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Three Myths about the King James Bible

For more on the King James Bible, check out Ryan M. Reeves and Charles Hill, KNOW How We Got Our Bibles (Zondervan, 2018).


George Washington and the apple tree. Julius Caesar born from a C-section, or that Columbus discovered the United States. Some historical myths are harmless even if they are remembered by everyone. Some are worse than others—invented to make something greater than it was or created to make an outright fabrication. But myths are always wrong, no matter how often they are told.

The King James Bible is no exception to this rule. So let’s look at three myths found in popular accounts of the KJV. To be clear, these are not the types of myths said by those who defend KJV-Only views, but rather the king of myths told by many popular accounts today.

1. King James Wanted to Eradicate Puritanism

This is more of a problem of our telling of America’s founding. Especially in school plays or told during Thanksgiving parades, we hear stories of those who were forbidden to practice free religion back in England. At times, it can sound as if the Bible itself was stripped from the hands of believers. I’ve read popular accounts that tell of scores of people executed under Elizabeth I for the simple fact of being Puritan. Elizabethan and Jacobean England starts to sound like Stalinist Russia.

But the situation in England was more about ending dissent than outright persecution. Still, the Anglican church was certain Protestant; only the issues of worship vexed Puritan members. But we must not let the fight between both sides cloud the fact that they were close on most of their theology. One fact I frequently point out is that, in the debate over vestments during the reign of Elizabeth, both sides regularly cited the same sources to make their claim. This was really more a debate among siblings.

More importantly, the Pilgrims who eventually made their way to the new world were not fleeing but were sent. And they were sent by the crown. England was outpaced by Catholic nations in the expansion into the New World. As a result, James took the wise tactic of allowing dissenters from the Anglican church to relocate to North America.

Probably what’s behind this myth are two things: first, the half-remembered facts about Wycliffe in the Middle Ages, or the fact that Tyndale was executed when England was still Catholic. But by the reign of James the spoiled relations with Puritans were not based on outright hatred.

 

2. The Bible Was Authorized by the King

This myth was created due largely to the title used today for the KJV. The King James Bible (in America) or the Authorized Bible (in Britain). Either name is not bad, but it often convinces people that the Bible was somehow the product of the king’s command.

In fact, the king never formally authorized or endorsed the Bible directly. The last Bible in English to receive royal sanction was the Great Bible during the reign of Henry VIII.

Ultimately, James was embarrassed to inherit a divided Anglican church—and he wanted neither side to win at his first meeting with church leaders at Hampton Court. He upbraided both, though he backed the established church. In this, we glimpse some of James’s policy on Puritanism: he decided to hold two apparent contradictions in tension.

Like Elizabeth, he continued to stress the need for conformity to the pattern of Anglicanism, and yet, when reasonable, he would allow more breathing room for those Puritans who felt the established church wounded their conscience.

One may find this a bad gamble on peace, but it is also likely James was exercising good leadership—bending for the sake of those who needed it, not breaking for those who demanded it. At some point, the Puritan John Reynolds, a scholar from Oxford, suggested the idea of approving a new English translation of the Bible. James loved the idea. On the Bible, there was no division: both sides hewed to the Protestant understanding of the Word of God.

 

3. The KJV Was the Same Bible for 300 Years

In fact, many alterations, updates, and improvements were made over the centuries, some small, some large. The main issues were some of the problems in the 1611 edition but also errors in the printing itself. But there were also attempts to update the language starting at least in the 1700s.

What marked the difference between these improvements and later new translations, is the fact that these revisions were done charitably and not as a replacement to the KJV.

The changes made to the KJV are typical for any modern Bible. In most cases, changes were based on a motivation to get beyond 17th-century language. John Wesley, for example, issued a revision of the New Testament, though he avoided associating with the KJV by name. His goal was not to ruin the reputation of the KJV but to make the Bible accessible to new converts.

The important point for today is the fact that the KJV was never considered untouchable until the 20th century. For most of church history, the main complaint was the language, though, after the discovery of older New Testament manuscripts in the 1800s, it became clear a better translation was needed to remove a few passages from the Textus Receptus.


For a video presentation, this video can be found on my YouTube channel

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