Authorized Version

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The Authorized Version, King James Version, King James Bible or Authorized King James Version is an English translation of the Bible commissioned by King James I of England (James VI of Scotland) and first published in 1611. It is in a sense the official Bible of the Church of England. For about three centuries it was the English Protestant Bible, and may well still be the most read translation. Its literary qualities have been widely praised, even by some unbelievers.


The original 1611 title reads as follows:

"THE HOLY BIBLE, Conteyning the Old Testament, AND THE NEW: Newly Translated out of the Originall tongues: & with the former Translations diligently compared and reuised, by his Maiesties speciall Cõmandement."

As can be seen, there is no specific title for this particular translation. Over the centuries it was occasionally referred to by various names or descriptions, but its effective monopoly meant that such identifiers were not really needed and not often used. It was only with the issuing of the Revised Version starting in 1881 that it became common to use an identifying name. It is often said that the title is Authorized Version in Britain, King James Version in America. The reality now, however, seems to be more complicated.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the rights in the translation are exercised (on behalf of the Crown) by Oxford and Cambridge University Presses. The latter titles its editions King James Version except for a reprint of a 1909 edition titled Authorised Version. Oxford uses either King James Version or Authorized King James Version, as do (Harper)Collins, who exercise the corresponding rights in Scotland. There are also editions from other publishers licensed by the rights-holders, but it looks like the majority of British editions are called KJV, and most of the others AKJV, with AV rare.

Dictionaries, on the other hand, seem to depart from the common view in the opposite direction. AV is given as the main name, not only in major British dictionaries (Chambers, Collins, Oxford), but also in major American ones (Merriam-Webster and; American Heritage gives KJB). One possible explanation for this discrepancy is that dictionaries tend to give preference to "educated" or "correct" usage, while publishers pitch themselves at the mass market.

It would seem that Authorized Version is the legal name, at least in Britain where it has legal status. CUP's legal notice at [2] uses that name, and Halsbury's Laws of England[1] spells it Authorised Version.


The first printed English Bible appeared in 1535.[2] It was translated from German and Latin by Miles Coverdale, making much use of published translations by William Tyndale of the New Testament and some of the Old. A revision of this was produced in 1537 by Thomas Matthew (thought to be a pseudonym of John Rogers), making use of unpublished manuscript translations of more of the Old Testament by Tyndale. This in turn was the basis of a revision by Coverdale published in 1539. This "Great Bible" was authorized by Henry VIII as the source for Bible readings in church. It was replaced in 1568 by the "Bishops' Bible", revised by a group of bishops, for the first time in this sequence of revisions checking against the "original"[3] languages. It was the Bishops' Bible that served as the main basis for the AV.

In 1604 King James held a conference at Hampton Court to discuss various issues facing the Church of England. One decision that came out of this was the commission for this translation. About 50 translators were recruited, grouped in six committees in Oxford, Cambridge and Westminster. The Bible was divided into six corresponding portions. Another committee selected from the translators then revised the final product. Although the AV was a revision of the Bishops' Bible, the translators made much use of the Geneva Bible, and even took some phrasing from the (Roman Catholic) Douai Bible.


The 1st edition, published in 1611, included the Apocrypha. The 16th-century Puritans had included the Apocrypha in their Geneva Bible, but their successors progressively developed a more negative attitude. Even while the AV was being prepared there were some objections to their inclusion. In addition to theological objections, omission of the Apocrypha would reduce printing and distribution costs. From this combination of causes, over the centuries, more and more editions were issued omitting the Apocrypha. One watershed in this process was when, in the 1820s, the Scots bullied the Bible Society into adopting a rule barring any support for foreign Bible Societies that included the Apocrypha in any of their bibles.[4] Nowadays, very few editions still include them (see /Bibliography for an attempt at a full listing). These, however, now include two reasonably cheap paperbacks, in the Oxford World's Classics and Penguin Classics series.

In addition to title page and table of contents, the preliminary pages of the 1611 edition comprised dedication to King James, translators' foreword, calendar and lectionary, genealogies, and gazetteer and map. Most modern reprints omit these.

The 1st edition included marginal notes, and summaries at the beginnings of chapters, and at tops of pages (these latter do not appear in the Apocrypha, where the pageheads just say "Apocrypha"; this seems to be the only indication in the 1611 Bible that the Apocrypha are any different from the rest), which are also omitted from most recent editions.

