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Part II: The Reign of the King James (The Era of Elegance)

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March 2001

Editor’s note: This is the second part of a four-part lecture that was delivered at Lancaster Bible College in March, 2001, for the Staley Bible Lectureship. We are hoping to get permission to post all of the lectures as an audio tape on the Biblical Studies Foundation website. Here are some audio of a Textual Criticism series Dr. Wallace has done. Dr. Wallace is available as a conference speaker on “The History of the English Bible.” If your church is interested, contact him for details.

Preface: We left England with two competing Bible translations: the Bishops’ Bible that was used in the churches, and the Geneva Bible that was read in the homes. By far, the Geneva Bible was the more popular, and this created a problem for the clergy: they needed a translation in the churches that would be revered by the masses.

A. The Making of the Authorized Version

1. The Hampton Court Conference

An opportunity for fixing this problem presented itself when Queen Elizabeth died in 1603 and a new monarch came on the scene. James VI had already ruled over Scotland for thirty-seven (37) years when he became James I of England.

The following January (1604) the king summoned the religious leaders of the country to Hampton Court to air out ecclesiastical grievances of all sorts. By far the most important matter that was settled at this conference was the resolution

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.1

The original document that authorized this new translation is kept in the Manuscript Room at Cambridge University. I had the opportunity to see it while I was living in Cambridge on my last sabbatical (1995), but I never did. The reason wasn’t lack of interest, but rather that there were so many more important MSS to look at that I never found the time to get around to this one!2 Had I known that I would be giving this lecture today to you all, I am quite sure that I would have made the time to see the famous Hampton Court document!

The proposal for a new translation came from a Puritan, Dr. John Reynolds. And although it did not meet with unanimous approval, it did meet with James’ approval. And that settled the matter. At one point the king gushed, “I could never yet see a Bible well translated in English; but I think that, of all, that of Geneva is the worst”!3

Why would James disapprove of the Geneva Bible so strongly? After all, this had been the official Bible in Scotland during his reign there. His animosity was most likely not due to the translation as much as the notes. He explicitly mentioned the comment at Exodus 1.19 as problematic: the Geneva margin suggested that the Hebrew midwives were justified in disobeying the king’s order to kill all Hebrew baby boys.

In other words, the impulse for producing the King James Bible (or, as it is frequently called in England, the Authorized Version) initially came from two groups, one religious and the other political—both of them at the top of their respective food chains. It is not altogether unfair to say that the motive to produce this grand work was more to protect the status quo than to meet the needs of the people. In this respect, the King James Bible resembled the Roman Catholic Rheims-Douai version rather than its own Protestant predecessors of the sixteenth century.

2. The Procedure of the Translators

James was enthusiastic about the new project and took a leading role in getting it off the ground. In fact, as far as we know, he wrote up the rules for who the translators should be, how they should be organized, and what principles they were to follow. But he did not do any of the actual translation—in spite of the fact that many people think of the King James Bible as a version translated by him!

James assigned six panels of scholars to do the work: three for the Old Testament, two for the New Testament, and one for the Apocrypha. Two teams met at Oxford, two met at Cambridge, and two at Westminster Abbey. Altogether, there were forty-seven (47) men who worked on this new version.

Among the rules that the translators were supposed to follow, two are noteworthy: (1) Although the translators were to rigorously consult the Greek and Hebrew texts, they should retain the wording of the Bishops’ Bible wherever possible. (2) This version must not have any marginal notes—except those that explained the Greek and Hebrew words or cross-referenced other passages. But the translators did not follow these rules religiously, especially the first one.

3. The Textual Basis

The translators did not consult any Greek or Hebrew manuscripts as they did their revision. Instead, they based their work on existing published texts. The Old Testament textual basis has not changed too dramatically since the sixteenth century, but the New Testament text has gone through enormous changes. The text that the King James translators used was principally the Stephanus text of 1550 (third edition), which, in turn, relied essentially on Erasmus’ third edition of 1522—the same Greek text that Tyndale had used. We’ll talk more about the Greek text behind the Authorized Version in a little while, when we discuss problems with the KJV.

