400 years on, and looking forward: the Authorised (King James) Version

Mark Fenn, West Hill, Ontario, Canada [SEE PROFILE BELOW]

Part 1 of 2 of the series The Authorised (King James) Version

Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a short series that commemorates the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the scriptures. Each article seeks to highlight features of this much loved and much used translation of the Bible.

2011 marks the 400th anniversary of the publishing of the Authorised (King James) Version of the Bible.1 The first edition of the KJV was issued in the year 1611, following many years of labour by God-fearing scholars. It all started following the Hampton Court Conference in 1604 when it was decided that the existing Geneva Bible, used by the established Anglican Church, should be thoroughly revised. However, further revisions of the KJV were issued in 1629, 1638, 1762 and 1769, the latter under the editorship of Dr. Benjamin Blayney. So when people speak of using ‘the 1611’, this is only true in a general sense, in that the first edition of the KJV was issued in that year.

Formal translation method

One great strength of the KJV is that its translation method is generally formal and accurate. Whilst a more paraphrastic type of Bible version might, on the sur-face, score highly in terms of readability, it does leave the reader somewhat at the mercy of the paraphraser’s interpreta-tions. From the born-again believer with a high view of the verbal inspiration of scripture, to the secular academic reader seeking a record of a straightforward wording of key Bible passages, the KJV often commends itself as a version which was prepared with a serious attempt to convey in translation the actual words of the Greek and Hebrew originals. Its sentence structure might sometimes seem more laborious than those of, say, Time Magazine or a tabloid newspaper, but if the reader is aware that the trans-lators will have been attempting to convey the flow of language in the original, then they may rest assured that the effort of reading the KJV carefully is very worthwhile.2,3

It may be added that there are some contemporary editions of the KJV (which in a strict sense might not qualify as KJV editions at all) such as the New King James Version which have retained a basic commitment to a formal approach to translation. 

Memorable cadence of its language

It would be hard to deny that the language of the venerable KJV is in many passages noteworthy for the dignified and memorable nature of its wording. In the English language the linguistic quality of the KJV is especially striking, and well-known passages can be committed to memory with relative ease.

Multiple opinions – but thankfulness should prevail

One of the forceful arguments in favour of the KJV is the fact of its widespread use, especially in North America. Without doubt we should be thankful for the signal blessing which God has been pleased over 400 years to put upon the use of the KJV in its various editions, however they may be exactly defined.

Although many people in assemblies use the KJV, it is accurate to say that where there is an emphasis on the New Testament truths of the local assembly, and whenever anyone comes into fellowship in a local assembly and is encouraged to use the KJV, they will almost immediately be given clear advice or definite warnings about the meanings of a range of words in the KJV. The very fact that assemblies exist as autonomous companies of the Lord’s people, and manifest distinctives as to their composition and functioning according to a New Testament pattern, makes it inevitable that young believers will be exhorted and warned regarding a range of church-related words translated in a certain way in the KJV. Examples of words in the KJV about which clear advice is often given include: ‘bishop’, ‘deacon’ and ‘pastor’.

Looking forward

It is probable that other, truly born-again believers in the year 2011 will be commemorating the 400th anniversary of the first edition of the KJV; but it must also be remembered that some of those believers will be identified with church practices which differ greatly from those indicated by the meaning of key words, both outlined above and others also. Thus, for the KJV to be used as some sort of overriding criterion for fellowship is in itself not a sound notion, even though in many ways the KJV is a very trustworthy and sound version of God’s word.

However, we may look forward in confidence to continued use of this very reliable Bible version in English, but may our hearts ever be mindful in joyful anticipation of the day when faith will give way to sight and His people be raptured to meet our Lord Jesus Christ in the air! ‘Even so, come, Lord Jesus’, Rev. 22. 20, is a heartfelt cry not limited to a translation in a single language!

Notes and references

  1. Hereafter abbreviated ‘KJV’. Even the abbreviation can cause controversy. Some people, mainly in the British Isles, strongly prefer ‘AV’, others, usually in North America, strongly prefer ‘KJB’, for ‘King James Bible’; others, more generally, use ‘KJV’; inevitably the use of one term or another will be the cause of inadvertent disappointment to those vehemently exercised otherwise.
  2. Robert P. Martin, in his Accuracy of Translation, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1992, has studied the sentence structure in various New Testament passages in a number of modern versions – some of them paraphrases – in comparison with that of the KJV. Readers need to be aware that in some modern paraphrases of the Bible well-known New Testament passages have been divided into up to ten times as many sentences as the KJV has, as Martin demonstrates; one is left to wonder just how much of the flow of language and the thought connections from the original have been lost.
  3. There have been useful studies of the way in which the KJV translators went about their work. For example, Ward S. Allen and Edward C. Jacobs, in their The Coming of the King James Gospels, Arkansas: University of Arkansas Press, 1995, have examined the careful way the translators used their sources, both in terms of the Greek original and going back to Tyndale’s New Testament. In fact, David Daniell, in his Introduction to Tyndale’s New Testament, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1989, has demonstrated something of the extent to which a very sizable proportion of the KJV was derived from the work of William Tyndale. A more general article about the qualities of the KJV, including information about its translation method and its textual basis, is: G. W. and D. E. Anderson, The Authorised Version: What Today’s Christian Needs to Know About the Authorised (King James) Version, Article 75, London, England: Trinitarian Bible Society. The following article by C. P. Hallihan, which includes an historical background timeline, gives a background to the Hampton Court Conference: ‘Kings and Puritans, Bishops and Bibles: The Hampton Court Conference, January 1604’, Quarterly Record, No. 566, January - March 2004. (These most recently-cited writers, above, and others also, from the Trinitarian Bible Society have made available various similar articles).

AUTHOR PROFILE: MARK FENN and his wife Sue are in fellowship at the West Hill assembly, Ontario, Canada.