Gregory Edward Reynolds

The Holy Bible: Quatercentenary Edition, An Exact Reprint in Roman Type, Page for Page, Line for Line, Letter for Letter, of the King James Version, otherwise known as the Authorized Version, published in 1611, with an Anniversary Essay by Gordon Campbell. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, 1520 pages, $79.95. Bound in burgundy bonded leather over boards in a burgundy cloth slipcase with gold blocking, printed on 50 gsm Chinese Thinprint, gilt edge, with ribbon markers and a gift presentation plate.

Bible: The Story of the King James Version, 1611-2011, by Gordon Campbell. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, xiii + 354 pages, $24.95.

The Legacy of the King James Bible, by Leland Ryken. Wheaton: Crossway, 2011, 265 pages, $15.99, paper.

A Visual History of the King James Bible: The Dramatic Story of the World’s Best Known Translation, by Donald L. Brake with Shelly Beach. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011, 285 pages, $24.99.

An article on the King James Version of the Bible in Vanity Fair?[1] Who would have guessed? The range of coverage of this KJV anniversary is a testimony to the enduring influence of this remarkable translation.[2] There is even an iPhone and iPad app created in cooperation with Oxford University’s Bodleian Libraries titled, “The Making of the King James Bible.”

In the absence of believing the anachronism that “if the King James Version (KJV) was good enough for Paul then it’s good enough for me,” there are many excellent reasons for church officers to be familiar with, and appreciate, the KJV.

First, is its pervasive and continuing influence on the English language. No one can claim to be well educated without a knowledge of the KJV.

Second, is its oral excellence. I have recently read the KJV for a “Lessons and Carols” service and can attest to its effectiveness. When the title page says “Appointed to be Read in Churches,” it meant read aloud, not silently and privately. It is clearly translated to accommodate this primary function. Its rhythm and power have never, in my opinion, been equaled among English Bible translations. It had the advantage of being translated at the apogee of English, both oral and printed, as the Shakespearean corpus attests. The Bard died just five years after the publication of the KJV, and the famous First Folio of his works was published in 1623.[3] Reading the KJV aloud, even if never used in the modern pulpit, is a useful exercise for young preachers. As Gordon Campbell so well puts it,

The rhythm of its sentences and its punctuation are designed to facilitate reading aloud, and the pulse of its prose, together with the simplicity of its vocabulary, make it the translation most easily committed to memory.[4]

Third, and most important, is its strong influence on the best modern translations. Because of its continued life in the mind of the English speaking church, translators have left much of its language intact, apart from obvious archaisms, especially in the most familiar passages. Psalm 23:1 is identical in the modern English Standard Version, “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.” Only the punctuation is different—the 1611 KJV having a comma instead of the semicolon. As I have read Psalms and Ephesians it is notable that the cadences of the KJV have been largely retained in the best modern translations, like the ESV. The eleven page “The Translators to the Reader,” after the dedication to the king, provides a wealth of information on the theory of translation employed by the translators.

The text is from the first printing of the first edition and is the most authoritative text printed since then.

The text of the 1611 edition differs from modern editions of the King James Version in thousands of details, and this edition is the most authentic version of the original text that has ever been published. It follows the 1611 text page-for-page and line-for-line, reproducing all misprints rather than correcting them. The volume also reprints the large body of preliminary matter, which includes genealogies, maps, and lists of readings, as well as the translator’s preface to the reader. The text features an easy-to-read modern font instead of the black-letter type of the original, with the exception of the original decorative letters and early page ornaments, which have been reproduced.[5]

The first edition is well-known for several obvious typographical errors, the most noteworthy of which gives the first printing its famous name, the “Great He Bible.” Ruth 3:15 misprints he where it should be she, referring to Ruth, “… and he went into the citie.” Subsequent printings are referred to as the “She Bible.”

Oddities retained in the text for authenticity will be of interest to the historian and will take getting used to for the reader. Campbell goes into great detail enumerating the most important examples in his essay and his book about the KJV reviewed below. As an antiquarian book collector I barely notice the “s” printed like an “f” (only with the cross bar on the left of the letter’s stem, not on the right).[6] Then there is the “u” printed as “v” and vice versa. An extreme example of this quirk is “vniust” for “unjust” in Psalm 43:1. A few pages of reading and the possible annoyance disappears. Also, spelling is very irregular, since no standard dictionary had yet been published in 1611, although many were in existence at the time the KJV was published. These tended to focus on obscure and difficult words, rather than present usage. It would not be until Samuel Johnson published his fabled A Dictionary of the English Language in 1746 that a comprehensive lexicon of English would be available.

