The tale of King James and the many, many Bible versions

I have mentioned my Christian faith on this blog a few times over the years. Growing up, I was taught all about the Bible, with my first one given to me when I was still in elementary school. My family owned many different copies of the Bible, each a different “version”. There was the King James Version, New King James Version, Revised Standard Version, New International Version, New American Bible, and many others. Each of these translated the Bible’s passages with slightly different wording, and as such I came to appreciate the importance of comparing these editions to get a sense of how different scholars and translators saw fit to interpret each passage.

In fact, there are still new versions of the Bible being produced to this day – the Christian Standard Bible was published just two years ago! Yet, by far, the most popular version of the Bible in the United States is the King James Version, first published in 1611. This is the classic Bible most people think of when they think of the Bible and its passages, giving us such phrases as “Thou shalt not”, “feet of clay“, and the annual Christmas blessing of “Peace on Earth, Goodwill toward men.” According to a study conducted in 2011, 55% of Americans who read the Bible regularly prefer the King James Version. This far outshines the second-most-popular version, the New International Version (19%), let alone any other edition (all with usage in the single-digits). Indeed, there is a religious movement that insists that the King James Version is the only correct English translation of the Bible, far superior to all others.

Recently, I was re-reading Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution it Inspired by Benson Bobrick, a book that goes into detail about the origins of the King James Version. This got me thinking about just why there are so many versions of the Bible in English in the first place, and why, in spite of this, the King James version is still so popular.

The list of English-language translations of the Bible is quite long, and there are a few key reasons for this:

  • How the text is translated
  • How English evolves over time
  • What text is being translated

Let’s start with the translation process itself. When translating anything from one language to another, you are going to run into idioms, turns of phrase, and grammatical differences that are unique to the source language. Do you take these and translate them literally, word-for-word, or do you try to convey the intended meaning in the idioms, turns of phrase, and grammar of the receiving language? This is one of the major sources of variability between Bible versions. Some versions prefer literal, word-for-word translations, others prefer a “sense-for-sense” translation, and still others attempt to walk a fine line between the two methods.

Another major reason that there are so many Bible translations is that the English language itself has evolved over time. The King James Version’s use of “thee”, “thou”, “thy”, and a whole host of other archaic words preserves the English language as spoken at the start of the 17th century, but this is not how we speak today. Most modern editions of the Bible try to update the text for a modern audience in plain, everyday language. There are even some versions that are explicitly tailored to American English as opposed to British English, such as the American Standard Version or New American Bible.

The Great Isaiah Scroll, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, is the earliest known copy of the Book of Isaiah.

Finally, you have to consider what text, exactly, you are wanting to translate. See, the Bible wasn’t originally a single text, but a collection of writings that were gathered in a process over the centuries into an accepted “canon of scripture” that were agreed by the faithful to be the Word of God as written by early prophets and apostles through divine inspiration.

It was, ironically enough, a pagan Pharaoh of Egypt descended from Alexander the Great’s general Ptolemy that we have to thank for starting this process. According to legend, as Ptolemy II Philadelphus built his Library of Alexandria, intending it to be the great repository of all knowledge, he hired 70 Jewish scholars to translate their most sacred writings into Greek. This meant those scholars had to determine which ancient Hebrew writings were to be considered “sacred”. The result of their work was the Septuagint, the first codified Bible. This was the sacred text used by faithful Jews in Jesus’ day. Today, we know thanks to numerous archaeological discoveries in recent years, most notably the Dead Sea Scrolls, that these books of the Bible had been around for centuries and were treated as sacred before this time by the people of Israel, but the Septuagint brought them all together into a single edition for the first time.

However, it was not to reign supreme for long. The followers of Jesus Christ collected their own set of writings that were added to the canon by early church fathers, collectively known as the “New Testament”; the earlier writings they dubbed the “Old Testament”. Meanwhile, Jewish religious leaders and scholars began editing down the books of the Septuagint, removing some writings and verses that they felt were not truly divine, resulting in the Masoretic Text, the standard text of the Hebrew Bible to this day. The edited-out books and verses were dubbed the “Apocrypha”, and their inclusion in the Christian Bible varies by denomination – Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians include these books in their canon, while Protestants do not.

