Today I want to discuss a most remarkable historical book, The King James Bible. In the 18th century it was the standard version of scripture for English speaking scholars, and even today is widely sold and used, especially by Evangelical churches in the United States. There is even a movement to ban all other English language versions. And yet, many of those who use it don’t know its origins. As one example, a lady once told me that she thought King James was one of the Old Testament kings, and he wrote it. When I asked her that, if this was true, how did she explain the New Testament parts, she did not know.
So, who was this King James, and why is his name attached to this bible?
James VI of Scotland became king James I of England in 1603 after the death of Elizabeth I, who had tried to delay the inevitable by murdering his mother, Mary Queen of Scots. Besides being an active bisexual with an aversion to soap, James was a brilliant religious scholar, writing many books on the various subjects in his lifetime.
Even before leaving Scotland, he had set up a commission to address some of the problems with the bibles in use at the time. In 1604, he requested 47 Church of England scholars to come up with a new version, to become the standard for the Church. The commission was required to make the version conform to the doctrines of the Anglican Church at that time, and to sound good when read aloud. (This was the standard practice of bible reading at that time, both for individuals and congregations.)
The group broke into six committees, working on different sections. Although bibles in many languages were consulted, the primary sources were the Great Bible of 1539 and the Bishop’s Bible of 1568, of which several copies were made to be used for making notes on. The bible numbering system used today (heavily favored by quoters) was invented by a French book publisher in the mid 1550s, who on his own admission divided it quite arbitrarily. (If you can, read a version without these numbers; it takes on a much different meaning.)
Although stating that they would not, the committees heavily edited the words and sometimes whole meanings of sentences. The commission decided to have their new bible “sound old”, and used phrases like thee and thou, long out of use in England. As other examples, they combined 14 different Hebrew words into “prince.” The phrase “Suffer not a witch to live” is another good example. The root word used for “witch” was the same word for the men who brought gifts to baby Jesus. Not wanting there to be problems for the reader, it was changed into “wise men” or “Magi” (I guess the Magi were supposed to be burned at the stake after dropping off their presents.)
Although the groups worked separately on some parts, the parts produced were compared and revised to harmonize as a whole. Finishing by 1609, their work was reviewed and edited, and the first versions were published in 1611. It did not become the standard text until 1661, when James’ grandson Charles II became king. (England had had three civil wars and and 11 year military dictatorship beforehand).
Over the next 250 years, English explorers and missionaries carried this book with them as the Empire conquered one quarter of the earth’s surface. As many peoples learned English, this was the version of Christianity they learned as well.
Languages evolve, and a new version was redone in 1769, which is still the favorite one today. The Apocrypha section has been dropped, and even the Anglican Church has seven different approved versions of the bible, of which this is only one.
So now, you know the story of King James and his bible.