4. Influences

The KJV was not a brand new translation, but a revision of earlier works. Although it was supposed to be based on the Bishops’ Bible—departing from it only where necessary—it really was influenced by many translations. At Oxford University is a manuscript that gives us a fascinating glimpse into the translation work—almost ‘behind the scenes,’ as it were. The manuscript is a copy of the Gospels from the Bishops’ Bible that was used by the translators through various stages of revision. You can detect the various groups that worked the document over. Handwritten notes mark up almost every verse of the text. The first team made their revision marks by hand, completing the work within a relatively short period of time. (Had the KJV appeared in 1608, when the first revision of the whole Bible was virtually completed, it would have looked substantially like a revision of the Bishops’ Bible. But more work needed to be done.) Then, the manuscript was sent to a final revision committee. And they marked up the text still further. One of the most fascinating aspects of the work is that as the manuscript went through its stages of revision, the new version kept looking less and less like the Bishops’ Bible and more and more like Tyndale!4

Besides Tyndale’s translation, the Geneva Bible also had a huge influence on the KJ—especially in the Old Testament books that Tyndale had not translated. Further, in the original preface to the KJV the Bible is quoted several times—and every time it is the Geneva version that is quoted, not the King James!

And perhaps most surprisingly, the Rheims-Douai version had some impact as well. The Old Testament was completed only a year or two before the KJV was published—it was thus too late to have an influence. But the New Testament of the Catholics had appeared in 1582, and it made its way into the Authorized Version in a few places. Besides using some of the language of the Catholic New Testament—especially Latinisms, or traditional ecclesiastical terms—the KJV also follows the textual basis of the Rheims-Douai—that is, the Latin Vulgate—in nearly 100 places. In ten places, the Authorized Version “abandons all known Greek manuscripts for the Latin Vulgate.”5

Nevertheless, the KJV was still much closer to the Geneva and Tyndale than to anything else. It may properly be regarded as the fifth revision of Tyndale. As we noted yesterday, 90% of the King James New Testament was really Tyndale’s translation. Two statements made yesterday about Tyndale’s influence are worth repeating. First, Prof. Isaacs said:

“[Tyndale’s] simple directness, his magical simplicity of phrase, his modest music, have given an authority to his wording that has imposed itself on all later versions.… Nine-tenths of the Authorized New Testament is still Tindale, and the best is still his.”6

Second, the introduction to a reprint of Tyndale’s New Testament declares: “Astonishment is still voiced that the dignitaries who prepared the 1611 Authorized Version for King James spoke so often with one voice—apparently miraculously. Of course they did: the voice (never acknowledged by them) was Tyndale’s.”7

At the same time, the King James translators painstakingly worked over the translation and produced a whole new work. On many occasions, it sacrificed Tyndale’s accuracy for a more elegant rendition. It is obvious from a comparison of the King James New Testament with that of Tyndale that the leading principle of the King James translators was not faithfulness to the Greek, but elegance in English.

And when it came to the Apocrypha, the King James followed its Protestant ancestors rather than the Catholic tradition by placing the Apocrypha at the end of the Old Testament.

B. Publication and Reception

When the Authorized Version first appeared, it was published with quite a few marginal notes. These notes were not just intended to explain the Hebrew or Greek word, but had diverse purposes. Over 6500 notes appeared in the Old Testament alone, most of which gave a “more literal meaning of the original Hebrew.”8 The Apocrypha added another 1000 notes, and the New Testament had almost 800. Altogether, there were nearly 8500 marginal notes in the 1611 KJV. On a few occasions, the notes indicated textual variants. And a great number of notes explained to the reader that the translators were undecided as to the meaning of the original. Of significance here is the sensitivity that the translators had to the readers.

In the preface entitled, “The Translators to the Reader,” “They mention that some readers [may] have misgivings about the alternative renderings suggested in the margin, on the ground that they may appear to shake the authority of Scripture in deciding points of controversy.”9

But these translators had no illusions that theirs was the final word on the Word of God. They knew that later discoveries and research would help to clear up the meaning of the original. Unfortunately, this preface is no longer printed in the KJV. Its omission has been one of the major reasons why some religious groups believe that the KJV is the only inspired Bible, that the KJV is perfect in every way. As one scholar quipped, “Some people would prefer a false appearance of certainty to an honest admission of doubt.”10

In the subsequent centuries, a great deal of research and discovery has indeed helped us to understand better the original text. Translations always need to be updated when new archeological and manuscript discoveries are made.

