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Champions and Critics of the King James Bible




The translators of the KJB hardly intended for their version to become associated with a political world empire or to become an instrument of oppression. They saw themselves in seventeenth-century England as narrowly escaping tyrannical rule from the Catholic Spanish Empire. They believed God sent the storm that turn back the Spanish Armada in 1588, allowing England to remain a sovereign nation worshipping in the English language and allowing public access to English Scriptures. Yet as with the Septuagint and Vulgate, great versions of the ancient and medieval worlds, the KJB became associated with the political establishment that promoted and valued its language and teachings, and so later generations of readers—whether Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or secular—had very mixed feelings about the magnificence of the KJB and doubted whether it was truly inspired by God.



See Also: Catholic Critics of the King James Bible (Routledge, 2018).



By Ellie Gebarowski-Shafer
Professor of Religion
Middlebury College
November 2017


In the spring of 2017, I received a call from a prison chaplain in Tennessee who had heard about my forthcoming book, Catholic Critics of the King James Bible (2018). He told me about the popularity of the King James Version of the Bible (KJB), first published in 1611, among inmates at his corrections facility and asked if I had an accessible essay for the non-specialist reader that he could share with the men he served. This is that essay. Whether you are a loyal devotional reader of the KJB or a skeptic wanting to know why some Christians regard this version above all others as an inspired, sacred book, I hope you will find this essay informative, especially in light of this year’s anniversary of Luther’s Reformation.

In today’s technology-driven society, the authority of the KJB remains surprisingly strong for many English Bible readers worldwide, with an ever-expanding field of scholarly research to challenge our perceptions of this venerable translation’s global history and development (Duran 2014). The KJB has long been hailed as a monument of literary excellence that has shaped the English language yet perhaps been surpassed in scholarly accuracy and readability by today’s versions, as explored extensively in 400th anniversary academic conferences in 2011 (Hamlin and Jones 2010). Devoted Protestant, born-again readers of the KJB see it as a perfect version that preserves the word of God in a uniquely true and powerful way. So which is it? An examination of early and longstanding critiques of the KJB will help demonstrate its strengths and weaknesses over time, none of which have stood in the way of its becoming one of the three most significant versions of the Judeo-Christian Bible to date, alongside the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate.

This very special version of the Bible emerged after nearly a century of Reformation debate, schism, and war in Europe. On the legendary date celebrated around the world this year—October 31, 1517—theology professor Martin Luther posted a Latin list of disputation theses, seeking to generate formal German university discussion over the sale of indulgences to fund the building of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. Luther opposed the practice and called into question the related Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, which he eventually deemed unscriptural, finding far more biblical evidence of the human soul’s salvation by faith alone, not by participating in church practices developed long after apostolic times. New, vernacular translations of the Bible, based on the Greek and Hebrew texts (rather than the church’s Latin Vulgate) became a hallmark of all the European Reformations, following the precedent set by Luther in his 1522 printed German New Testament (Cameron, ed., 2016). William Tyndale of England used Luther’s German NT and Erasmus’s printed Greek NT of 1516 with Latin translation to render the NT and parts of the OT into English, work for which he lost his life at the hand of English authorities who pursued him into Europe and had him strangled until dead, then burned at the stake near Antwerp. Like early Christians who circulated well-written accounts of martyrdom deaths at the hand of Roman persecutors, early Reformers and English Bible readers venerated Tyndale as a martyr and preserved his translation work in a succession of revised Bible editions throughout the 16th century.

From an English Protestant perspective, a movement toward greater public access to printed vernacular Scriptures in their homeland boded well for positive church reforms and freedom from the teachings of Roman Catholic popes that many English Christians believed to be corrupt. Henry VIII rejected papal spiritual authority for England in 1534, setting up himself as head of the Church of England with power to grant an annulment of his marriage to Spanish Queen Katherine of Aragon. Although he opposed Tyndale due to his teachings against Purgatory and veneration of Saints, when Henry VIII needed an English Bible for the Church of England, he and associates like Thomas Cranmer, the first Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, published revised versions of Tyndale’s translation work. The Great Bible of 1539, with a preface by Cranmer, became the first official Bible of the fledgling Church of England, which was restored to the Roman Catholic communion during the reign of Queen Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. Fearing the annihilation of Bible-affirming Christianity in England, exiles during Mary’s reign revised Tyndale’s work further in Geneva, Switzerland, and added what became a very famous set of annotations, influenced by the Scripture-centered theology of John Calvin (Killeen et al, 2015). Queen Mary’s death in 1558 allowed for her Protestant sister, Elizabeth Tudor (daughter of Anne Boleyn) to ascend the throne for a long and stable reign during which the Bishops’ Bible of 1568 officially replaced the Great Bible but could not compete with the popularity of the Geneva Bible, a favorite of the Puritan faction within the Church of England.

King James VI of Scotland ascended the throne of a divided but by then firmly Protestant England after the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603. Puritans favoring the Geneva Bible and additional Scripture-based reform within the Church of England hoped James I would replace the Bishops’ Bible with the Geneva Bible as the official version instead (Norton 2011). James I had a different plan, calling for a new translation to be made, based on the former versions but compared with the best available Hebrew and Greek texts. Three translation companies of the finest university scholars and pastors of the day, stationed at Oxford, London, and Cambridge, labored to render the most accurate and elegant phrasings of the holy Scriptures into English (Campbell 2010). Although some scholars complained about the final wording of a few passages, the English intellectual community largely accepted the version as a monument of scholarly achievement, well worth the time and effort of dozens of divinity experts over seven years of their lives.

The Protestant reading public, however, took a long time to come to prefer the version of 1611 to the Geneva Bible, and the Roman Catholic community never accepted it, since they had their own English Bible and a different view of Scriptural authority. Puritan readers missed the polemical yet helpful explanatory notes of the Geneva Bible and often remained loyal to that version, which continued to be printed and available through much of the 17th century. Catholic readers had had problems with Protestant vernacular Bibles all along, and they objected to the King James Bible for centuries. It’s important to understand why this particular voice of opposition to the KJB was raised and the impact that it had.

In a time of great social and religious change in Europe, Roman Catholics maintained traditional views about the language and dissemination of the Bible, as well as its canon and interpretation. They believed that the Pope of Rome and his clergy and bishops had the power to determine the meaning of Scripture and apply those teachings in church practices. In the middle of the 15th century, all Bibles in Europe were essentially the same Latin text and relatively rare, but the printing press enabled wider circulation not only of Latin Bibles, which educated elites could read, but also of vernacular translations, most notably in Germany. Catholics in political authority throughout Europe resented the use of new translations as agents for drastic religious reform, sought by Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and many others. At the Council of Trent, which met 1545-63, bishops decreed the Latin Vulgate, thought to have been originally translated by Saint Jerome in the 4th century, to be the authoritative text of Scripture and that any vernacular translations made should be rendered from the Latin text. This is why the KJB, translated from Greek and Hebrew, remained unacceptable to Catholics and incompatible with their religious teachings confirmed at Trent, due to the significant theological problems in key passages.

For example, the KJB, like Tyndale’s NT, contained the word “repent” in Matthew 3:2, whereas the preferred reading in the English Catholic Vulgate-based Rheims NT, published in 1582, was “do penance.” The latter reading conformed to Catholic teaching that the believer’s entire life should be a life of repentance and that certain actions, laid out by the holy Catholic and apostolic church, guided the faithful through the appropriate stages of penance that guaranteed receipt of God’s grace and a heavenly reward. Upon confession of a believer’s sins, the priest might appropriately command the person to perform penitential acts of reciting specific prayers or going on pilgrimage. “Repent,” as rendered by Tyndale from the original Greek and preserved in the KJB remained problematic for Catholics. Seeking forgiveness between the individual and God only, as the word suggests, subverted the divinely ordained role of priests, who carried out holy duties in the unbroken lineage of Jesus as high priest who passed on the keys of his spiritual kingdom to the Apostle Peter. To be properly Christian and guaranteed full salvation, a believer must accept the authority of priests and the penance they may assign for specific sins committed and confessed. Due to this and other offending words that Protestants had for nearly a century used in favor of salvation by individual faith alone kept the KJB off the reading list of English Catholics.

The canon of the KJB also conflicted with a Catholic understanding of the appropriate contents of Scripture. Following Luther’s lead, the KJB translation committees and printers divided the Bible into three sections: Old Testament, Apocrypha, and New Testament. For Catholics, the Bible should only have an Old and New Testament, with the books Protestants deemed “Apocrypha” included in their traditional places within the Old Testament. The discrepancy arose in ancient times when Saint Jerome realized that the Bible of the Jews lacked seven books contained in the Greek Septuagint, an OT version used by early Christians such as Saint Paul in the composition of NT Scripture in Greek. Jerome thought, as did Luther and the KJB translators, this meant that those seven books lacked Hebrew originals and were less authoritative than the rest of the OT Scriptures. Catholics, later deeming the books “Deuterocanonical,” or added to Scripture later, believed the Holy Spirit did speak through those books and that they should be included in the OT, as they were in printed versions of the Latin Vulgate. So the KJB stood out as a specifically Protestant version that rejected wisdom of papal and conciliar decrees, and of longstanding church tradition, in determining the contents or canon of sacred Scripture. In an English church where the monarch ruled over both spiritual and temporal matters, persecuted Roman Catholics adhered to their Scriptural traditions amid a tumultuous period of regional reformations throughout Europe. They rejected England’s new Bible and preferred the translation, explanatory notes, and canonical order of their own English Bible.

While Roman Catholics persecuted Protestants when they could, and Protestants persecuted their own dissenters such as the Puritans (making the American colonies attractive places for families to settle from the 17th century), the monumental KJB eventually became caught up in the crossfires of religious conflict and was stigmatized as an imperial Bible. With the Geneva Bible’s popularity a distant memory in the 19th century, the KJB rose to prominence as the central English-language Bible along with the spread of the global British Empire, where notorious practices of transatlantic slavery and oppression of the Irish remain offensive to this day. Missionary societies such as the British and Foreign Bible Society circulated copies of the KJB and translations in other languages of the world, spreading Protestantism to the same parts of the world where Britain sought to govern. Catholics in Ireland bitterly resented British rule and preferred to receive copies of the Douai-Rheims Bible, but due to strong Protestant views on the canon and translation issues previously mentioned, Bible societies typically provided only the KJB. Allegedly, British Protestant missionaries forced starving Irish people to accept copies of the KJB before they could receive food aid during the Great Hunger. Irish immigrants in the USA arrived with a sense of loathing toward the KJB and campaigned to have it removed from public schools, where they believed their children should be allowed to read from the Douai-Rheims Bible or no Bible at all (Gebarowski-Shafer, 2013). This view of the KJB, as “the devil’s book,” passed on to secular objectors to school Bible readings and prayer. Today, objection to the KJB seems to come from non-believers or liberal Protestants who have rejected beliefs in Christ’s virgin birth, the Resurrection, and the possibility of a soul’s eternal damnation in Hell, yet originally it came from devout Roman Catholics caught up in an unfortunate situation (Gebarowski-Shafer, 2018).

The translators of the KJB hardly intended for their version to become associated with a political world empire or to become an instrument of oppression. They saw themselves in seventeenth-century England as narrowly escaping tyrannical rule from the Catholic Spanish Empire. They believed God sent the storm that turn back the Spanish Armada in 1588, allowing England to remain a sovereign nation worshipping in the English language and allowing public access to English Scriptures. Yet as with the Septuagint and Vulgate, great versions of the ancient and medieval worlds, the KJB became associated with the political establishment that promoted and valued its language and teachings, and so later generations of readers—whether Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or secular—had very mixed feelings about the magnificence of the KJB and doubted whether it was truly inspired by God.

The Catholic perspective of the KJB reminds us why readers today often respond to the antiquated text of the KJB in a variety of ways, from reverence to indifference. We must remember that times of social change involve conservatives seeking to preserve longstanding traditions and texts alongside progressives who welcome change and a fresh take on national and religious values. We should all agree on the significance and remarkable longevity of the KJB, with powerful language that speaks powerfully to many marginalized and incarcerated individuals across the English-speaking world. The Latin Vulgate—whether Saint Jerome’s or an extensive medieval revision—still has a worldwide influence in liturgy, theology, and music. The classic KJB continues to be championed today by many spiritual readers and avid memorizers, and we should expect to see at least another few centuries of the KJB’s influence on English-language prayer and preaching, online and print theology, church music, film culture, and more.



Reference List

Cameron, Euan, ed. The New Cambridge History of the Bible, Volume III: The Early Modern World, c. 1450-1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016)

Campbell, Gordon. Bible: The Story of the King James Version, 1611-2011 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)

Duran, Angelica, ed. The King James Bible Across Borders and Centuries. (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Duquesne University Press, 2014)

Gebarowski-Shafer, Ellie. Catholic Critics of the King James Bible, 1611-1911 (Routledge, forthcoming 2018)

--“The Transatlantic Reach of the Catholic ‘False Translation’ Argument in the School ‘Bible Wars’,” in the US Catholic Historian, 31:3, Summer 2013, pp. 47-76.

Hamlin, Hannibal, and Norman Jones, eds. The King James Bible after 400 Years: Literary, Linguistic, and Cultural Influences (Cambridge UP, 2010)

Killeen, Kevin, Helen Smith, and Rachel Willie, eds. The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in England, c. 1530-1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015)

Norton, David. The King James Bible: A Short History from Tyndale to Today (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011)





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