The question of what text is being translated, however, doesn’t just apply to which books of the Bible you are including in your canon, but also what physical copy you are using as the basis of your translation. See, we have numerous early collections of Biblical writings, some complete and some incomplete, dating back centuries. In addition to the aforementioned Dead Sea Scrolls, we have the Codex Vaticanus (a 4th-century Greek manuscript of the Bible held in the Vatican Library), the Codex Sinaiticus (another Greek manuscript of similar age discovered in Egypt in the 19th century), the Peshitta (a Syriac-language translation used by some churches in the Middle East believed to date from the 3rd century), the Vulgate (a Latin translation compiled by St. Jerome in the 4th century), the Cairo Codex and Aleppo Codex (two partial Hebrew Masoretic texts dating to the 9th century), the Leningrad Codex (the oldest complete copy of the Hebrew Old Testament, stored in the Russian National Library), and the Textus Receptus (a collection and synthesis of medieval Greek New Testament manuscripts produced by Dutch philosopher Erasmus). Today, it is common for Biblical scholars seeking to translate new editions of the Bible to compare these ancient texts and try to create the best-fit translation based on these writings.

See, which text you use matters, as demonstrated by that verse I mentioned earlier, “Peace on Earth, Goodwill toward Men”. This is the correct translation of the text in the Codex Sinaiticus and Textus Receptus epi gēs eirēnē en anthrōpois eudokia, but other early Greek manuscripts read epi gēs eirēnē en anthrōpois eudokias, the addition of that single letter changing the translation to “Peace on Earth to Men of Goodwill,” or as the New International Version writes it, “on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” This is quite the change in connotation!

The first page of the original printing of the King James Version in 1611

So, where does the King James Version fit in all of this?

In the late middle ages, the Vulgate was the official version used by the Roman Catholic Church for all its services, and it was rare to encounter any other translation as the church placed heavy restrictions on translations of the Bible into the vernacular. This didn’t stop William Tyndale, a Protestant scholar in early 16th-century England who decided to try his hand at translating the Bible into English. He used both the Vulgate and the Textus Receptus to translate the New Testament. He then turned to the Old Testament, and was about halfway done, but then he was caught by the English authorities, convicted of heresy, and strangled to death, his corpse burned at the stake. Ironically, King Henry VIII would break the Church of England away from the Catholic Church just one year later, and Tyndale’s Bible would be used by the new church as the basis for the Great Bible, the official English-language Protestant Bible that all churches in England were required to use by royal decree.

However, the Great Bible was a bit of a mess. It was rushed out in a great hurry to meet the king’s demands, with poor Myles Coverdale, the bishop asked to prepare the work for printing, having to fill in the gaps left by Tyndale’s unfinished Old Testament by translating from German copies that had been acquired from early Lutherans, as well as making edits to various Biblical passages that were meant to satisfy the conflicting political demands of both more conservative and more radical church leaders. According to Bobrick’s book, when King Henry was informed of the many flaws in the translation, he asked, “Are there any heresies maintained thereby?” Upon hearing a “no” as the reply, he said, “Then in God’s name let it go abroad among our people!”

So it was that the Great Bible became the standard Anglican Bible, flaws and all, for a few decades while the conflict between Protestants and Catholics in England for supremacy raged under the reigns of Henry VIII’s children. Queen Elizabeth I of England ended up cementing the Church of England’s place on the Protestant side of the equation, but was aware of the Great Bible’s deficiencies. In the meantime, Calvinist English nonconformists that had fled into exile produced the Geneva Bible, a far superior translation that was praised by scholars of its day and widely read by many in England. However, the Geneva Bible also included a host of margin notes that “helped” in “interpreting” various verses, invariably arguing for a Calvinist interpretation, and these notes were offensive to the Anglican church leadership. So, the queen authorized the creation of the Bishops’ Bible in 1568 as the new official Bible of the Church of England. However, this version was deliberately written to be different than its unofficial competitor, sometimes twisting sentence structure into odd formations just to not be the same. For example, where the Geneva Bible said “mother-in-law”, the Bishops’ Bible would say “wife’s mother.” Thus, it was unpopular with the general public, who just kept buying Geneva Bibles.

