2011 marked the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible. Regarded by many to be a literary masterpiece, this particular version of the Bible is the most widely-published book in the English language. The influence of this Christian text has resonated down through the centuries, outgrowing its religious origins to influence many parts of our modern secular culture. From Milton’s Paradise Lost to Handel’s Messiah and Martin Luther King’s immortal I Have a Dream speech, the spirit of the King James Bible is all around us.
Perhaps its most profound influence, however, has been on the development of English as a language. The extent of its linguistic influence is often said to be challenged only by the works of William Shakespeare. Hundreds of phrases and idioms in everyday use owe their origins to its pages. When we refer to a ‘broken heart’, ‘labour of love’, ‘salt of the earth’or ‘skin of our teeth’, or when we speak of ‘biting the dust’ or a ‘leopard changing its spots’, we are unconsciously referencing the King James Bible.
James I of England
The man primarily responsible for the commissioning of this Bible was its namesake, King James I of England (pictured), who ascended to the throne in 1603. The idea was borne out of his determination to end the religious disputes and theological arguments – which plagued the reign of his predecessor, Elizabeth I — a hangover from her father Henry VIII’s break with Rome and the subsequent English Reformation. The newly-crowned king, who greatly enjoyed philosophical and spiritual debate, convened the Hampton Court Conference in January 1604, where the future of the Church of England was to be discussed. It was at this conference that James authorized a new English translation of the Bible, which would be acceptable to both traditionalist bishops and the new breed of Protestant puritans.
Six committees (or ‘companies’), consisting of about 50 scholars from Oxford University, Cambridge University and Westminster were established to undertake a painstaking review of both the Old and New Testaments. The immense task was fraught with difficulties, and made even more complicated by a revision committee who subjected their work to meticulous review. In the end, the new version of the Bible would take over seven years to complete. However, when it was eventually published in 1611, it was clear that the wait had been worthwhile. The King James Bible, beautifully written with evocative, lyrical prose, was a revelation to all who read it.
Before the companies set to work on the new translation, they were furnished with a number of guidelines, perhaps the most important of which was the direction that all previous versions of the Bible were to be used in their research. This meant that the translators could use earlier English-language versions, as well as Latin, Hebrew and Greek texts. This freedom to draw on a variety of sources greatly contributed to the richness and vibrancy of the prose, and was a key factor in the success of the King James Version.
William Tyndale’s Bible, published during the 1520s, was one of the primary sources for the new translation. In fact, it has been estimated that Tyndale’s prose makes up as much as 80% of the King James Version. Ironically, for a text which contributed so much to the heritage of our language, Tyndale’s Bible was initially considered subversive and heretical, and the author eventually paid the ultimate price for his work.
Biblical translation had been a highly contentious issue in the years preceding James’ reign. In medieval times, the Bible appeared only in Latin, with the result that knowledge of it was confined to a small number of learned men who where versed in the language of ancient Rome. The majority of people across Europe, being poor and uneducated, were forced to rely on the Church to interpret the Bible’s teachings on their behalf. This all changed when the Protestant Reformation swept through Europe in the early part of the 16th century. Encouraged by the work of Martin Luther, scholars sought to bring the Bible’s teachings to the masses, and as such, various biblical translations began to appear throughout Holland and Germany. This trend did not extend to England, however, where any kind of translation remained strictly forbidden.
Consequently, after the publication of his Bible, Tyndale was forced to go into hiding on the Continent. The authorities, however, eventually caught up with him, and on the request of Henry VIII (who was enraged by the scholar’s opposition to his divorce from Catherine of Aragon), William Tyndale was arrested in Antwerp in 1535. After a period of imprisonment, he was tried for heresy. Tyndale was found guilty, and died by strangulation, after which his body was burned at the stake. Ironically, four years later, Henry had a change of heart and sanctioned the first official English-language bible. This spectacular u-turn is the main reason why Tyndale’s groundbreaking work survived.
The broader legacy of James’ eponymous Bible has been far-reaching. When the Pilgrim Fathers set sail for America on board the Mayflower in 1620, they took the King James Bible with them. As America was gradually colonised, this version of the Bible became the mainstay of religious worship in the New World, playing an important part in establishment of the English language throughout America. This globalisation of English was later continued by other British expeditions, most notably the voyages of the East India Trading Company. As the British Empire expanded, the fervent work of missionaries ensured that the King James Bible, and therefore the English language, reached every part of the discovered world. In short, this Bible was a primary driver in establishing English in its continuing role as a lingua franca.
How can we explain the enduring appeal of the King James Bible and its dissemination into many aspects of our everyday lives? No doubt, the beauty of the prose and the simplicity of its message have enhanced the popularity of this 400-year-old book. Whatever the reason for its longevity, the King James Bible has indisputably been a great gift, both to the English language and to our civilisation, and as such, this is one anniversary worth celebrating.
See also article on James I.