• Tyndale: “Thys ys my commaundement, that ye love togedder as I have loved you. Gretter love then this hath no man, then that a man bestowed his lyfe for his frendes.”

• Geneva: “This is my commandement, that ye loue one another, as I haue loued you. Greater loue then this hathe no man, when any man bestoweth his life for his friends.”

• KJV: “This is my Commaundement, that ye loue one another, as I have loued you. Greater loue hath no man then this, that a man lay downe his life for his friends.”

Here are successive versions of Matthew 6:34b.

• Tyndale: “For the daye present hath ever ynough of his awne trouble.”

• Coverdale: “Every daye hath ynough of his owne travayll.”

• Great Bible: “Sufficident unto the daye is the travayle therof.”

• Geneva: “The day hathe ynough with his owne grief.”

• King James: “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”

A Translation Suited for Public Use

Another differentiating trait of the King James Bible is that it is preeminently a translation for public use. Of course its primary use through the centuries has been private reading. But that is true of all English Bible translations. The King James Bible shows its versatility by being ideally suited for oral use in public settings.

One of these public settings is worship in church services. In the centuries when the King James Bible was the standard Bible of Christendom, people in the pew heard something authoritative and beautiful when passages were read in the liturgical parts of a worship service, when the Lord’s Prayer was prayed, when the passage for the sermon was read, and when verses from that passage reappeared during the course of the sermon. Twentieth-century Bible translator Edgar Goodspeed said that the KJV “occupies a place . . . in Christian liturgy that is . . . unique.”7

But the public nature of the King James Bible was not limited to the church. As a later chapter will demonstrate, the degree to which the KJV lent itself to quotation in public discourse through the centuries has been breathtaking. Whenever a speaker, a politician, or a lawyer wanted to reference the Bible, the King James Bible was the translation of choice. And whenever the speaker quoted from the KJV, the effect was oracular.

If we ask what makes the King James Bible so ideally suited for public use, the answer is twofold. First, it is an oral Bible, meaning that its rhythm flows smoothly off the tongue and into the ear of the listener. The second is a quality of the KJV that regularly gets registered by such words as dignity and eloquence. In later chapters I will explore the qualities of the KJV that elicit these impressions, but for the moment it is enough to note that the King James Bible has struck readers as possessing these qualities.

An Essentially Literal Translation

We get to the heart of the 1611 King James Bible when we consider how the translators lined up on the question of literal versus free translation. Of course the translators had no clue as to what would happen three and a half centuries after them with the advent of dynamic equivalent translation. It is all the more significant, therefore, that when left to their own designs the translators evolved the principle of verbal equivalence—the practice of making sure that every word in the original biblical text would be represented by an equivalent English word or phrase.

It is true that we need to infer this from the actual translation. The translators do not spell out their “essentially literal” philosophy, but neither do the prefaces of any other translation (even the RSV of 1952) until the NIV established the new philosophy of translation as the norm. Here is what Alister McGrath believes the King James translators aimed to do:8