FIRST PERSON: KJV—Celebrating 400 years of ‘zeal for the common good’

Article Date: May 13, 2011

May 5, 2011 marked the 400th anniversary of the publication of the English translation of the Bible known as the King James Version. All English language readers of the Bible should celebrate the remarkable achievement.

War of the Bibles. When King James I became the king of England in 1603 various religious factions within England were involved in a war of the Bibles, and consequently, a theological war. The religious establishment endorsed the Bishop’s Bible (1568), initiated by the Archbishop of Canterbury. English Catholic religious exiles in France had started the Douai-Rheims Bible (1609-10). The most popular translation was the Geneva Bible (1560), translated with marginal notes by Calvinist refugees in Geneva. The Geneva Bible was the first study Bible and the king and religious establishment found the content of the notes offensive.

Puritan Request for a New Bible. As King James VI of Scotland traveled to London to become James I, king of England, Puritans presented the new king with a petition signed by 1,000 Puritan leaders protesting unbiblical practices of the Church of England. The new king agreed to hold a conference at discuss the religious issues.

At the Hampton Palace Conference, the Anglican majority defeated every request of the Puritans. Near the end of the conference, Puritan leader John Rainolds, president of Corpus Christi College at Oxford, proposed a new Bible translation. Before the bishops could protest, King James agreed, “I wish some special pains were taken for an uniform translation; which should be done by the best learned in both universities, …ratified by royal authority, to be read in the whole church, and no other.”

While no widespread public sentiment for a new translation existed, a Puritan first suggested the concept of a new translation. King James compromised on this one point in dealing with the Puritan complaints. The king likely viewed the translation as a means to achieve the goal of a unified Protestant England.

The Translators. Rather than being an individual translation, several committees produced the KJV. King James took an active role in the selection of the translators and the development of the rules of translation. The translators comprised a diverse group of Anglicans, Puritan Calvinists, and some adherents of Arminian theology. Because of the Renaissance emphasis on classical learning, England, a center of humanist learning, contained individuals skilled in biblical languages. The leading British experts in Hebrew and Greek served as translators. Six committees, Oxford University, Cambridge University, and Westminster Abby, translated both Testaments and the Apocrypha. A 12-member general committee reviewed the work of all translation teams before submitting the translation to a two-man final revision team.

Rules of Translation. The translators operated under 15 rules that insured a common translation practice. The rules stipulated, for example, that the translators utilize the old ecclesiastical terms. The translators had to translate the Greek word “ekklesia” as church rather than congregation as preferred by the Puritans. This rule insured support for the Anglican view of the church.

The rules prohibited the inclusion of marginal content notes; the Puritan Geneva Bible contained marginal notes that expressed disloyalty to a monarch.

The first and fourteenth rule assured the character of the King James as a revision of revisions rather than an innovative translation. The first rule stated, “The ordinary Bible read in the Church, commonly called the Bishop’s Bible, to be followed, and as little altered as the Truth of the Original will permit.”

The fourteenth rule allowed the translators to use the translations of William Tyndale (1534), Miles Coverdale (1535), Matthew Bible (1537), and the Geneva Bible (1560). Since each English translation depended on its predecessor, the translation of Tyndale, martyred by the forces of King Henry for the act of translating the Bible into English, exerted enormous influence upon the King James Version.

In a note to the readers contained in the original KJV, the translators explained their goal in issuing a revision of early English translations: “[W]e never thought from the beginning that we should need to make a new Translation … but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one.”

Legacy of the King James Version. The original KJV contained a lengthy message from the translators to the readers. The opening words of the notes from the translators read, “zeal to promote the common good.” Indeed, the KJV brought about a great deal of common good.

First, in an era when the English language was developing, the KJV helped to standardize the English language. All the KJV translators came from southeast England. Second, the KJV reigns supreme as a literary masterpiece.

Leland Ryken, professor of English at Wheaton College, characterizes the literary masterpiece of the KJV by a committee of non-literary scholars as nothing short of a miracle.


F. F. Bruce, History of the Bible in English. 3rd edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Alister McGrath, In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture. New York: Doubleday Co, 2001.

Leland Ryken, The Legacy of the King James Bible: Celebrating 400 Years of the Most Influential English Translaton. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2011.

Derek Wilson, The People’s Bible: The Remarkable History of the King James Version. Oxford: Lion Hudson Publishers, 2010.

Mark Rathel is associate professor of theology at The Baptist College of Florida.

Bookmark and Share

You must be login before you can leave a comment. Click here to Register if you are a new user.

Special Reports