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1611 and all that... PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter Johnston   
Sunday, 23 January 2011 23:57

Collection of Bibles

This morning we celebrated the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible which was first published back in 1611. People had been invited to bring along copies of their own KJV Bibles (some of which are seen on the table here along with other 'vernacular' versions of the Bible that I showed to the young people during the service.

We tried a bit of Latin, but rapidly one of our younger members, aged 7, shouted out "I don't understand what that is all about" - a perfect illustration of the need for a copy of the Scriptures written in the language we know and use. It was a privilege to hear some of the stories attached to the Bibles that members brought in, so thanks for the response to that.

During the sermon I drew briefly on an article I had read last week that I reproduce in full below the jump. Please have a read, and if you want to find out more about the King James Version, then have a look at the King James Bible Trust site. [There's more...]

Here is the full article:

The Bible in English - what did it mean?

John Parr observes that the publication of the so-called King James’ Version of the Bible was arguably the most influential publishing event in the English-speaking world.

We can begin to understand why this was so momentous if we look at the text of its title page.

THE HOLY BIBLE: Containing the Old Testament and the New. Newly translated out of the original tongues: and with the former translations diligently compared and revised, by his Majesty’s special commandment. Appointed to be read in churches. Imprinted at London by Robert Barker, Printer to the King’s Most Excellent Majesty.

The ‘former translations’ included the work of Tyndale and Coverdale, combined in the Matthew’s Bible of 1537 and issued in 1539 as the Great Bible, the first to receive the royal imprimatur and to be placed in churches. A translation by Protestant exiles (the Geneva Bible) was the Puritans’ favourite and the Bishops’ Bible of 1568 was supervised by Archbishop Parker. King James’ Bible was more than a light revision, however, and reigned supreme for nearly 300 years as the English Bible as the result of its scholarship.

The new technology of printing met the growing popular demand for reading material in English. Reading meant education and therefore empowerment, as the Bible was wrested from the elites who controlled its interpretation. Erasmus wanted ‘everyone including women, the Scots, the Irish, the Turks and the Saracens’ to read and understand the Bible. ‘I would like the farmer to sing Scripture as he plows, the weaver to hum it as he weaves, the traveller to pass the boredom of his journey with such stories’: as this happened, ordinary people learnt to use the language of the Bible to make sense of a turbulent world. The Bible became so central to national life that Christopher Hill1 can speak of the English inhabiting a Biblical culture. What were its main features?


The first was linguistic. The Bible helped to create the identity of the English language and to ensure its place on the international stage. Increasing exposure to the Bible inspired writers such as Donne, Herbert, Milton, Bunyan and Shakespeare to explore the Bible’s paradoxes, imagery and poetry. Biblical themes were present in popular songs and its words were known through the choral anthems written by Tallis and Byrd.


A second impact widely shared throughout Europe, was as a source for the critique of authorities. Luther’s use of Scripture to criticise the Church of Rome is well known. Wyclif, a teacher of philosophy and theology at Oxford University, criticised the temporal power of the papacy and wealth of the Church. His arguments, inspired by his work of translating the Scriptures into English, led Church authorities to ban unauthorised translations of the Bible. But by 1611 King James could only hope to control the way the English Bible was interpreted. 

Action and attitude

A third feature was the Bible’s capacity to inspire hope and action. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries some saw Wyclif as an example of the way God revealed his purposes first to the English: England was God’s chosen nation, and the Bible’s perspectives on monarchy and idolatry provided ready ammunition for those who wished to attack kings, bishops and popes. The Bible’s depictions of the Garden, the Wilderness and the Hedge were applied both to the need for church discipline and agricultural reform. Biblical Jubilee issued a call to a more just social order. The Millennial Rule of Christ expected a new world to emerge from turmoil, and preachers appealed to Scripture in their calls for action as well as attitude. Yet by the end of the Civil War it was clear that the Bible was amenable to a wide range of political and ecclesiastical interests. Where did this leave the Bible’s authority?
Some hoped that widening access to the Bible would help to settle contentious issues. In the event, the opposite happened. In some ways the vernacular Bible became a victim of its own success, let down by being ‘a huge bran tub from which anything might be drawn’2 . Yet the abiding impression of the Authorised Version is of its continuing influence. Though its language was already out of date when it first appeared, it was unrevised until 1881 and it remains one of the best-selling versions. In 1998 Canongate Books began to publish its award winning series of Pocket Canons, editions of biblical books using the text of the Authorised Version. To date, over a million copies have been sold in sixteen countries. The vernacular Bible still influences popular culture, but in much of the formerly Christian world it no longer provides the language, critique and vision that it once did: compare this with Latin America, where the vernacular Bible has been used extensively in liberation theology. 

A world view

In today’s bookshops, vernacular Bibles sit alongside scriptures of other religions and all kinds of popular wisdom. Perhaps this relocates the role of the Bible. Widening access to the teachings of the major religions shows us that all insist on the importance of compassion. According to Karen Armstrong, ‘an exegesis based on the “principle of charity” would be a spiritual discipline that is deeply needed in our torn and fragmented world. The Bible is in danger of becoming a dead or an irrelevant letter; it is being distorted by claims for its literal infallibility; it is derided – often unfairly – by secular fundamentalists; it is also becoming a toxic arsenal that fuels hatred and sterile polemic. The development of a more compassionate hermeneutic could provide an important counter narrative in our discordant world’.3


1 & 2 Christopher Hill, The English Bible And The Seventeenth-Century Revolution, Allen Lane, 1993

3 Karen Armstrong, The Bible: the Biography, Atlantic Books, 2008.

This resource is taken from www.rootsontheweb.com and is copyright © ROOTS for Churches Ltd 2011.

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