EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from The Legacy of the King James Bible: Celebrating 400 Years of the Most Influential EnglishTranslation by Leland Ryken (Crossway). This section is taken from Chapter 4, "The King James Bible of 1611."

 

The King James Version . . . is greatly cherished. For generations, Christians and lovers of fine English have read the Bible in this version. They have felt that its words spoke to them in a particular way, in public or in private. . . . The very essence of what Christians believe has been for centuries in the words of that version.

—David Daniell, The Bible in English

 

The preceding chapter has given account of how the King James Bible came into existence and what happened after it appeared. But what about the actual Bible that was first published in 1611? This chapter is designed to answer that question. The focus will be on the King James Version as an English translation. Chapter 8 will fill out the picture by examining the King James Bible as a work of literature.

 

A Synthesis of Earlier Translations

The first thing that we can say about the King James Bible is that it is an amalgamation of the English translations that had preceded it in the sixteenth century. The tradition started with Tyndale and then proceeded through Coverdale’s Bible, Matthew’s Bible, the Great Bible, the Geneva Bible, and the Bishops’ Bible. The King James translators began with the Bishops’ Bible as their starting point, but the Bishops’ Bible itself was a conflation of the preceding century of English Bible translation.

The King James translators themselves made no attempt to conceal their indebtedness to the past tradition. On the contrary, they highlighted their oneness with their predecessors. In the preface to the 1611 edition of the KJV, we read that the translators, “far from condemning any of their labors that travailed before us in this kind, . . . acknowledge them to have been raised up of God, for the building and furnishing of his Church, and that they deserve to be had of us and of posterity in everlasting remembrance.”

We should not overlook the significance of that statement. First of all, there is an exemplary humility in the translators’ attitude. Second, there is an impulse to give credit where credit is due, even though the King James translators obviously disagreed with their predecessors in many details. Third, as I will explore in the next chapter, there is an important principle of Bible translation at stake here, namely, continuity with the mainstream of English Bible translation versus the quest for originality and novelty (a deliberate attempt not to be like previous English translations). It is a fact that producers of modern dynamic equivalent translations often make disparaging comments about the King James Bible. One might wish for more of the graciousness of the King James translators, as well as their awareness that the grand tradition of English Bible translation is worthy to be perpetuated in many details.

Unfortunately, the almost automatic effect of seeing the facts and figures regarding the indebtedness of the King James Bible to its predecessors is to diminish the accomplishment of the KJV. We need steadfastly to resist this tendency. The King James Bible of 1611 consists of whatever is present in it, and it does not cease to exist simply because it was also in an earlier translation.

A Refinement of the Received Tradition

Another thing that often gets lost when we consider the indebtedness of the King James Bible to its predecessors is that the King James Bible is a refinement of the earlier translations and not simply an amalgamation of them. The translators themselves were as aware of this as they were aware of their assimilation of earlier translations, and the preface to the KJV attempts to make sure that readers will be aware of it. Here are two statements from the preface: