Posted by: Wayne Robinson | May 11, 2011

King James, hys Bible

The Holy Bible, conteyning the Old Testament and the New; Newly Translated out of the Originall tongues: & with the former Translations diligently compared and reuised, by his Maiesties speciall Com[m]andement. Appointed to be read in Churches. London: Robert Barker, 1611.

I was watching When God Spoke English: The Making of the King James Bible on Compass (ABC1, Sunday 1 May 11 at 10:30, viewable until 1/6/11) the other night and while enjoyable I thought I’d share my thoughts on some of the myths this programme promoted, rather than just shouting at the telly.

The programme was made to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the bible, first published in May 1611, but the show rapidly exposed some rather shoddy scholarship. Author and presenter Adam Nicolson contrasted the making of the book with his experience of a very different national project – the Millennium Dome, to which the cynic in me adds: another project done at great public expense, by a committee, and for a political purpose.

It started with the question, “How can a work done by a committee for political purposes be such a work of art?” and then attempted to answer on the assumption that the aforementioned art arose in blissful isolation, was loved and adopted immediately by everyone and then spent an uninterrupted 400 year period on a pedistal (or lectern if you prefer). As the song says, it ain’t necessarily so. The translation by committee was a clearly a political exercise with King Jim trying to reassert his control over the puritan branch of the church. One result was the founding of the colonies in America in 1620 and the other was a book that languished unloved, until someone needed to reinforce the God-given role of Kings some 50 years later.

The programme claimed the plan was to update the Bishop’s Bible of Elizabeth’s reign with something a little less Catholic, but still supporting the political structure of the 17th century English church. While this is clearly stated in the extant rules of translation, I feel this was somewhat of a ruse and the real intention was to take the Puritan’s Geneva Bible, and by watering down that translation and removing all the anti-Papist and anti-state explanatory notes, to better control the Puritan movement. This is reflected in the extant books, where King James has been reasonably claimed to contain upwards of 90 to 95% of the text of the Geneva Bible and rather less of the Bishop’s Bible, but the point was avoided completely in the programme. James seemed to fear what would come about from the rise of a middle-class that didn’t recognise the role of Bishops or Kings in the church and what would happen if these people extrapolated the same reasoning to the state. Charles I obviously was less concerned…

The poetic language was highlighted in the programme as a feature that set this book apart from all other translations for all time, the opening of the creation account from Genesis chosen as an example to be compared with the same section of a modern technical version.
KJV (1611)

Genesis 1:1-3

1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. 2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. 3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

The Message (2002)

1-2 First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don’t see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.

3-5 God spoke: “Light!”
And light appeared.

No question that the King James Version was more beautiful than the modern (whether more accessible to a modern audience wasn’t a questioned that was canvassed), however let’s have a look at the same section of some of the prior translations.

Geneva (1587)

1 In the {a} beginning God created the heauen and the earth. 2 And the earth was without {b} forme and void, and {c} darkenesse was vpon the deepe, and the Spirit of God {d} mooued vpon the waters. 3 Then God saide, Let there be light: And there was {e} light.

{a} First of all, and before any creature was, God made heaven and earth out of nothing.
{b} As an unformed lump and without any creature in it: for the waters covered everything.
{c} Darkness covered the deep waters, for the waters covered everything.
{d} He maintained this disordered mass by his secret power.
{e} The light was made before either Sun or Moon was created: therefore we must not attribute that to the creatures that are God’s instruments, which only belong to God.

Bishops (1568)

In the beginnyng GOD created ye heauen and the earth.
And the earth was without fourme, and was voyde: & darknes vpon the face of the deepe, and the spirite of God moued vpon the face of the waters.
And God sayde, let there be light: and there was light.

Matthew’s (1539)

* In the beginnynge GOD created heauen and erth.
* The erth was voyde and empty, and darcknesse was vpon the depe, and the spirite of God moued vpon the water.
* Than God sayd: let there be light: & there was lyght.

