What Makes the King James Version Great?
January 11, 2011
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the most important event in the history of English Bible translation. In fact, the publication of the King James Version of the Bible in 1611 was the most important event in the history of book printing as a whole, inasmuch as it is the bestselling English book of all time. I tell my students that the publication of the King James Bible was the most important event in the history of English and American literature.
There are important ways in which the King James Version is a book of wonders, and that is the format I have chosen for this article.
Wonder #1: the inauspicious origin of the KJV
The greatest English Bible was begotten in a moment of spite by a profane king. The origin of the King James Version is as follows. As the coronation procession of King James of Scotland wound its way southward, Puritan leaders presented the king with the Millenary Petition (so-called because it allegedly bore the signatures of a thousand Puritan ministers). In response, the king called the Hampton Court Conference (held January, 1604).
The conference turned out to be a farce. Four moderate, hand-picked Puritans were pitted against eighteen Church-of-England heavyweights. The king summarily dismissed all Puritan requests and threatened to "harry them out of the land--or worse." As a last-minute attempt to salvage at least something from the conference, the Puritans requested that a new English translation of the Bible be commissioned.
The king surprised the assembly by approving the request, but he did so with a scornful put-down of the Geneva Bible (the Puritans' preferred-translation) and of the whole tradition of English Bible translation. The king's famous statement was that "he could never yet see a Bible well translated in English, but the worst of all his Majesty thought the Geneva to be."
So this was the origin of the King James Bible--a "poor and empty" request (as the preface to the KJV calls it) from a handful of dejected Puritans, granted by a sneering king. It is hard to imagine a less auspicious origin for the mighty King James Bible. Yet God chose to override the scorn of a king who was seeking his own political advantage rather than the spiritual health of his nation.
Wonder #2: the unlikely process of translation
A whole host of wonders meets us when we learn the details of what is commonly called "the making of the King James Version." For starters, even though the King James Bible originated in a climate of religious and political contentiousness, once the process was set in motion by King James and Archbishop Richard Bancroft, everyone involved in the project rose above partisan spirit. Something like a benediction fell on the venture.
The forty-seven men who did the translation were chosen solely on the basis of their scholarly ability. They were "the best of the best" that England had to offer in Hebrew and Greek language studies and biblical scholarship. It is true that all of the translators were clerics in the Church of England, but all viewpoints within that church were represented, from high church Anglo-Catholics to low-church Puritans. Approximately a fourth of the translators were Puritans.
The second wonder is that a seemingly unwieldy committee structure did not impede the work. There were three primary committees, but each of these was in turn divided into two committees, so in effect the work was performed by six committees. To add to our astonishment, they met in three separate locations--Oxford University, Cambridge University, and the Jerusalem Chamber off the entrance to Westminster Abbey in London.
Benson Bobrick, author of a book entitled Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired, sees a delicate balancing act in the three locations where the committees met. Oxford University had royalist and high church associations. Cambridge University was a hotbed of Protestant and Puritan fervor. Both universities were governed by Christian assumptions, but as educational institutions the were "secular" rather than ecclesiastical. Westminster Abbey, by contrast, was a church institution, and additionally its officials were appointed by the ruling monarch. Of course no one deliberately set out to orchestrate the venture in these terms, but the effect was as Bobrick describes it.
While the committee structure would seem to have been unmanageable in size and location, the process was so thorough that eventually all committee members read and had opportunity to comment on the entire manuscript. In yet another surprise, even though the Geneva Bible was the best and most popular translation of the day, the Bishops' Bible of 1568 was the stipulated starting point for the King James translators.
A final wonder is that the six committees produced not only a unified product but a literary masterpiece--the only one ever produced by a committee, as is commonly asserted. The primary aim of the translators was to produce an accurate translation. But as Alister McGrath writes in his book In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language and a culture, "The king's translators achieved [literary merit] unintentionally, by focusing on what, to them, was a greater goal. . . . The achievement of prosaic and poetic elegance that resulted was, so to speak, a most happy accident of history."
Wonder #3: the language and style of the KJV
The language and style of the KJV are a wonder because they defy complete analysis. A symptom of this is that the King James style can be parodied and imitated but never duplicated. Here, too, a benediction descended on the translation.
Modern advocates of colloquial Bibles have made fallacious claims about the King James style that need to be countered. The archaic quality of the King James Version makes it seem formal and exalted to modern readers, but the archaisms of the KJV were equally characteristic of the daily speech of the time. Another fallacy is that the King James translators spoiled the racy colloquialism of Tyndale's translation by embellishing it upwards. It is true that the King James translators had "a sure instinct for betterment" (as one expert puts it) as they massaged their inherited English translations, but I have found that this improvement often consisted of simplifying Tyndale's formulation, not by making it ornate. For example, Tyndale rendered 1 Timothy 6:6 as, "Godliness is great riches, if a man be content with that he hath." The King James translators tightened it up by rendering it, "Godliness with contentment is great gain."
It is hard to know what descriptors to use for the King James style. It is not colloquial, but what is it? The adjectives beautiful, dignified, and elegant (not to be necessarily equated with eloquent) are all accurate. Mainly, though, the King James style is as varied as the original biblical text, which shares with the King James Version the paradoxical quality of combining simplicity with majesty.
