King James Bible: When and how was the Bible written?

The making and influence of the King James Bible

Most people across the world have heard about, read, or own the King James Bible. But have you ever wondered who wrote this version of the Bible? Why was it important to have different versions of the Bible? And why is this version of the bible so unique and yet popular?

Below, World History Edu explores the origin story and all the major facts surrounding the King James Bible, also known as the King James Version or the Authorized Version.

English Monarchs and the Bible

The decision to translate the Bible was not a spiritual one but more of a political decision. Since the reign of King Henry VIII of England, the great religious reformer, English monarchs right up to King James I of England translated the bible to suit their political ambition as well as to appease a certain fraction of the people.

Older Versions of the Bible

There were three previous versions of the bible before the emergence of the King James Bible. They were the Great Bible, Geneva Bible, and the Bishops’ Bible.

  • Great Bible: This version of the Bible was the first authorized one in English. It was compiled in 1539 at the order of King Henry VIII. The king had decreed that those Bibles be made available to all churches in England. However, liberty was abused by the people who jeered when the bible was read or made the words into songs in the pubs. King Henry restricted the use of the bible to only the upper class. The name “Great Bible” was derived from the size of the version, which was quite voluminous. Regardless, the Great Bible continued to be used throughout the reign of Henry’s successor, Edward VI, who was a devout Protestant.

    The Great Bible published in the late 1530s during the reign of Henry VIII

  • Geneva Bible: At the wake of Queen Mary’s reign, the use of Henry VIII’s Bible was prohibited because the Church of England was reunited with Rome. Subsequently, the Bible scholars and reformists had to flee to Frankfurt and Geneva for fear of being killed by the English queen, who was devout Catholic monarch infamous for tirelessly persecuting Protestants. Also known as “Bloody Mary”, the queen’s vision was to restore England to Catholicism. While in exile, the scholars published a new version of the Bible in the English vernacular. This new version that was published in exile was called the Geneva Bible. This version of the Bible, compiled by exiled Calvinist William Whittingham, was published in 1560 and was edited sixty times throughout Queen Mary’s reign.

    The Geneva Bible was produced by exiled Protestants that had fled the brutal reign of Catholic Queen Mary I. Image: The Geneva Bible

  • Bishops’ Bible: When Queen Elizabeth‘s reign started the Great and Geneva Bibles were in use, however, the Queen and some of her advisors later felt those Bibles were corrupted and were not complementary to the vision she had for the monarchy and her country. Most bishops in England did not agree with the Geneva Bible because it was seen as extremely Calvinist. As a result, they came together and decided to translate a version that aligned more with the Anglican nature of the Church of England. The Archbishop of Canterbury Matthew Parker was put in charge of getting a new translation. Categorical instructions were given to the review committee not to stray too far from the Great bible. This version was completed in 1568.

    The Bishops’ Bible was published in the late 1560s during the reign of Elizabeth I. This translation was much preferred by the Anglicans.

The Millinery Petitions

Queen Elizabeth I was seen as a pillar of stability, especially after the tumultuous short reign of half-sister, Queen Mary. Elizabeth was described as “neither a good protestant nor yet resolute papist” because of her ability to unite and accept the Puritans and Papists. That was why there was uncertainty when she died after 45 years of rule without an heir and the throne was passed to her cousin King James VI of Scotland.

On his way to England for his coronation, James was accosted by a group of Puritans who gave him a list of reforms they expected him to make in the Church of England, and the list was signed by a thousand clergymen. The list would come to be known as the Millinery Petitions.

James I of England and VI of Scotland.

After the king’s coronation as King James I of England, he set up a meeting at Hampton court to address the issues raised in the letter. In 1604, a leading clergyman named John Reynolds suggested a new translation of the Bible because the older versions (i.e. The Great Bible) translated during the reign of King Henry VIII were inconsistent, corrupt, and left more to be desired, so to speak.

The new English monarch accepted the suggestion because he did not like the old Geneva Version, and the Puritans were only pleased with the suggestion, thinking they would get the chance not just to influence the new bible but also get some of their ideas included in the religious reforms.

King James’ instructions for the translation of the Bible

In June 1604, King James named 54 scholars to work on the translation. However, the translation eventually started in 1607, when a committee of 48 scholars were grouped into six units to work on assigned parts of the Bible. They worked at Westminster, Oxford, and Cambridge and were instructed to make the language used in the translation easily comprehensible to everyone, especially the commoners. This particular rule was important as many of the commoners in England at the time could not read or write. The committee stood guard to limit the influence of the Puritans on the translation.

The King also instructed (with 14 precise instructions) the committee to ensure the translation was in line with the theology of the Church of England. He also insisted they maintain the integrity of the older versions by retaining all the characters in the Bible. The king also asked the church to get donations from wealthy churchmen to fund the project.

In 1525, William Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament became the first printed Bible in English. Tyndale, an English contemporary of Martin Luther, later paid with his life for his work.