Coverdale (1535)

In ye begynnynge God created heauen & earth: and ye earth was voyde and emptie, and darcknes was vpon the depe, & ye sprete of God moued vpo the water. And God sayde: let there be light, & there was light.

Tyndale (1529)

In the begynnynge God created heaven and erth. The erth was voyde and emptie ad darcknesse was vpon the depe and the spirite of god moved vpon the water. Than God sayd: let there be lyghte and there was lyghte.

So it seems poetic beauty was a characteristic of almost all the English translations of the late medieval and early modern period.

Examples of the older versions were only given in the programme where the particular translation was made to appear clumsy in an attempt to highlight the nobility of the King James Version, for example the famous passage Ecclesasticies 11:1 where the King James Version has “Cast thy bread vpon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many dayes.” and the Bishop’s Bible more accurately but less poetically has the reader laying “bread upon wet faces”. But is the King James really more poetic than its ancestors? What does Geneva have to say ?


Cast thy bread vpon the {a} waters: for after many daies thou shalt finde it.

With the obligitory seditious marginal note:

{a} That is, be liberal to the poor, and though it seems to be as a thing ventured on the sea, yet it will bring you profit.

So rather than the King James Version being the progenitor of poetic beauty, it seems it was merely continuing the tradition. Which of course, feeds my conspiracy theory nicely. Just like the use of beautiful stonework and stained glass to make people feel closer to God, poetic beauty was a characteristic of all the translations of the period. The King James Version is no more noble or poetic than any of those earlier versions, it is only the presentation to modern eyes of a later sanitised edition of Victorian age in the absence of those others that separates it in any real way. It is seen as like Shakespeare without the bum jokes (apart from that one in Psalm 68… and the bit where Solomon goes in to the cave… oh, and ALL of Song of Songs…).

Another claim made in the programme was that the King James Version was somehow more innovative than the previous translations. Any research on the matter reveals that the reverse is true, a sure sign of a timid committee job if ever there were one. For example Matthew’s Bible of 1575 introduced the recognisably modern chapter structure and verse separation by starting each verse with a * on a new line. Caxton’s earlier work was the first printed English version. Geneva was translated from the original languages rather than Jerome’s fouth century Vulgate Latin (corrupted over 1400 by too many copy errors and addition), introduced explanatory notes in the margins, verse numbering and was set in an easier to read Roman typeface and published in a size easy to use at home. (No one could accuse the 1611 KJV of being portable: it measures 11 inches wide by 16 3/8 inches tall and 4 7/8 inches thick, weighing in at just over 9kg. In blackletter type, just to rub it in.) The King James Version isn’t even the only one still in use from the period, the Geneva Bible is still in print and has a small but strong group of modern puritan adherants. I would begrudgingly concede that the King James Version translation drawing on the Geneva heritage was marginally more progressive than the Bishop’s Bible, which was simply an English translation of the then known to be dodgy Latin Vulgate.

So if it wasn’t innovative or more beautiful, what is then left to explain the longevity of this particular edition? What set the King James Version apart was the the Royal sponsorship and it’s political use in the Restoration period. Nothing short of grubby politics.

The Geneva Bible continued to be popular, and large numbers were imported from Amsterdam, where printing continued up to 1644 in editions carrying a false London imprint. Archbishop Laud tried to ban it in 1637 with moderate success. Soldiers of the New Model Army were issued a book of Geneva selections called The Soldiers’ Bible. Geneva, despite being popular with the people, with it’s marginalia equating the Pope with the Antichrist, denying the authority of bishops and affirming that all monarchs were despots, simply had to go. Particularly after some of those bits were used in the trial of Charles I to show as evidence that kings were made by man, not annointed by God. The Bishops Bible and the Great Bible a generation before that were huge tomes only intended for use in Church far out of reach of all but the deepest pockets, and the protestants had sufficiently publicised the flaws in the Bishops Bible translation from the “Catholic” Vulgate that it wouldn’t be acceptable to anyone. The new translation that retained the common language and the poetry of Geneva, and restricting marginalia to the explanation of the translations of particular Hebrew or Greek words was a perfect compromise. It was deliberately pro-Bishop and pro-King in its use of language, just the sort of thing Charles II and his archbishop were looking for to support their revision of the history of the Commonwealth years. Then with a bit of spin about the noble heritage back to the golden age of James VI/I and recasting the original puritans as heretics and traitors, their work was done.