Note also that the dates appearing in the margins of many old Bibles (putting the Creation in 4004 BC, for example) are not part of the 1611 Bible but later additions.


Strictly speaking it might be said that there is no such thing as "the" Authorized Version. Even copies of the original 1611 issue differ, owing to the way printing was organized at that period. For example, in one passage copies vary between "him" and "them". In 1611 spelling was arbitrary: Shakespeare didn't even spell his own name consistently, and compositors regularly adjusted spelling to justify lines. Different spellings of the same word can be found in close proximity in the 1st edition. Furthermore, the 1611 Bible was written in a 24-letter alphabet, with i/j and u/v as positional variants only (note for example "reuised" and "Maiesties" in the title quoted above).

A second printing in the same year changed "he" to "she" in one passage, along with many other changes. Similar changes were made in other early editions issued by the King's Printers (for England; the first Scottish edition did not appear until 1633). By the end of 1613, 11 printings had already been issued. Such changes were intended to correct what were considered misprints; they were usually but not always correct in their judgments; there is evidence that they consulted translators in some cases, but translators' notes rediscovered in modern times show that some of the readings they "corrected" were intended by the translators.

After a court case established the universities' rights to issue their own bibles, Cambridge started to exercise that right. The 1629 Cambridge edition made more changes than any other in the evolution of the standard text. For example, in a number of passages where the 1611 text had translated freely, giving a literal version in a note, the literal version replaced the free one, and some other "corrections" were made. The modern 26-letter alphabet was used for the first time. Another Cambridge edition appeared in 1638, continuing this process. It became the standard text for over a century.

Eventually the text was largely standardized in the 1760s, with Parris's Cambridge edition of 1760, and Blayney's Oxford edition of 1769, which largely followed it. These editions continued the process of making the translation more literal. Spelling was standardized, something that was happening in the English language generally over the same period. Also made consistent was the use of 2nd-person plural pronouns, with "ye" for nominative and vocative, "you" for accusative and dative. The language was partially updated, with some obsolete words ("sith", "sithen") removed, and "it" as genitive changed to "its". Most modern editions are based on the 1769 text, though not identical to it. The current Oxford text has a few dozen differences from it, and the Cambidge text has a few differences from the Oxford one, now confined to the Apocrypha after Cambridge removed the last of its differences elsewhere in 1985. The traditional American text differs rather more, changing the spelling of some proper names and continuing the partial updating of the English rather more (e.g. "astonied" to "astonished"). It was compiled by the American Bible Society in the middle of the 19th century, and mostly uses 19th-century spelling, as against the 18th-century spelling of the standard British editions.

A new edition appeared in 1873, the Cambridge Paragraph Bible, edited by F.H.A. Scrivener. This took its name from its abandonment of the original format in numbered prose "verses" in favour of a modern arrangement in paragraphs of prose and lines of poetry.[5] It significantly changed the text as well as the format; like earlier editors, Scrivener felt free to change what he regarded as mistakes by the translators, not just the printers. It was recently adopted as the basis for Zondervan's KJV.

David Norton's New Cambridge Paragraph Bible of 2005 is not a revision of Scrivener, though it has similarities. Its objective is to undo all editorial changes from 1611 on, to reconstruct what the translators intended to be printed by comparing surviving copies and translators' notes, and then to carry out a partial update of the English. For example, the weak past tense "digged" is replaced by the strong form "dug". On the other hand, other archaisms, such as "thou", are retained. As "thou" went out of standard English usage[6] in the 17th century and "dug" is not recorded before the 18th, the NCPB seems to be written in a form of the language that was never standard English at any point in history. Spelling is fully updated. He classifies "digged" to "dug" as a spelling change, for example, though others might call it a change of grammatical form; Norton claims to be making only the former throughout, never the latter.

Religious status

There is in fact no surviving documentation to prove this translation was ever actually officially "authorized". However, the Privy Council records for this period are lost, so the negative can also not be proved. Certainly the Church of England behaved as if it had been so authorized, using it for scripture readings in church services. The 1662 revision of the Book of Common Prayer used it for its scripture quotations, though the incorporated psalter was that of the Great Bible. In practice the AV came to be regarded as the official Bible of the Church of England, and in some sense still is. As an official document of the state religion it is crown copyright, though of course this has no force in other countries. The Sovereign is presented with a copy of it at the coronation (including the Apocrypha).

