
No immediate action was taken by the king. But the idea appealed to him, and presently he gave order for this translation to be made.
But before the version came to birth much work had to be done. The king, vigorously supporting the project, approved a list of some fifty scholars to serve as translators. How would the version be made? It was not to be a translation from the Original but rather a revision of the versions then in use. This is evident from the instructions given by King James to the translators. They were: “The Bishops’ Bible to be followed, and altered as little as the Original will permit. And these translations to be used when they agree better with the text than the Bishops’ Bible—namely, Tyndale’s, Matthew’s, Coverdale’s, Whitchurch’s, Geneva.”
Slowly a new translation emerged. Finally in 1611 the first edition of the Authorized Version issued from a London press. In honor of the king it was called the King James Bible. The translators had worked for years, using basically the inherited Tyndale-Coverdale text and adding their own improvements. These centered particularly around the choice of words and enhancement of the rhythmic quality of the text. The result was a version superior to its predecessors in accuracy of translation and refinement of literary style. Did the people now rejoice that they could get God’s thoughts more accurately?
OPPOSITION TO THE AUTHORIZED VERSION
Long before the new version came off the press opposition to it had mounted. Why? People had grown familiar with the versions they had; they preferred to keep what was familiar. These many persons had lost sight of the fact that true Christians read the Scriptures, not for their literary effect, but “for teaching, for reproving, for setting things straight, for disciplining in righteousness, that the man of God may be fully competent, completely equipped for every good work.” So, being used to the Geneva Bible and not keeping in mind the purpose of the Scriptures, the people frowned on the new King James Version. The fact that it made improvements over earlier translations meant little to them.—2 Tim. 3:16, 17, NW.
From almost every quarter the King James Bible met opposition. Criticism was often severe. Broughton, a Hebrew scholar of the day, wrote to King James that he “should rather be torn asunder by wild horses than allow such a version to be imposed on the church.”
The translators, not unaware that people preferred to keep what had grown familiar, knew that their work had unleashed a storm. They tried to calm the people down. They wrote a “Preface of the Translators” to explain why the King James Version was made. This preface is called by the Encyclopedia Americana “a most illuminating preface describing the aims of the translators which unhappily is omitted from the usual printings of the Bible.” Thus most Authorized Versions today, though they contain a lengthy dedication to King James, omit the preface. Its presence would clear up many misunderstandings about the purpose of the revision. The reader would learn that strong opposition was expected:
“Many mens mouths haue bene open a good while (and yet are not stopped) with speeches about the Translation so long in hand . . . : and aske what may be the reason, what the necessitie of the employment.”
The reader would learn that the King James Version was a revision of earlier works made with a modest hope of improvement and no thought of finality: “Truly (good Christian Reader) wee neuer thought from the beginning, that we should neede to make a new Translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one, . . . but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principall good one, not justly to be excepted against; that hath bene our indeauour, that our marke.”
In time the clamor died down, and the King James Version prevailed over the Geneva Bible. For more than two and a half centuries no other so-called authorized translation of the Bible into English was made. Little wonder that many people began to feel that the King James Bible was the only true Bible. Like many people who once objected to any change in the Geneva Bible, many persons today object to any change in the King James Bible. They oppose modern translations perhaps as vigorously as the King James Version itself was once opposed. They say they do not want the beautiful King James Bible changed. Is this viewpoint based on a sound foundation?
KING JAMES BIBLE ALREADY CHANGED
To the surprise of many people the King James Bible has already been changed; today no one reads the King James Version in its original form. Explaining why this is so the book The Bible in Its Ancient and English Versions says: “Almost every edition, from the very beginning, introduced corrections and unauthorized changes and additions, often adding new errors in the process. The edition of 1613 shows over three hundred differences from 1611. . . . It was in the eighteenth century, however, that the main changes were made. . . . The marginal references were checked and verified, over 30,000 new marginal references were added, the chapter summaries and running headnotes were thoroughly revised, the punctuation was altered and made uniform in accordance with modern practice, textual errors were removed, the use of capitals was considerably modified and reduced, and a thorough revision made in the form of certain kinds of words.”
So many changes have been made, many of them in the readings of passages, that the Committee on Versions (1851-56) of the American Bible Society found 24,000 variations in six different editions of the King James Version!
What, then, of the objections raised by persons who say they do not want the King James Bible changed? Since the King James Version has already been changed, they lie on a crumbled foundation. If these persons do not want it changed, then why do they use, instead of a copy of an edition of 1611, an edition that has been changed? They use a present-day edition of the King James Bible because it is far easier to read. They appreciate, perhaps unknowingly, the improvements the later editions have made. They do not like the odd spelling and punctuation of the 1611 edition; they do not want to read “fet” for “fetched,” “sith” for “since” or “moe” for “more,” as the edition of 1611 had it. Thus improvement, when needed, is appreciated, even by those who say they object to any changing of the King James translation.
It is this very improvement that modern translations are providing by keeping pace with changing language, this for the purpose of making God’s Word clear, understandable, alive.
KINGLY AUTHORITY—A NECESSITY OR BENEFIT?
One of the major reasons the Authorized Version is so widely accepted is its kingly authority. There seems little doubt that, had not a king authorized this version, it would not today be venerated as though it had come direct from God. Does this kingly authority give a translation special benefits? Is it even necessary?
No, God himself authorizes his dedicated servants to translate his Word into understandable language. The fact that King James authorized a Bible translation does not make it the exclusive version that the Author of the original Bible approves his servants to use in any one language. In fact, kingly authorization, instead of great benefits, has brought serious disadvantages.
King James set forth certain rules of procedure. These the translators followed. One of those rules was that “the old Ecclesiastical words [were] to be kept.” Thus the translators were bound to follow the Bishop’s Bible in using certain ecclesiastical words, whether or not these words represented an accurate translation of the original Bible. For example, the ecclesiastical word “bishop” appears in the King James Version, although the original word, correctly translated, merely means “overseer.”
In many respects the beliefs of King James adversely affected the Bible translation called after his name. The translators, feeling somewhat bound to favor the king, were obliged to color the translation with the king’s notions of predestination and kingly rights, as well as with others of the king’s ideas.
This is apparent from the fact that some of the translators complained that they could not follow their own judgment, being restrained by “reasons of state.” The result: the King James Version is not a true reflection of the minds of the translators of the version. Above all, it comes far short of being a faithful reflection of the mind of Jehovah God, as it appears in the original Bible.
Getting the thoughts of God is the vital thing. To think otherwise is a deadly deception. Said Jesus: “This means everlasting life, their taking in knowledge of you, the only true God, and of the one whom you sent forth, Jesus Christ.”—John 17:3, NW.
How modern translations aid us to take in this life-giving knowledge will be the subject of a future Watchtower article.