For 340 years, KJV was ‘the Bible’
by Erin Roach
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)—The King James Version of the Bible, first published 400 years ago on May 5, 1611, is the Bible God used to give believers many of the riches of the Puritan movement, and it was the Bible at the heart of the Great Awakenings of the 18th Century and the modern missionary movement, an expert noted.
“Until the 1950s, the King James Bible was ‘the Bible.’ It’s the version that English-speaking Christians used,” Michael Haykin, professor of church history and biblical spirituality at Southern Seminary, told Baptist Press.
“People like John Wesley and George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards would all have used this version in their preaching. When the modern missionary movement begins with people like William Carey and Hudson Taylor and David Livingstone, this again is the Bible that’s used through the 19th Century,” Haykin said. “It’s the Bible Charles Spurgeon would have preached from, and so on.”
A key thrust of the Reformation was to get the Bible to the people, which required translating it into the vernacular, the speech that people were using, instead of leaving the Bible in Latin, Haykin said.
“There’s a massive amount of translation activity going on between the 1520s and 1611, and the King James Bible is the crowning achievement of this long period of 80 years of translation into English,” he said. “The goal of that translation is to give the common reader an understanding of the Word of God.
“Now, in places, obviously, they try to be true to the text, and if the text is difficult to understand, then there are going to be challenges in understanding sometimes the theology of the Bible. But the goal is always to give the Scriptures to the people.”
As the translators worked, Haykin said they were aware that a saving knowledge of God, which is given through the Bible, was something that promoted the spiritual health of individuals but also would have a deep impact upon society.
“I would seriously doubt that any of the people involved in the Bible translation of the 16th Century felt that significant numbers of people who are English-speaking knowing the Scriptures would have a harmful effect upon their culture,” he said. “One of the ways in which they could build a solid culture and society was through a knowledge of the Scriptures. That’s one of the manifest aims.
“In the preface to the translation of the Scriptures, the man who wrote the preface, which is not always printed with the King James Version was a man named Miles Smith, who was actually a Puritan, he mentions that it was zeal for the common good that drove them.”
The King James Version is the most important piece of literature in the West in the past 500 years, profoundly shaping language and thought, Haykin said. The English language is peppered with phrases that come from the KJV, and from the 1650s onward, poets such as Alfred Lord Tennyson, William Blake and T.S. Eliot and secular authors, including Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters and Charles Dickens, were influenced by that particular translation.
“The King James Version is the Bible that they would have heard if they ever went to church, and because these are people who make their living by using words and arranging words for poetry and novels, those patterns of speech in the King James Version are unconsciously picked up in their writings,” Haykin said.
“So when you’re reading through their writings, you hear echoes, the way they construct language, because the King James Version attempts to follow the syntax of the Greek and Hebrew. So in many ways it actually shapes the English language, how we speak English.”
Without knowledge of the King James Version, it’s difficult to understand the type of language that was used in English literature from the late 17th Century through the mid-20th Century, Haykin said.
“Even authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald who are manifestly opposed to the theology of the King James Version —the Bible and Christianity and biblical religion—are shaped by it because there is so much public speech,” he said, adding that some believe Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Winston Churchill’s notable World War II speeches would not have existed on one level apart from the King James Version.
In the 20th Century, what is known as the King James Only controversy arose when some believers maintained that the King James Version was the inspired version of the Bible and no other version should be used. All other versions, as one author said, were considered “perverse.”
“The debate obviously turns on two things. One is the issue of the actual translation. The other issue has to do with the underlying text,” Haykin said. “There are problems on both levels. The King James Version that a person buys today is not the exact version that was published in 1611. There have been modifications and changes to it.
“In the 1760s, which is probably the heaviest era of modifications and changes, there are somewhere around 24,000 changes that are made to the actual King James Version that was published in 1611,” he said.
Those changes consisted of the addition of commas, italicization and changes of singulars to plurals, but the text was essentially the same.
“So which version are we talking about when we’re talking about the King James Version? Are we talking about the 1611? Nobody uses that today,” Haykin said. “Or are we talking about the version that was established in the 1760s by two men (Francis Sawyer) Parris and (Benjamin) Blayney? In fact, Benjamin Blayney probably is the man who established the text for the King James Version for today. So there’s that.
“But normally the King James Version supporters argue from the basis of the underlying Greek and Hebrew. The problem with that argument is that today we have about 5,300 copies or portions of copies of the Greek New Testament, for example, and 800 copies of the Hebrew Old Testament, or portions.
“And the King James Version translators probably had about 25 copies of the Greek New Testament along with a printed edition that they were using, which had about six or seven,” he said. “They had access realistically to about 30 copies or portions of copies of the Greek New Testament. We have 5,300. The textual basis of any recent English translation, he said, “is a much better textual basis than the King James Version.”
In the 1950s, significant calls to revise the King James Version arose because its language increasingly was not the language people were speaking. The Revised Standard Version was released in the 1950s, but Haykin said that didn’t catch on among evangelicals because several liberal theologians were part of the translation process and evangelicals found certain segments of the new version objectionable.
The ESV, Haykin said, is probably the key Bible today that is in the King James Version tradition. Another is the New American Standard Version, which was published first in the 1970s as a revision of the American Standard Version published in 1901.
“The American Standard Version was a revision of the King James. So the New American Standard, then, is a revision of a revision of the King James,” he said. Neither the New International Version nor the Holman Christian Standard Bible are part of that tradition.
Haykin believes it’s the duty of every Christ follower to know at least something of their history as Christians, and he said familiarity with the King James Version is helpful in understanding Christian English-speaking church history for the past 500 years.
“In my own case, for example, when I was converted, my future mother-in-law gave me a King James,” Haykin said. “I had never had a Bible before then, really. So for about four or five years, all I used was the King James Version. That was enormously helpful to me because I’m a church historian, and I’ve spent my life reading texts that have been shaped by the King James. So that was very, very helpful to me that for about four or five years the Bible that I used was the KJV.
“Failure to know the King James means that if you’re studying the history of the church, a lot of the allusions to the Bible—not the exact quotes, but the allusions and the echoes—you’ll miss them because you don’t know the King James Version.”
Furthermore, Southern Baptists should realize that when the first Baptist church in the South, Charleston, S.C., First, was planted in 1682, the Bible they used was the King James Version.
“So the Bible of our grandparents was this version, and it shaped their lives. Therefore, it’s important to honor, I think, God’s use of this Bible and to remember it and celebrate it,” Haykin said.
Erin Roach is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.