400 Years Old!

First published in 1611, the King James Version celebrates its 400th anniversary in 2011. The KJV had a number of important English Bible predecessors: the Tyndale New Testament (1525/26), the Coverdale Bible (1535), the Matthew-Tyndale Bible (1537), the “Great Bible” (1539), the Geneva Bible (1560), and the Bishop’s Bible (1568).

King James I, the king of England and earthly head of the Church of England, called the Hampton Conference of 1604. It was at this conference that a new translation of the Bible was proposed for use in the Church of England. One of the purposes of the new translation was to eliminate marginal notes that had become popular with the Geneva Bible. Those notes had become a battle ground of doctrinal differences.

Fifty-four translators worked on the KJV, although the names of only forty-seven have been preserved. The translators were divided into six committees. Three committees worked on the Old Testament, two on the New Testament, and one on the Apocrypha. (The Apocrypha was commonly printed in the KJV until the British and Foreign Bible Society adopted a policy of omitting it in 1826.) The draft translation from these six committees was then reviewed by a smaller group of 12 translators (two from each committee). The work of seeing the translation through the printing process was overseen by Miles Smith and Thomas Bilson. Smith wrote the preface, “The Translators to the Readers,” which is usually omitted in modern printings, although interesting to read.

In what sense is the King James Version the Authorized Version? The mention of authorized version is printed in the KJV, but unfortunately there is no historical record of its authorization. It is assumed to have come by Order in Council, but records have been lost. Such an order would only have meant that it was authorized by the Church of England to be read in their churches. It is not a reference to any divine authorization.

Why celebrate? I’ve decided to read the KJV in my daily Bible readings this year in honor of its 400th anniversary. The KJV made a profound effect on language, literature, and study of the Bible. For many, it is still their Bible of choice. The preface to the KJV remarks that they owed “everlasting remembrance” to the translators who went before them. I suspect we do owe an incredible debt to all who have translated the Bible for us. The KJV translators overcame a resistance to making the Bible available in the common language (an issue addressed in the KJV preface). Whatever translation you are reading, if it in English, you have an incredible debt to the KJV and the translations that preceded it. They made the Bible available to us all.

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