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King James Bible turns 400!

By Terry - Posted on 04 January 2011


What do you think of the King James Bible (KJB)? Most Christians I know fall into the ‘magnificent Bible but I don’t use it’ category. This is an indication that most Christians respect the history of the KJB but don’t find it appropriate for use today.

Most of us also know Christians who consider all versions of the Bible since the KJB satanic deceptions designed by the Devil to lead the Church astray. It must come as a surprise to those folk to learn the KJB was placed in the same category by many when it was first produced.

I think the 400th anniversary of the KJB is a good time for us to reflect on the legacy of the book which has been the mainstay of protestant Christianity for most of its life and is often referred to as the only great work of art ever produced by a committee.

Literary acclaim

Today, the KJB is considered one of the most important literary works in the history of the English language. Education is only possible where there is a grasp of the language and the KJB has played a crucial role in English education. 

More significantly, the KJB has worked its way into the English psyche through its unique terms and phrases; most of which are quoted by people today who have no idea of their Biblical origin.

There are too many to mention, but here is the bulk of the more famous:

"A law unto themselves" Romans 2:14; "A house divided" Matthew 12:25; "A man after his own heart" 1 Samuel 13:14; "Apple of my eye" Deuteronomy 2:10, Zechariah 2:8; "At my wit's end" Psalm 107:27; "Blind leading the blind" Matthew 15:14, Luke 6:39; "By the skin of our teeth" Job 19:20; "Can a leopard change his spots?" Jeremiah 13:23; "Don't cast your pearls before swine" Matthew 7:6; "Drop in the bucket" Isaiah 40:15; "Eat, drink, and be merry" Ecclesiastes 8:15; "Eye for an eye" Exodus 21:24; "False prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing" Matthew 24:24; "Fight the good faith" 1 Timothy 6:12; "Good Samaritan" Luke 10:25-37; "He gave up the ghost" Luke 23:46; "He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone" John 8:7; The writing on the wall, Daniel 5:5; "How are the mighty fallen" 1 Samuel 1:19-27; "Labor of love" 1 Thessalonians 1:3; "Letter of the law" 2 Corinthians 3:6; "Man shall not live by bread alone" Deuteronomy 8:3; "More blessed to give than to receive" Acts 20:35; "My brother's keeper" Genesis 4:9; “Out of the mouths of babes" Psalm 8:2; "Pride goes before a fall" Proverbs 16:19; "Put your house in order" 2 Kings 20:1, Isaiah 38:1; "Salt of the earth" Matthew 5:13; "Signs of the times" Matthew 16:3; "Strait and narrow" Matthew 7:14; "Sweat of your brow" Genesis 3:19; "The blind leading the blind" Matthew 15:14, Luke 6:39; "The love of money is the root of all evil" 1 Timothy 6:10; "The truth shall make you free" John 8:32; "There's nothing new under the sun" Ecclesiastes 1:9; "Thorn in the flesh" 2 Corinthians 12:7; "To everything there is a season" Ecclesiastes 3:1; "Twinkling of an eye" 1 Corinthians 15:52; Turn the other cheek, Matthew 5:39.

As I said, most people use these terms without even realising they come from the Bible. But it is the KJB which brought them into the vernacular. It became a foundational document in the English speaking world and its legacy remains even though much of the English speaking world is pagan today.

Atheist endorsement

Most bizarrely, the KJB even finds support amongst the ranks of atheists. Not because they believe in Scripture, but purely because of its contribution to English literacy which has created the peculiar English society have today.

The King James Bible Trust is the organisation set up to oversee official 400th anniversary celebrations. Imagine my surprise when they trotted out none other than leading atheist Richard Dawkins in support of their mission.

"We are a Christian culture, we come from a Christian culture, and not to know the King James Bible is to be, in some small way, barbarian." 

The full interview can be seen here

The real sting in the tail is Dawkins’ warning, 'it is important that religion should not be allowed to hijack this cultural resource.'

It is staggering how naive someone so intelligent can be. Perhaps Dawkins is being provocative or simply drawing blood in his ongoing war with religion, but to claim the real value of the Bible is as a “cultural resource" is to rather miss the point.

