King James Bible 1611 - 2011

This year sees the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible (KJV). The King James version wasn’t the first English Bible by any means or even the most popular version at the time, but its style of language together with research of Bible manuscripts and their original languages (mainly Hebrew and Greek), discoveries of new documents and not least the combined effect of the Renaissance and Reformation – not just in England but across Europe, together with the dramatic development of printing, brought into being the well loved and renowned Bible version we have to this day.


In 1604, King James I of England authorized that an entirely new translation of the Bible into English be started from the original scriptural languages, to take advantage of yet more available manuscripts and increased scholarship over the years. It was finished in 1611, just 85 years after William Tyndale’s first translation of the New Testament into English appeared (1526). Tyndale began work on translating the Bible into English during the early part of Henry’s reign, using Erasmus’ work as a foundation. He worked with the original languages rather than the Latin Bible then still in use. In 1525-6 he published his New Testament and began work on the Old Testament, completing the 1st five books of the Bible (known as the Pentateuch) the following year.

Subsequently, a number of other mainstream Bible translations came into being, each building upon its predecessor as well as other works. In 1535 the Coverdale Bible was published, which used Luther’s German translation, extant Latin Bible and Tyndale’s work. Only 2 years later, Matthew’s Bible used this same material and a further revision followed only 2 years further on. 1537 also saw the publishing of the Great Bible for use in parish churches; essentially a revision of Matthew’s Bible. This was itself the subject of various revisions over later years. By Elizabeth’s time, further English translations had come into being – notably the Geneva Bible (1557 New Testament and full Bible in 1560) which was a great innovation – a “pocket book” Bible that people could carry with them much more easily that the traditional large volumes. This Bible had a strong slant in its interpretation but became very popular. It was a good scholarly work, using original texts, smaller fonts, the familiar verse format of today’s Bibles and highlighted particular words to show that they had been added for emphasis to the original. This particular version was in general use for over 60 years and was probably the version that people such as Shakespeare and other playwrights, writers and notables used. 1568 and 1572 saw the issue and revision of the “Bishops” Bible, a revision of the Great Bible, seeking to correct errors in translation that were identifiable by comparing other versions; and this remained in use until the King James Bible was published in 1611. 

The development of the KJV

After the initial decision in 1604 by King James I, the work started properly in 1607 and the first draft was available in 1609, to be redrafted the following year and finally completed for publication in 1611 – an incredible achievement really! It was a work that effectively had been in development in various guises for nearly 100 years, building upon previous work and research. No further revision was made to it for an amazing 270 years although it was realised that there were translation errors, so some amendments were introduced in the 1700s.

A full revision, known as the Revised Version, was published in 1881. Since that time many, different versions have come into being. A number of them can be seen as milestones in the further development of the English Bible. The New English Bible and Revised Standard Bibles (and subsequent revisions) are good examples, and of course the New King James Version itself. 

The KJV of 1611 became an enduring work in an age when religion mattered to almost everyone in a way that is difficult to appreciate today. When people believed in God and what the scriptures taught, Christian beliefs were part and parcel of daily life. It mattered what was taught and understood. It mattered what people really believed. It influenced their lives, their attitudes their actions – from the highest in the land to the lowliest man or woman. The KJV had an enormous effect on peoples’ lives; its language and terminology may seem archaic today but it was the everyday parlance of ordinary people and its language became entwined into English literature over many generations, not just in England but wherever the Bible was carried into what has become the English-speaking world and is with us today. 

There are various celebrations taking place across the country for all ages, including events at Hampton Court where the translation was commissioned in 1604, and the year will close on 16th November with a service at Westminster Abbey where the Bible’s final editing was completed. For further information visit

(Taken from



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