(The primary source of information for this lesson is Adam Nicholson’s wonderful book, God’s Secretaries, an unbiased and purely fact-based account of the history of the King James Version of the Bible.)
To the most high and mightie Prince, Iames by the grace of God king of Great Britaine, France and Ireland, defender of the faith, &c. The translators of the Bible, with grace, mercie, and peace, through Ievus, Christ our Lord. Great and manifold were the blessings (most dread Soueraigne) which Almightie God, the Father of all mercies, bestowed vpon vs the people of England, when first he sent your Maiefties Royall person to rule and raigne ouer vs. For whereas it was the expectation of many, who wished not well vnto our Sion, that vpon the setting of that bright Occidentall Starre Queene Elizabeth of most happie memorie, some thicke and palpable cloudes of darkenesse would so haue ouershadowed this land, that men should have beene in doubt which way they were to walke, and that it should hardly be knowen, who was to direct the unsettled State: the appearance of your MAIESTY, as of the Sunne in his strength, instantly dispelled those supposed and surmised mists, and gaue unto all that were affected, exceeding cause of comfort, especially when we beheld the gouernement established in your HIGHNESSE, and your hopefull seed, by an vndoubted title, and this also accompanied with peace and tranquillitie, ahome and abroad.
But amongst all our ioyes, there was no one that more filled our hearts, than the blessed continuance than the preaching of God’s sacred Word amongst us, which is that inestimable treasure, which excelleth all the riches of the earth, because the fruite thereof extendeth itselfe, not onely to the time spendeth in this transitory world, but directeth and disposeth men unto that eternall happinesse which is aboue in Heauen.
So began the introduction to what at the time was simply known as the Authorized Bible. Although the exact time it was first released is uncertain, by 1611 copies of it had begun creeping into churches and cathedrals throughout London.
The King James Bible is the most influential book ever published. In the 400 years since it first appeared, it has become the most widely read version of the Bible and had the most dramatic impact on Christianity, changing the course of history in its wake. Entire churches, denominations, and I dare say nations are built specifically on this translation of the Bible. But why? It is hardly the oldest version; in fact, in its time there were just as many different translations as exist today. Many would also argue that it is not the most accurate translation. What was so special about this particular book that four centuries later, it is still considered by many to be the definitive Word of God? Rather than take sides in a divisive issue, I simply marvel at the fact that this seemingly random version has transcended the years and still touches a deep nerve within people today.
To understand more about the King James Bible, and the impact it has had on Christianity, let us begin by going back and examining the history behind its translation. Its story effectively begins almost one hundred years before its release, with the Protestant Reformation.
In 1517, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther published his infamous 95 Theses and nailed them to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. Luther had been struggling with his faith for some time, and his publication was basically a list of complaints disputing Catholic doctrine. Catholicism had been the primary faith in Europe for the past thousand years, and Luther was the first person to seriously challenge its authority. Following his excommunication, he started his own movement that swept Europe, and people began breaking away from the Catholic Church, earning the name “Protestants” due to their protesting of the pope’s authority.
Rather than teaching his followers that reading the scriptures was sinful, Martin Luther encouraged them to read it daily and began translating the Bible into his native language of German. He saw the opportunity arise in the invention of the printing press, and begin massively publishing his Lutheran Bible. This was a crime punishable by death, but Protestantism still grew like an unstoppable wildfire.
The Protestant Bible is based on the textus receptus, the Greek translation by the theologian Desiderius Erasmus of a collection called the Antioch scriptures. According to Erasmus, the 27 books of the New Testament were the definitive epistles of the Early Church. The Catholic Bible, or Latin Vulgate, is based on the Alexandrian scriptures, which explains the dramatic difference between Protestant and Catholic theology. Luther first translated the textus receptus into German, and then Protestant Bibles began appearing in other languages in across Europe. This caused people to leave Catholicism in droves, and a seismic shift occurred.
The first English Bible was by John Wycliffe in 1382, many years before Luther’s reformation had begun. The Wycliffe Bible, however, was largely dismissed due to the heresy of translating the scriptures in any language other than Latin. Despite the importance of being the first English translation, it has largely been a forgotten footnote of history. For the next few centuries, England had no Bible outside of the Catholic Latin Vulgate. And then William Tyndale entered the scene.
In the wake of Luther’s movement spreading over Europe, Tyndale was an English Protestant who was determined to bring this Reformation to England. As England was the last stronghold for the Catholic Church where Protestantism had not taken root, the crime of translating a Bible into English was punishable by death. Tyndale risked his life for his mission. It is said that he translated it as a fugitive, often hiding in caves and cellars while soldiers outside were searching for him. He often worked diligently by candlelight at night, ensuring his translation from Hebrew and Greek into English was as accurate as possible. His Bible was never quite finished, and the resulting Tyndale Bible was a rough and incomplete, but when it was released in 1526, it took England by storm and definitively ushered Protestantism into the country.
William Tyndale’s Bible is possibly the most important version of the Bible in English history, at least until the King James Version came into being almost 100 years later. He paid a dear price for it; on top of his heretical crimes against the Catholic Church, he was also an outspoken critic of King Henry VIII, one of the most tyrannical kings in English history. Eventually he was arrested and executed in 1535, but before being hanged and his body burned, his last words on the executioner’s block was a prayer for the man who’d ordered his death: “O Lord, open the eyes of the king of England!” Tyndale is listed in John Foxe’s book of martyrs.
Tyrant though he was, King Henry VIII plays a critical role in the story. Henry was likely one of the most brutal kings England ever had. As childish as he was gluttonous, he was extremely obese with a voracious appetite for women and power. He is most known for his six wives (two of which he had beheaded due to suspicion of infidelity).
But a divide was beginning to take shape. England’s Puritans were very much Protestant, strictly adhering to the teachings of Martin Luther and John Calvin. The newly formed Church of England, while not officially Catholic anymore, certainly still greatly resembled the Roman church. They no longer reported to the pope, but very little else changed. Masses were still conducted in Latin, priests and nuns still could not marry, and greatly ceremonious services were still held in magnificent cathedrals.
When Henry died in 1547, he left a divided and turbulent nation as his legacy. It wasn’t until his daughter with Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I, became queen that England would finally have a unifying monarch. While Henry VIII had been one of England’s worst kings, Elizabeth was one of its greatest queens. The Elizabethan era is synonymous with great prosperity and a flourishing of art and culture; it was during her reign that the great playwright William Shakespeare became famous.
When a plot against Mary caused her to flee to England for safety, Elizabeth decided the safest course of action was to arrest and imprison her foe. Mary was detained for nineteen years before the queen ordered her beheaded in 1587. Her young son, James, was crowned King of Scotland at the age of thirteen months.
The only nearest of kin was James, the young Scottish King. At 37 years old, he had literally spent his entire life as a ruling monarch. Elizabeth died in the early hours of March 24, 1603, and later that day the proclamation went forth that James was to be her replacement. King James VI of Scotland had ascended to becoming King James I of England, one of the most powerful positions in the world.
King James would need something to unify the people.
(to be continued!)