I’ve heard that every time Alister McGrath sits down at his desk he writes another book. So when he stood to address a Wheaton audience on the best selling book of all time, I paid attention. According to the Anglican priest-theologian-scientist-professor, thou shalt celebrate thy heritage and learn from it as thee goeth forth. McGrath didn’t deliver his message in old English, but that was his basic thesis for the significance of the King James Bible. In honor of the 400th anniversary of the “Authorized Version,” McGrath presented a sweeping overview of its historical development and contemporary significance; a summary of his book, In the Beginning: the Story of the King James Bible and How it Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture. Below is a summary of his lecture.
Origin of the King James Bible
The King James Version was not the first English translation of the Bible. The Tyndale Bible (1525) and Geneva Bible (1560) were well established and there was little desire for a new translation. After the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, however, political and religious uncertainties caused tension between the Anglicans and Puritans and the need for unity was urgent. Enter King James. James determined to bring about consensus by proposing a new English translation of the Bible at the Hampton Court Conference in 1604. Although English had been seen as a crude language, not fitted for sophisticated matters, it was increasingly widespread and the Protestant Reformation championed the importance of having the Bible in the vernacular so Christians could read it for themselves.
The new translation was commissioned in 1604 by James and published in 1611. What took place in the seven years in between? What was the process of translation? There were between fifty and fifty-four classical linguistic scholars, divided into nine “companies of translators.” Each company would work on the translation and then send a representative to London where they would compare their results. Because there were so many translators, Richard Bancroft established fifteen rules to provide consistency and coherence among the translations. McGrath highlighted three rules and therefore features of the translation. First, the intelligibility of the text was of utmost importance – the reader should be able to clearly understand the text on their first read. Second, the translators were not to start from scratch, but rather to “stand on the shoulders of giants” by depending on previous English translations. Third, translators were to translate as literal as possible, for “an accurate translation is a literal translation.”
While it is natural today to see the language of the King James Bible as archaic, McGrath says that the translation was already outdated by the time it was published in 1611! The dependence on previous English translations led to the use of certain words (Thou, shall, goeth, etc.) that were popular in 1525 when the Tyndale Bible was published, but were largely out of use by 1611.
Implicit Theology of the King James Bible
McGrath noted that there is an implicit theology in the layout of the King James Bible. Everything is presented as prose, even if it is poetry. This expresses an insensitivity to genre and tone and therefore has a flattening effect on the diversity of Scripture. The typeface of the text also reflects the translators’ understanding of inspiration. Whenever the translators had to add a word to the literal translation, they would put it in smaller, lighter typeface as opposed to the black, bold letters of the original text. For example, Ps 23 read, “The LORD is my shepherd.” The Hebrew does not have the word “is,” so the translators felt the need to make clear to the reader which portion was directly from the original text.
Reception of the King James Bible in 1611
Despite its unmatched tradition and extravagant anniversaries, the first publication of the King James Bible hardly made the news. The Geneva Bible continued to be the favored version, that is, until the downfall of the Puritan commonwealth and the restoration of the monarchy. The restored monarchy, as well as an aversion to the Puritan commonwealth and their “Calvinist Bible,” led to a new respect for a royally commissioned Bible. This was the turning point for the legacy of the King James Bible, and as McGrath put it, “it’s all history from there.” The King James Bible quickly became the “Authorized Version” and its impact can be seen from Handel’s Messiah to neighborhood church pews.
Clearly the language of the King James Bible is outdated and can therefore pose barriers to understanding the meaning of the original text. Nevertheless, this translation is a classic, a landmark that should be celebrated by Christians and learned from as translators move forward. McGrath ended by posing a question that highlights the significance of this work of history for the future of Christianity: In revising a classic translation, how do we update that which is outdated, while at the same time maintain the features that made it a classic in the first place? We have much to be thankful for, and yet much to do.