King James Version of Bible turns 400 Monday

Canaan Baptist Church sits in a storefront off Mike Padgett Highway. There's no pulpit or stained glass in the small, independent Baptist church. Its pastor, the Rev. Mike Andrews, speaks plainly.


That is, except when he preaches.

On Sundays, Andrews teaches from the King James Version of the Bible. He'll read lengthy, eloquent passages of Elizabethan verse, largely unchanged since their publication four centuries ago.

On Monday, the world celebrates the 400th anniversary of that Bible, revered not only as a religious work but also as a literary masterpiece that has shaped language, culture and politics.

To some, the King James Version remains beautiful, poetic and powerful, the only version worthy of reading aloud. To others, it's inaccessible, stodgy and outdated.

Andrews says he falls squarely in the first camp.

"It's the only thing we use. We believe that it's the word of God for English-speaking people," he said, adding with a laugh: "We're old sticks-in-the-mud like that."

It's the Bible that was used in the church where he was saved. There's the sentimental attachment, along with a conviction that the King James Version is superior to all other modern translations.

It's difficult to gauge the size and scope of modern King James-only devotees, said William Larkin, a professor of biblical studies who has taught at Columbia International University since 1975. The past century has brought about a proliferation of new translations, eclipsing the King James Version as the world's best-selling and most popular Bible.

"For centuries, the KJV has been the English translation. It was only until the end of the Second World War that this began to change," said Larkin, an ordained Presbyterian minister.

Though new translations abound, a recent study found the King James Version remains a mainstay in American homes.

Of the 89 percent of American adults who own a Bible, 67 percent own a King James, according to LifeWay Research, a Southern Baptist research agency that conducted a telephone poll in March in anticipation of the King James Version anniversary.

Only 27 percent of adults said they've never read the King James Version, according to the poll. Overall, 31 percent said they found the language to be beautiful, and 23 percent called it "easy to remember." The language, however, was "hard to understand," according to 27 percent of American adults, and 16 percent called it "outdated."

It's ironic, considering the King James Version was developed to become an "everyman's Bible," said Lamar Vest, the president of American Bible Society and a trustee of the King James Bible Trust. The society, one of the nation's oldest nonprofits, aims to make the Bible available to every person in a language and format each can understand and afford.

Translation's history

The King James Version was birthed at a time of unrest in King James' England, Vest said.

Even before King James I ascended to the throne, Puritans clamored for a new translation that would bring about reform within the Church of England after a period of persecution.

A conference was called, bringing clergymen, Anglican leaders, Puritans and scholars together at Hampton Court in January 1604.

The objective of the conference wasn't a new translation, but the need for one was made apparent, Vest said.

Earlier English versions, such as the Bishop's Bible used in churches and the Geneva Bible common in homes, resulted in strife between Christian factions. James also opposed the Geneva Bible for its margin notes, which he declared hostile to his divine rights as king.

On July 22, 1604, James announced a new translation would be produced.

"He was facing serious religious divisions," Vest said. "Something needed to be done to bring about unity and heal religious divisions."

Forty-seven scholars and theologians worked on the Bible for seven years. It is, perhaps, the most beautiful example of any work designed by a committee, Vest said with a laugh.

The Bible that resulted -- the Authorized Version, popularly known as the King James Version -- is commonly hailed as the finest literary achievement in the English language.

"Amazingly, it not only spoke to the time it was translated in, but it speaks very much to our culture today," Vest said.

The King James Version isn't commonly used in today's Episcopal churches, the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion, born out of the Church of England, for which the King James Version was first written. But in anticipation of the 400th anniversary, the Rev. Robert Fain, the pastor of The Church of the Good Shepherd in Augusta, has been reading selections from the King James Version.

"I was reading about the impact of the King James on the English language," Fain said. "This seemed an appropriate way to pay homage to our history."

Cultural influence

The translation was produced in the golden age of Elizabethan drama, poetry and art, the same period in which the works of English playwrights such as William Shakespeare flourished.

The way the translators rendered biblical Greek and Hebrew into English has left an undeniable impact on our speech, Larkin said.

The King James Version is the source of common idioms in the English language, such as "a wolf in sheep's clothing," which comes from Matthew 7:15, and the "blind leading the blind," from Matthew 15:14.

There are entire passages "embedded into our cultural consciousness," Larkin added. "Psalm 23, 1st Corinthians 13. We hear them and we hear the King James. It is the text above all texts."

It is not enough, however, to simply celebrate the literary impact of the King James Version, Vest said.

"We love to talk about the history, but this book is still very much a part of what's going on in our lives, cultures and nations today," he said.

It has been predicted the King James is going to lose its value, but Vest doesn't think it will.

"I think it's important to keep making new translations. A Bible applicable to the people is the goal. That's what the KJV was 400 years ago." he said. "This isn't some dusty, old historical rulebook we're talking about. We celebrate it as a book that is full of life. It's introduced untold numbers to the person of Jesus."

The celebration

The 400th anniversary of the King James Bible on Monday is celebrated worldwide with exhibits, films and new products.

During Holy Week, actors at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre read the entire text aloud over eight days.

Publishers such as Thomas Nelson have released anniversary editions of the KJV, complete with authentic spellings, capitalizations and punctuations found in the 1611 translation.

YouVersion, an online Bible, teamed up with Zondervan and Biblica to give away 1 million digital Bibles in 400 hours to mark the anniversary.