However, in 1965, Parliament authorized some alternative services, and in 1974 it repealed the main parts of the Acts of Uniformity (both changes at the request of the Church), so that use of the BCP is no longer obligatory, and its use has declined to about 3% (though this includes most cathedral services); use of the AV has declined along with it. In practice, then, its main public religious use is now outside the Church of England, among some churches of a more or less fundamentalist inclination, mainly in the USA, but also including the church founded by the late Ian Paisley in Northern Ireland. Some of these groups, in practice, sometimes even in theory, treat the KJV as itself infallible[7] (though not of course the Apocrypha, of whose very existence they are often unaware).

Literary aspects

The AV displaced the Geneva Bible in popularity in a few decades, but took longer to win over literary critics. By the 1760s, however, the Bible and Shakespeare were "canonized" as the two Great Books in English. This is still true to some extent; see for example Desert Island Discs. Even the atheist writer Philip Pullman has supported the teaching of the AV in schools for its poetic language. On the other hand the Christian critic C.S. Lewis said there was nothing particularly special about this translation, that its literary qualities were largely derived from the originals, and that any good translation would be about as good. The Christian poet T.S. Eliot held a similar position.

In response to the question of how a committee process could produce great literature, it has been argued that despite all the revisions the AV is mainly the work of Tyndale and Coverdale. However, figures for the contributions of different translations vary widely.

The AV translates a good deal more literally than most modern versions (perhaps they had more faith in God's ability to make his meaning clear as and when he thought fit). The result is inevitably not idiomatic English a lot of the time, though some literal translations have become adopted into the language, e.g. "gave up the ghost".

The translation was made from Hebrew, Greek, Latin and Aramaic, from prose and poetry, etc., but it was put into a uniform format of numbered prose "verses" and a fairly uniform style of English. It has been suggested this was a deliberate policy to present an appearance of unity in the Bible.

Later derivatives

In the late 19th century the Church of England commissioned the Revised Version, which was prepared by a variety of scholars from various Protestant churches in Britain and America. There were some disagreements across the Atlantic, and a separate American Standard Version was published. The US copyright in this was held by the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA,[8] which commissioned a revision. This Revised Standard Version appeared in the middle of the 20th century, and was the first to make a real dent in the AV market share.[9] It has now been further revised as the New Revised Standard Version, this time including Catholic, Orthodox and Jewish translators.

A different type of revision, represented for example by the New King James Version, is based, not on correcting the KJV in the light of modern scholarship, but simply on updating its English. The NKJV is effectively just a translation of the KJV into modern English, but omitting the Apocrypha.[10]

Some useful information

Most editions follow certain typographical conventions:

  • Typographical distinctions, usually italic, are used to indicate words that are not present in the original but are added to make sense in English. This was done very inconsistently in 1611, but later editors tried to improve this. The NCPB abandons the practice.
  • Capital letters are used for LORD (or occasionally GOD) when it translates the Tetragrammaton.[11]

The 1611 edition, followed by most subsequent ones, omits to explain these to the reader, which seems to defeat the object of providing this information.


  1. volume 9(2), 1998 edition, page 12
  2. The first English Bible was translated from Latin by John Wyclif and others in the 1380s but printed only in 1850.
  3. strictly speaking, oldest surviving: even in the 16th century it was known or believed that parts of the Bible had been translated from subsequently lost texts
  4. repealed in the 1960s
  5. The distinction is not always straightforward. Modern Bibles differ on whether the book of Proverbs is set as poetry or prose.
  6. It survives to this day in some dialects
  7. An extreme example is a body calling itself the Trinitarian Bible Society of Australia, which holds that a particular edition of the AV published by CUP around 1900 is God's final, absolute, perfect and infallible Word to humanity, superseding all other Bibles in all languages, and everyone in the world should learn Shakespearean English to study it.
  8. Like the World Council of Churches, this represents only about a quarter of church membership, mainly "moderate" Protestants but also Eastern Orthodox
  9. The AV was eventually displaced as best-selling version by the New International Version in the late 1980s, but is still the most popular(John Sutherland, A Little History of Literature, Yale, 2013, page 47; [1]).
  10. Perhaps less significant is the Queen James Bible, produced in America in 2012, which alters passages offensive to homosexuals.
  11. In four places AV transcribes the Tetragrammaton as JEHOVAH.