Where the original text is exalted and rhetorically embellished, the King James Version is also: "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. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge, and though I have all faith so that I cold remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing" (1 Corinthians 13:1-2).
But the simple can also be a form of beauty, and we find this as often as we find the embellished: "And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night" (Luke 2:8). Or this from the creation story: "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light" (Genesis 1:3). Advocates of colloquial Bibles want us to believe that because the King James Version does not sound like conversation at the bus stop it is stilted, but this is a fallacy that we need to resist.
The King James norm is simplicity of style combined with majesty of effect: "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knoweth it shall be opened" (Luke 11:9-10). The vocabulary of that passage is simple, but the elaborate rhetorical patterns of repetition elevate it above everyday conversation. A good parallel is Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, where the vocabulary is simple and the effect is elevating. I note in passing that a scholar has written a whole book that explores the indebtedness of the Gettysburg Address to the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.
An additional quality of the King James style is that it is memorable and aphoristic. Dozens of familiar sayings entered the English language through the King James Version (which both perpetuated felicitous formulations from earlier translations and added to the storehouse): labor of love, my brother's keeper, fly in the ointment, the powers that be, like a lamb to the slaughter, the salt of the earth, a law unto themselves, vanity of vanities, under the sun. There are so many memorable sayings from the King James Bible in Bartlett's Famous Quotations that an editor segregated them out and published a freestanding book that runs to over 200 pages.
Wonder #4: the unmatched influence of the King James Bible
The King James Version became the most influential book in the history of the English-speaking world and not impossibly in the world as a whole. Sources claiming that the KJV is the best-selling book of all time are too numerous to cite. David Daniell, author of the magisterial The Bible in English, claims that the KJV is "still the bestselling book in the world." Adam Nicolson, in his book God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, claims that more than five billion copies of the King James Bible have been sold. Gordon Campbell, in his recent Oxford University Press book entitled Bible: The Story of the King James Version 1611-2011, calls the King James Version "the most important book in the English language." Any book that elicits such claims as these is a "wonder book."
Until relatively recently, the King James Version was what people meant when they spoke of "the Bible." Wherever we dip into the sermons and writings of the famous preachers and theologians of the English-speaking world, it is obvious at once that they used the KJV. Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, George Whitfield, D. L. Moody, Matthew Henry, and Billy Graham all used the King James Version and did not need to tell their audiences what translation they were using.
From approximately 1700 to 1950, the King James Bible was the preeminent book in England and American in virtually every sphere of society that we can name--family, religion, church, politics, education, literature, art, and music. The foundation on which everything else rested was the influence of the King James Version on the English language. The influence of the English Bible on the language started with William Tyndale, who gave English-speaking people what David Daniell calls an English plain style. But Tyndale's pioneering work would have proven ephemeral if other Bible translations had not perpetuated his work.
In turn, the King James Version synthesized a whole century of English Bible translation into a climactic document. More importantly, it was through the King James Bible that this linguistic accomplishment remained dominant for three centuries. If there was just one book that the American pioneers carried in their covered wagons, it was the King James Version of the Bible. The King James Bible was first of all a religious authority, but it also provided a standard of stylistic and linguistic excellence that the pioneers preserved amidst conditions that doubtless seemed to threaten their cultural heritage. For more than four centuries, English-speaking people (around the world and not just in England and America) had a touchstone for what constituted good written and oral communication.
For some glimpses into the spheres where the KJV was preeminent for three and a half centuries, I will dip into an area that emerged as one of my favorites when I wrote my book The Legacy of the King James Bible, namely, public inscriptions of verses from the King James Bible. As a graduate student at the University of Oregon, I could look up whenever I entered the library and read the engraved verse, "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32).
Every year two million visitors have a chance to read Leviticus 25:10 on the cracked Liberty Bell in Philadelphia: "Proclaim LIBERTY through all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof." The "Isaiah wall" across the street from the United Nations headquarters in New York City bears these words from Isaiah 2:4: "They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."
Texts from the English Bible have appeared on the walls of churches and cathedrals at least since the sixteenth century, and a majority of these have been from the King James Version. A person sitting along the outer aisle of a pew of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia can read verses such as these: "he being dead yet speaketh" (Hebrews 11:4); "being made conformable unto his death" (Philippians 3:10); "well done, thou good and faithful servant, thou hast been faithfull over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things; enter thou into the joy of they Lord" (Matthew 25:21).
The scope broadens if we consider the King James texts imprinted on the walls of the Dunham Bible Museum on the campus of Houston Baptist University. These texts mark famous moments in American history where the King James Bible was quoted. Specimens include these: "What hath God wrought?" (Samuel Morse as he sent the first words over his newly invented telegraph machine, quoting Numbers 23:23). "When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained. . ." (Buzz Aldrin as he spoke on a television broadcast after his space walk, quoting Psalm 1:3). "Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it" (Benjamin Franklin during a debate the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, quoting Psalm 127:1).
I have done no more than give hints of the greatness of the King James Bible and its historical influence. McGuffey's Fifth Eclectic Reader, which itself did much to perpetuate the influence of the King James Bible, can be allowed to encapsulate the praise that has been legitimately heaped on the King James Version through the years and especially in this anniversary year: "The best of classics the world has ever admired."
Leland Ryken is the Clyde S. Kilby Professor of English at Wheaton College. He is the author of numerous articles and has contributed, written or edited more than twenty books.