This year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible. To be perfectly honest, I have mixed views about the old KJV and its legacy within church history. Historical context is essential. When the bishops handed King James I the completed copy of the “Authorized Version” of the Scriptures, they were attempting to put to death another version which they considered seditious–the Geneva Bible.
I actually own a reprint copy of the 1599 edition of the Geneva Bible. In fact, I bought it back in 2007 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown Colony. Most people don’t realize this, but the Geneva Bible was the version used by the settlers, both at Jamestown as well as Plymouth. It has a legacy all its own, one which I think is often overlooked in most studies of church history. I hope to write an in-depth entry about it sometime soon.
I fully confess that I’m biased in favor of the Geneva Bible over the KJV, but this is not to say that I don’t recognize the positive aspects of the latter. I’d like to think that I take the good with the bad. It’s probably helpful that I list both the good and bad attributes of the KJV, especially as they impacted the life of the church.
Here are the “pros” I see with the KJV:
1. It standardized the Scriptures within the English-speaking world. This helped make the memorization of verses a much easier task. Unlike today’s situation where we have a plethora of different versions, you could go from one church to another and hear the Word preached from the same universal English text. This certainly eliminated a lot of confusion and kept everyone on the same page–literally.
2. The KJV built upon the work of William Tyndale and other great translators. While the translation of the KJV is far from perfect (some parts were taken directly from the Vulgate), it wasn’t done in a vacuum. It had a good foundation to begin with and was subject to improvement over time.
3. It is definitely true that God used the KJV over the centuries to save souls and expand His kingdom. There’s no doubt about that. My grandparents were reared on the KJV. Millions of people came to faith in Christ by hearing it preached. In this respect, we ought to praise God in His providence for using the KJV to those ends. This, I believe, is the best aspect of its legacy.
1. The KJV was created by government mandate rather than being purely a product of the church. In fact, part of the reason the KJV came into existence was to supplant the Geneva Bible and deal a blow to the Reformed churches. Even though the project was commissioned by the king, it was also an opportunity for the Anglican establishment to entrench themselves against further reforms demanded by the Puritans.
2. It meant the death of the Geneva Bible. After 1611, the Geneva Bible was gradually phased out and took with it all of the helpful study notes contained therein. These study notes promoted individual study and thus brought the text closer to the people.
3. The type of English used in the KJV was archaic even for it’s own day. When I first read from the text of the Geneva Bible, I was amazed at how well it reads despite being older than the KJV. In fact, it’s easier to read than the KJV. There’s a reason for this. The style of language within the KJV very much reflects the desire of church officials to, once again, keep the text farther away from the common man.
What I’ve written here is just a summary of the positives and negatives of the KJV, looking back with four centuries of hindsight. Given the rapid decline of the KJV within the last century, some people might think this isn’t worthy of discussion. Yet I believe that a proper understanding of history–including church history–is essential to understanding events in the present. These are just a few thoughts of mine articulated before I dive any deeper into it.