The Legacy of the King James Bible
Celebrating 400 Years of the Most Influential English Translation

Book Details

Discerning Reader Editorial Review

Reviewed 02/22/2011 by John Bird.

Recommended. A fitting tribute to an epoch-marking advancement in the history of scriptural translation.

This year is the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, which, according to Leland Ryken, is the most influential book of all time. Though he doesn't "believe that the King James Bible is the best translation for a reader today," his book makes it clear that he's a strong advocate for it nonetheless.

Ryken recounts how in 1604, a group of "dejected Puritans" were granted permission by the recently crowned King James I to begin work on a new Bible. The task was not to create a whole new translation, but to revise the 1568 Bishop's Bible, which was the version commonly kept chained in the churches of England for public reading. 

A group of 47 scholars, divided into six committees, worked at Westminster Abbey, Oxford, and Cambridge. The group was diverse - from Puritans to high churchmen - but shared a commitment to accuracy and a dedication to the task, working long hours for little pay in "rooms so cold and damp, except close to the fires, that fingers and joints got stiff." Ryken says that the popular "depiction of the translators 'working in the sumptuous furnishings of the great universities and the royal court' is preposterous."

There is no evidence that the King James received the authorization of the church or king when it was published in 1611. It "was authorized, not by an edict imposed upon the people, but by popular acclamation."

Regarding its accuracy, Ryken writes: "There can be little doubt that when the King James Bible was released in 1611, it was the most accurate English translation in existence." The translators were careful to make sure that "every word in the original biblical text would be represented by an equivalent English word or phrase." This was their main goal. How does Ryken say it compares today?

If we believe that the standard of accuracy is a translation's giving us the words of the original text in equivalent English words, the KJV shows its superior accuracy over modern dynamic equivalent translations on virtually every page of the Bible (and probably multiple times on every page).

Though the KJV is known for being a literal translation, it is best known for its eloquence and beauty, traits that are mostly accidental. Much of the style resulted from the translator's faithfulness to the Hebrew and Greek; what was poetic in the original became poetic in the English. Also, because most of the Bible reading was oral in those days, the translators wanted to ensure that the rhythm flowed "smoothly off the tongue and into the ear of the listener."

Ryken's book concentrates on the King James Version's influence on the English world, from subsequent Bible translations to the various arts: "That the King James Bible has been the largest single influence on the English language is often asserted and can be plausibly inferred...It is from [the KJV] that the English-speaking world learned to read and to think."

The work's influence is especially evident in literature. "I do not remember ever having encountered a member of the literary establishment who preferred any English Bible other than the KJV." Ryken gives sample after sample, his evidence as vast as the influence itself, until his book acts like an anthology.  But it is interesting, and it is important, and Ryken is an English professor after all.

Though Ryken usually writes clearly, his style occasionally departs from the eloquent simplicity of his subject:

The fact that Yeats used a New Testament commonplace of a second coming in a metaphoric sense of the coming age of terror rather than Christ's return at the end of history does not affect my claim that we need to know certain biblical texts before the title means anything.

Ryken answers questions, corrects myths, and gives the Authorized Version the attention and praise that it deserves. I've had the unhappy opportunity to read many of the writings of King James Only advocates. Ryken, though far from that camp, does more to persuade me to return to the Bible of my ancestors than all of those writings combined.

Solomon said, "Of making many books there is no end." I'm afraid that goes for Bible versions, too. But, endless though they may be, there will never be another that surpasses the beauty or influence of the King James Version. Ryken's book convinces us of that; it is a fitting celebration of a most important anniversary.