It may be Britain’s greatest contribution to the world, and yet scholars quip
that it came from an unlikely source – a committee, of all things.
2, Britain and the world began marking the 400 year anniversary of the
publication of the authorized King James version of the Bible, a literary work
from 1611 which still towers over the growing smorgasbord of “contemporary”
Bible translations compiled ever since.
Written in an old-fashioned prose
that remains timelessly stylish, it has become the most popular English
translation of the Bible ever, as well as the most beloved and quoted literary
masterpiece in the English language.
Translations of sacred texts –
whether from Judaism, Christianity or Islam – have always been ringed with
controversy. Jewish liturgy prefers chanting the original Hebrew, while Muslims
frown on ever taking the Koran out of Muhammad’s mother Arabic
The Septuagint marked the first major Jewish attempt to translate
the Hebrew Bible into another language – Greek, the lingua franca of the
The first Jewish translation into English was not until Isaac Leeser
in 1853. Until then (and ever since) the King James rendition of the Old
Testament was the one most widely “adopted” among Jews.
Christianity, the Latin Vulgate completed by Jerome in Bethlehem in 405 CE was
the dominant compilation of Christian Scripture for the next 800 years, lasting
well past the demise of Latin as an everyday language. Thus the Protestant
Reformation included among its demands the rendering of the Bible into the
vernacular languages of Europe, so ordinary folks could read and interpret its
meaning on their own.
In the British Isles, John Wycliffe completed the first English translation of the Bible by going directly from
Jerome’s Latin edition. Between 1526 and 1611, no less than 50 different
translations of various parts of the Bible surfaced around the kingdom, of which
four were complete versions containing both the Old and New
In 1526, William Tyndale completed the first version of the
New Testament that went directly from Hebrew and Greek into English. The
so-called Geneva Bible from 1560 is the first complete canon of Scripture to be
translated directly from Hebrew into English, in addition to being the first
Bible to make use of numbered chapters and verses as we know them today. In 1538
the Great Bible was released, followed by the Bishops Bible of 1568, as well as
the Douay Bible of 1610.
So Bible translations in Christian circles had
became commonplace, yet they remained divisive. The controversy surrounding the
translation ordered by King James was not just academic and religious, it was
also about politics.
In 1567, James VI ascended to the throne of
Scotland. In 1603, he further inherited the crown of England and Ireland from
Elizabeth I and became King James I, monarch of all Great Britain. Yet his new
realm was mired in a heated theological debate between the more conservative
Anglicans and the reformist Puritans, who wanted to finish purging the Church of
England of Roman Catholic influence.
Always game for a religious
argument, the king appointed himself as personal mediator. He eventually sided
with the established Anglican churchmen, as they posed less of a political
threat to his throne. But he also distrusted the popular Geneva Bible because it
had marginal notes about how people ought to view kings which he viewed as
subversive. So, as the debates ended, James threw a concession to the growing
Puritan movement by officially commissioning a new translation of the Bible,
hoping it would bring peace to the kingdom.
The year was 1604. At a
conference held at the Hampton Court Palace on the outskirts of London, a
college of 54 men was initially chosen for the task and divided into six
nine-man subcommittees, known as “companies.”
In his lucid account, God’s
Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, author Adam Nicolson describes
this eccentric band of translators as a sundry mix of not only respected
scholars proficient in both Greek and Hebrew, but also pompous clergy, drunkards
and plain troublemakers. For seven years, they labored under general and
specific rules laid down by King James himself. Some 47 translators were still
standing at the end.
Along the way, they translated straight from the
original Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic, making use of the Septuagint and the
Masoretic text. The translators also relied heavily on existing Tyndale
translations, thus hastening an otherwise monumental task – some estimates claim
over 90 percent of the King James Bible derives from Tyndale’s work decades
Yet since most of the committee’s notes were lost, their
scholarly deliberations and undoubtedly heated debates have escaped the probing
eyes of historians.
Still, the results evidence a conscious and cohesive
effort to create a language with both rhythm and pace suitable for its main
objective – a pulpit Bible “appointed to be read in churches.” They polished the
English phrasing to sound musical and poetic in public readings, like the iambic
pentameter of the Shakespearean age.
In this regard, many scholars and
clergy credit the King James translators for forging a lyrical, elevated style that rose above the mundane
discourse of that or later eras to take on the feel of a foreign, almost
heavenly tongue. The cadences and dramatic pauses suggest divine origins. The
repeated use of the already archaic “verily” sounded like the way God indeed
would talk. Thus the oddity of the King James Bible has lent it an enduring
The original Hebrew Bible also has these rhythmic, celestial
qualities, according to Halvor Ronning, director of the Home for Bible
Translators in Jerusalem. An expert in Biblical Hebrew, he has helped train
translators from dozens of countries worldwide over recent decades to produce
Bibles that go directly from the original Hebrew and Greek text into their
various native tongues.
“Someone who doesn’t know Hebrew will think that
it’s a matter of years to translate the Bible, while those who are already
familiar with the language will say it’s a lifetime job,” Ronning recently told
The Christian Edition.
