(Investigator 139, 2011, July)

The King James Bible prepared for England's King James (1566-1625) is 400 years old this year.

Eloquently translated, the KJV introduced many memorable phrases into English use, and influenced English language and literature more than any other book or writer.

Chances are you've heard or used the following or similar:

Let there be light Land of the living Wolf in sheep's clothing
Am I my brother's keeper? The writing on the wall Know them by their fruits
Lick the dust Lamb to the slaughter Letter of the law
How are the mighty fallen Good Samaritan Twinkling of an eye
Skin of his teeth Cast the first stone Stumbling stone
Leopard change his spots? Judge not lest you be judged Heart's desire
Rod of discipline Cast pearls before swine Thorn in my side
Fly in the ointment What is truth? The patience of Job
Tree of life Blind leading the blind Fall from grace
Peace offering Seek and you shall find Two-edged sword
Sour grapes Salt of the earth Cup of wrath
Broken heart

Many other phrases you've probably heard but not used in daily conversation such as:
•    The tree of the knowledge of good and evil
•    The Lord is my shepherd
•    The valley of the shadow of death
•    Our Father in heaven
•    Deliver us from evil
•    Consider the lilies of the field
•    What is a man profited, if shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
•    God so loved the world
•    Sacrifice for sins
•    The root of all evil
•    Forgive them for they know not what they do
David Crystal (2010) comes up with over 250 phrases and words made popular through the KJV compared to about 100 for William Shakespeare's writings.


The KJV began coming off the printing press of Robert Barker, the King's printer, in May 1611. The title page declares it is "appointed to be read in churches" which is why it's the "Authorised Version".  

In 1604 King James held a conference of England's top theologians and linguists in his palace. Forty six Church of England clergy plus one non-clerical scholar were assigned to six committees based in Cambridge, Oxford and Westminster. Money for the project was raised by donations from universities, bishops and wealthy parishes. The committees translated the Old Testament from available Hebrew texts, the New Testament from Greek and Latin, but also consulted previous English translations principally William Tyndale's work and the Geneva Bible.

Parts of the Bible had been available in England for centuries but Oxford scholar William Tyndale (1494-1536) in the 1520s was the first to translate from the original languages. Fresh translations were at the time illegal as the reigning King (Henry VIII) did not want the Protestant reformation of northern Europe to enter England. Tyndale, however, famously declared that he wished to see even ordinary ploughboys reading the words of God. He translated the New Testament and the Pentateuch but was then captured and burned at the stake.

In 1535 came the Coverdale Bible, England's first entire Bible, permitted by Henry VIII and adapted from Tyndale's version with the rest translated from the Latin Vulgate and Martin Luther's German version.

English Bibles were suppressed again by Catholic Queen Mary. But in 1560 English Protestant exiles produced the Geneva Bible and dedicated it to Mary's successor, Queen Elizabeth. About 300,000 copies were printed in 100 years. It had numbered verse divisions and explanatory notes in the margin and was intended to be understood by ordinary people. The practice of "prophesying" began in which congregations had Geneva Bibles open and could question the speaker.

Some Geneva Bible explanatory notes were political, even seditious — for example that a corrupt king might be deposed by his subjects. This and its use of the word "tyrant" may account for King James ordering a new translation without marginal notes and minus the word "tyrant" for the Church of England.

The KJV had many further differences to better reflect existing Church of England practice and for greater solemnity in public reading. "Church", "bishop" and "priest" replaced Tyndale's "congregation", "elder" and "overseer". Many phrases that entered English from the KJV actually come from Tyndale. The Macmillan Dictionary of Biography says: "His superb use of the words and rhythms of the English language is enshrined in the Authorized Version of the Bible, of which his translation formed the basis."

Some KJV English was already old-fashioned in 1611. "You" was already replacing "thee" and "thou". And the "eth" or "est" ending for the present tense as in "heareth" "believeth", "teachest" and "restest" was already changing to "s"  or "es" — "hears", "believes", "teaches", "rests".

Many opposed the KJV as an uninspired substitute for God's real version the Geneva Bible. The Geneva was more useful to Puritans and Parliament during England's civil war, but when the monarchy was restored in 1660 the KJV, as the book of the winners, triumphed.

For generations the KJV became the only book many families owned. It guided families, churches and government in matters spiritual, ethical, political and economical. McGrath (2001) writes: "Without the King James Bible, there would have been no Paradise Lost, no Pilgrim's Progress, no Handel's Messiah, no Negro spirituals, and no Gettysburg Address."

