The King James Bible at 400: What an English translation begat

2011 marked four centuries since the King James Version of the Bible was published, in May 1611, and throughout the year essays and sermons celebrated what is considered the classic version of Scripture in the English language. Yet new translations still keep coming. Is the KJV the most popular Bible no one reads?

The King James Version – “KJV” is the common shorthand – has become a cultural monument. Historians and other scholars agree that the King James Bible has shaped English-speaking religion, arts, culture and common speech. Phrases like “Out of the mouths of babes” and “signs of the times” and “a voice crying in the wilderness” and dozens of other familiar sayings had their origin in the KJV. The language of the Bible has so deeply affected writers that it is a source of literary as well as religious inspiration.

Moreover, the King James Bible is in the public domain in the United States, making it easy to publish and easy to find. Despite its ubiquity and stature, however, the language of the KJV is considered too archaic for contemporary ears, and in the last three decades that has led to a proliferation of translations using modern English and idioms.

Still, the King James Version remains the most beloved of Bibles, and the 400th anniversary has brought a shelf full of books and appreciations of its importance. Around the English-speaking world, conferences, exhibits and other events are planned.

This edition of ReligionLink provides writers with resources and background for covering this milestone.

Background

In 1604, King James I of England ordered a committee of dozens of scholars to produce a new translation of the Bible into English to rectify some of the errors of previous versions and bolster the teachings of the Anglican Church. The result of that committee’s work was published in May 1611 and eventually became known as the King James Bible, the pre-eminent translation in the English-speaking Protestant world.

But various communities of Protestants also continued to adapt the KJV to their own theological outlooks, and in recent years have produced a plethora of new translations. In fact, an update of the influential New International Version translation favored by evangelical Protestants is being published this year. And the New American Bible used by Catholics has just undergone a revision.

Revising the Bible has actually been an ongoing process since the earliest centuries of Christianity, when St. Jerome produced the “Vulgate” version of the Bible, the first official text in Latin, which was then the lingua franca of the Western world. That version was the most enduring translation – until the KJV came along.

Books published in connection with the 400th anniversary

Earlier influential books about the KJV

Articles of interest

  • “A World Without the King James Version”

    Read “A World Without the King James Version,” written by the evangelical church historian Mark Noll, in the May 2011 edition of Christianity Today.

  • “When the King Saved God”

    Read a column in the May 2011 edition of Vanity Fair by prominent atheist Christopher Hitchens, who argues that “our language and culture are incomplete without” the King James translation of the Bible.

  • “In the Beginning was the Sound”

    Read an essay in the spring 2011 issue of Intelligent Life magazine by English Catholic author Ann Wroe, who praises the beauty of the KJV.

  • “Modernity and Religion”

    Read an April 11, 2011, “Sightings” essay by Martin Marty that discusses the evangelical penchant for adopting Bible translations other than the KJV. Marty also refers to an essay on the KJV by Diarmaid MacCulloch in the Feb. 3, 2011, London Review of Books.

  • “The Once and Future Bible: Why We Still Need the KJV”

    Read “The Once and Future Bible: Why We Still Need the KJV,” a March 25, 2011, column at Crosswalk.com by Stan Guthrie.

  • “Let Us Now Praise KJV”

    “Let Us Now Praise KJV” is a Feb. 16, 2011, column by Scott McLemee in the periodical Inside Higher Ed that claims the King James Bible “is the only one with any flavor; the rest are as appetizing as a sawdust sandwich.”

  • “The King James Bible’s language lessons”

    Read a collection of essays by leading writers on the importance of the King James Version. It was published in The Guardian newspaper on Feb. 19, 2011.

  • “The King James Bible at 400”

    Read a Jan. 8, 2011, New York Times op-ed about the significance of the King James Bible.

Organizations and resources

National sources

  • Timothy Beal

    Timothy Beal is the Florence Harkness Professor of Religion at Case Western Reserve University, a blogger at Huffington Post and the author of The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book. Read his March 21, 2011, post on the King James Bible.

  • Donald Brake

    Donald Brake co-authored A Visual History of the King James Bible. Brake is dean emeritus of Multnomah Biblical Seminary in Portland, Ore.

  • Gordon Campbell

    Gordon Campbell is the author of Bible: The Story of the King James Version 1611-2011 and editor of a 400th anniversary edition of the Bible that preserves the original printer’s errors, both for Oxford University Press, one of the original publishers of the Bible. Campbell summarizes his work in a blog post.

  • David Crystal

    David Crystal is the author of Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language. Listen to a Dec. 22, 2010, NPR interview with him about English idioms derived from the KJV. Crystal is honorary professor of linguistics at Bangor University in Wales.