Can you imagine the Apostle Paul hearing that people have enjoyed reading his fine sounding words, but just wish all the stuff about the gospel was removed? This is essentially what Dawkins is saying. He likes the way the KJB sounds but does not like the way people, who actually believe its message, insist the real value of Scripture is what it says, not the way it says it.

I wonder if Dawkins likes the way these verses sound too:

And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment: So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation. (Hebrews 9:27-28)

I suppose Dawkins would find a way of interpreting the above passage so the ‘religion’ could be removed from it and we would be left with simply the marvelous cultural fruit it bore. It’s ridiculous, but that is what you get when the world’s top atheist lends his support to the Bible.

Dawkins wants to see an end to faith, but where there can be found a positive contribution from Christianity to the world, he claims it for the pagan world and insists those with faith should not be allowed to get their hands on it.

Mixed motives

Having marvelled at what strange bedfellows Dawkins and the King James Bible Trust are, I must now turn my attention to a rather uncomfortable subject: the motives behind the push to have the KJB published in the first place. I give fair warning to those who are convinced the KJB is the only inspired version that some of what you read from this point on may test your resolve.

Meddling Monarchs

Mary TudorKing James I was the first monarch to rule over both England and Scotland. Before his rule was Elizabeth I; daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Before her was the brief reign of Philip and before him, the infamous Mary I (daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon). 

‘Bloody Mary’ was the last Roman Catholic ruler of England. She ruthlessly suppressed the fledgling Protestant movement, causing many to flee to Europe. There, English Protestants took a liking to the format of Church services which seemed refreshingly free of Popish embellishments. 

Elizabeth I, whilst reinstating Protestantism, was not convinced there was a need for the sorts of changes the English speaking European Christians (ie Puritans) were calling for, so when James I took the throne, he felt immediate pressure to agree to the Puritan demands. 

In 1604, James assembled all the big wigs of the Church for a conference at Hampton Court where they discussed the role of Bishops and evaluated much of what the Church did. From all reports, the conference went nowhere, but out of it came a resolution to provide the English speaking world with a new version of the Bible.

It was only seven years later that the first King James version of the Bible rolled off the presses. Quite an achievement when you think about it. But what made it necessary to create a new version of the Bible at all?

Geneva Bible

Many today have forgotten the existence of the most significant English Bible between Wycliffe and the KJB: the Geneva Bible. This was the Bible of the English Reformation.1

It had only been created 50 years before the KJB and was still widely available at the time. Ironically, scholars have even detected James I quoting from it in his letters despite his later claim to have no knowledge of it.

It was named the Geneva Bible because it was created by Protestant scholars who had fled the persecution under Mary I and made their home in Switzerland.

These included John Foxe, Miles Coverdale, Thomas Sampson & WIlliam Whittingham (Calvin's brother in law who did much of the translation). At last, a BIble could be produced in English without interference by England or Rome.

What made this Bible the inflammatory publication it proved to be was not that it was a translation of Scripture (although that in itself could invite the death penalty depending on who reigned at the time), but that it contained marginal notes elucidating the text. In other words, it was the world’s first Study Bible.

Even still, it was not the boldness of writing editorial comment on the pages of Scripture which brought the ire of the authorities, but what those notes said. In short, they regularly questioned the validity of the monarchs and, at times, even the bishops.

For example the note on Exodus 1:19 said,

Their disobedience in this was lawful, but their deception is evil.

This, to King James's mind, was an attack on his authority because it informed Christians that there were times when it was right to disobey the ruling monarch.

The note on verse 22 then said,

When tyrants cannot prevail by craft, they burst forth into open rage.

Of course, Exodus 1 had nothing specifically to do with the monarchs of England, but the contributors to the Geneva Bible found a way to have a shot at them through it. And some of the contributors were luminaries such as John Knox and John Calvin. This bothered the King indeed!

You get a sense of the heat in the argument when you consider Mary I was on the throne when the Geneva Bible first appeared. At the time she was ruthlessly persecuting the Christian Church, the marginal notes in Revelation openly identified the Beast as the Pope.

