TranslationSeven Common Misconceptions about the King James Bible The most widely read English Bible translation has sprouted a series of fictions about it. It’s time to prune them. Timothy BergDecoration from the title page to the New Testament. Illustration by Peter Gurry.February 22, 2022 ShareFacebookTwitterLinkedInPrint Finding praise for the 1611 King James Bible (KJB) is not hard. It is “the single most influential book in the English language and arguably the greatest work ever completed by a committee” according to Hannibal Hamlin and Norman Jones in their edited book marking the 400th anniversary of the KJB. Showing just how influential it has been on our language, renowned linguist David Crystal traces hundreds of expressions it cemented into the English mind while Angelica Duran, English professor at Purdue, has edited a book arguing that the KJB transcends English, rising to the level of a key text in world literature and achieving a global impact. All this praise is warranted. But when a book blossoms into such a literary lotus, myths also begin to sprout. Grains of truth rendering them plausible grow into weeds of fiction. Blocking the light of contrary facts and pilfering life-giving nuance, truth eventually withers. The following are seven myths about the KJB that now need pruning. Myth 1: The KJB isn’t copyrighted Many claim the KJB is not copyrighted and can be reproduced freely. Through American eyes the KJB is “public domain” (see, for example, the work of Roger Syn and Jason Cohn), but it was printed under patent to the royal printer or “crown copyright,” with permissions later extended to the university presses at Cambridge and Oxford. Since the copyright has never lapsed in the UK, its unenforceability in the US reflects not an absence of copyright but rather a disregard of the KJB’s creators. Roger Syn explains that after the Revolutionary War, “English patents were disregarded. This caused the Authorised Version – still protected by royal patents – to enter the public domain outside the United Kingdom.”1Roger Syn, “Enforcement of Copyright in the Bible and Religious Works,” Regent University Law Review 14.1 (2001–2002): 12. The copyright at Cambridge University Press requires the abbreviation “KJV” following all citations, which cannot exceed 500 verses or 25 percent of a document. You can learn more on the enduring KJB copyright here. Related The Extraordinary Hebrew Text behind Your English BibleKim PhillipsThe Jefferson Bible and the Faith of an American FounderThomas S. KiddThe Life and Legacy of William TyndalePeter J. Gurry Myth 2: The KJB was a new translation Some deem the KJB a new translation—an original language text, freshly translated on blank pages from the original languages. In fact, the translators actually worked on unbound pages of the Bishops’ Bible. The first rule of their procedures commanded that this text “be followed, and as little altered as the truth of the original will permit.” Miles Smith’s preface to the KJB was clear on this point too: “Truly, good Christian reader, we never thought from the beginning that we should need to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one … but to make a good one better.” Samuel Ward, one of the revisers, reported that “caution was given that an entirely new version was not to be furnished, but an old version, long received by the Church, to be purged from all blemishes and faults.” Existing quarries were mined for lexical gold. Rule 14 required using five prior Bibles “where they agree better with the text than the Bishops’ Bible.” The KJB preface records digging “out of many good” Bibles to make “one principal good one,” thereby rendering “better” what prior translators had “left so good.” They were now “building on their foundation that went before us,” being helped by their labors, which could now be “rubbed and polished.” The “former translations” were “diligently compared and revised” as the very title page boasts of its “newly translated” work. The KJB is thus best understood as a thorough revision of the 1602 edition of the Bishops’ Bible, carefully rendering the original languages and mining prior Bibles for verbal ore. The King James Bible is best understood as a thorough revision, carefully rendering the original languages and mining prior Bibles for verbal ore. Myth 3: The text of the KJB has never changed It’s not uncommon for King James readers to assume their KJB is textually identical to the 1611, except for spelling. This isn’t true. Frederick Scrivener, a major scholar of the KJB, concluded from his study that “numberless and not inconsiderable departures” from the 1611 abound in modern editions, mostly “deliberate changes, introduced silently and without authority” by unnamed men. He listed over fifty pages of variations from the 1611 edition that had been adopted by later editions and that he retained. He also gives more than twenty pages of variations from the 1611 that he rejected in his own edition of the KJB. David Norton’s more recent study of the textual history of the KJB scrupulously lists over 150 pages of variant readings supporting his updated edition. Most changes to the original text were made in 1629, 1638, 1762, and 1769 editions, others in hundreds of humbler editions. These alterations are extremely minor compared to differences between distinct translations (say, KJB vs. NKJV) and so, they shouldn’t be exaggerated. At the same time, they shouldn’t be minimized either. D. A. Waite, for example, did this when he compared an audio version of the Old Scofield Reference Bible and a 1611 facsimile, and said he heard only 421 changes. Setting aside changes of form, he claimed there were only 136 changes of “substance” from 1611 to today.2D. A. Waite, Defending the King James Bible, 3rd ed. (Old Paths, 2006), 4–5. A pastor in North Carolina called for a recount; using the same two editions in print, he enumerated over 2,000. Waite’s count was reportedly updated some but still gets repeated. Get new articles and updates in your inbox. Get 50% off the directors’ new book when you subscribe. Leave this field empty if you're human: Myth 4: The translators spoke in unison Some treat the KJB as its architects’ united opinion. If one suggests that alterations are needed to the KJB the response today is sometimes, “Why contradict so many brilliant scholars?” But we should not imagine that all the translators reached some sort of consensus in a large meeting room. Instead, the KJB is the result of three broad stages of work. The Bible was divided, in 1604, among six companies, one at Westminster, one at Cambridge, and one at Oxford (a Greek and Hebrew team at each). Some of these subdivided. Individuals