So, for example, in Psalm 33:10-11 counsel is spelled in two quite different ways, “counsell” and “counsaile.” Then there are the Roman numerals, providing good mental exercise for those who have forgotten the simple math involved in deciphering them. But watch out for the number “4,” it is not “IV,” but rather “IIII.” The pleasure is well worth the effort.

Few words have actually been changed. One example is Psalm 55:6 where the 1611 has “O that I had wings like a doue; for then would I flee away and be at rest,” whereas the 1769 version has “Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest.” Most grammatical changes are minor. In Psalm 83:2 the 1611 has “have lift up,” where the later revision has “lifted.” Other curiosities include the future of the verb to be included in a single word. In Psalm 87:5 “shall be” is “shalbe,” and “will be” is “wilbe” in Psalm 84:4.

Readers may be thankful that the text is not in the black-letter type of the original. The original 1611 was printed in black letter type—German as opposed to the Roman letters we are used to. The first edition printed in Roman type was the 1613 (New Testament 1612) edition printed in quarto size rather than the larger folio or pulpit size. Black-letter type was also known as Gothic script, the common type of Western Europe at the time. Note the photographs of two pages of the first edition below in Gothic type. The edition under review is unique because the text is the 1833 Oxford edition in Roman type, precisely duplicating every word and letter of the first 1611 printing (known as the “He Bible”) for research purposes, but incorporates the decorative initial capitals, which had been left out in the 1833 edition.

What most readers of the KJV today do not realize is that the 1611 text changed many times, until 1769 when it reached the form in which it is most commonly published today. One example demonstrates that some of these changes affect the meaning. In Matthew 16:16 the 1611 version has “Thou art Christ,” whereas 1769 has “Thou art the Christ.”[7] This change in emphasis may be subtle, but it punctuates the importance and uniqueness of Jesus’s mediatorial office.

The physical properties of this facsimile edition are nothing less than exquisite, designed to delight bibliophiles. Its dark brown leather covered board covers enclose the 1520 signature bound pages. The best of the printer’s craft is exhibited in the gilt tooled binding and slip case, with a lovely gilt tooled Oxford insignia Dominus illuminatio mea (The Lord is my light) on the front cover, red cloth head and tail pieces, and two red ribbon markers, one for each testament. Collectors, and those interested in typography, will especially enjoy the original decorative letters and early page ornaments, often called printer’s devices, throughout. For example, Luke’s Gospel “opens with an initial F that shows the evangelist sitting at his desk, beside which sits an ox, Luke’s traditional emblem.”[8] The handmade look of early printing—1611 was a mere century beyond the incunabula period—is aesthetically delightful. The paper is a fine quality 50 gsm Chinese Thinprint, gilt edge three sides.

The page size of this edition is 8″ x 10 ½” with the original being 10 ½” x 15 ¼”; with the text 5 ¾” x 8 ¾” with the original being 9″ x 14 ¼”. The large original size, commonly called a folio, because it was a single folded printer’s sheet, is a reminder that this was not a Bible intended for private reading, but to be read in the pulpit. Curiously the size given by Oxford is 6 ½” x 9 “. It is not specified what this refers to, but buyers should be aware that this book is roughly the size of most pulpit Bibles. The cover is 10 ?” x 8 ¾” with pages 10 ¼” x 8 ?”.

The informative, concluding essay on the first edition of the King James Bible is by Gordon Campbell, professor of Renaissance Studies, Department of English, University of Leicester.

For those interested in an aesthetic and historical treasure, the late Lewis Lupton’s (1909-95) twenty-five volume A History of the Geneva Bible (London: Fauconberg Press; The Olive Tree, 1966-94) is worth purchasing. Lupton was an artist who began by designing the original volume and adding more and more art work with each volume, until in volume eight he began doing the entire text in calligraphy, and so for the remaining volumes.

The following three books under review, one a legacy, and two the story of the KJV, each in different ways elucidate the three benefits of familiarity with this great translation stated above.

Translation History

The companion volume to the Oxford four hundredth anniversary edition of the KJV is Gordon Campbell’s Bible: The Story of the King James Version, 1611-2011. Campbell is an expert in Renaissance studies and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. His book is a detailed history of the transmission of the KJV text, especially focusing on its subsequent history.

