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The Amazing History Of The King James Bible

“Due to Thor, I must start rehearsing my thee’s and thou’s.”
—Stan Lee,

Four Hundred Years Ago
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the Authorized Version of Scripture, the King James Bible. Of course, King James Stuart of England didn’t do the translating. He did, however, arrange for one of the most skilled, educated group of translators ever assembled to translate the Old and New Testaments from the Hebrew and Greek. This translation project had been suggested by Puritan leaders, together with a number of other reforms, but James acted only on this one. His motives for ordering and funding the translation work were less than pure however. The Geneva Bible was quite popular at the time, and its marginal notes were blatantly hostile to the divine right of kings. The new translation would have no study notes and be therefore “friendly” to his ambitions. From his standpoint, it would simply be the Word of God in all its simplicity and purity.

The Word of God Written

When my children were young, they used to fight over who would sit closest to the telephone. There was one chair that was right by the phone and it was the place to be. If the phone rang during a meal, whoever sat in the sacred chair took the call and the message. But let’s say my oldest (Tracy) took a call while I was in the other room. She would leave the message with second daughter (Stephanie) who would quickly leave the table to brush her teeth to get ready for school. Stephanie would tell third daughter (Sarah) to give me the message from Grandma for example. So a message like “Grandma’s coming down,” would end up as “Grandpa’s going to town,” or “Grandma’s going to sit down.” The final version rarely matched the original, and the distortions involved ranged from the wacky to the weird.

God did not play “telephone message” with His word however. Neither did He commit it to solely an oral tradition. He chose to write it down. He inspired, equipped, and moved godly men to write down His very words without error (1 Pet. 1:21; 2 Tim. 3:16). He then arranged to preserve those words through the diligent and careful work of faithful copyists, so that, in every age, His people would have His infallible Word. Yet, this doesn’t mean that every handwritten copy (manuscript) of Scripture is flawless. Even written documents can suffer from the “telephone message” syndrome.

In truth, there are a great many flawed, even maimed and corrupted, manuscripts of Scripture. Sometimes the flaws came about through the normal human limitations involved in copying a document:  misspellings, adding or dropping words, or the repetition or transposition of a phrase. Sometimes, though, the flaws were the deliberate work of the copyists. Usually such copyists were heretics trying to purge their Bibles of words and phrases that stood in the way of their heresy. Occasionally, these copyists were faithful men trying to repair what they mistakenly believed was a heretical corruption already in the text. The Greek texts of the New Testament suffer far more from such corruptions than do the Hebrew texts of the Old. The Old Testament text, the so-called Masoretic text, is pretty well set and has no rivals to speak of.

The New Testament text is another matter entirely.

The Text in Question

The surviving New Testament manuscripts fall into distinct families, groups of manuscripts that share significant characteristics. Today, scholars give most of their attention to two families of New Testament manuscripts:  the Byzantine and the Alexandrian.

The Byzantine family consists of or is supported by more than 5000 manuscripts, fragments, and lectionaries (collections of Scripture designed for public reading). The oldest Byzantine manuscripts date back only to the 9th Century, but the text has the overwhelming support of the earlier Church Fathers and the earliest versions. The Byzantine text stood behind the Bibles used in the Byzantine Empire and throughout the Eastern Church. In the fifteen and sixteen hundreds, it also became the text-type behind the Bibles of the Reformation, including Luther’s German Bible, Tyndale’s Bible, the Geneva Bible, and the King James Bible.

The Alexandrian family consists of 45 manuscripts and fragments (no lectionaries), but its two leading exemplars are the 4th century manuscripts Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus. Both of these came to light at the end of the 19th Century. Sinaiticus was rescued from a wastebasket in a Sinai monastery; Vaticanus was discovered in a Vatican library. These two manuscripts differ from the standard Byzantine text in thousands of places. They also differ from each other in thousands places—over 3000 places in the Gospels alone. They don’t provide a united witness, except in their hostility toward particular Byzantine readings. And yet since their discovery, these two manuscripts have heavily influenced most revisions or new translations of the Bible. (The New King James is an exception).

The rationale for this heavy dependence on two sources is simple. Older is better. But is it? Which books survive better, those never read or those read on a daily basis? Very old books are very likely unused books. “Oldest” may mean least regarded. Vaticanus and Sinaticus are evidence of the sort of texts used in Egypt in the fourth century and they tell us little else. And at the dawn of the fourth century, the bishop of Alexandria was Arius, the archenemy of Trinitarian theology.

The Authorized Version of the Bible rests on the Byzantine tradition. It is a translation from the best manuscripts, those Hebrew and Greek texts most generally received and accepted by the Church. Its translators assumed that God had preserved a reliable text according to His promises, and that the text they had was it. Those who worked on the later revisions and translations generally presupposed exactly the opposite.

Translation: Formal or Dynamic?

Once the issue of the proper text has been settled, the principles that govern the work of translation become central. Today the two dominant methods of translation are associated with the terms formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence. Formal equivalence gives a word-for-word translation, even if this creates some awkwardness in the final text. Dynamic equivalence provides an idea-for-idea translation, even if this requires a serious departure from the words in the original language. Because of the nature of language, no translator will follow either approach consistently, but the one given preference will leave a decided imprint on the translator’s work.

