When the KJV turned 400 years old in 2011, there were a number of books published to celebrate and explore this historic, influential translation. One of those books was A Visual History of the King James Bible: The Dramatic Story of the World’s Best-Known Translation by Donald L. Brake. I picked it up earlier this year via a scratch and dent special through CBD, and I’m glad I did. It is chocked-full of interesting (and not-so-interesting) information about the history of the KJV.
Brake covers everything from the impetus for the translation to its modern form. He begins with a brief overview of the history of the English language and the first English translations of Scripture. Politics and religious factions caused a tug-of-war when it came to the production and acceptance of new translations. No English translation gained universal acceptance. While the KJV did not immediately gain the adoration of all English speakers, within 30 years it had supplanted most other prior translations, and only continued to gain more and more market share until it became the standard translation in the English speaking world with no serious challengers until the late 19th century.
In addition to the beautiful pictures throughout the book, one of the things I liked is the “boring” details Brake covers. For example, he takes a look at the background and expertise of each translator, and even how the translation work was done. The KJV was the first committee-produced translation, and it’s interesting to learn of the rules and processes that guided their work. It was groundbreaking, and was intended to make sure that no one translator could insert his theological nuances into the text. The printing process alone is a story in itself. Did you know the translation was complete in 1609, but it took another two years to orchestrate the printing? Here are some other interesting facts you may not be aware of:
- In 1401 the Catholic Church issued the De heretic comburendo which promised death to anyone reading a Bible in a common vernacular. The 1408 Constitutions of Oxford forbade the production or reading of English translations unless approved by diocesan authorities.
- Despite being called the “Authorized Version,” the KJV was never authorized as the Bible of England.
- 80-90% of the wording in the KJV comes from Tyndale’s translation.
- The 1611 KJV contained the Apocrypha and had text critical notes.
- 54 men were appointed for the work of translation, working in six separate companies.
- The KJV was intended to be a revision of the Bishops’ Bible
- The Elizabethan English found in the KJV (thee, thou, ye, etc.) was not the way most people spoke in the early 17th century, but that archaic language was retained because it was found in the Bishops’ Bible, and King James wanted the KJV to be an update of the Bishop’s Bible. Evidence of this can be seen by the occasional use of “you” in the text, and the absence of such language in the introduction.
- The preface to the KJV quotes from the Geneva Bible when referencing Scripture, rather than the KJV.
- There were minor differences between the first and second printing of the 1611 KJV.
- Most KJV Bibles published today are based on Benjamin Blayney’s 1769 revision.
The last portion of the book looks at the formatting of the KJV, differences in the various printed and revised editions over the years, and how the KJV has impacted the English-speaking world to this day. If you want to know more about the history of the KJV, I couldn’t recommend a more engaging read than A Visual History of the King James Bible.