The Bible remains the most fundamental book gracing our Western civilization. Along with the works of William Shakespeare, the King James Version played an important role in the formation of the English language itself. As author Alan Thomas put it, “No book has had greater influence on the English language” ( Great Books and Book Collectors, 1988, p. 110). The KJV has repeatedly been referred to as “the noblest monument of English prose.”
Even today, the King James Bible very much remains part of our collective cultural thinking. Elegantly written and also the most poetic and rhythmic of all biblical translations, the King James Version holds an exclusive status in our literary history.
Wrote the conservative British theologian Michael Nazir-Ali: “Without that [biblical] tradition, it is impossible to understand the language, the literature, the art or even the science of our civilisation. It provides the grand themes in art and literature: of virtue and vice, atonement and repentance, resurrection and immortality. It has inspired the best and most accessible architecture. It undergirds and safeguards our constitutional and legal tradition” (“A Cure for Our National Amnesia,” Standpoint, November 2010).
Still monumental in the English-speaking world, the King James Version stands at the very heart of our cultural and even our governmental legacy. After all, English common law was originally founded on biblical principles, mainly due to the efforts of pioneer statesmen like the early English ruler Alfred the Great (849-899). In 2009 U.S. President Barack Obama took the oath of office on the same copy of the King James Bible that Abraham Lincoln had used nearly 150 years before in 1861.
Celebrations in America and Britain
Officially, the English-speaking world celebrates the King James Version’s 400th anniversary on May 2, 2011. In Britain this year’s festivities have been described as being “of biblical proportions.” About 70 anniversary events have been planned.
There will be an exhibition at St. John’s College in Cambridge. Other celebratory events will occur from Aberdeen, Scotland, to Plymouth in the southwest part of England—including reading marathons, lectures, conferences and even concerts. Already, BBC Radio 4, with a U.K.-wide listening audience, is presenting regular readings from various books in the King James Version.
Oxford University Press (publishers of the KJV since the 17th century) will sponsor the printing of a special 1,520-page quadricentennial edition.
Not to be outdone, the Americans will hold celebrations at the Dunham Bible Museum in Houston, Texas. Other events will take place in Kentucky, Louisiana and other Bible Belt states. Also a special conference at Ohio State University in Columbus will highlight the enduring literary legacy and influence of the King James Version on noted writers like the early 20th-century Southern novelist William Faulkner.
But why such national celebrations in the English-speaking world? Let’s briefly summarize the background to see how and why this book has played a monumental role in history.
The struggle to translate the Bible into English
In the centuries before the English language began to form and take hold in Britain, the Bible could not be read by most ordinary people anywhere in the world. Until around A.D. 400, only those fluent in Hebrew or Greek could read Scripture. When the first Latin translation was completed in 405, it stood as the official version for the next thousand years.
But as time passed after the fall of the Roman Empire, fewer and fewer people could read or understand Latin. And the dominant religious leadership, the Catholic authorities, tightly controlled the common people’s access to the Bible, effectively preventing people from reading it. This was the sad state of affairs for many centuries.
The modern world owes a great debt to early Bible translators like John Wycliffe, the philosopher and theologian who gave the British people God’s Word in the English language during the 1380s. Wycliffe’s Bible, translated from Latin, proved very popular. However, heresy-hunting religious authorities eventually banned his translation.
Several courageous men went through severe trials—often risking their lives—to bring us the Holy Scriptures in English. Some had to flee their homes and countries to bring you the Bible. Others gave the supreme sacrifice, dying as martyrs to translate and spread the Scriptures.
Tyndale’s enormous contribution to the King James Bible
One translator in particular stands above the others. William Tyndale, who lived in the early 1500s, was the first to translate the Bible into English directly from its original languages of Hebrew and Greek.
David Daniell, the leading Tyndale scholar of our modern age, wrote: “William Tyndale gave us our English Bible. The sages assembled by King James to prepare the Authorised Version of 1611, so often praised for unlikely corporate inspiration, took over Tyndale’s work. [Nearly] nine-tenths of the Authorised Version’s New Testament is Tyndale’s” ( William Tyndale: A Biography, 1994, p. 1). In his autobiography the late movie actor Charlton Heston (star of Ben Hur, The Ten Commandments and El Cid ) marveled that a committee could produce such a monumental classic as the King James Version.
Although the KJV’s skilled team of translators must be accorded due credit for their own monumental contribution, Brian Moynahan, William Tyndale’s most recent biographer, wrote: “A complete analysis of the Authorised Version [KJV] . . . was made in 1998. It shows that Tyndale’s words account for 84 per cent of the New Testament and 75.8 per cent of the Old Testament books he translated” ( William Tyndale: If God Spare My Life, 2003, p. 1).
