In 1603, when James I, the successor of Elizabeth I, became king of England, Puritan leaders petitioned him to support a new translation of the Bible. Although James bore no great love for the Puritans, he agreed that English worshipers needed a better translation of the Bible than the ones that were currently popular.
A Massive Undertaking
In 1604, the king appointed 54 distinguished scholars and clergymen to create a new version. (In the end, not all of them actively participated in the translation.) Their goal was to create a Bible that would be more accurate than previous English versions and more beautiful in its use of the English language. The scholars split into groups and translated the Bible piecemeal. To ensure consistency and impartiality of the new translation, they all followed a strict set of rules.
To make their translation as accurate as possible, they worked from original Greek and Hebrew texts. They also consulted previous English translations. In the preface to the new translation, they praised earlier translations and noted their indebtedness to them: “We never thought, from the beginning that we should need to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one; . . . but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one.” The final result of their endeavors was the King James Bible, which was to remain the main English version of the Protestant Bible for some 300 years.
A Popular Classic
Although the language of the King James Bible is elegant, it is also simple and straightforward. It was not intended solely for the educated elite. Clergymen throughout England read from it at services, making its message available to the most humble parishioners. The translation also had a tremendous impact on the authors of the time, including John Milton and John Bunyan, whom the 19th-century clergyman C. H. Spurgeon claimed was so “saturated with scripture” that he was “a living Bible.” Centuries later, authors such as William Wordsworth, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and T. S. Eliot continued to find inspiration in the themes, imagery, and language of the King James Bible. Even today, although many other translations are available, it remains the most influential of all versions.
The King James Bible:
- contains more than 12,000 different English words?
- is the source of many common expressions, such as “the apple of his eye” and “at their wits’ end”?
- is one of the most published books in history, with more than one billion copies printed?