You may have heard someone say, “If the King James Version was good enough for Paul, it’s good enough for me.” Unfortunately, that view is more than a joke; a few people actually believe the great apostle used the King James Version. Who was King James, and why does one Bible bear his name?
James, the son of Mary Queen of Scots, was King James VI of Scotland. But in 1603, he succeeded Queen Elizabeth of England as James I, uniting the two kingdoms for the first time. He ascended the throne when Puritans were trying to “purify” the church from all remnants of Catholicism. When Puritan leaders met with him at Hampton Court in 1604 to ask his help in reforming the church, he declined. But he agreed to one request: a new translation of the Bible. They all agreed that the current versions were not accurate to the original Hebrew and Greek.
The most popular Bible was the Geneva Bible, but James didn’t like it because he thought it sounded too Calvinistic. Another popular Bible was the Bishop’s Bible, but most of the common people didn’t care for it. England needed a new, more accurate translation that would satisfy as many people as possible.
King James didn’t write, translate or do any work on the King James Version. He merely appointed 50 scholars and divided them into groups to do the work. The text was doled out in six sections corresponding to the six teams of translators. They were directed to modify previous English versions and make changes only when the Greek or Hebrew demanded it. Therefore the KJV is a reworking of existing versions more than a new translation.
The final product was an improvement but not what we today would expect from a fresh translation working straight from the original languages. Furthermore, the available Greek and Hebrew manuscripts were limited and the translators’ expertise was marginal. The common identification of the KJV as the “Authorized Version” does not mean it is superior to other translations. That title, in fact, is not strictly accurate, because no evidence has been found that King James formally authorized the final product.
Nearly a half-century passed before the KJV overcame the Geneva Bible in popularity, but in time it was accepted by the masses. It remained the most-used version among English-speaking Protestants until the Revised Version came out in the 1880s. By the 1960s, the increased availability of Greek and Hebrew manuscripts revealed the KJV’s errors, opening the door for numerous better translations. Also, by then its archaic language rendered it nearly obsolete except among people who grew up with it or just preferred the style of the language.
The language of the KJV is not and never was more godly than any other. It was simply the English of the early 17th century. The mystique some people find in its phrasing is a matter of preference and familiarity. God has used the KJV to change millions of lives over three and a half centuries, and today He uses more accurate and more readable translations to change millions more. We can thank Him for both.
Excerpted from "The 5 Minute Church Historian," NavPress. Rick Cornish is a former Marine officer with a doctorate from Denver Seminary and a master's from the University of Nebraska. He currently teaches systematic theology, New Testament and church history.