An Example of How We Got the Bible…The King James Version

Ok, let’s say you have spent a lot of time thinking about the Bible. Maybe you have had a class or two in college where you were introduced to textual history or textual criticism and you have wondered about the textual history of the Bible [I mentioned the topic of textual history in my February 5th, 2016 post]

You have heard that the original copies of the Bible do not exist.

This calls a very big question into play—the topic of the week…”Are the Bible Documents Reliable?”

Maybe it has never occurred to you to think this. My Mom told me of a member of her church who says things like “My mother read the King James Version of the Bible and she was the Godliest woman I ever knew.  The King James Version is the only version that one ever needs.”  She has probably never thought of textual history.

Ok, maybe that works for her but what is the King James Version? It is a translation of the Bible into the English of 17th Century England.  Is it an original document?  No, it is a translation like so many other translations.

Have you ever read Shakespeare’s plays? Did you find them difficult to understand?  Well they were written in the English of the King James Bible.

Why did the King James Bible come about? [Please let me be informal].  Well the English had a break with the Catholic Church which was instituted by King Henry the VIII.  You may remember the story, Henry had an interest in having a male heir to the throne and in his efforts to achieve this, he had to get rid of a woman  who could not produce said heir.  When seeking cooperation from the Catholic Pope, he ran into a brick wall and could not get the necessary annulment.  In order to accomplish his purposes, he created the Church of England and eventually this evolved into the Anglican Church [apologies to English historians who don’t appreciate my rough paraphrase of history].

Before the Anglican Church could be truly established, King James felt that the Bible of the day should be translated into its best form and he appointed Anglican Bishops, clergymen, professors and Puritan “Divines” to come up with an accurate translation of the Bible. Bibles were in existence.  The Bishops Bible existed and the Geneva Bible was popular just to name a couple.  Printing presses were in existence in large numbers in 1500 even though the technology of the printing press was simple and it still took a lot of time to make a book [compared to modern standards].  The problem was the English language was changing and  King James felt that some Bibles were harder to read than others and there was a need for a reliable, standard Biblical document.

Did they have original copies of the Bible?

No, even in the 1600’s in England they did not exist.

King James felt that the country needed the most reliable Bible, the most standard Bible so all England could worship from the same Biblical document.

Next, he did what he could do to make the Bible as reliable as it could be. In July of 1604, James wrote to Bishop Bancroft that he had “appointed certain learned men, to the number of four and fifty, for the translating of the Bible.” These men were the best biblical scholars and linguists of their day. In the preface to their completed work it is further stated that “there were many chosen, that were greater in other men’s eyes than in their own, and that sought the truth rather than their own praise. Again, they came or were thought to come to the work, learned, not to learn” [from The Brief History of the King James Bible by Dr. Laurence Vance].

Together forty-seven of the most scholarly Biblical linguists of the day began the work, establishing 15 guidelines for Biblical translation. The New Testament was translated from Greek copies of the New Testament.  The Old Testament was translated from Hebrew and Aramaic copies of the Old Testament.

Seven years later, the King James Version of the Bible was published and distributed.

Many regard this translation as the best.

Certainly the King James version was held in high regard throughout the 18th century and some today still regard it as the best translation.  There is a King James Only movement still alive today.

What were the great aspects of this translation?

It was put together by the best linguists of the time in the 17th century.

What are its drawbacks?

We have learned a lot more about the Bible since 1611 [need I mention the Dead Sea Scrolls of 1947]. It is also written in Elizabethan English and that is hard to read today.

Are there other translations that are very reputable and easier to read?

Of course there are.

For a scholarly rundown of other translations see the website “A Discussion of Bible Translations and Biblical Scholarship” by Dr. Mark D. Given.

Once in a while, I hear someone say what my Mom’s friend said: “The King James Version is the only version that one ever needs” and I wonder what they really mean. Do they know about textual criticism and textual history?  Do they know that there are some good reasons why the King James Version is a good one?  Do they have trouble understanding the words of their Bible?   If they do, the explanation is pretty simple.

English has changed a lot since 17th century England.

“Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red.”

Shakespeare from Macbeth…


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