As I write these words, it is the 400th anniversary of the publishing of the most significant book ever translated! It is the birthday of the King James Version of the Bible. In 1604, the English King James I was faced with a major controversy. The theological dispute that threatened to tear apart his country and ruin his reign pitted the established Anglicans against the reform minded Puritans.
Two hundred and fifty years before, John Wycliffe was the first to translate the entire Bible from Latin to English. But it was a translation of a translation, not a scholarly work derived from the original languages. About seventy five years before James commissioned the work on the KJV; William Tyndale translated the New Testament from Greek to English, but left some of the Old Testament work to be completed by Miles Coverdale. By 1540, a Bible called the “Great Bible” was printed in English but had a very limited distribution. The next version known as the Geneva Bible was widely received by the people of England, but the clergy rejected its extremely strong Calvinistic notes.
King James was persuaded that a new translation of the English Bible would help put an end to some of these controversies. So, in 1604 he began to gather together about fifty scholars who were then divided into six companies of translators. They met in Cambridge, Oxford and Westminster. Among the scholars were poets, chaplains, vicars, rectors, deans of colleges, professors of Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic, and a mathematician. Theologically, there were strict Calvinists, radical Puritans and a few severe anti-Catholics.
After 7 years of difficult individual and committee work, the new Bible was published on May 2, 1611. And, “in one of the strangest of historical paradoxes, the King James Bible, whose whole purpose had been nation-building in the service of a ceremonial and Episcopal state church, became the guiding text of Puritan American.” (God’s Secretaries, pg. 230- a great book to read!)
This Bible not only gave the world a clear and more useful version of God’s word, it also gave us many lyrical phrases that capture the best of the English tongue. The prose is amazing and still permeates our language today.
Our American culture is steeped in “King Jamesness” as well. Leaders from John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts to our current President, Barak Obama have liberally quoted from its pages. Winthrop referred to our society as a “city on a hill” (Matthew 5:14). Lyndon Baines Johnson asked us to “come now, and reason together” (Isa. 1:18). And President Obama urged us to treat others as we would like to be treated and to be our “brother’s keeper” (Genesis 4:9).
As we start this new week, take a moment to praise the Lord that you live in an era where God’s word is so plentiful. It is available in a variety of scholarly translations. It can be listened to on the radio, heard through ear plugs on your iPod and watched on television. It is digitally available in most any language and bible study tools proliferate our culture.
So, grab your Bible and hum a few bars of “Happy Birthday.” And then go ahead, “study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. (II Tim. 2:15 KJV)
By His Grace and for His Glory,
Sherry L. Worel