But well before any thorough, painstaking analytical study had ever been done, the noted British Greek expert and Bible scholar F.F. Bruce commented on the work of the compilers of the King James Version: “All the existing English versions lay before the translators . . . But the abiding influence of one man in particular may be traced throughout great portions of their work, and that man was William Tyndale” ( The Books and the Parchments, 1984, p. 221).
Tyndale’s English version was a Bible translation born in European exile. Persecution by Catholic bishops in England required that he cross the English Channel in 1524 to accomplish the 12-year task. A written prohibition, composed by British clergy in 1408, “forbade anyone to translate, or even read, any parts of vernacular versions of the Bible, without express episcopal permission”—which was adamantly refused to Tyndale by Cuthbert Tunstall, bishop of London, during the summer of 1523 (Daniell, Tyndale’s New Testament, 1995, p. xxix).
Men died to bring you the Book
In May of 1535, the authorities finally cornered and arrested the elusive Tyndale, halting his goal of translating the entire Bible into English from the original biblical languages. Even while Tyndale endured the most horrendous conditions in a dreadful prison near Brussels, Belgium, he requested a Hebrew grammar book so he could continue translating the Old Testament.
On Oct. 6, 1536, he was bound to a stake, strangled and burned. His final prayer was for God to open the eyes of the king of England.
The religious establishment cruelly martyred the man who some scholars believe—in his mastery of the English rhythm, phrasing and styling—has never been equaled as a Bible translator. F.F. Bruce caught the spirit of his genius: “Tyndale, working under the white heat of potential martyrdom, rises at times to a poetic glow, transcending the style of the original Greek” ( The Books and the Parchments, 1950 edition, p. 13).
Bruce summarized the disheartening circumstances: “Tyndale died a martyr’s death, vilified by authorities in church and state in England. Nothing was too bad to say about the translation. Thousands of copies were seized on entering the country and publicly burned” ( The Books and the Parchments, 1984, p. 216).
Yet, paradoxically, Tyndale’s final prayer was answered only months later when the English-language translation was finally accepted by the crown. “Within months of Tyndale’s martyrdom, a complete English Bible, two-thirds of it Tyndale’s work, and licensed by Henry VIII, was circulating in Britain” (Daniell, The English Bible, p. 157).
What a debt we owe to those who paid with their lives to give us the Word of God!
The Bible’s value to us today
The sufferings and sacrifices of men like Tyndale, Wycliffe and the translators of the King James Bible force us to confront a profound question: Will we honor their efforts, or will we let the moral teachings of Scripture slip through our fingers and finally fall to the ground?
What we view on television, see in movies, listen to on the radio and find on the Internet is often contemptuous of traditional biblical values. The behavior and conduct of the English-speaking peoples who once prized the Bible leaves a lot to be desired.
Michael Nazir-Ali observed in the same article quoted earlier: “So many of the precious freedoms that we value today, the fair treatment of workers and the care of those in need, arise from values given to us by the Judaeo-Christian tradition. These values, however, are grounded in the moral and spiritual vision of this tradition. It cannot by any means be taken for granted that these values will survive for long if the tradition itself is jettisoned.
“The prophetic trajectory in the Bible, confirmed by the teaching of Jesus Himself, is self-critical, relentlessly pointing out the shortcomings of society, of ruler and ruled and placing before them God’s demand for justice and compassion . . . The tradition itself is necessary for bringing a critique to bear on contemporary cultural mores rather than simply capitulating to them” (emphasis added).
What are you going to do?
The basic problem confronting us today is not the same one that faced William Tyndale in the early part of the 16th century. If you had lived back then, unless you read and understood the Latin language, you simply could not read the Scriptures. Bible reading and study was the sole prerogative of priests and the highly educated class.
Today God’s Word has become ever more available in many translations. Commentaries, concordances, dictionaries, atlases and other Bible helps are all on the market in abundance. Available both in print and on the Internet, knowledge about the Holy Scriptures has mushroomed beyond all expectation. Undreamed of 500 years ago, the widespread availability of all types of biblical knowledge staggers the mind.
Yet there is precious little understanding of God’s Word today. One well-known radio teacher used to urge his listeners again and again: “Blow the dust off your Bible!” While the Bible is a perennial best seller, many fail to open it up and read it!
Are you willing to blow the dust off your own Bible? Are you willing to study and live by what it says? The publishers of The Good News provide a vast array of biblical instruction, all free for the asking. We offer 33 free booklets, a 12-lesson Bible Study Course, an online Bible reading program, online study guides, dozens of reprint articles, back issues of our various publications and more. These are all freely available on our website.
As a college chancellor once said to incoming students, “There is a gold mine of valuable knowledge here, but you have to do the digging.” We hope you will join us in digging away to uncover the precious eternal truths of God’s Word! GN