While briefly covering the precursors of the KJV, Campbell focuses in great detail on the actual production of the translation. An appendix details the six companies of translators, as well as giving brief descriptions of each translator (276-94). Campbell explores such details as the “Instructions and Procedures” required by Bishop Bancroft (35-42). Of special importance is the attitude of the translators expressed in the “Translators to the Reader” by Miles Smith. The aspiration of the translators was not “to make a new translation, nor yet to make a bad one a good one … but to make a good one better” (65).

The intention was to revise the Bishop’s Bible, strengthening the king as divinely appointed, and the position of the episcopacy, as evidenced by the inclusion of words like “bishop” and “church.” The strict exclusion of interpretive notes, which distinguished the Geneva Bible as a kind of first study Bible, was intended to blunt Puritan ascendency. The presence of the KJV in the extensive proof texts of the Westminster Confession of faith and catechisms over three decades later proved that the Puritans could not be so easily thwarted.

The remaining 60 percent of the book goes on to chronicle the revision of the KJV, culminating in the 1769 edition being printed today, and its influence in the English speaking world. After 1660 the KJV was accepted by Protestants of all persuasions (127). Campbell is especially expert in covering the history of the printing of the KJV, focusing on the famous university presses of Oxford and Cambridge.

Campbell concentrates on the influence of the KJV on American religious history. He corrects assumptions such as the place of the Geneva Bible in the colonial era. He claims that the “famous Mayflower Bible of 1588 now in the Harry Ransom Library at the University of Texas is a fake” (194). He goes on to assert that, whichever Bible they settled with, the KJV was the only version available by the mid seventeenth century. The KJV was perfectly suited to the emotional revivalism of the two Great Awakenings (195- 96). His brief, wide-ranging survey covers the political influence of the KJV to the present day, as well as uniquely American phenomena like the King James Only movement.

The remainder of the book covers revisions and various editions, especially in America, including the Scofield Bible, with a brief, but very intriguing coverage of the KJV as literature (248-58). He concludes this section with T. S. Eliot’s and C. S. Lewis’s impassioned insistence that the KJV is first and foremost the Word of God (255-57).

Donald Brake’s A Visual History of the King James Bible is—for those who enjoy such things—the most aesthetically pleasing of the three volumes. It is printed on fine paper, bound in signature, with beautiful graphics—much of which are in color—and typography, including many lovely illustrations by the illustrator Lewis Lupton, whom Brake memorializes (69). Baker is to be commended for this exceptional tribute to the enduring KJV translation.

Brake’s book is also a great story, well told. The text is interspersed with well-placed asides and illustrations. It is a wealth of information with numerous charts and chronologies, many comparing various translations with the KJV. Brake’s own passion for Bible collecting is artfully interwoven with the history of the KJV.

The background story Brake provides is unique to the three books reviewed, especially in the development of the English language through its three periods. His coverage of predecessor translations, giving due place to Tyndale (which all three books do well) is the most extensive of the three books.

As to the translation of the KJV itself Brake gives coverage as extensive as Campbell on the companies and the individual translators, as well as the prescribed translation principles given by Bishop Bancroft. Brake’s chapter on the use of the original languages favors the Textus Receptus (the Greek text used by the KJV translators), but makes for interesting reading. As Ryken points out, the differences between the Textus Receptus and the modern eclectic text are relatively minor (64).

The history of the initial printing and especially the formatting and typography described in chapter 9, “Maps, Margins, and Mythology: The Formatting of an English Treasure,” as well as his coverage of subsequent editions, is substantially enhanced by the plethora of photographs of the originals.

Unlike Ryken, Brake ends up endorsing the KJV as appropriate for the modern reader, without seriously considering other modern translations, although he does mention the New King James Version (222-24). He favors the criticism of the NKJV that the language is “neither seventeen century nor twentieth century” (223). But, as Ryken points out neither was the KJV entirely in sync with contemporary usage. Oddly Brake claims that the NKJV translators used the “dynamic equivalence” theory of translation. This is simply not the case. Ryken does what I think more prudent in demonstrating the pedigree of the English Standard Version as a direct descendent of the translating principles of the KJV and thus worthy of our contemporary use. He properly places the NKJV in this lineage.

Translation Philosophy and Influence

Leland Ryken, professor of English at Wheaton College for the past forty-three years, has focused on the English Bible, its translation and influence, for most of that span.[9] Few are better qualified to assess the translation theory and ecclesiastical and literary influences of the KJV.