By the end of the 16th century, several additions of the Geneva Bible had been published and each one increased the number of marginal notes exponentially until, at the close of the century, there was no room for any more.

James, ruling with the ‘divine right of kings’ was feeling the pressure. The ‘divine right of kings’ quite simply meant monarchs ruled as though they had permission from God to do as they pleased. If they were evil, it was God’s judgement on the land. If they were good, that was God’s blessing on the people. When a Bible was printed which questioned that view, a change was needed.

Royal Commission

In 1604, at the conclusion of the Hampton Court conference, James put pen to paper and made the following royal decree:

That a translation be made of the whole Bible, as consonant as can be to the original Hebrew and Greek; and this to be set out and printed without any marginal notes, and only to be used in all churches of England in time of divine service.

There seems little doubt, then, as to his motive. The KJB was in essence a Government publication which sought to remove from the people’s sight the marginal notes of the Geneva Bible. The fact that some Protestants today extol the KJB as the only inspired version is ironic to say the least. 

Knox, Calvin, Zwingli, Cranmer and Latimer would never have used the KJB on principle. In fact, freedom of speech and of the press did not even originate in England at this time. It was brought in to England, to the angst of the monarchs, from Europe through publications such as the Geneva Bible.

I find it remarkable that no mention of all this is made on the website of the King James Bible Trust. On its timeline of the KJB, the last two bullet points are:

• 1611 - The King James Bible was published, despite considerable problems printing it.

• 1620 - The Pilgrim Fathers set sail to America, taking the English Bible with them. This was an immensely important step in the diffusion of the bible world-wide, which was further enhanced by its use during the expansion of British influence across the world with the East India Company, the establishment of colonies in Africa, and the discovery of Australia and New Zealand.

You can’t help but smile at this last entry. ‘The Pilgrim Fathers set sail to America, taking the English Bible with them.’ Yes, but it was not the King James Bible they took! They carried with them on the Mayflower the Geneva Bible because that was the Bible of the Reformation and they took the philosophy of the Reformation to the brave new world.

One final irony in the history of the KJB is the production of the Scofield Reference Bible exactly 300 years after the original. Its author, American Cyrus Scofield, put marginal notes all through it which have gone down in folklore. Most of them give a dispensational premillennial slant on relevant passages, but two things are of significance here. 

Firstly, James I was trying to stamp out marginal notes in the production of the KJB and, secondly, the Protestants who landed in America would hardly have agreed with many of Scofield’s interpretations. We know this because of the notes made in the Geneva Bible which differ wildly from Scofield’s.2

Inerrancy & Inspiration of Scripture

I was reminded of just how hot this potato is recently when I was basically accused of being a heretic for daring to criticise the KJB translation. My criticism focussed on the KJB translation of Romans 8:26 which reads,

...but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. (Rom 8:26)

My point was that this is an erroneous translation from the Greek into English because it denies the personality of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is a he not an it. This would not have been deliberate on the part of the KJB translators, but an unfortunate textual error. 

But it is a serious error, because in its rawest form it is a denial of the trinity.

This was like waving a red flag to my King-James-only friend who has stabbed me in the back ever since with the accusation that I teach the Holy Spirit makes mistakes. It’s an easy connection to make:

“Do you believe the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit?”


“Do you believe there is an error in Romans 8:26?”


“You are a heretic.”

My friend’s problem is a lack of understanding. Basically, what orthodox Christianity means by when it speaks of Biblical inerrancy & inspiration this is that the original autographs (ie what the authors originally wrote) is from God and is without error. 

If I then create a printing machine and print a copy of a copy of a copy and put a few mistakes in, I have not altered the status of the original at all. It is my version in a new language which contains textual errors, not the original. The Bible is still the Word of God. In the early days of printing there were plenty of famous stuff ups.

For example, in 1631 an edition of the King James Bible was printed which, at Exodus 20:14, accidently deleted the word “not”. It's only a small word but the 7th commandment was left saying, “Thou shalt commit adultery.”

It would have been quite a popular version of the Bible I imagine had not most of the copies been recalled immediately and destroyed on the orders of Charles I. There are today 11 copies still remaining.

