When Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, she was succeeded by James Stuart, already King James VI of Scotland. He became King James I of England, uniting the kingdoms of England, Ireland and Scotland under his authority. James was a blend of imperious authority and humility. Tradition says that he told his portrait painter: “Paint me as I am, warts and all.” There is no historical record of those words being spoken, yet they must have been. The official portrait of James shows him with a prominent facial blemish, which would have led to the disappearance of both painter and painting under previous monarchs.
Two translations of the Bible were in use at the time. The Bishop’s Bible, used in worship services of the Church of England, was pompous, emphasized ecclesiastical authority and was not popular with lay people. The Geneva Bible, favoured by Puritans, was more readable, but contained notes and comments that were often critical of church hierarchy and the monarchy. The quirks of these translations, and the competing claims made for them, were in some measure hindrances to drawing the pure water of saving truth from the Word of God.
James believed a new translation without the aggravating characteristics of the existing ones would ease tensions in the church. He chose the best scholars from both the traditionalists and the Puritans and commissioned them to create it. The Bible produced by this committee appeared in 1611 but James did not impose it on the Church of England as an official translation. It gradually supplanted the other two, but did not become the preferred translation until after the death of James in 1625.
That translation is referred to as the Authorized Version (AV) in England and much of the English-speaking world. The idea of calling it the King James Version originated in the USA. The notation on the title page, “Appointed to be read in churches,” may be mistaken by modern readers for evidence of an official status of this translation. Four hundred years ago, appointed meant furnished, arranged, perfected. In modern terms, the meaning would be “Optimized for reading out loud.” The goal of the translators was to produce the best possible translation for reading aloud.
Many people of that day were either illiterate or too poor to afford a Bible. The words read in church from this translation were retained in their minds and had an impact on the thoughts and intents of their hearts. It is still by far the easiest translation to memorize.
The translators were men of great scholarship. Lancelot Andrewes, Bishop of Winchester and director of the Company of Translators, was fluent in twenty-one languages, fifteen modern and six ancient. He was considered the greatest preacher of his time, a Lord of the church, yet he spent five hours in prayer every morning, with penitential tears confessing his great unworthiness. It was because of men like Lancelot Andrewes that a translation such as the AV was possible four hundred years ago and may not be possible in our day.
The translators were sticklers for accuracy, but that was not enough. After the six companies of translators had finished their work, two men from each were chosen to sit together as a review committee to bind it all together. They came with copies of the Hebrew, Greek and Latin Scriptures and translations in French, Italian, German and other languages. The translation was read aloud, sentence by sentence, while they listened to judge the accuracy and the aptness of the words, and how they would sound to the people in the pews. If anyone thought something did not sound quite right, he would speak up and the passage would be adjusted until all were satisfied.
The result is a Bible that retains the essence of the wording in the original languages, yet speaks majestically in a simple English. The language is not the English that was commonly spoken in that day; it is a reverent language meant to convey the holiness of the subject matter. It is remarkable how much of this translation is done with words of one syllable, yet those words are arranged into a cadence that captures the attention of the ear, mind and heart of the hearer.
Modern translations claim to be more accurate, or easier to read, or both. Yet they sound singularly flat beside the words of the AV. The insipid nature of these translations, and the constant introduction of new and “better” translations, makes Scripture memorization seem almost pointless in our day.
The original long preface of the AV described the purpose of translation in these words:
Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most Holy place; that removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water.
This is what the AV has done for generations of English-speaking people.