Whereas Campbell and Brake recount the history of the KJV, Ryken concentrates on the influence of the KJV on Bible translation, and the language and literature of the English speaking world.

Even in recounting the history of translation in Part One, Ryken sets out on his didactic mission: to demonstrate the principles of excellent Bible translation (27-29). Faithfulness to the “actual words” of the original languages along with the use of “standard formal English” is critical. Throughout the book Ryken cautions the reader against the reigning translation philosophy of “dynamic equivalence,” as well as vernacular style, convincingly and relentlessly upending the conventional wisdom on what constitutes good popular style. Early on Ryken lays down the gauntlet by stating that there is

an important principle of Bible translation at stake here, namely, continuity with the main stream of English Bible translation versus the quest for originality and novelty (a deliberate attempt not to be like previous English translations). (57)

And, one might add, often motivated by marketing analysis to increase sales. As the preface to the 1611 edition indicates, the KJV was a refinement on the excellent work that preceded it, especially in the work of Tyndale, Coverdale, and the Geneva translators (57-8).

The KJV was “preeminently a translation for public use” (60). Thus oral style that would be heard in worship as “authoritative and beautiful … dignity and eloquence” (60-1) was paramount in the work of the translators. The “effect was oracular” (61). Ryken’s immersion in English literature shines through in passages dealing with literary style. But his commitment to plenary verbal inspiration is equally evident as he pleads for a translation principle of “verbal equivalence” (61). He puts the lie to the fallacious idea—which becomes one side of a false dichotomy—that literal adherence to the original languages gives birth to a wooden style. Leaving interpretive choices that reside in the ambiguities of the original to the preacher and reader, along with “retention of theological vocabulary” (80), set this tradition apart from the majority of modern translations. This lineage leads directly from the KJV to the Revised Standard Version of 1952, the New King James Bible of 1983, and the English Standard Version of 2001. Ryken underplays the complaints many have had with the sometimes obvious liberal bias of the RSV translators in texts such as Romans 9:5. However, this does not undermine Ryken’s point about the importance of translating the actual words of the text instead of “destabilizing” the text with dynamic equivalence, as is the pervasive modern tendency. Ryken nicely labels the conservative approach “essentially literal” and “complete equivalence” (76-77) to distance this approach from the woodenly literal—reading poorly aloud. Precision of translation is first, then “majesty of style” must follow.

Quoting from Alister McGrath, Ryken shows the need for modern translation, “Translations eventually require revision, not necessarily because they are defective, but because … language changes over time” (73).[10]

Chapters 6 and 7 explore the KJV influence on language, education, religion, and culture. This makes for fascinating reading, especially the inclusion of a section on the KJV influence on non-western cultures (87-89). The remainder of the book explores one of Ryken’s favorite subjects: the literary value of the KJV and its influence on English literature. Ryken brilliantly asserts that the nature of the Bible itself is literary and thus a good translation simply preserves this.

The idea of the Bible-as-literature can be traced back to the Bible itself. The writer of Ecclesiastes gives us a self-portrait of the writer as a self-conscious composer, very interested in form and style as well as content: “Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth” (Eccles. 12:9-10). (121)

The KJV is the only literary masterpiece to be produced by a committee (actually six committees and forty-seven translators), although that was not their aim (123). The explanation for this is the literary context of high humanism in which each translator had been nurtured. Clarity and beauty were highly esteemed. Aesthetic standards existed (124-27). Ryken sustains a detailed discussion of the prose and poetic style of the KJV. It seems that the modern penchant for the language of the street sets up a false dichotomy between abstract academic language and everyday speech. Ryken is especially superb in these sections of the book, bringing many examples to bear on his crisp assertions, to demonstrate that the banal flatness of modern translations does a great disservice to the high voltage of the language of the KJV, especially its poetry, which makes up a third of the Bible. “Come to me, all of you who are tired and have heavy loads, and I will give you rest” (New Century Version, 1986, 151). Many modern translators are the bland leading the bland. Ryken sums the problem up nicely before launching into the solution,

One of the tricks that modern colloquializing translators try to play on a gullible public is to claim that the simple vocabulary of much of the Bible proves that translations should sound like everyday colloquial speech. But this does not follow at all: simple can be a form of beauty and elegance as well as the low and common. (154)

Literary critic Northrop Frye says it well, “The simplicity of the Bible is the simplicity of majesty, not of equality, much less of naiveté: its simplicity expresses the voice of authority.” (154). Similar appreciations are enumerated by Ryken followed by an extensive display of literary influence from the sixteenth century to the present. This is very instructive and pure pleasure. But in the end, all of this is placed in the service of the Scripture as the Word of God. This is evident in the conclusion in which Ryken laments a threefold loss. The loss of a common English Bible has lead to the loss of the Bible’s authority, which in turn has lead to a decline in biblical literacy (230). So we must hold on to what is excellent about the KJV (231).

