When I was in first grade my Sunday School teacher gave me a copy of the New Testament for having perfect attendance. I still have it: a small white book with tiny print and the words of Jesus in red. The translation? King James Version.
When I was in first grade, there were hardly any other translations of the Bible available. The best known alternatives to King James were the Douay-Rheims Version, primarily used by Roman Catholics, that appeared between 1582 (New Testament) and 1609-10 (Old Testament), and the Revised Standard Version, which had been published in 1952. But none of these other translations were very popular. In churches and homes across America, the King James Version of the Bible was simply the Bible. Most people didn’t know of anything different.
2011 marked the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible. It is, by all estimates, the bestselling book in history. In the four hundred years that have passed since its original publication, it has managed to infiltrate the English-speaking cultures of the world, giving our language phrases that we now take for granted, ranging from “falling flat on his face” to “scarce as hens’ teeth.” Most Americans who hear the phrase “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” will think of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. A few will know he used the phrase in a speech he gave in 1858, before he became president. But hardly any will recognize that Lincoln was paraphrasing Jesus’ words in Mark 3:25. Lincoln, of course, was not alone among American Presidents in using the King James Bible: many mined it for memorable phrases.
But today, most readers will find the King James Version of the Bible difficult to use. It is filled with anachronisms: there are verbs such as “runneth” and “poureth.” “Thee” and “thou” spring up with remarkable frequency. Today, such language only regularly appears at Renaissance Fairs and performances of Shakespeare. But in 1611, those odd verb forms and pronouns were ordinary, daily speech. All languages change with the passage of time. The King James Version preserves a snapshot of how English looked in the 17th century.
After four hundred years, the King James Version is no longer the number one Bible sold; it has dropped to second or even third place. The variety of translations available in modern English in the twenty-first century is mind boggling. For my book, A Year With God, which came out in November 2010, and the sequel A Year With Jesus, which came out in 2011, my publisher (Thomas Nelson) requested that I use multiple English translations for the Bible quotations—and told me not to use the King James at all: “People don’t understand it anymore.” I used eight widely known and used modern translations instead.
The Bible—in the dozens of translations available today—remains the bestselling book of all times. The primary motivation for all the new translations is the desire to see to it that the Bible remains easily understood by ordinary people. But there is another motivation as well. The King James Version is no longer under copyright. Anyone can publish it without having to pay any licensing or royalty fees whatsoever.
In contrast, new translations can be copyrighted. Thus my publisher, Thomas Nelson, alone controls the right to publish the New King James Version, a popular revision of the 1611 King James that they first published in 1982. Zondervan (a division of Random House) controls the rights to the New International Version (and its various revisions). The New International Version, since its original appearance in 1978, has supplanted the King James Version to become the most popular English translation used today.
Some people are uncomfortable with the proliferation of translations. They imagine that somehow the Bible is being changed or modified. But that is simply not the case. The Bible was not originally written in English, any more than Tolstoy’s War and Peace was. War and Peace was originally written in Russian, but it has since been translated multiple times into English. I don’t know of anyone who imagines that Tolstoy’s novel has been changed or corrupted because of the multiple translations of it that can be purchased at Barnes and Noble.
The Bible was written over many years by multiple authors. The Old Testament was written mostly in Hebrew, with a few sections in Aramaic, a related language. The New Testament was written in common Greek. All modern translations are direct translations of those ancient texts. In contrast, the King James Version of 1611 was primarily a revision of earlier English translations and not an original translation at all. For instance, ninety percent of the New Testament of the King James is derived from the Tyndale Bible of 1526.
Just as today we are witnessing the King James Version being supplanted by newer translations, so in 1611, the King James Version displaced those translations that came before it.
And so some day, our modern translations will themselves be supplanted by even newer versions.
I loved that Bible I got in first grade. But when I was in college and the New International Version appeared, I quickly adopted it as my preferred translation. When my daughters were in first grade, their Sunday School teacher gave them New Testaments. Though outwardly identical to what I got at their ages, theirs were New International Versions. I’m glad.