Four hundred years ago this week – somewhere between May 2 and May 5 — the most influential book in the English language was published.
No, not a Shakespeare play. Not even Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest, coincidentally also published in 1611 — although the book in question has spurred its share of tempests.
The book, of course, is the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible.
It has contributed more idioms to the English language than any other text – over 250, surpassing even Shakespeare.
Like the Council of Nicea, ordered by Roman emperor Constantine to define orthodox Christianity, the King James Bible was a political act. King James I issued clear guidelines – the new Bible’s wordings must support the evolving traditions of Henry VIII’s breakaway Church of England.
For about 350 years, the KJV became, for millions, the word of God.
Yet even in its day, its language was already archaic. Its “thee” and “thou” pronouns, its verbs ending in “-eth”, were already passing out of use.
Efforts to modernize biblical language have encountered opposition. A current commentary refers to “modern perversions of the scriptures” as “scurrilous productions” and “imposters… with their missing verses and inserted heresies…”
One devout Christian is reputed to have declared, “If King James English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me!”
He or she might be surprised to realize that even the KJV has undergone significant revisions.
When the KJV was first printed, the English language had not yet standardized spelling and punctuation. As printers rushed their own copies of the Bible into publication, compositors made often arbitrary amendments – such as changing spellings and punctuation — to simplify line breaks.
Thus one of the versions declares, “Thou shalt commit adultery.”
The editor of Oxford University’s definitive 1769 edition corrected over 1,500 misprints and 24,000 variants in spelling and punctuation.
In case you’re still wondering, I do not consider the KJV – or, indeed, any printed text – to be the indisputable word of God.
I do consider the KJV a miracle, though. It’s the only instance I know where a committee has produced a masterpiece.
Have you seen any great paintings created by a dozen artists daubing with different brushes? Or a great statue shaped by a handful of sculptors chipping away with chisels? Heard any great symphonies composed by a panel of music experts? Read any gripping novels written by an assembly of literary scholars?
Art – almost by definition – flowers or fails in the creative genius of an individual.
But with the King James Version, 47 different people, all but one professional clergy, working in six separate committees, over seven years, created a masterpiece that has shaped our language for 400 years.
Admittedly, they borrowed heavily from their predecessors, most notably from William Tyndale, a century earlier, burned at the stake for daring to translate Latin scriptures into English.
Christianity Today commented, and I concur, “There is a cadence, a sentence rhythm, in the KJV that has never been matched in other English Bibles.”
Happy anniversary, KJV!
Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author of 17 books and several thousand magazine and newspaper articles. He welcomes comments; firstname.lastname@example.org.