were to bring personal drafts to meetings where a company’s eight or nine men worked over selections. Review was then to take place through other companies and appointed overseers, with input from outside consultants. Twelve men made veto revisions in a “general meeting” at Stationers’ Hall in 1610. Several final editors added para-textual material and finishing touches. An elaborate process of cross-checking was envisioned, but scholars still debate the amount completed. Most agree that some was skipped. The translators met in small groups in tiny rooms; they never met all together. Further, the KJB ultimately reflects, not unanimous votes, but veto decisions. Rules 9–10 explained that, where differences remained, they would be settled “at the general meeting” (step two of the process). The translators’ handwritten revisions in a 1602 Bishops’ Bible. Bod. Lib. 1602 b.1 For example, in Luke 2:22, the translators’ base text read “her purification,” explaining why Mary brought Jesus to the temple, without any notes. Virtually all the textual data read “their” purification (including either Joseph or Jesus in the purification). Greek texts at the time differed. A manuscript in the Bodleian Library in Oxford shows a back-and-forth between reviewers. At Luke 2:22, this manuscript shows that “her” is first crossed out in the text, “their” written above, and then “her” is again added to the margin. This proposed revision and note got crossed out. Then “her” stood in the text and “their” in the margin. This revision too was overturned. The KJB ended where it began: “her” in the text and nothing in the margin. Documentary evidence vividly challenges any assumption that the translators always agreed. Myth 5: Little is known about the KJB’s formation Some today think that loss of records has obscured the KJB’s formation. It’s true that data has been lost, but what remains is impressive. Bod. 1602, the manuscript just mentioned, records revisions to various texts assigned to four different companies. Another manuscript at Lambeth Palace (Ms. 98) records revisions to another company. More recently, Jeffery Miller has added Samuel Ward’s Apocrypha notes to this list of documentary evidence. This leaves us extant manuscript work from every company’s assigned text. And this isn’t all. We also have sixteen contemporary accounts of the Hampton Court Conference where the idea for the KJB was first hatched; the receipt for the pages translators worked on; numerous correspondence about the translation, including letters from King James and Richard Bancroft, the bishop of London; copies of the translators’ rules; lists of translators; library records of the translators’ borrowing helps; John Bois’s notes from stage two and his annotated Septuagint; and Samuel Ward’s summary report to the Synod of Dort (a draft of which remains in his own hand). The garden at Hampton Court Palace, where the idea for the King James Bible was born. Stu Smith And documents continue to multiply, as Nicholas Hardy of the University of Birmingham explains. As one of the premier KJB scholars today puts it, Shakespeare scholars only dream of having this kind of data about his plays. Likewise, Hamlin and Jones are right to say that, “Despite the peculiar popular legend that the translation of the KJB is shrouded in mystery, it isn’t. We know a great deal about it.”3Hannibal Hamlin and Norman W. Jones, “Introduction: The King James Bible and Its Reception History,” in The King James Bible After Four Hundred Years: Literary, Linguistic, and Cultural Influences, ed. Hannibal Hamlin and Norman W. Jones (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 6. Myth 6: The KJB is a perfectly literal translation Some assume the KJB is the most “literal” translation possible, rendering every word with exact precision. Generally speaking, the KJB is more literal than many more recent translations (although even here, Young’s certainly overtakes it). Further, the translators shunned one aspect of exactness which is known as “concordance.” Concordance is the consistent rendering of the same word from the original languages with the same English word whenever feasible. The KJB preface records that the translators instead celebrated verbal variety, untethered by “uniformity of phrasing,” or “ identity of words,” to make “verbal and unnecessary changings.” Alister McGrath illustrates this point using Romans 5:1–11, a text that exemplifies their linguistic liberties. In the KJB, Christians “rejoice” in hope, “glory” in tribulations, and “joy” in God: three distinct words all rendering the same Greek word. More on this myth here. Myth 7: The KJB is written in Old English Finally, many Bible readers today think that the 1611 KJB is unreadable Old English. But, the Oxford English Dictionary traces the following historical stages in the English language: Old English until 1150, Middle English until 1500, Early Modern English until 1700. As a work of Early Modern English, the KJB is certainly still readable. That said, some grammatical forms are foreign. The obvious examples are pronouns like “thee/thou/thy” or “ye”; the possessives “thine/mine”; and verbs ending in -est (2nd person) and -eth (3rd person). Further, Mark Ward rightly cautions readers to be on the lookout for dead words which have fallen out of the language now. He also laments that everyone trips over false friends, words that have dramatically changed their meaning since 1611. That said, if someone can read at a college level and is willing to learn unfamiliar grammar, most of the KJB is not impossible; it merely requires work. Conclusion The KJB is read daily all over the world and is still, by one poll, the most read English Bible in America. Rightly so. It blooms to its greatest beauty when we regularly trim the myths that threaten to crowd it out. When not choked by myths, it provides a visual banquet on which our souls may feast. Timothy Berg Timothy Berg was reared on the King James Bible and now runs kjbhistory.com, which is an outlet for his passion for studying the history of the King James Bible. He is currently pursuing his MDiv degree at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. View all posts Notes1Roger Syn, “Enforcement of Copyright in the Bible and Religious Works,” Regent University Law Review 14.1 (2001–2002): 12.2D. A. Waite, Defending the King James Bible, 3rd ed. (Old Paths, 2006), 4–5.3Hannibal Hamlin and Norman W. Jones, “Introduction: The King James Bible and Its Reception History,” in The King James Bible After Four Hundred Years: Literary, Linguistic, and Cultural Influences, ed. Hannibal Hamlin and Norman W. Jones (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 6.