The story doesn’t end there, the other translations were still popular until Victorian times when the King James really took off due to a popular and easily available re-write. We’re really holding the celebrations about 158 years too early, as the book now known as the KVG really is the edition published in 1885 with 60, rather than 80 books, and the revised versing, consistent spelling and new translations of some words and phrases from the Oxford version of 1769. There are more differences between the 1769 and 1611 King James editions than between the Coverdale and Matthews Bibles, yet the latter are considered different versions. Most modern publishers are in on the conspiracy, they simply affix the 1611 dedicatory epistle at the front of the 1885 edition and stay quiet about the detail.

None of this takes anything away from the greatness of the book, but it is a book standing in the company of the equally great books that came before. It should be seen as a work in the common tongue, and of Stuart political origin, as much as the stories in it should be viewed in the context of the anti-Roman politics of late first century Judea. It’s true sucessor has to fit the place it is being used, it has to be the modern language, modern politics versions maligned by the programme for their lack of grace.


BBC Four When God Spoke English: The Making of the King James Bible 2011, accessed 6/05/2011
Jeffcoat, J. L. III. 2002, English Bible History accessed 5 May 11
McGrath, A. In the Beginning – The Story of the King James Bible, Anchor 2002
Robertson, G.
The Tyranicide Brief
, Chatto & Windus 2005
Wikipedia, Authorized King James Version, accessed 6 May 2011


  1. That good reverend is the best explanation of the KJ bible controversy that I have ever read. Very concise and with a an excellent reference to the politics that created it.
    regards Greg

  2. There is my own anti-puritan conspiracy theory run through the post, but I hope I’ve identified each time it came up sufficiently.

    All we popularly “know” about the puritans is coloured by Charles II’s propaganda machine. Most people don’t know that not only were the majority of puritans moderate, they were very nearly the majority of believers during this period.

  3. There’s links to a number of original bibles, sadly, not all in original bindings here.

  4. This one is the restoration of an original 1610 Geneva binding, you can see how the binding was done as they restore it.

  5. I probably should post a retraction. In the post I wildly assert. “This is reflected in the extant books, where King James has been reasonably claimed to contain upwards of 90 to 95% of the text of the Geneva Bible and rather less of the Bishop’s Bible”.

    I have some real figures now. Geneva has 19% of its text incorporated in the KJV, followed by Tyndale/Matthews at 18%, Coverdale’s translations at 13%, Bishop’s Bible at 4% and Wycliffe similarly contributed 4%, with all other editions to 1611 combined providing 3%. The KJV introduced 39% of new material. My argument still stands as Geneva contributed more than four times more than the Bishop’s Bible, despite the rules of translation.

    Source: C. C. Butterworth, The Literary Lineage of the King James Bible Philadelphia, 1941.

  6. […] King James, hys Bible( translation by committee was a clearly a political exercise with King Jim trying to reassert his control over the puritan branch of the church. One result was the founding of the colonies in America in 1620 and the other was a book that languished unloved, until someone needed to reinforce the God-given role of Kings some 50 years later. […]

  7. There’s a review by Louis Ruprecht of Melvyn Bragg’s The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible 1611-2011 which gives a US-centric perspective of the arguments and echoes some of my sentiments. The British (Bible) Invasion: KJV 400-Year Anniversary Rolls On

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