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The King’s Bible

The King James Version of the Bible is the epitome of staid, conservative traditionalism – that, at least, is how it often looks to us precisely 400 years after its publication. In fact, the KJV capped a sequence of social upheavals that took the English Bible from the dark and secret underground of a persecuted reform movement to the bright light of official and popular acceptance.

Something Borrowed

No matter what else we might want to say about the King James, the beauty of its language is unimpeachable. This was never meant to be a simplistic Bible full of brash colloquial speech, like many of our modern paraphrases. It was meant to convey a certain majesty and grandeur befitting the word of God. At the same time, this was a book that was meant to be heard by the average man in the pew who, in all likelihood, could neither read nor afford to buy a copy of his own.

In their Preface, the translation committee states explicitly that they never intended to offer a rigid text that clung to “uniformity of phrasing” or “identity of words.” Such lofty goals were the province of scholars, so the committee thought. This was a Bible for everyone else.

Still, majesty went hand-in-hand with tradition. The committee never intended to break new ground. Their goal was to forge a single, good translation from many that had come before. And by “good” they meant something that was both pleasing to the church-state establishment and familiar to current Bible readers.

None of the existing translations met these goals. For instance, the popular Geneva Bible (1560) was crammed with marginal notes reflecting a pro-Calvinist, anti-Catholic point of view. Despite his Protestant leanings, King James had no interest in stirring that particular pot. He had every incentive to uphold the Church of England and its powerful bishops who, in turn, legitimized his right to rule. A system of autonomous congregations each governed by an eldership or presbytery did not lend itself to state control, and James definitely wanted control.[1]

But even the Bishops’ Bible (1568) – the official Bible of the English church – carried the seeds of sedition within its pages. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus promises to build “my congregation.” The KJV of 1611 changes this to “my Church” (the capitalization is not retained in our modern printings). Whereas “congregation” lent itself to talk of the eldership or presbytery, “Church” lent itself to talk of the institution with its bishop, cathedral, crown and king.

The Bishops’ Bible took this verse word-for-word from a banned book written by a heretic. The book in question was the first printed Bible in English translated from the original languages. The heretic in question was William Tyndale. Indeed, nearly all the English Bibles of the period borrowed substantially from the work of Tyndale, who was first strangled and then burned at the stake for his trouble. His translation of the complete New Testament appeared in 1526, while partial translations of the Old Testament started appearing in 1530. Many familiar phrases such as “stiff-necked” (Exodus 32:9) and “physician, heal thyself” (Luke 4:23) can be traced to these early versions. According to one estimate, 84 percent of the KJV New Testament comes directly from Tyndale.[2] The committee never mentioned his name, but they were right: the KJV was not a new translation, but it did make a good translation better.

Tyndale's New Testament

Tyndale's New Testament, 1526 (British Library)

Something Old, Something New

The King James Version was always intended for the English speaking public of the day, but it uses a language that was never spoken or written anywhere else. It was not the language of the street or the court. Nor was it the language of art or business. It was the King’s Bible, to be sure, but it was not the King’s English. It was, to put it simply, a mixture of old and new.

As it happens, the great flowering of English translations occurred during a critical period of transition. The language was changing from Middle English to early Modern English. The change was marked most of all by something known as the Great Vowel Shift. In Middle English, we never could have rhymed meet and meat or sea and see, but we could have rhymed nature and creature or play and sea.[3]

This change in the pronunciation of long vowels would have had a subtle effect on word choices that are now lost to our modern ears. It was symptomatic, however, of a number of changes. Take spelling, for instance. Earlier writers tended to spell as they spoke, and they spoke many different dialects. This was a nightmare for William Caxton and other early printers. Caxton had to decide whether he was going to use the original spelling of the author, or the spelling of the people who actually bought his books, namely, the elite social classes of London.

Given all the old spellings and typographic conventions, many of us would struggle now to read the KJV of 1611. Since that time, readable fonts, standardized spellings, corrections to printing errors, and other minor changes have made the KJV what it is today.