There are others with similarly unfortuate mistakes. That’s people, not God. The originals were and remain inspired and innerant, but those who translate into other languages are prone to faux pas.

For many Christians, we are on shaky ground when we start talking like this because we have been brought up to believe the Bible is mistake free & that’s the end of the matter. But we should be careful to explain what we mean by this. Translations are updated all the time because scholars are constantly trying to convey the meaning of the original as accurately as possible. If you want to be sure you have the meaning correct, learn Greek & get hold of the earliest manuscripts available.3

The legacy of the King James

Despite the politics & backroom deals, it would be unfair to malign the KJB as an unworthy Bible. As I said, many Christians believe it is the only legitimate version. That hardly seems like a mature view, but despite that I would not overreact and shred it.

I do believe the Geneva Bible deserves a more prominent place in our history as Christian people for it sprang out of the Reformation and offered God’s Word and even some instruction to a starved English speaking world, but the KJB also deserves its place as one of the great Bibles of antiquity.

Even though the Revised Standard Version offered an up to date rendering by the end of the 19th century, the KJB still kept up the pace and was still the dominant version when the Billy Graham crusades were in full swing in the mid 20th century. By the 1970’s, the Living Bible began to take some of the ground away from the KJB (including Billy Graham!) but it was really only when the NIV burst on to the scene that English speaking Christians moved away en masse.

After all the arguments for & against, the KJB remains one of the highest selling Bibles in history and to this day no one owns the copyright on its particular text, which some claim puts it in a morally superior category. I suspect the ‘free’ offer originates from King James’s desire to get it into the hands of the masses so they would not read the marginal notes in the Geneva Bible, but you cannot deny the truth. It is the Bible which has impacted the English speaking world more than any other.

Let the party begin

Throughout 2011 we will be reminded in several ways about the legacy of the KJB. In England, in particular, many celebrations are planned. I think, as Christians, it is right and proper that we give thanks to God that this Bible was made available to so many over so long.

One of the main reasons I think we should celebrate its milestone is that it is being hijacked by atheists of all people. Imagine: atheists celebrating the KJB while denying God’s Word! There must be plenty of opportunities to share the gospel as the celebrations continue.

 I do not, however, believe we should be pushing for a return to the KJB as our primary version. To many the sound of all those ’thees’ and ‘thous’ is irreplaceable and I would say most of us know older Christians who even pray using such words because of their reverent tone. It’s as though you cannot pray using normal language; it has to be godly language & they find it in the KJB.

Ironically, that’s exactly why they were put in there in the first place. Using words like ‘thou’ had fallen by the wayside at the time of the KJB’s publication but they were put in there to give it some intellectual credibility and therefore get the approval of Christians who needed a certain text to feel like they were hearing God’s Word.

There are plenty of good versions of the Bible available today, but not many of them have the track record of the KJB. This year it celebrates 400 years. We should give thanks to God that he has preserved his Word in English over that time, which after all, is only around a quarter of the time Christianity has been in existence.

You may not wish to purchase the KJB this year, but you could take a look at the original which is available here.

The men who brought this Bible to life were godly individuals determined honour the Lord as they laboured at their task. To look at what they achieved is inspiring. In this new millennium, may their example inspire a new generation to honour God’s Word and glorify him by reading it, preaching it & living it.

By the way, the actual birthday of the King James BIble is May 2nd.



1. For further reading on the creation of the Geneva Bible, go here.

2. I have not given references to websites which compare the notes in the Geneva Bible with Scofield's because most I've seen make reference to the moral failures of King James as a reason reject the KJB & I don't want that to become the focus here. There have always been allegations of homosexuality against King James I, which supporters of the KJB say were made  falsely by his enemies. Whatever the truth, James was not on the translation committee anyway, so the argument is a bit of a side issue.

For a good look at how the various versions of the Bible were developed go Gospel Hall.

3. In my opinion, the best treatment of the King James debate (ie answering those who claim we should only use the KJB) is in Don Carson’s The King James Version Debate – A plea for realism, 1979, Baker Books.


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