On the National Mall on Monday, a replica of a Gutenberg press will print copies of the Ten Commandments found in Exodus 20 from old plates of a 1611 KJV Bible.

"It's a remarkable amount of fuss," said John Rhys-Davies, the narrator of a new film about the KJV recently released by Lionsgate.

The actor, known for roles in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, stars in the docudrama, KJB: The Book That Changed the World.

Rhys-Davies visits landmarks, explains relics and sets up dramatic scenes of the events surrounding the KJV's publication.

Released directly to DVD, it was filmed in England and Scotland at spots including Westminster Abbey.

"These are, in themselves, some of the most stunningly beautiful buildings in the world," Rhys-Davies said. "It's an absolutely stupendous collection of locations."

The challenge of the film, he said, was allowing history to come alive on the screen.

"It's sort of a detective story, isn't it?" he said. "We're all asking, what is the KJV and why should we celebrate the 400th anniversary of it?"

The film, he said, provides an answer that is both entertaining and informative.

"You come to realize that this is a huge and passionate moment in history," Rhys-Davies said. "There really are few perennial questions. Who are we? Where are we going? Where did we come from? The King James Bible has kept those questions alive in a language that is still alive. I can think of no greater achievement."

-- Kelly Jasper, staff writer

Read and compare

The King James Bible's eloquence, poetic phrasing and cadence are well-suited for public readings. The translation, however, is frequently criticized by modern readers who find the Elizabethan English inaccessible. Differences in translation are highlighted by reproducing the same verse in the King James, along with two modern versions, the New International Version (1973) and The New Living Translation (1996).

John 3:16

- For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (KJV)

- For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (New International Version)

- For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. (New Living Translation)


- For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God (KJV)

- For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith -- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God (NIV)

- God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can't take credit for this; it is a gift from God. (NLT)

ROMANS 12:12

- Rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing instant in prayer (KJV)

- Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. (NIV)

- Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. (NLT)


Common phrases

The King James Bible made a number of phrases common in the English language, including:

- The eleventh hour (Matthew 20:6)

- A drop in the bucket (Isaiah 40:15)

- A wolf in sheep's clothing (Matthew 7:15)

- The apple of his eye (Deuteronomy 32:10)

- Signs of the times (Matthew 16:3)

- A thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7)

- You reap what you sow (Galatians 6:7)

- At their wits' end (Psalm 107:27)

- The salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13)

- White as snow (Daniel 7:9)

- By the skin of your teeth (Job 19:20)

- By the sweat of your brow (Genesis 3:19)

- In the twinkling of an eye (1 Corinthians 15:52)

- How the mighty have fallen (2 Samuel 1:19)

- Eat, drink and be merry (Ecclesiastes 8:15)

- Fall by the wayside (Matthew 13:4)

- Holier than thou (Isaiah 65:5)

- Fight the good fight (1 Timothy 6:12)

- Labour of love (Hebrews 6:10)

- Lamb to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7)

- Peace offering (Leviticus 3:6)

- See eye to eye (Isaiah 52:8)

- Blind leading the blind (Matthew 15:14)

- Two-edged sword (Proverbs 5:4)

Source: Thomas Nelson Publishers


The language of the King James Bible evolved from earlier translations, as illustrated in the first verse of the Gospel of John:

- "On fruman waes Word, and paet (that) Word was mid Gode, and Gode was that Word." -- Anglo-Saxon Gospel, 995 (edition of 1848)

- "In the bigynnynge was the word, that is, Goddis sone, and the word was at God, and God was the word." -- Wyclif Bible, circa 1385

- "In the beginnynge was the worde & the worde was with God: & the worde was God." -- Tyndale's New Testament, 1534

- "In the beginning was that Word, and that Word was with God, and that Word was God." -- Geneva Bible, 1583

- "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." -- King James Bible, 1611

-- Associated Press

By the numbers

788,258: The number of words in the KJV

4,563: The number of times "thou" appears in the KJV

3,162: The number of times "thee" appears in the KJV

12: The cost, in schillings, of a hardbound King James Bible, or about two weeks' pay for a laborer in 1611.

47: The number of translators who completed work on the KJV

16 by 10 1/2: The size, in inches, of the first King James Bible.

Source:, Thomas Nelson Publishers

King James editions marred by mistakes

The King James Bible was dogged by misprints and mistakes from the very first editions.

One became known as the "He Bible" because it mistranslated "she" in Ruth 3:15.

The "She Bible" published concurrently got the gender right, but confused Jesus and the traitor Judas Iscariot in Matthew 26:36: "Then cameth Judas with them unto a place called Gethsemane, and saith unto the disciples, sit yee here, while I goe and pray yonder."

A 1631 edition, known as the "Wicked Bible," said: "Thou shalt commit adultery."

A 1653 edition promised that "the unrighteous will shall inherit the kingdom of God."

In 1795 a Bible had Jesus saying, "let the children first be killed" instead of "filled."

"Vineyard" became "vinegar" in a page heading of the "Vinegar Bible" published by John Baskett in 1716. The edition had so many mistakes that it was mocked as "a Baskettful of errors."

As a 1612 edition said, "printers have persecuted me" -- instead of "princes."

-- Associated Press

Learn more

Find links to an entire digitized copy of the 1611 King James Bible, as well as news and information about King James Version shows exhibits, online here.