You don’t have to be an expert in English history to be familiar with the main accomplishment of a certain King James. You probably have a book whose production was authorized by this King– the King James Version of the Bible, first published in 1611. This may not be the version you read anymore. It isn’t the one I usually use. But for three and a half centuries this was the only translation used by nearly everyone in the English speaking world. Today, there are hundreds of English translations; but for a long time, there was only one.
One hundred years before King James, there was no Bible in English. Bibles in England, and everywhere, were read only by scholars in the original Hebrew or Greek, or, Jerome’s Latin translation from the fifth century. It was thought to be dangerous for the common person to be able to read the Bible, so for many years and in many places, translating the Bible into the language of the people was a crime punishable by death.
One of the first and most important projects of all the Reformers was to do such a translation. In the 1520’s, while in hiding from the authorities who wanted to kill him, Martin Luther translated the entire Bible into German. At that same time, in England, William Tyndale was working on the first translation of the Bible into English. He completed it only by successfully eluding the authorities who were always after him; and continued, for the rest of his short life, to be on the run or in hiding. He was captured at the age of 42 and executed, but his translation had already become very popular with the common people. Despite the threat of death to anyone who would print, transport, or sell those Bibles, everyone wanted one. Tyndale once told a priest that if his translation was successful, the common plow boy would soon know more about the Bible than the priests.
When Tyndale was executed in 1536, his final words were a prayer: “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” His prayer was answered the very next year when the king lifted the ban on English translations of the Bible.
This new freedom led to a new and very different problem. Now, everyone wanted to sell English Bibles in a business that had gone from being life-threatening to extremely profitable. In the next sixty years, 130 different translations were produced, most of them hastily done and quite inaccurate. The common people, unable to judge between translations, bought many bad ones, resulting in much confusion.
In 1603 James became King. Not many people thought very highly of James. He was arrogant, selfish, drank too much, and was eager to use his new authority primarily to serve himself. He believed strongly in the divine right of Kings, not because he was so interest in the ‘divine’ part, but because he knew that would give him the most power.
There were many Puritans in England at this time. These people were serious about their Christian faith, and sought to separate themselves from the cold and hypocritical state church. The ‘official’ church opposed their every move.
King James didn’t like the Puritans either, because they had little time for any kind of earthly authority; not of bishops or kings. God was their king, so they granted little authority or loyalty to James.
The Puritans went to the king early in his reign with certain requests for freedoms from the Anglican Church of England. The Anglican bishops opposed this, and told the king that they would adopt his ‘divine right of kings’ business if he would come down hard on Puritans. So, King James went into the negotiations with the Puritans with the intent of granting them nothing.
But one of the Puritans’ requests intrigued the king. For the sake of the truth and integrity of Scripture, the Puritans asked that a new and official translation of the Bible be made, done by all the best scholars, as accurate and true to the original language as possible. James was not interested in the truth and accuracy of Scripture, but he had his own reasons for not liking all those other translations. Not only were they carelessly done, but many came with notes to explain things to the common people who were reading these things for the first time. And oftentimes, the king did not approve of these notes. He was particularly irritated by explanations like the one attached to Exodus 1:17, a verse which says: “But the midwives feared God and did not do as the King of Egypt commanded them, but allowed the baby boys to live.” The notes attached to this verse pointed out that the midwives did the right thing by NOT obeying the king, and that Christians do not always have to obey their king either, because sometimes kings do and require things that are contrary to God’s Word.
This did not sit well with King James was pushing for the ‘divine right of kings,’ which meant that if the king said it, it was the SAME as if God Himself said it. So James did not like all the meddlesome side notes in these new translations. It would be far better for the people to not understand anything.
Thus, for very different reasons from the Puritans, King James granted their request and gave the command that “a translation of the entire Bible shall be made, as close as can be to the original, and then be printed without any marginal notes.”
King James celebrated the beginning of the project with a huge banquet and much feasting, drinking, and dancing, along with dog and bull fighting for entertainment. This offended the Puritans, but they would get their translation. James was then wise enough to stay out of the way and let the project proceed with integrity and skill. Fifty-four top translators were employed to do the work. They were divided up into six groups of nine, each working on a section of the Bible. The complete texts were then reviewed by still more scholars. The first edition came off the presses in 1611. It was an immediate and long-lasting success.
The result was an excellent translation, not only for its accuracy (for its time), but also for its majestic language. There were no significant challengers for over 300 years. Only when the New International Version was published in the 1980’s did another translation begin to sell more copies.
King James did not go on to become a nice man or a good king. But as one historian wrote of him: “Despite his arrogance in theology, his incompetence as a king, his profanity, and his drunkenness, we can still be grateful to King James for his part in this noble work.”
Matthew 4:4 — Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Psalm 119:105 — Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.
II Timothy 3:16-17 — All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Almighty, everlasting God, heavenly Father, whose Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our way: Open and enlighten my mind that I may understand your Word purely, clearly, devoutly, and then, having understood it aright, fashion my life in accord with it, in order that I may never displease you; through Jesus Christ, thy Son, our dear Lord. Amen.
–Johannes Bugenhagen (1485-1558)