400 Years of the King James Bible

29/01/11 | Posted by MattPage

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible. It may not have been the first translation of the Bible into English, nor even the most accurate, but it has been the most influential and well-loved version of the Bible in the English-speaking world.

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It also coined countless phrases, which became so commonplace that most people today don’t even realise that they are from the Bible. It’s the translation’s literary legacy that seems to be the main focus for most media outlets.

But what about its spiritual legacy? King James came to the throne at a difficult time. His great, great uncle, Henry VIII, had brought about the English Reformation changing the country from a Roman Catholic country to a Protestant one. Between the reigns of Henry and James the religion of England changed from Protestantism back to Catholicism, and then back again, with plenty of bloodshed on each occasion. And then into this mix James, a Scot, arrives to take the English throne.

It should have been a recipe for disaster and of course it nearly was. Within a year of James taking the throne Catholic extremist Guy Fawkes had narrowly failed to blow up the king and his parliament. And it was during the reign of James’ son, Charles I, that the country was bitterly divided by a civil war that was as much about religion as anything else. Charles was executed.

James’ reign, therefore, sat in the midst of turbulent waters. Yet despite the attack on his life, James took a relatively tolerant stance over religion, resisting pressure from parliament’s to crack down on Catholics. Whilst his response to Guy Fawkes certainly wasn’t to turn the other cheek, his approach generally seemed to mirror Jesus’ words: “whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark’s Gospel 9:40). Likewise, whilst his sympathies didn’t really lie with the English puritans, he nevertheless made concessions to them, a key one of which was to produce a new translation of the Bible.

So whilst it’s pleasing to know that phrases such as “Good Samaritan” or “the left hand not knowing what the right is doing” are from the KJV’s take on the words of Jesus, what is more important is that the way that it not only allowed the words and teaching of Jesus to endure, but also reflected something of its message. And 400 years later, due in no small part to King James’ Version, Jesus’ words still have relevance. Even today he is still held up as a paragon of tolerance and love (and far more besides in the eyes of many) instead of being left behind, back in the days before “the” replaced “ye”.

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