The preface also explicitly denied that the Authorized Version was perfect. The actual statement is important to grasp; listen to what it had to say:

To those who point out defects in [the translators’ works], they answer that perfection is never attainable by man, but the word of God may be recognized in the very meanest translation of the Bible, just as the king’s speech addressed to Parliament remains the king’s speech when translated into other languages than that in which it was spoken, even if it be not translated word for word, and even if some of the renderings are capable of improvement. To those who complain that [the translators] have introduced so many changes in relation to the older English version, they answer by expressing surprise that revision and correction should be imputed as faults. The whole history of Bible translation in any language, they say, is a history of repeated revision and correction. 11

A few observations on this statement are in order. (1) The translators do not equate their work with the inspired word of God; they explicitly deny the perfection of the KJB. (2) They freely admit that even the worst translation of Scripture is still to be regarded as the Word of God. (3) They make a qualitative distinction between the text written in one language and the translation of it into another. Regarding Scripture, they admit that only the original text in Greek and Hebrew was inspired (4) They implicitly approve all later revisions of their own work, because the very nature of Bible translation involves “a history of repeated revision and correction.”

Sadly, many today who are “King James Only” advocates would deny all four of these points. Their only excuse for doing so is that they have never read the text of “The Translators to the Reader.” But just a few years ago, that preface became available as a separate book, published by the American Bible Society. It includes both the old wording as well as an updated version, along with a full commentary.

Finally, in 1611, the Authorized Version was published.

How was it received? It may be surprising to us today to realize that there was by no means universal applause for this translation when it rolled off the presses. Some people, at first, criticized it for being too simple, too easy to understand! This was voiced especially by Roman Catholics. In anticipation of this criticism, the original preface argued that the translation intentionally “shunned the obscurity of the Papists…” The preface went on to denounce the Rheims-Douai version in these words:

[The Catholics have] the purpose to darken the sense, that [although] they must needs translate the Bible, yet by the language thereof it may be kept from being understood. But we desire that the Scripture may speak like itself, … that it may be understood even [by] the very vulgar.”

We will come back to this issue later when we discuss problems with the KJV.

This new version was also criticized for its inaccuracies. The most outspoken critic was Dr. Hugh Broughton, a first-rate Hebrew scholar. Broughton, in fact, was eminently qualified to have been on the translation team, except for one thing: he was too cantankerous! As F. F. Bruce said, “he was not cut out for collaboration with others, and would have proved an impossible colleague. Probably he resented the fact that he was not invited to serve, and when the new version appeared, he sent a critique of it to one of the king’s attendants:

The late Bible… was sent to me to censure: which bred in me a sadness that will grieve me while I breathe, it is so ill done. Tell His Majesty that I had rather be rent in pieces with wild horses, than any such translation by my consent should be urged upon poor churches. … The new edition crosseth me. I require it to be burnt.12

Don’t you love that? “Come on, Hugh! Don’t pull any punches—Tell us what you really think!” The fundamental reason Broughton despised the KJV was that it looked too much like the Bishops’ Bible and not enough like the Geneva.

Nevertheless, not all had this attitude. Although it would take fifty years for the KJV to overtake the Geneva in popularity, its intrinsic worth—the rhythm, the elegance, the phrases that lingered in one’s mind—in due time “established itself [the King James] as the version for church and home, for public and private use, superseding the Bishops’ Bible and the Geneva Bible alike.”13

C. Editions

One of the ironic facts about the KJV is that it is impossible to honestly speak about the first printing, because there never really was a first printing! “The revision and correction process began immediately in 1611, … even before the first printed edition was completed and put together. The pages of these two editions [the actual first edition and the corrected second edition]… seem to have been accidentally mixed before either was assembled and bound.”14

Thus, the first edition of the KJV is actually more of a first-and-second-edition hybrid. But there are ways to tell whether one possesses a ‘first-second’ edition or a completely second edition. I won’t go into those details here. I have seen what is probably the finest example of the so-called ‘first’ edition of the KJV surviving today. It is part of a private collection in Texas.

