The King James Bible is like a laptop database full of divine truth, moral teaching, superior insight and phenomenal stories of mankind's quest to know God. And for being 400 years old, it still looks pretty good! I'll bet most other laptops won't last a tiny fraction of that time—nor will they offer you eternal life!
May 2, 2011, marks the 400th anniversary of this remarkable English translation of the Holy Scriptures. Under the auspices of King James I of England, a highly qualified English-speaking team of Bible scholars invested four vigorous years translating the amazingly famous King James (or Authorized) Version of the Bible. Upon its completion and mass duplication via the printing press, the common people could read God's Word in the common language of the realm.
Acts of faith, persecution, determination, miracles and martyrdom unfold in the remarkable story of how the Bible that you hold—or could hold—on your lap came to be. The impact of the King James translation vibrantly affects our world even today.
The Bible before English
A long, long time ago in a region far, far away (unless you live in the Middle East), God motivated some 40 men over a span of about 15 centuries to write His divine Word. That's a miracle! Although each wrote in his own style, the words were "given by inspiration of God" (2 Timothy 3:16).
Moses, in the mid-1400s B.C., began writing the Old Testament in the Hebrew language with the book of Genesis. By A.D. 100, John the apostle concluded the New Testament, preserved in Greek, with the great prophetic book of Revelation. All told, there are 66 books that make up our modern Bible (some Old Testament books were in ancient times combined, so the original total would have been 49). The word Bible itself comes from the Greek word biblia, meaning "books."
Only those who knew Hebrew or Greek could read Scripture until a Latin translation was completed around A.D. 400. That stood as the official version for 1,000 years in Europe and North Africa. As time went by, few average people could read Latin. And the dominant, traditional Christian leadership tightly controlled the common man's access to the written Bible, effectively preventing him from reading it. Obviously, the religious authorities at that time had serious control issues!
Among the few early translations to a common language (other than Latin or Greek), we find the Anglo-Saxon Gospels (only four books of the New Testament) in A.D. 995. Later, there were French and Spanish translations used by the often bilingual English nobility. Otherwise, it was Latin or nothing—only the priests could tell or interpret what was in the Scriptures, especially for the masses of common folk.
Historically, the Anglo-Saxon love of freedom has taken on legendary status, and that sense of liberty stirred interest in an English translation in the 1380s. John Wycliffe, an English theologian, published hand-copied volumes of his own English translation of the Latin Bible. A brilliant man at odds with the established church, Wycliffe was eventually declared a heretic due to his translation and publication of the Scriptures in the common English. So angry was the religious establishment that leaders of the Catholic Church in Rome ordered his bones exhumed and burned in 1428—some 40 years after his death!
By the mid-1400s, the Gutenberg printing press was invented, revolutionizing the manufacture and availability of all books, but especially the Bible. One early customer was Desiderius Erasmus, a Dutch scholar and expert in Greek. From early manuscripts, he assembled a more accurate copy of the New Testament in Greek than the official Latin version used by the Roman church. His work (published in 1516) is known as the Textus Receptus, that is, the "Received Text," from which the New Testament in the King James Bible was later translated.
The movement away from the pope's complete religious domination of traditional Christianity was gaining momentum around this time. One year later, in 1517, Martin Luther effectively launched a protest against a number of Roman Catholic doctrines and practices, hence the term Protestant.
Luther translated the Bible into German, and a brilliant and brave British theologian named William Tyndale translated the New Testament from Erasmus' Greek Textus Receptus into English. In 1526, Tyndale, too, made use of the printing revolution. The Roman church leaders in England were so enraged at Tyndale for publishing his translation that he was forced to do most of his work in seclusion in Germany or Holland.
Historians call William Tyndale "the architect of the English language," largely because of the beauty and accuracy of his Bible translation. Hard as it might be to believe, considering the shallow, secular-mindedness of our godless century, the Bible profoundly shaped the language, culture and history of the English-speaking nations!
Educated at Oxford College and fluent in eight languages, Mr. Tyndale produced such a fine translation of the Bible that a significant portion of his wording was carried over into the King James Version. But he translated at the ultimate cost.
Renowned for later precipitating the Protestant Reformation in England, King Henry VIII supported the pope during his early reign. Sadly, both the king's operatives and Roman church agents hunted down and imprisoned Tyndale. After 500 days in deplorable conditions, followed by a sham trial, the great English Bible translator was strangled and burned at the stake in 1536.
Countdown to King James
During the next 75 years leading to the publication of the King James Version, movement toward increasing Anglo-Saxon freedom struggled, took root and finally bloomed under Queen Elizabeth I. During that period, the Bible could be read and appreciated by the common man through Tyndale's translation—if the commoner could obtain a copy. However, the process of putting a Bible into the hand of every man would need another boost—and would bring more drama.
At Elizabeth's death, her second cousin King James VI of Scotland was crowned King James I of England and Ireland in 1603. The next year, he hosted the famous Hampton Court Conference of religious leaders to hear the Puritans' reasons for opposing the corrupted Latin Bible. As king, he then decreed that a new translation of the Scriptures should be made.
Control issues resurfaced with a violent vengeance in 1605. Roman church supporters attempted a bloody coup d'etat by hiding a massive stockpile of gunpowder in the basement of the House of Commons, intending to blow up James and the entire British government when the king came to address Parliament. Divine intervention prevailed. The Gunpowder Plot was discovered and defused.
James involved himself in the translation process by organizing highly esteemed teams of Greek, Hebrew and Bible scholars based at the education centers of Oxford, Cambridge and Westminster in 1607. After four years of systematic and carefully reviewed translation, the Authorized King James Version of the entire Bible was finalized for publication in 1611.
The power of the King James translation
The resonant tones of the new translation drew greatly from giants of biblical scholarship like William Tyndale and several earlier English translators. Combined with advances in Greek and Hebrew scholarship and the considerable knowledge base of the King James translation team, an accurate and almost timelessly readable English Bible was produced. In the vernacular, this translation had "legs"—it would be the Bible to convey God's Word throughout the English-speaking world with huge ramifications to modern history.
It was soon carried into the early American colonies and, as the Authorized Version, became the Bible for all the British Empire.
The constant presence of the 1611 translation unified the moral core, though imperfectly, of the Anglo-Saxon populations worldwide. It consolidated both the spoken and written language and attendant culture that paved the way for an unparalleled English-speaking role in world events for the following 400 years.
The British and American peoples took the Scriptures—made readily readable to them in the King James Bible—seriously. This Bible instructed English justice for all the nations it governed during the heyday of the British Empire. A King James Version–reading public generated American constitutional law. As a testament to both God's Word and this translation, Americans posted the Ten Commandments in schools, courthouses and other government buildings.
Britain and the United States became the two great democracies that have dominated and influenced the world dramatically since 1800—and have offered opportunity and freedom to people around the globe. Although not fully comprehended by those who offered it, the divine law studied in the King James Bible spawned that freedom. Atheism had nothing to do with this prophesied national greatness of Britain and America. It was from God Himself.
However, God foresaw and recorded the deep trouble that the English-speaking nations now face precisely because they ignore and violate the truth of His way of giving, sharing and caring taught in the same Bible. Request or download your personal copy of the free booklet The United States and Britain in Bible Prophecy so you can better understand the biblical proportions of what God said.
Finally, although your Bible (if you speak English) is 400 years old in 2011—and the Bible itself is, of course, far older than that—it's eternally new! Now it's your turn to translate the Holy Scriptures into faith and action in your life. Jesus said that you—and He meant you—shall know the truth, and the truth of the Bible shall make you free (John 8:32). Read it, learn it, love it and love the great God who inspired it! VT