  • Leonard J. Greenspoon

    Leonard J. Greenspoon is a professor of Jewish civilization and classical and Near Eastern studies at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. A specialist in biblical translation, he wrote “The KJV and the Jews,” an essay at the website of the Society of Biblical Literature, and a 1993 article in Bible Review titled “The New Testament in the Comics.”

  • Alister McGrath

    Alister McGrath is a former atheist and now an evangelical Christian and a theology professor at the University of Oxford’s Harris Manchester College. He is a prolific writer and public apologist for Christianity and is author of several books, including The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern WorldIn the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language and a Culture, and The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine, with Joanna Collicutt McGrath.

  • Adam Nicolson

    Adam Nicolson is the author of God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible. Nicolson was featured in a 2011 BBC documentary on the Bible. Read a 2003 PBS NewsHour interview with him.

  • David Norton

    David Norton is a professor of English at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, and author of The King James Bible: A Short History from Tyndale to Today.

  • Derek Wilson

    Derek Wilson, an author who specializes in history, wrote The People’s Bible: The Remarkable History of the King James Version. He is a frequent speaker and media commentator.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Graeme Bird

    Graeme Bird is a lecturer in extension at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Read an April 6, 2011, column he wrote about the KJV.

  • Benson Bobrick

    Benson Bobrick wrote Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired. He lives in Vermont and specializes in writing about history.

    Contact: via Russell Galen, 212-679-8686 ext. 16.
  • Philip Jenkins

    Philip Jenkins is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Humanities at Pennsylvania State University. He also is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion and serves as co-director for the institute’s Initiative on Historical Studies of Religion. His book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity includes extensive discussion of the global impact of Pentecostalism. He is also author of The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice and Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way.

  • Massachusetts Bible Society

    The Massachusetts Bible Society hosted a  talk on the KJV by Jon Sweeney, author of Verily, Verily: The KV–400 Years of Influence and Beauty.

  • Katharine Doob Sakenfield

    Katharine Doob Sakenfeld is a past president of the Society of Biblical Literature and the William Albright Eisenberger Professor of Old Testament Literature and Exegesis at Princeton Theological Seminary. She served as a member of the NRSV translation committee.

In the South

  • Hans J. Hillerbrand

    Hans J. Hillerbrand teaches religion at Duke University. His specialty is the Reformation, and he has written about the King James Bible.

  • David Lyle Jeffrey

    David Lyle Jeffrey is Distinguished Professor of Literature and the Humanities at Baylor University and author of The King James Bible and the World It Made, which was published in November 2011.

  • Laurie Maffly-Kipp

    Laurie Maffly-Kipp is an associate professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She edited the Penguin Classics edition American Scriptures and can talk about the role of the King James Bible in American religious history.

  • Allen P. Ross

    Allen P. Ross is Beeson Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala. He was a member of the team that reviewed the ESV Bible translation.

  • Steven M. Sheeley

    Steven M. Sheeley is a former professor of religion at Shorter College in Rome, Ga., and currently vice president with the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. He co-authored two books on English Bible translation.

    Contact: 404-679-4500.
  • Ray Van Neste

    Ray Van Neste is assistant professor of Christian studies and director of the R.C. Ryan Center for Biblical Studies at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.

In the Midwest

  • Hannibal Hamlin

    Hannibal Hamlin is an associate professor of English at Ohio State University, Columbus. A specialist in Renaissance literature and culture, he co-edited The King James Bible After 400 Years: Literary, Linguistic and Cultural Influences. Hamlin organized a 2011 conference at OSU on the literary and cultural influence of the KJV.

  • Leland Ryken

    Leland Ryken is Clyde S. Kilby Professor of English at Wheaton College in Illinois. His expertise includes the teaching of the Bible.

    He is the author of The Legacy of the King James Bible: Celebrating 400 Years of the Most Influential English Translation. Read a January 2011 blog column by Ryken called “What Makes the King James Version Great?”

In the West

  • Robert Alter

    Robert Alter is the Class of 1937 Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, where he has taught for more than 30 years. He has translated books of the Bible and written extensively on the literary aspects of the Bible, most recently Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible.

  • Craig Blomberg

    Craig Blomberg is a distinguished professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary in Colorado and author of Neither Poverty Nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions, a study of prosperity theology. 

  • Lori Anne Ferrell

    Lori Anne Ferrell is a professor of early modern history and literature at Claremont Graduate University in California. She wrote The Bible and the People.

  • Tremper Longman III

    Tremper Longman III is the Robert H. Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif. He has been active in Bible translation and is a member of the committee that produced the New Living Translation.

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