Further reading at the end of each chapter, as well as thorough general and Scripture indexes, make the book very accessible. Endnotes—a pet peeve of mine—at least have page ranges in the header.


The importance of this anniversary, and the translation we are celebrating, for our ministries as church officers cannot be overstated. First, among the plethora of modern translations—forty-eight in the United States since the translation of the Good News Bible in 1966[11]—officers need to teach congregations what constitutes a good translation and why, demonstrating the weaknesses of the translation philosophy of dynamic equivalence and its “vulgar, trivial, and pedantic” progeny. “It would … be good if those who have authority to translate a dead language could show understanding and appreciation of their own.”[12] Preachers, for their part, should learn the power of the oral structure, the rhythms, and cadences of the King James English, translated primarily to be read aloud in churches. The beachhead of the war on biblical illiteracy is first and foremost in the public reading and preaching of the Word of God.


[1] Christopher Hitchens, “When the King Saved God,” Vanity Fair (May 2011): 114-120.

[2] Cf. for books, besides those reviewed in this article: David Norton, The King James Bible: A Short History from Tyndale to Today (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011); David Crystal, Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press); Hannibal Hamlin and Norman W. Jones, eds., The King James Bible after 400 Years: Literary, Linguistic, and Cultural Influences (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010). Cf. for periodicals: Verlyn Klinkenborg, “The King James Bible at 400,” The New York Times (NY ed. January 9, 2011): WK9; Robert Alter, “The Good Book’s Great Prose Lessons,” The Wall Street Journal (March 5-6, 2011): C12; Charles McGrath, “Thou Shalt Not Be Colloquial,” The New York Times (NY ed. April 24, 2011): WK3; Mark Noll, “A World Without the KJV: Where Would We Be Without the Most Popular English Bible Ever?” Christianity Today (May 2011): 30-37; Barton Swaim, “God’s English: The Making and Endurance of the King James Bible, 1611-2011,” Touchstone (May/June 2011): 23-28; Barrymore Laurence Scherer, “Four Centuries of Love and Suffering for the Word,” The Wall Street Journal (August 3, 2011): D5; Leland Ryken, “How We Got the Best-Selling Book of All Time,” The Wall Street Journal (August 27, 2011): A13.

[3] For those interested in facsimile editions of important English printed books, see Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, a facsimile edition prepared by Helga Kokeritz (New Have: Yale University Press, 1954). Later printings are readily available on the used market.

[4] Page 4 of the concluding essay. The pages are not numbered since they follow the unpaginated text of the King James Bible.


[6] There is a minor inconsistency in the 1833 Roman Type facsimile of the true first edition of the KJV. In the original Gothic type is used for the text of Scripture, but Roman type is used for chapter summaries and marginal notes and references. In these where “s” is printed like an “f” it occurs everywhere but the final “s.” This is typical of this period of printing. This is also the case in the Gothic text, but a detail not reflected in the 1833 facsimile, as far as I can tell, except in the headers on each page.

[7] Page 9 of the concluding essay.

[8] Ibid., 4.

[9] Leland Ryken, The ESV and the English Bible Legacy (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011); Understanding English Bible Translation: The Case for an Essentially Literal Approach (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009); contributor to Translating Truth: The Case for Essentially Literal Bible Translation (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005); Choosing a Bible: Understanding Bible Translation Differences (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005); The Word of God in English: Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002); coauthor of A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993); Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992); Words of Life: A Literary Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987); The New Testament in Literary Criticism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985); How to Read the Bible as Literature (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984); The Literature of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974).

[10] Alister McGrath, In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How it Changed a Language, a Nation, and a Culture (New York: Anchor, 2001).

[11] Hitchens, “When the King Saved God,” 120.

[12] Hitchens, “When the King Saved God,” quoting T. S. Eliot’s comments on the New English Bible, 120.

Ordained Servant Online, October 2011.