Thus, Ronning explained, the King James
translators unquestionably relied on the previous works of Tyndale, who was the
first biblical scholar to move from Hebrew and Greek straight into English. He,
in turn, had been inspired by his contemporary Martin Luther, who did his
translation directly from Hebrew and Greek into German. Tyndale did not complete
the whole Bible, but had managed to translate the entire New Testament and
considerable portions of the Old.
“A large part of the work was hence
already done when King James commissioned his authorized translation,” said
Ronning. “A recent study shows that some 70% of the Old and New Testament in the
King James Version are made up of expressions that can be attributed to
There is, therefore, no doubt that he had a heavy impact on the
process and that his preliminary work reduced the time it took for the King
James translators to finish their mission.
“The men behind the
translation did a superb job for their time, so much so that it has been a
favorite Bible until very recently,” insisted Ronning.
King James scholars were not equipped with the same knowledge as we possess
Ronning noted that the main difference in Bible translation today
compared to 1611 is the advantage of being able to experience the land of the
Bible in 3-D and to use spoken Hebrew as a medium of communication among
“Of the first one thousand words that you encounter when
learning modern Hebrew, over 80% is straight out of the Hebrew Bible,” he
“Another important improvement has come from research in ancient
languages such as Ugaritic, Acadian, Hittite, and ancient
Archeology is another field that has helped us to understand and
perceive the settings of the Bible from a more enlightened perspective than the
1611 translators had access to.”
One simple example of their limited
knowledge was their references to the Galilee as a “sea” rather than an inland
lake, Ronning offered. Another mistranslation related to biblical geography can
be found in Numbers 13:17, where the Hebrew word negev – a specific region in
southern Israel – was misconstrued as saying Moses was directing his people
“south” whereas actually they were heading north.
assured there are numerous examples where the translators did deliver and as a
result produced an excellent work.
“One such example is found in Psalm
23, where the King James scholars have managed to encapsulate a very accurate
and precise meaning of the rod and the staff as an instrument for both
discipline and support respectively,” said Ronning.
Dr. Randall Buth,
director of the Jerusalem-based Biblical Hebrew Ulpan and lecturer at the
Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University, also has high praise for
the King James translators.
“I think almost every translation in the King
James is excellent. They were not done lightly, but they are all translations,
which have to make choices to sound natural. So there is no such thing as
necessarily ‘got it wrong’ or ‘got it right,’” said Buth, a specialist in the
“When you translate, you are in a new system. The new language does not have the
same points of evaluation, and so if you stay close to the original system you
may actually miscommunicate in the new, even though you are close to the
The field of Bible translation is as flourishing as ever today, and
both Ronning and Buth are strong advocates of starting from the original Hebrew
and Greek. Ronning just hosted a tour of veteran Wycliffe translators and
outlined for them the virtues of working straight from biblical Hebrew and from
the vantage point of the Land of Israel. The reaction was positive, he said,
adding that there remains much work to do.
Of the current 6,600 spoken
languages in the world, only 469 can claim a complete version of the Bible,
while some 1,231 languages have the 27 books of the New Testament translated.
There are an additional 2,527 tongues that have translated specific parts of the
Bible and over 2,000 tongues have translations now in
Altogether, this makes the Bible the most translated book in
the entire world. And no translation has been so impacting and endearing as the
King James version.
Thus this year’s 400th festivities are a historic and
cultural milestone for the United Kingdom as well as for the English language.
The authorized King James Bible is still the number one selling book in the
world. It is credited with making Britain one of the most literate societies on
earth. It raised literary standards and educated the masses.
universal influence of the King James Bible can be easily seen in the long list
of idioms that have made their way into everyday use, even by Bible detractors
unaware of their origin: clean hands; feet of clay; fly in the ointment; drop in
the bucket; twinkling of an eye; labor of love; casting pearls before swine;
lamb to the slaughter; skin of your teeth; thorn in the flesh; wolf in sheep’s
clothing; writing on the wall, et al.
Over time, however, the
significance of the King James Bible has been lost on most Britons. Those behind
this year’s tributes hope to recapture its central place in the national
heritage, and turn the “Bible bashers” of 2010 into true “English scholars” of
Thus, churches all across the nation are taking part in the
Various denominations, schools and communities are
partnering with Biblefresh and the British Bible Society to make the most of the
From grand cathedrals to home prayer groups, Christians are
holding Bible read-a-thons and other commemorative activities. In a day when
people want shortcuts and easy answers, the King James Bible is being presented
again as both literary genius and timeless truth.
Today we have all
manner of more “accessible” and specialized Bible translations for every taste
and temperament – for hippies and yuppies, for feminists and gays and those
preaching gender neutrality.
Even skateboarders have their own “rad”
version. But most tend to mediocrity in comparison to the elegance and majesty
of the KJV.
Thus, many Christians still lovingly cling to their trusted
King James Bible, figuring that “if it was good enough for Saint Paul, it’s good
enough for me.”