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The King James Version of the Bible turns 400 years old this year!

It is the Bible that I grew up with, learned my first memory verses from, and heard quoted in my father’s sermons and in the lessons of visiting preachers.  It is the translation that made the words of Psalm 23, The Beatitudes, and the Lord’s Prayer flow with poetic beauty.  Since the only other place I ever encountered terms like ye, thee, thou, thy, and thine and words that ended in -eth and -est was in the hymns that we sang in worship, I just assumed that such language was the most fitting and appropriate for the communication of all things holy.  Though I found much of the vocabulary and syntax foreign to the brand of English that I spoke and read in daily life, it was this shear oddity of language that actually proved to be beneficial in the memorization of Scripture.  Never mind that I had no idea what “evil concupiscence” or “superfluity of naughtiness” meant.  Then there were those PG words that appeared in the translation, which if uttered at home still got us into trouble despite our appeals and protests that “it’s in the Bible!”

The story of the translation of the King James Version (and the larger history of the English Bible) is a fascinating study and well worth the time and effort of any English-speaking Christian who has the blessing of reading the Scriptures in their native tongue.  Early translators faced ridicule, opposition, persecution, and even death for their efforts to express the Word of God in the common language of the people of their day.  

By the beginning of the 17th century, there were several notable English translations, but none that found general acceptance across the spectrum of religious factions and among clergy and laity alike.  King James and the group of over 50 scholars that he assembled for work on a new translation sought to change that.  The project had the advantage of numerous translators working in committees with peer review rather than being the work of a single individual (like John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, Miles Coverdale, or John Rogers) or the much smaller groups of scholars that had produced the Geneva and Bishops’ Bibles.  While their work was largely a revision of the Bishops’ Bible, the KJV translators consulted and compared other English translations and the best Hebrew and Greek manuscripts available to them.     

Like all new translations, the King James Bible (or Authorized Version) faced significant scrutiny and skepticism when it was first published in 1611.  Early editions were plagued by misprints and misspellings, and a standardized text wasn’t achieved until 1769.  Still, the King James Version ultimately became the Bible of the English-speaking world and held that position unrivaled for an unprecedented length of time.  It would be 1885 before the next major English translation was published and another hundred years after that before the KJV was no longer the best-selling English translation.

That was then; this is now.  Changes in the English language and a mountain of new manuscript evidence demanded revision, and the 20th century answered the call with numerous new, scholarly translations.  Like all efforts of man and like the King James Version itself, all of these translations have their strengths and weaknesses, but they have contributed greatly to our being able to know and understand the timelessly relevant truth of the Word of God.

Though now surpassed in sales and usage by other English translations, the place of the King James Version in history (both secular and religious) is secure.  Countless millions of people over the last 400 years have learned God’s story and the message of salvation in Jesus Christ through its pages.

So, happy birthday unto thee, KJV!  You have held your age remarkably well!

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March 2011