In early 1608, a General Revising Committee met at the Stationers’ Hall, London where they listened to the new translations from the six units. They listened attentively to the reading and the portions the committee felt did not sound right were reviewed and corrected. After corrections were made the revised work was sent to the few Bishops who also reviewed the final version to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Archbishop Bancroft gave his final approval on the translation and sent it to King James who had the final say on the new translation.

It must be noted that during the translation, the scholars ook inspiration from some of the English translations of religious scholar William Tyndale’s New Testament. They also borrowed on some ideas from Hebrew, Latin and Greek works, including classical works by Homer and Socrates.

When was the translation completed?

The new translation was finally completed and approved in 1610, however, it did not go for printing until 1611. The final version was sent to the King’s printer Robert Barker who eagerly sent it for printing. He ended up spending so much money to print the first edition of the Bible, which was filled with so many typographical errors and omissions.

Robert Barker became bankrupt from the printing and sold rights to two London printers, Bonham Norton and John Bill, who printed their edition and eventually filed lawsuits against the King’s printer Barker.

The “Wicked Bible”

The King James Bible was criticized a bit in the early 1600s because of the sheer number of typos and errors that were made during printing. This made it somewhat controversial, earning the nickname the “Wicked Bible” due to those inconsistencies.

An example of such an error was in Ruth 3:12 where it was written “he went into the city” instead of “she went into the city”. In the 10 commandments, “not” was mistakenly omitted from “Thou Shalt Commit Adultery”.

The Importance of the King James Bible

The King James Version comprised 80 books which include 39 books of the Old Testament, 14 books of the Apocrypha, and 27 books of the New Testament. This version of the Bible has been considered to be one of the most important books in English culture. What makes the King James Bible very important, and how did it become so popular? We discuss the reasons below:

  1. The King James Bible was the first universal Bible as it was accepted by other doctrines such as the Methodists, the Baptists, and the Orthodox Church in America.
  2. The language and style of the King James Bible made this version very unique. The style had a great influence on standard English. The language was embellished to make it more majestic, it does not sound like a regular conversation but more like a heavenly conversation. It has added over 250 expressions to the English language such as “thorn in the side”, “eye to eye”, “give up the ghost”, “blind leading the blind”, and “brother’s keeper”.
  3. The King James Bible has inspired many musical compositions and prose. It did not just influence English literature, but it had an impact on other countries’ literature and arts.
  4. It was the first Bible to be exported out of England to other countries and continents such as the Americas, Africa and Australia. It was also translated into different languages which made it accessible to non-English speakers.

Other interesting facts on the history of the King James Bible

King James Version

The writing style and rich poetic rhythms found in the KJB is considered a true masterpiece in the English language. As a result, the Bible has had tremendous amount of influence on not just English literature but modern Western literature in general. The KJB is undoubtedly the most famous Bible translation in human history.

Here a few more interesting facts on the history and origin of the King James Bible, also known as the King James Version (KJV):

  • Richard Bancroft, then-bishop of London and later Archbishop of Canterbury, was put in charge of organizing the committees that worked on the King James Bible. Assisting Bancroft was Lancelot Andrewes, an English bishop and scholar who oversaw the translation of the Bible.
  • One of the 15 rules for the translation was that the translators were forbidden from making any notes in the margins of the Bible.
  • King James hated the marginal notes of the Geneva Bible because they heavily criticized royalty and the king’s divine power. In many cases, the word ‘king’ was translated as ‘tyrant’.
  • Following the 15 precise instructions from Bancroft, every member of a committee was required to work on the same section of the Bible. Once that was done, the members then met at the subcommittee level to discuss their translations. Rather than read the translations, the heads of those committees would listen to it. The committee was more concerned with the words of the Bible sounding right rather. As many of the commoners in England back then were illiterates, it was absolutely important that the Bible sounded right when read out.
  • After the sections were approved at the subcommittee level, they were then submitted to a few bishops, who would put it through rigorous recital techniques. After the translations received the thumb of approval from the bishops, they were sent to the Archbishop of Canterbury, before finally making to King James for approval.
  • It is said that Robert Barker spent a significant amount of resources getting the KJV published. As his cost kept rising, Robert Barker began rushing through the whole process. As a result, a typographical errors and omissions were made.
  • It’s been said that the rationale for writing the KJV, other than political purposes, was for the Bible to have a language that made it comprehensible to the commoners.
  • King James also hoped that the KJV would help bring the two religious factions together. He hoped the Bible would be an instrument to save the country from a religious civil war.
  • The advances made in printing technology helped make the KJV accessible to the commoner. The puritans that sailed to the New World took the KJV along with them in the early 17th
  • The KJV version of the 17th century remained until the Revised Standard Version of the 1880s.

Just how impactful has the KJV been?

The King James Bible is one of the lasting legacies of King James I of England. It has lasted and remained popular for over 400 years because of its significant influence on almost all cultures. KJV has influenced some of the greatest leaders in history, such as 16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and renowned American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. Latter had some quotes from the Bible in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

It has influenced some iconic books such as Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Similarly, American author and poet Ernest Hemingway was said to have taken inspiration from the poetic cadences of the KJV.

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