Among the great literary works of the Renaissance, the King James Bible stands as the most beautiful, memorable, and widely read, even today. The original impetus for the translation, however, developed rather gradually. James had recently assumed the English throne and sought to bring peace to a deeply divided country. Though there was certainly a political dimension to these schisms, it was religion that formed their root. The actions of James’ distant predecessor, Henry VIII, created an inherent tension between (1) loyalty to the crown and (2) fidelity to the spiritual traditions of the church fathers, and this tension was further exacerbated by (3) a more thoroughgoing group, whom we know as the Puritans. To facilitate reconciliation, James hosted what is now known as the Hampton Court Conference (1604). Here, “Puritan leader John Reynolds proposed a new English translation of the Bible, and James, hostile as he was to the Puritans, seized upon the suggestion,” wishing to establish peace on his own terms (Ryken 50).
But if tranquility was the motivating factor behind the translation, humility was the guiding force of the work itself. Though the Translators certainly had their share of doctrinal disagreements, they were united in a common conviction that the words with which they worked were not their own, but were of divine origin; they were merely God’s secretaries, scribes of the living oracles. “Secretaryship is one of the great shaping forces behind the King James Bible. There is no authorship involved here. Authorship is egotistical, an assumption that you might have something new worth saying. You don’t” (Nicolson 184).
This did not, however, simplify their task. The theological discussions of the day also led to varying views on the proper method of translating the Bible into English. The Translators “were heir to [a] double and in some ways contradictory tradition” (Nicolson 185). On one hand, there was this “Calvinistic secretarial strictness,” and on the other, the secular, Ciceronian approach that Luther adopted, which required the translator to “absorb” the meaning of the text and then “reproduce something like it in his own language” (Nicolson 184). Yet peace and reconciliation was still the ultimate goal of the work. “If it was to play its role as the national irenicon, it had to bridge the categories of rich and clear” (Nicolson 195).
The Translators resolved this tension by choosing both over either. In the words of Ryken, they sought “an essentially literal translation,” choosing an English equivalent for each word in the original, italicizing words added to the text for clarity, and even preferring the word order of Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic over that of their own English (Ryken 50).
Yet they also sought to maintain the mystery of Holy Writ, choosing variety over consistency in their vocabulary and thereby multiplying “the number of English words used for a given Hebrew or Greek word” (Ryken 50). The effect of the finished product (1611) is striking. In the hands of these men, the words of God became “more accurate,” “simple, accessible, conceptually rich,” and “full of potent and resonant meanings” (Nicolson 153, 193). They combined “simplicity and majesty” with a sense of rhythm and affective power that has made the King James Bible the English translation of Milton, Coleridge, and Wordsworth; Lincoln, Kennedy, and King (Ryken 51; Nicolson 237-238).
Over the last 150 years, the grip of the King James Bible on the Anglo-American imagination has been somewhat weakened due to criticisms of its antiquated diction, textual basis, and knowledge of the languages (see Ryken 51). And yet the work of the Translators endures as “the touchstone, the national book, the formative mental structure for all English-speaking people” (Nicolson 236). It is because of this that the most successful attempts to render the Scriptures into accurate, beautiful, and clear English have been produced in the King James tradition: the English Revised Version (1885), the American Standard Version (1901), the Revised Standard Version (1952, 1971), the New American Standard Bible (1971, 1995), the New King James Version (1982), and the English Standard Version (initially in 2001, with the permanent text just finalized in 2016; for more information on these translations, see Marlowe). Now nearly four hundred years old, the King James tradition stands as strong as it did in the seventeenth century—stirring our imagination, sinking into our ears, and saving our souls (see Luke 9:44; Jam 1:21).