Besides these two editions, the Authorized Version went through at least two more in the first year alone. In the first three years, it actually went through fourteen minor editions due to the frequent mistakes in the process of translating, revising, and printing. But these are not really revisions by today’s standard. Two larger overhauls were completed in 1629 and 1638. Within fifty (50) years “the need was presented and an effort was made to officially revise [it once] again”—this time more thoroughly than the previous two revisions. But Parliament decided not to act on this impulse when Charles II ascended the throne in 1660. The shifts of the political winds thus stymied the third revision of the KJV. It would not undergo a major revision again for 100 years. In 1762 and 1769, the KJV was revised for a third and fourth time.

Altogether, nearly 100,000 changes have been made to the 1611 KJV. The vast bulk of these are rather minor (mostly spelling and punctuation changes), but in the least this fact shows how impossible it is today for any church or any Christian to claim, “We read only the original 1611 King James Version of the Holy Bible”!

With all the revisions made to this translation over the centuries, printer’s errors were bound to creep in. Even though the goal was to eradicate all mistakes, every printing of the KJV added more!

For example, in 1611 the so-called ‘Judas Bible’ was printed: In Matt 26.36, the KJV says that Judas came with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane—even though Judas had already hanged himself in the previous chapter!

The very first edition of the Authorized Version is the ‘Basketball Bible’ because it speaks of ‘hoopes’ instead of ‘hookes’ used in the construction of the Tabernacle.

A 1716 edition has Jesus say in John 5.14 “sin on more” instead of “sin no more”!

The next year, the famous ‘Vinegar Bible’ appeared; this name was attached to this printing because the chapter title to Luke 20 was “The Parable of the Vinegar” instead of the “Parable of the Vineyard.”

In 1792, Philip, rather than Peter, denied his Lord three times in Luke 22.34.

Three years later the ‘Murderer’s Bible’ was printed: It was called this because in Mark 7.27 Jesus reportedly told the Syro-Phoenician woman, “Let the children first be killed” instead of “Let the children first be filled”!

In 1807 an Oxford edition has Heb 9.14 say, “Purge your conscience from good works” instead of “Purge your conscience from dead works.”

A printing of the KJV in 1964 said that women were to “adorn themselves in modern apparel” instead of “modest apparel” in 1 Tim 2.9.

But none of these printing mistakes can equal the Bibles of 1653 or 1631. These are the two ‘Evil Bibles’ of the King James history, for they both left out the word ‘not’ at key junctures. The 1653 edition—known as the ‘Unrighteous Bible’—said “the unrighteous shall inherit the kingdom of God” in 1 Cor 6.9. And the 1631 edition, the infamous ‘Wicked Bible,’ wrote the seventh of the ten commandments as “Thou shalt commit adultery”!

The Wicked Bible was such an embarrassment to the Anglican Church that the archbishop ordered the Bibles to be burned, and he fined the printer, Robert Barker, 300 pounds—no small sum in those days. Barker, who had been the king’s printer since the Authorized Version came out, died fourteen years later in debtor’s prison.

Not only have there been these occasional but bizarre printing mistakes, but several errors in the 1611 edition have never been changed. For example, in both Acts 7.45 and Heb 4.8 the name “Jesus” appears when Joshua is actually meant! Hebrews 4.8 in the Authorized Version says, “For if Jesus had given them rest, then would he not afterward have spoken of another day.” The passage is saying that although Joshua brought his people into the promised land, he could not give them the eternal rest that they needed. But by having “Jesus” here, the KJV is thus saying that Jesus was inadequate, that he was not able to save his people from their sins. In Greek, both ‘Joshua’ and ‘Jesus’ are written the same way— ᾿Ιησοῦς. The issue is not one of textual variant, but of inattention to the details of the interpretation of the text.

Or consider Matt 23.24 the Authorized Version reads, “Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.” The Greek text here means to “strain out a gnat”—not “at a gnat.” Jesus’ point is the same as what he says in Luke 6.41— “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” The religious leaders focused on the tiny problems of others without taking care of the big issues in their own lives.15

Now, please understand: I am not listing these errors to make fun of the KJB! But I also don’t want anyone to have the illusion that it is a perfect translation. No translation is perfect—not the KJV, not the RSV, not the NIV, not the NET Bible.