Then, in 1603, Queen Elizabeth passed away, and King James VI of Scotland inherited the throne of England as King James I.

Hey, that’s me!

King James had already decided that the existing English Bibles weren’t good enough for the Church of Scotland, and had discussed the matter with the Scottish clergy as early as 1601. In 1604, he called a conference of English and Scottish church leaders and demanded that a new official translation be created. This version would need to be based on the “original text”, meaning the oldest texts available at the time – the Masoretic Text and Septuagint for the Old Testament, the Textus Receptus and Peshitta for the New Testament. The translation would use the Bishops’ Bible as a guide, but replace the awkward wording and unnecessarily complex sentence structure with plain English (or, what would have been considered “plain English” at the time), consulting the earlier English translations to help determine the easiest phrasing to read and say. There was also an emphasis on using the traditional interpretations of the original Hebrew and Greek words rather than the Puritan interpretations that were floating around at the time – “church” instead of “congregation”, for example. Lastly, unlike the Geneva Bible, there would be no margin notes.

King James wanted this task done right, so instead of entrusting it to one person or a handful of people, he hired 47 of the best biblical scholars in England and Scotland to write this new version. Breaking into six committees, each of which included people across the spectrum from Catholic-leaning high Anglican to radical Puritan, the scholars would constantly translate and re-translate the same passages, comparing drafts and debating the meanings of the text until they were satisfied they had the perfect translation.

The result was published in 1611 and became the official English-language version of the Bible in the realm. It wasn’t adopted uniformly all at once, however, with the Mayflower pilgrims bringing the Geneva Bible with them to America, and the Book of Common Prayer used by the Church of England continuing to quote from the Great Bible until 1662. By the mid-18th century, however, virtually all Bibles printed in English were the King James Version. This would have been the version used in colonial America during the War of Independence, and throughout the English-speaking world in much of the 19th century.

The only exception would have been the Douay-Rheims Bible, an English translation of the Vulgate made for Catholics, but even this wouldn’t have been seen often as until the 1960s most Catholic mass and liturgy was still conducted in Latin.

In the mid-19th century, however, there was a growing interest among academics and scholars in revisiting the Bible and examining its text more critically. In 1862, Scottish publisher Robert Young produced Young’s Literal Translation, a version that translated every single word as literally as possible from the earliest available Hebrew and Greek texts. In 1885, the Church of England authorized the creation of the Revised Version, in order to update the language of the King James Version from Shakespearean English to Victorian English, and also to take advantage of the discoveries of older copies of ancient scriptures such as the Codex Sinaitica. A version in American English based on the Revised Version was published in 1901, the American Standard Version. Every version of the Bible published since has been made in this tradition.

That’s not to say that everyone agreed that the Bible needed updating. By the time Biblical scholars of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries had started preparing new translations of the Bible, the King James Version had been so pervasive in the English-speaking countries of the world for so long that it had taken on a life of its own, permeating both religious and popular culture. To many, the first version of the Bible they think of when someone mentions “the Bible” is the King James Version. People love the beautiful poetry of 17th-century English, after all.

Let’s be honest, though, it is a bit hard for a modern English-speaker to read that language, beautiful as it may be. Interestingly, a new group of translators that has come up with a solution: the 21st Century King James Version! Yes, this is a thing – an edition of the King James Version that leaves in the verbs ending in “-eth” that people love, but replaces some archaic words that nobody uses today with modern equivalents. For example, the original KJV text of Ezra 9:3 reads “And when I heard this thing, I rent my garment and my mantle, and plucked off the hair of my head and of my beard, and sat down astonied.” The KJ21 (yes, that’s how they want it abbreviated) reads “And when I heard this thing, I rent my garment and my mantle, and plucked off the hair of my head and of my beard, and sat down stunned.” Credit where credit is due, that is an interesting compromise.

Now that you know all of this, here’s an experiment you might want to conduct. Next time you happen to be in a book store, pay attention to the Bibles on sale. What version or versions are they selling? This might be interesting to know.

Wait… who am I kidding. People don’t go to bookstores anymore. They shop on Amazon. I forgot.