The book that changed the world
The Book That Changed the World, the King James Version of the Bible, has turned 400, marking an important anniversary for English-speakers the world over.
Even non-‘Bible bashers’ are likely to have used words and phrases that come straight from the KJV. First published in England in 1611 the KJV put, for the first time, the Bible into the hands of the common people.
Dr Greg Clarke, CEO of Bible Society Australia, the group hosting a national exhibition that highlights the enormous impact the KJV has had on both Western and Australian society and culture, says, “The King James Bible may not be universally admired (it was a cause of division in its time, and still separates some religious communities today) but its impact on Western culture and language can hardly be overstated.”
“Indeed, if you have ever ‘fallen flat on your face’, ‘escaped by the skin of your teeth’, had the ‘scales fall from your eyes’ or ‘seen the writing on the wall’, you have encountered the King James Bible.”
Our history and our future
The exhibition, entitled The Book That Changed the World, has begun to travel to every state and territory in Australia. It features an original edition of the KJV as well as other documents relating to this key English text, and subsequent translations into other tongues.
Dr Clarke says, “It’s a privilege to mark this historic anniversary, allowing people to see not only an original King James Bible from 1611, but a carefully selected display of significant Bibles in the life of Australia since the early days of the British colony.
“Among the exhibits will be the beautifully-bound and embellished Bible presented in 1901 to Lord Hopetoun, Australia’s first Governor-General, at the time of Federation. Every Governor-General of Australia has since sworn on that Bible when they came to office.”
Vulgar is good
There have been many Bible translations since 1611, but the KJV represents a special influence in the development of Christianity in Britain and later in the USA and Australia, because of the effort the translators took to produce a ‘Bible of the people’.
The original Preface to the KJV shows that the translators wanted this Bible to be understood “even of the very vulgar”. This ‘vulgar’ (or ‘common’) translation is now, ironically, often referred to as the pinnacle of English literature and is frequently studied as an academic text quite separate to its sacred origins.
The exhibition can be seen at Parliament House, Canberra, until June 28, then other locations including Village Church Annandale, Sydney, University of Wollongong Library, Melbourne City Library, Tasmanian State Library, and Brisbane Square Library.
For more information, contact Philip Southwell, King James Version 2011 Celebrations Manager, Bible Society Australia
See the online exhibition or read more about the King James Version below.
King James and his Bible
In the summer of 1603, when King James VI of Scotland journeyed south to become James I of England, he had no way of knowing he would be most remembered for an English Bible that would forever bear his name.
Hardly had his horses and carriage left Edinburgh when he was met by a delegation of English Puritans. God had appointed him their physician, they said, “to heal the diseases of the church”. James liked their suggestion of a major conference to set the church right, but what he and the Puritans thought was wrong with it were not exactly the same thing.
Puritan concerns were morality and abuses of power by the Church hierarchy. James’ concern was what he believed to be his divine right to control the Church. He wanted no breath of Catholicism, but he was bitterly opposed to anything which smacked of the dour Presbyterianism of the stern men who had raised him from childhood. He had no intention of weakening the power of the monarch and his bishops.
Socially and physically awkward, James nevertheless had the best mind of any English monarch before or since. And he knew his Bible very well. He called the Hampton Court Conference early in 1604. When, among many suggestions, came the idea of a new translation of the English Bible, James jumped at it.
The English Bible had already passed through two dramatic and sometimes bloody centuries. But gone now were the days when English Scriptures were banned and translators were burned at the stake. People could read the Bible and that Bible was the Geneva Bible, the Bible of the Reformation.
The Puritans liked the notion of a Bible more accurately translated from the original languages but James was interested in what was in the margins. The Geneva Bible had long become a vehicle for divisive comment with anti-Papal and – what James was more concerned about – anti-monarchist remarks masquerading as doctrinal notes in the margins.
The thought of a new English Bible enthused James: accurate, less boring than the unpopular Bishop’s Bible and without the marginal invective of the Geneva Bible. Trusting no one else to get it right, he personally supervised the drawing up of precise guidelines. Impatient with the slowness of his bishops, he set up the project himself, choosing the translators and demanding regular reports.
What James put together was the world’s greatest translation project: 54 scholars in 4 teams, reporting to an overall editorial committee. A mixed group, their combined strength was immense. They cared about accuracy, about readability and about the English language. In 1611 they produced the iconic King James Version, the most influential book in the history of the world, published in uncountable millions and still read 400 years later.
Within a generation the KJV supplanted all other English Bibles. As the translators had so passionately hoped, it had become read and understood by the people; a Bible which “openeth the window to let in the light”. It changed the way people understood their relationship to God. It changed the way they lived their lives and the way they faced death.
Because it changed people, the KJV had the power to change society. Every literate person now had access to the Bible, leading to an entirely new spirit of inquiry through reading and reflection. This accelerated the growth of commercial printing and the ever-widening circulation of books.
Free to interpret the Bible according to the light of their own understanding, people began to question the authority of both religious and secular institutions. Stimulating reformation within the Church, it led also to the reduction of the power of the monarchy and the rise of constitutional government. Carried far beyond the shores of England, oppressed peoples found in it the hope of freedom. The KJV Bible underpinned great social reforms including the abolition of slavery. It was the KJV Bible which finally created liberty and democracy.
The KJV Bible also had a lasting influence on the English language. It brought together the best from earlier English Bibles and introduced its own memorable innovations. Hundreds of its expressions have entered the language. Through the KJV we can speak of “wheels within wheels”, “the days of our lives”, “the salt of the earth” and “a fly in the ointment”.
Many today who never open a Bible will still know what a “prodigal son” is, or a “good Samaritan”. Because of Noah and the flood, the worst natural disasters are always of “Biblical” proportions. Anyone who reads or listens to sports commentators knows that the “Davids” still defeat the “Goliaths”; that teams can be “crucified” one week and “resurrected” the next.
Without necessarily being aware, we read or hear the words of the KJV Bible every day. It has helped create much of the power and beauty of English. Through it, our language and we ourselves have all been enriched. James would have been amazed!
About John Harris, Historical Collection Curator, Bible Society Australia
The Rev. Dr John Harris is a noted Australian historian and theologian, best known for his works on Aboriginal issues including his award-winning book One Blood which detailed the interactions between Aboriginal people and the Christian Church.
As Director of the Translation and Text Division of Bible Society Australia, he supervised the translation of the Bible into Indigenous Australian and Pacific languages. In that role he was also responsible for the Bible Society’s remarkable collection of historic Bibles. He continues to be Curator of the collection and has taken a specific interest in the translation of the Bible into English and particularly the history of the 1611 King James Version.
His work was recently recognised by the award of the rare and prestigious Lambeth Doctor of Divinity by the Archbishop of Canterbury.