NASHVILLE, Tenn. – 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 Baptist Theological
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.”
Into the vernacular
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
“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, a man named Miles Smith, who was actually a Puritan, he mentions that
it was zeal for the common good that drove them.”
King James in
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
“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,”
“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.
King James only
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 picks up today and 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
“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 establishes 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
“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.
King James still
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, First
Baptist Church in Charleston, S.C., 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.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Erin Roach is an
assistant editor of Baptist Press.)
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