In 1604, King James I of England authorized a new translation of the Bible into the English Language. That Authorized Version was released in May of 1611. It has become the dominant Bible in the world ever since. On this 400th anniversary of the King James Version, I would like to look at the history of its translation, then at how it has become the most influential Book in the world.
In 1525, William Tyndale produced the first modern language English Bible, translated from the traditional text (for which effort he was burned at the stake). Tyndale worked from an early edition of Erasmus’ printed Greek traditional text. (85% of the later King James Version is based upon the work of Tyndale.)
Following Tyndale came a succession of English Bibles including the Coverdale Bible of 1535, the Matthews Bible of 1537, the Great Bible of 1539, the Geneva Bible of 1560, and the Bishops Bible of 1568. (None of these Bibles has ever been widely used or mass produced.) Following the Bishops Bible came the King James Version in 1611.
The King James Version went through 9 editions from 1612 to 1769 in which further refinements and purification took place. The Bible you hold in your hand today is that 1769 edition edited by Benjamin Blayney.
Subsequently, the King James Version has become the most widely produced Bible in the history of the world. No other translation in any language comes close. The Latin Vulgate Bible was first translated in 382 AD by Jerome, and yet the production of the Vulgate Bible is a tiny fraction of the volume of King James Version.
Not only is the King James Version the most widely translated Bible in history, it has dominated the culture of the English speaking world.
According the Nelson Publishing House, the King James Version is historically the most frequently quoted document in existence.
Historian Robert McCrum says the King James Version is “Probably the single-most influential book ever published in the English language.”
H. L. Mencken (an agnostic) said of the King James Version, “It is the most beautiful of all the translations of the Bible; indeed, it is probably the most beautiful piece of writing in all the literature of the world.”
The King James Version has shaped the English language. Historian Paul Cross wrote, “Whether we live in England, America, Australia, Africa, Canada, or the Caribbean, the English language was largely shaped by one book—the King James Version of the Bible.”
In 1611, only one nation on the planet spoke English. Today, dozens of nations have English as their official language and many more use English as a secondary language. Why? Because of the influence of the King James Version.
The King James Version has influenced Western Culture. Professor Russell Kirk wrote: “The book that was to exert a stronger influence than any other in America was not published until 1611, a few years after the first Virginian settlement: the ‘King James’ translation of the Bible …. Read from American pulpits and in the great majority of American households during colonial times, the Authorized Version shaped the style, informed the intellect, affected the laws, and decreed the morals of the North American colonies.”
Historian P. Marion Simms wrote, “No nation in all history was ever founded by people so dominated by the Bible as America.” That Bible was the King James Version.
The King James Version has influenced literature. Historian Alister McGrath wrote, “The two greatest influences on the shaping of the English language are the works of William Shakespeare and the English translation of the Bible that appeared in 1611.” He also said the King James Version, “Was the very greatest literary achievement in the English language.”
Williams Lyon Phelps of Yale University wrote, “Priests, atheists, skeptics, devotees, agnostics, and evangelists, are generally agreed that the Authorized Version of the English Bible is the best example of English literature that the world has even seen.”
The King James Version is a spiritual influence. England’s common Christian culture was largely shaped by the King James Version.
One common denominator in the Great Awakening was that everyone in the English-evangelical world was using the same Bible. The King James Version was the Bible of the Great Awakenings.
The aftermath of the first Great Awakening was the modern missions movement. The vast majority of the early missionaries were products of the influence of the King James Version. It truly was the Bible of the modern missions movement.
Even today, churches that use the King James Version often contribute much more financial resources per person to missions than churches which do not.
Now the question must be asked, is the supremacy of the King James Version a fluke of history, or has God had something to do with it? Only a secularist can allege that the flourishing of the King James Version over the past 400 years was a coincidence.
The winner of the Super Bowl may be a fluke of history. Who is hired as dogcatcher in Dubuque Iowa, may be a coincidence. But to suggest that the preparation, purification, and distribution of the most widely published version of God’s Word in history is a coincidence is folly. In the greater perspective of history, it should be apparent that God was involved in every step of the preparation, purifying, and publishing of the King James Version.
God certainly knew in advance the wide spread distribution and influence the King James Version would have. It would even seem that God so-ordained it. Can we assume therefore that He had nothing to do with its historic usage and popularity? There is no such thing as double inspiration or advanced revelation to the translators of any Bible version. However, having said that, it would seem apparent that God has providentially worked behind the scenes in not only purifying and preparing the underlying Hebrew and Greek texts, but also in the translation of the King James Version. There can be no other conclusion except that God has had a direct and providential hand in the development and propagation of the most widely used version of His Word in human history.