The translators of the New International Version, for example, were generally committed to dynamic equivalence. The NIV was originally intended for ESL (English as a second language) readers, and so it tends to be a phrase-by-phrase translation. In some places it almost becomes a paraphrase. The Cotton Patch Gospel is an extreme example of dynamic equivalence at work. John the Baptist gets transplanted into the deep South in the 20th century where he speaks to crowds “from Atlanta and all over north Georgia,” among them “a lot of Catholics and Protestants.” He warns his hearers of judgment to come in terms of chain saws and combines. The author, Clarence Jordan, says this:

While there have been many excellent translations of the Scriptures into modern English, they still have left us stranded in the long-distant past. We need to have the good news come to us not only in our own tongue but also in our own time. We want to be participants in the faith, not merely spectators.

But whatever the virtues of Jordan’s work, clearly he wasn’t translating:  he was re-writing. God’s words have given way to Jordan’s interpretation and application.

The translators of the Authorized Version were committed to formal equivalence because they believed the words of Scripture are the words of God. They tried to translate the Hebrew and Greek texts into English, word for word. When they felt they had to add English words to complete the sentence, they put those words in italics. They even used the already archaic thee’s and thou’s because these forms were more grammatically accurate than the generic “you.” This attempt to follow the original language so closely necessarily meant that their finished product didn’t sound like the language of the street or even the language of Shakespeare. The language of the Authorized Version is the language of theology and language of the Church.

The Language of the Church

This brings us to another issue. The kingdom of God is a society and culture that stands apart from all the nations and sub-cultures of this world. As such, it necessarily has its own vocabulary and set of defining phrases. Trinity, hypostatic union, propitiation, “from the Father and the Son,”  “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever,” and a thousand more terms and phrases delineate and expound the life of the Church. This is how it ought to be. In Against the Theory of ‘Dynamic Equivalence’, Michael Marlowe writes this:

All professions and subcultures in our country have their jargon, which members pick up readily enough. Why should it be otherwise with the Church? Why should the Church alone have no right to a set of technical terms and distinctive expressions? Shall we instead be dragged along by every linguistic trend of a society which is hostile to our beliefs?

The Authorized Version helped to develop, expand, and stabilize the liturgical and theological language of the English-speaking Church. For nearly three hundred years, all of the Church’s catechisms, confessions, liturgies, and hymns were cast in the language and style of the Authorized Version. This is a priceless heritage and one that can’t be easily untangled from the culture we still live in.

The Impress on English

Finally, we should observe the impact the Authorized Version has made on the English language as a whole. It should be a theological given that what the Church does in its ministry and worship will find an echo and reflection in the broader culture. As the Authorized Version stabilized the language of the English-speaking Church, it also stabilized and enriched the language of the English-speaking world. Recently, while in Germany, I was struck with the high position given Martin Luther by secular scholars there. The reason? Intelligent Germans know and understand that his translation of the Bible into German created a more unified Germany, that the Germany we know was shaped by this common language.

For three centuries the development, fracturing, and reinvention of English slowed from a jog to a walk. From Old English (Anglo-Saxon) to Middle English (Chaucer) is about three hundred years. Only a linguist could recognize the first in the second. The distance from Middle English to Modern English (Shakespeare) is another three hundred years. (Yes, Shakespeare is Modern English!) We can recognize something of our own language in Chaucer, but reading Chaucer is a tough go. But many people today can read Shakespeare. And many more can read the Authorized Version. Those who have a decent education can generally read anything that was written after the early 1600s. This has left the past open only to those who willing to work at reading. Most importantly, it has left the theological and devotional writings of the last three centuries open to God’s people. This too is an amazing and priceless heritage.


When the Authorized Version comes up for discussion, the thee’s and thou’s are usually the focal points of the whining. After all, what modern American can possibly understand, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”? It’s just too confusing. (Give me a break!) I remember growing up, as a ten year old, hooked on Thor comic books. Stan Lee used tons of thee’s and thou’s which were quickly and easily digested by thousands and thousands of preteens, including your truly. Sure, the Authorized Version is difficult for many people. And, doubtless, there are good reasons for wanting God’s Word in the language of one’s own age. But contempt for tradition and a hatred of anything intellectual shouldn’t be among them. No good English translation will be easy to understand, because the Hebrew and Greek originals weren’t easy to understand. God wrote detailed history, sublime poetry, and intricate theology. But here’s the snag for many Christians… He didn’t write primarily for children or people without an education. Reading and understanding the Bible is, and will always be, hard work. But we have some amazing tools: We have His Spirit as well as pastors, teachers and thinkers as part of His Church throughout the ages.

For Further Reading:

Michael Marlowe, “Against the Theory of ‘Dynamic Equivalence’,” April 2002 <>.

G. W. Anderson and D. E. Anderson, The Authorized Version, What today’s Christian needs to know about the KJV (London:  The Trinitarian Bible Society)

David Zimmerman, The KJV versus the Modern Versions:  What’s the Difference?  Does It Matter? (2003) <>.

Adam Nicholson, God’s Secretaries, The Making of the King James Bible (New York:  HarperCollins Publishers, 2003).

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