The Legacy of a Book 400 Years Old: The King James Bible

Silence hovered over London’s deserted, misty streets. Neighborhood residents burrowed deep in their beds enjoying the luxury of the last hour before dawn, unaware of the furious activity a few doors down the street. Inside Northumberland House, typesetters loaded presses while members of the printers’ guild turned the huge handles that pressed plates and paper to the inked typesets. As sheets came off the printing presses, large folio pages were quickly hung to dry on ropes stretched from wall to wall.

Like most citizens enmeshed in the activities of daily life, London residents were unconcerned about the king’s printing project. Over the next four centuries, however, nearly every household in the English-speaking world came to possess a copy of this printed book. (A Visual History of the King James Bible, Baker Books a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2011, 161)

Today children memorize it; pastors quote it at weddings and cite it at funerals; its words resound from pulpits on a global scale. Presidents swear their allegiance on it, and courts use it as the standard for truthfulness.

 Modern English speakers associate the beautiful language in the King James Bible with the very words of God. Biblical phrases posted in buildings, quoted by public officials in speeches, and written in music are most likely from this version.

Many expressions in the King James Bible share a beauty that is quickly recognized as the language of the Jacobean period. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters…;” (Ps 23:1) “O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee: my soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land where no water is. (Ps 63:1) “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.” (Ps 42:1) “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” (Ps 119:105) “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts…” (Ps 139:23) “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters…” (Isa 55:1)

Phrases from this translation are integrated into the language of our everyday speech: “to fall flat on his face” (Num. 22:31), “a man after his own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14), “the land of the living” (Job 28:13), “to pour out one’s heart” (Ps. 62:8), “sour grapes” (Ezek. 18:2), “pride goes before a fall” (Prov. 16:18), “like a lamb to the slaughter” (Isa. 53:7), “the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13), “a thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7), “to give up the ghost” (John 19:30), and “the powers that be” (Rom. 13:1).

The mystery of the legacy of the King James Bible is not that it has lasted for 400 years. The mystery is that a Bible conceived amid a heated debate of church practices between Puritan and Anglican clergy and then translated by 54 of England’s finest scholars could produce a literary masterpiece. Translation by committee often brings wide compromise even diluting meaning.

After 400 years of Bible study, new translations incorporating the discovery of hundreds of ancient Greek manuscripts hailed by scholars as superior to the manuscripts used for reference in the King James Bible, it continues to be an English language bestseller. Today it ranks number two on the Christian Booksellers Association’s list of best-selling Bible translations. The New King James Version, published in 1982, ranks third. Those two versions account for about half the Bibles sold in America. This does not include the copies downloaded from the internet to things like iPads, iphones, Kindles nor does it include sales in New Zealand, Australia, and Great Brittan.

The author’s recent worldwide survey of all known first edition King James Bibles revealed three times more copies than historically believed have survived the 400 years of destruction by fires, floods, critical attacks, and the ravages of time. Some Bible collectors and early historians have also debated which edition of the King James Bible was the first one printed.

Two editions of the King James Bible came off the press about the same period of time. In 1611 the first edition used a copper plate to print the general title dated 1611 and included an engraved title for the New Testament also dated 1611. Shortly after the 1611 the king’s printer published a nearly identical edition with both title pages engraved but dated 1613 in the Old Testament and 1611 in the New Testament.

However, today the debate among scholars seems settled. The two editions have many variances within the pages themselves. The printer corrected some errors in the 1613 edition while they introduced new errors. In Ruth 3:15 the 1611 edition reads, “and he went into the citie.” The 1613 edition reads, “and she went into the citie.” Hence the terms “He” Bible and “She” Bible are used to differentiate between the two editions. In addition the “She” Bible inserted an error in Matthew 26:36 which reads, “Judas” for the correct reading of “Jesus.” All editions after 1611 read “she” in Ruth indicates that the “He” Bible is the correct first edition (1611) and the “She” Bible (1613) is a second edition.

To celebrate the 400th anniversary I wrote a book, A Royal Monument of English Literature that chronicles the history of the KJV, catalogs all known first editions, who owns them and descriptions. Each copy contains an original and authentic first edition leaf of the 1611 King James “He” Bible. This was my way of contributing to the modern legacy and a piece of its history.

The King James Bible not only changed Bible reading but influenced society for the next four hundred years. It stands as a translation of unparalleled influence; it is the crown Jewel of English literature and as such, it is worthy of the value it holds in English history.

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