In fact, just to play fair, allow me to mention an error that made its way into the second printing of the NET Bible, New Testament, in 1998. This translation has more notes in it than any other Bible in history. There are half a million words of notes for the New Testament alone! And at one of them, the typist accidentally hit a second ‘s’ when he wrote the conjunction ‘as.’ I won’t spell it out for you, but you can well imagine the name this edition of the NET Bible would be called! Not only this, but as the senior New Testament editor of the NET Bible, I have to take full responsibility for this note. Besides, I was the one who actually typed in this word!

D. The KJV as Literature16

In spite of all the printing problems of the KJV, it has endured the test of time. It has been called “the single greatest monument to the English language.” Another scholar wrote, “The supremacy of the King James is one of style, not of scholarship. The men who made it did not set out to manufacture a literary classic—classics are seldom made to order. Yet they did produce one: perhaps the only classic ever turned in by a committee…”

Leland Ryken, professor of English literature at Wheaton College, speaks of the “overwhelming preference of people with literary stature in our century for the King James Bible over modern translations.”17

The linguist Mario Pei observed, “The King James Bible and Shakespeare together are responsible for well over half of all our language cliches and stock phrases.”

H. L. Mencken, no friend of Christianity, declared that the KJV was “unquestionably the most beautiful book in the world.”

I could quote from scores of other literary authors who embrace the Authorized Version like no other book in the world. What is it that makes the King James so good? In a word, it is its elegance.

The KJB has rhythm, balance, dignity, and force of style that is unparalleled in any other translation. Or, as Leland Ryken says, its touchstone is memorability. No translation today lingers in the mind like the King James of old does.

Frankly, it is my conviction that every Christian should own a copy of the King James Bible. It may not be the most accurate, but it is the most elegant. And you only deny your own rich literary and religious heritage if you do not own and read a King James Bible.

I wish to close this message today by reading 1 Cor 13 from the King James Bible.

1Cor. 13:1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

1Cor. 13:2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.

1Cor. 13:3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

1Cor. 13:4 Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,

1Cor. 13:5 Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;

1Cor. 13:6 Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;

1Cor. 13:7 Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

1Cor. 13:8 Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.

1Cor. 13:9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.

1Cor. 13:10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.

1Cor. 13:11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

1Cor. 13:12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

1Cor. 13:13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.


1 As quote by Bruce, History, 96.

2 Chief among these was Codex Cantabrigiensis (a.k.a. Codex Bezae), which I was able to see—even though the procedure took three weeks to get permission! Peter Head and I spent half a day with that magnificent and eccentric document, and were the first persons granted permission to do so in four years due to its fragile condition.

3 Ibid. (italics added).

4 For documentation and actual plates, see Allen and Jacobs, The Coming of the King James Gospels. On the epistles and Revelation, see David Norton, “John Bois’ Notes on the Revision of the King James Bible New Testament: A New Manuscript,” The Library 18.4 (1996) 328-46. See brief discussion of this article in Minton, Making, 309.

5 Minton, Making, 315. Of course, several of these renderings were also found in Erasmus’ Greek text, especially in the last six verses of Revelation.

6 Quoted in Bruce, 44.

7 Tyndale’s New Testament: Translated from the Greek by William Tyndale in 1534.  In a modern-spelling edition and with an introduction by David Daniell. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.

8 As quoted in Minton, Making, 351.

9 Bruce, History, 102-3.

10 Ibid., 103.

11 Currently cited from Bruce, History, 101, but also available from ABS.

12 Bruce, History, 107.

13 Ibid., 106.

14 Minton, Making, 330. He adds some other fascinating information as well!

15 It is possible that ‘strain at’ in 1611 English meant ‘strain out’ (so OED). However, it was a rarer meaning even then and certainly should have been changed in subsequent revisions. Inexplicably, this error has remained in the text of most printings of the KJV. (See Minton, Making, 350, for exceptions.)

16 The following quotations are taken from Leland Ryken’s class notes on the KJV which he kindly sent to me in February 2001.

17 p. 12.

Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word)