King James Bible Turns 400

One of the most popular books ever turns 400. And there is more to it than religion

Jasodhara Banerjee
Published: May 13, 2011 06:42:20 AM IST
Updated: May 13, 2011 08:59:24 AM IST
King James Bible Turns 400
Image: Fred de Noyelle / Godong / Corbis

  • The King James Bible was completed by the Church of England in 1611, under the reign of King James I (he didn’t actually write it). Its aim was to address the problems pointed out by the Puritans in the earlier two translations of the Bible and was an attempt by the king to walk the fine balance between opposing factions within the church.
 

  • Although the Bible is taken to be one of the all-time top-selling books in the world, it met with a barrage of criticism in its first 150 years. But over the decades, the King James version became such an integral part of the English language that Alister McGrath, head of the Centre for Theology, Religion and Culture at London’s King’s College, said, “For nearly two centuries, most of its readers were unaware that they were reading a translation.”

  • English idioms — ‘falling flat on your face’, ‘by the skin of your teeth’, — are literal translations of Hebrew phrases and entered the English language because of the King James Bible. Shakespeare wrote most of his plays before the Bible was printed, which is why you will not find any such metaphor in Shakespeare’s works. This Bible is the single largest source of idioms — 257 in all — in the English language.

  • The King James Bible, through many of its reprints, has carried some hilarious typographical errors. In 1631, the seventh commandment read “Thou shalt commit adultery”, omitting a crucial “not” from the line. The printers were fined £300 and most of the copies, recalled immediately. Only 11 copies are known to exist today. In 1717, the chapter heading for Luke 20 says “The Parable of the Vinegar” instead of “The Parable of the Vineyard”.

  • The prose in the King James Bible has also been subject to parody. One of the most common ones is “Roosevelt is my shepherd, I shalt not want” instead of the 23rd psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shalt not want.”

  • In the UK, the rights to the King James Bible is held by the British Crown. The office of the Queen’s Printer has been associated with the right to reproduce the Bible for centuries. The earliest reference to the printer was made in 1577. In most of the world, the King James Bible can be freely reproduced.

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(This story appears in the 20 May, 2011 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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