On its first centennial in 1711 the KJV stood supreme among English Bibles. It had helped consolidate England's Protestant Reformation, was known by every educated person, was read in churches and schools, was influential in art, theatre and literature, and was a motivator of science and scientists. Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), for example, who is sometimes considered the greatest scientist of all, believed the Bible and wrote more about it than on science.

The second centennial, 1811, saw higher criticism underway but also the founding of missionary societies to fulfil Jesus' prediction: "And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world…"

The third centennial, 1911, saw Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson (future US presidents) praise the KJV as America's national book, public Bible reading and memorization of passages still popular, but also criticism by increasing numbers of higher critics and atheists.

The fourth centennial, 2011, sees the KJV increasingly replaced with new updated Bible translations, Christianity expanding in China and Africa, hundreds of Bible critiquing books available in libraries, and worldwide Bible debate on billions of Internet pages — a modern equivalent of "proclaim upon the housetops." (Matthew 12:3)

Some English words have changed meaning since 1611. For example in 1611 "quick" and "quicken" meant "living" and "make alive", and "the elect" meant "the chosen". Tony Blair (Prime Minister) read I Corinthians 13 from the KJV at the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997 but altered "charity" to "love". Changes in English and discoveries of ancient manuscripts have resulted in many new Bible translations, but in sales the KJV still ranks near the top.


Bobrick (2001) argues that The Bible and its various translations did more than help develop the language. It also inspired the essentials of democratic government. The Bible's teachings and principles — such that authority ultimately comes from God in whose sight all individuals are equally important and that incompetent leaders should be replaced — empowered whole populations to reject the tyranny of arrogant rulers and the "divine right of kings".

Bobrick traces The Bible's impact in the Reformation, the English Civil War, the founding of the American colonies, and the American Revolution, and shows that Scripture was an ally to all who demanded the rights of the individual and their enforcement through democracy.


Many Christian apologists have tried to establish the authority of the KJV (and other Bibles) by seeking significance in numbers. "Seven" and "four", for example, are said to be biblically significant, on which basis some predicted Jerusalem would experience 7 x 4 = 28 sieges with Christ's second coming interrupting the 28th. But that failed. Others tried to make the 6-day week correspond to 6000 years from creation followed by Armageddon, but that too failed.

That such numerical approach can seem impressive but is coincidental and trivial, is seen in Psalm 46. The 46th word in Psalm 46 (KJV) is "shake" and the 46th word from the end is "spear" and in 1611 William Shakespeare, whose writings had perhaps the second greatest influence on the English language, was 46 years old!

The more objective method is to evaluate the Bible's accuracy by reference to modern science and check the Bible verse after verse, whatever is testable.
The evidence includes such 20th century discoveries as the hearing ability of snakes (KJV—"adder"); the cud-chewing of hyraxes (KJV—"coney"); the "strangling" of prey by lions; the ancient existence of a Cush/Sudan (KJV—"Ethiopia") empire; hundreds of geographical locations and names of people; the nonsense of racism; the potential for worldwide destruction from Space; the healing benefits of happiness; and much more. Hundreds of names and teachings are provable by reference to modern science, and the total is still increasing.

Many scientific confirmations of Bible statements initially used the KJV. This shows that the evidence is not being sneaked into new Bible translations after science discovers it but was there all along.

All this does not mean the KJV is God's inspired translation as some claim. Dr. J.P. Smyth explains that:
•    Today's translators have ancient manuscripts such as earlier scholars never dreamed of;
•    The science of textual criticism which identifies the relative usefulness of ancient manuscripts began long after the KJV was published;
•    The ancient languages are now better known, allowing more precise translation;
•    Over 200 English words in the KJV have changed their English meaning.


To conclude let's read from the KJV:
For the word of God is quick [living], and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12-13)

And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people. (Revelation 14:6)


Alter, R. 2010 Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, Princeton University Press

Callick, R. The Weekend Australian Inquirer, April 30-May 1, 2011, p. 7

Bobrick, B. 2001 Wide as the Waters The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution it Inspired, Simon & Schuster

Croft, P. The Making of the King James Bible, BBC History Magazine, March, 2011, pp 41-44

Crystal, D. 2010 Begat: The King James Bible & the English Language, Oxford University Press

Jensen, M. KJV 400, Eternity, May 2011, pp 5-6

McGrath, A. 2001 In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and how It changed a nation, a Language, and a Culture, Doubleday

Smyth, J.P. nd How We Got Out Bible, Sampson Low, Marston & Co, p. 134

The Companion Bible Being THE ORTHORIZED VERSION OF 1611, 1972, Bagster & Sons.