Even with these largely cosmetic fixes, the King James stands out for its use of language forms that were disappearing even as the new Bible went to press. In part, this was deliberate. The translators had no interest in using the latest conventions just for the sake of sounding modern. And, in part, it reflects the heritage of previous translations.

Consider Tyndale’s influence on Matthew 12:1. With toes dangling in the waters of Middle English, Tyndale has the disciples “anhongred” as they move among the fields of grain. He could have used the word hungry, which has a fine pedigree going back to the Old English. But Tyndale meant to convey the idea that they were overcome with hunger. Anhongred captured this nuance in a way that hungry did not. The term carried forward into the King James as “an hungred,” even though it had fallen out of favor by 1611.

In addition to the unfamiliar words, the King James is famous for using thee and thou, and -eth and –est. Once again, this can be traced back to Tyndale’s Bible, and once again, we see the accomplished translator borrowing judiciously from a dying language.

In earlier times, thou, thee, thine and thy were used to address a single individual. Ye, you, your, and yours were used to address multiple people. As Middle English developed, the words had more to say about status than number. The thou group was used to address a social inferior while the ye group was used to address an equal or social superior. By the time we get to Tyndale, even these distinctions are beginning to break down. In everyday speech, people are starting to use you across the board.[4] By retaining the old conventions, Tyndale elevates the language of Scripture above the common language of his day.

This is not just a matter of setting a different tone. Tyndale could map the old pronouns, with their original numerical distinctions, on to the underlying Hebrew and Greek grammar. So, for instance, Tyndale has Jesus speaking to Simon Peter in plural pronouns: “Satan hath desired you to sift you” (Luke 22:31). Clearly, the time of testing has come to all the disciples. In the next verse, Tyndale has Jesus switching to singular pronouns as He addresses Peter directly: “but I have prayed for thee that thy faith fail not.” The point is profound and, in Tyndale’s hands, an accurate reflection of the original Greek text.

Tyndale (1526)KJV (1611)ESV (2001)
Satan hath desired you to sift youSatan hath desired to have you, that he may sift youSatan demanded to have you, that he might sift you….
But I have prayed for thee that thy faith fail not.But I have prayed for thee that thy faith fail notbut I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail

Comparison of Luke 22:31-32

Tyndale mapped the older English pronouns on to their Greek and Hebrew equivalents. This was not only practical, but served to elevate his translation over the rapidly changing spoken English of his day.

Tyndale retains other relics of Middle English. The old pronouns stay with the old verb endings, and so we find thou believest, ye believe, and he believeth. These forms are dying quickly. In Mark 16:16, Tyndale uses “believeth.” Within a few years, the Geneva Bible is using the very modern-sounding “believes.”

Waiting in the Wings

By 1611, the transition to early Modern English is practically complete. Tyndale’s language may be obsolete, but his translation is not. By staying so close to Tyndale, the King James committee freezes a piece of language, and a piece of art, in time.

At first there was resistance to the new version. Puritans stuck to their Geneva Bibles, and the bishops were none too thrilled with the KJV’s production values. One edition – the infamous Sinners’ Bible of 1631 – left a critical word out of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt commit adultery.”

King James Bible, 1611

King James Bible, 1611 (British Library)

Within a dozen years, the battle between reformers and the church-state edifice came to a head. This is what King James was trying to avoid in having the Puritans and bishops come together to make a new translation. Ultimately, neither he nor his son Charles was willing to relinquish political or religious power. After a bloody Civil War and the restoration of a somewhat humbled monarchy, the people of England were ready for a new Bible. In the King James they found something that was neither Puritan propaganda nor the sole domain of the bishops. This was, finally, a Bible that everybody could learn to love.

[A version of this article appeared originally in Think, May 2011, pp. 8-9.]

[1] See my earlier article, “A Strange Land,” Think, July 2009, p. 38.

[2] Jon Nielson and Royal Skousen, “How Much of the King James Bible Is William Tyndale’s?: An Estimation Based on Sampling,” Reformation, 1998, 3:49-74.

[3] Seth Lerer, Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language. New York, Columbia University Press, 2007, pp. 113-114.

[4] Charles Barber, Early Modern English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997, pp. 148ff.

© 2011, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.