The KJV Bible, Shakespeare and King James

A commentary by James A Graves, Jr.


I saw a bumper sticker that proclaimed, “The King James Bible is the only Bible!”

Some preachers and churches insist no other version of The Holy Bible is acceptable and, apparently, many Christians believe the KJV Bible to be the true word of god.  But with so many different versions of the Holy Bible available, what makes the KJV Bible the best version?


The King James Version of the Bible was translated into Elizabethan English, so every time I read it, or hear a passage from it, I’m reminded of my high school English class and being forced to study Old English before reading one of Shakespeare’s plays, as he originally wrote it. 

Unfortunately, I found Old English to be incomprehensible and completely frustrating.  I suppose our English teacher’s intent was to show the origin of the English language before delving into pure, unadulterated Shakespeare, but I already had a serious dislike for that flowery, complicated, medieval English dialect referred to as Elizabethan English.


I could never understand what was so romantic about, “O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?” when “Oh, Romeo, Romeo! Where are you, Romeo?” made much more sense.

But then I discovered that I had completely misunderstood what Juliet was saying; 

“O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?” actually means:

“Oh, Romeo, Romeo! why are you Romeo?”

Juliet isn’t calling Romeo, she’s thinking out loud, lamenting her misfortune that Romeo is a Montague – the son of her father's enemy.  At this point in the scene Juliet is at her window overlooking the garden, talking to herself, unaware that Romeo is listening in the shadows.


Additionally, I discovered that in this line Shakespeare uses apostrophe: a figure of speech in which some absent or nonexistent person or thing is addressed as if present and capable of understanding.  (Apostrophe?! I thought an apostrophe was something used in words like “isnt”!)

Then I realized; Good Grief! It just took 92 words to explain a 7-word line of Juliet’s dialogue! 

Imagine how much explaining is necessary for the hidden meanings within all of the dialogue in The Tragedy of Romeo & Juliet… not to mention Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets and 40 comedies, histories, tragedies and poems! It boggles the mind.


My Uncle Frank gave me a KJV edition Bible when I was 16.  When I read it I was truly frustrated to find the same Elizabethan English that I found in medieval literature.  My brain rebelled; No! Not that again!! All of that, “thee” & “thou” & “thence” & “verily”, & “cometh” & “goeth” drives me nuts!


I discovered that I could easily read and understand the New International Version of the Thompson Chain-Reference Bible, a gift years ago from our friends in Ajo, Arizona, Reverend Bob & Wadene Adams.


The NIV Bible was translated from the KJV Bible, although I found that it correctly translates the Sixth Commandment as, “You shall not murder.”, instead of “Thou shalt not kill.”, as in the KJV Bible.


The word “murder” is a big deal because the use of the word “kill” in the sixth commandment was a political tool used by the Church to give more power to the king and the courts when prosecuting someone for killing someone else. 

Since God’s law as translated in the KJV Bible commands that you shall not “kill”, claiming self-defense is virtually useless.  The accused is completely at the mercy of the church, court, or king.  However, the term “murder” suggests willful intent to kill someone for personal gain.  For centuries the misuse of “Thou shalt not kill”, as translated in the KJV Bible, has allowed the persecution and prosecution of many innocent people, including members of law enforcement and the military, for many misguided, and mostly political, reasons. 

Also, pacifists, conscientious objectors, and others, seeking to avoid fighting for their country based on their religious beliefs, claim that it is a mortal sin to kill.  That misconception, based on the mistranslation in the KJV Bible, misconstrues the intent of the Sixth Commandment; killing to survive, protecting and defending yourself, your family, or your fellow citizens, is not murder, and, consequently, is not a sin in the eyes of God.


I also discovered that the New American Standard Bible (NASB) is an original translation from the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts, and is known as the most accurate translation of the 20th century for its reliability and fidelity to the original languages, which is considered to be its greatest strength. 

That description is similar to the description of the Geneva Bible published in 1560.


Certainly, 20th century editions of the KJV Bible do not have the same wording as the 15th century edition (the KJV Bible was first published in 1611), but why, I wondered, do modern publishers of the KJV Bible still hold on to a five hundred year old English dialect that has not been part of written or conversational English in almost two hundred years?


And it becomes somewhat ironic, considering that the KJV Bible was not intended as a study Bible (there were very few marginal notes and no cross references), it is referred to as a “Pulpit Bible”, meant to be read aloud in church by the clergy. 


Why would 21st century Christian leaders (pastors, bishops and such) want to quote to their modern-day English-speaking flock Holy Bible verses in a long-dead medieval dialect knowing full well that the writers of the books of the Holy Bible spoke Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic, and died centuries before the KJV Bible was translated and published?


I also wondered about the title, “Authorized King James Bible”.  Obviously, since James authorized, financed and supervised the translation of the KJV Bible, and considered himself above every other human on earth, he surely made certain that the finished product was titled “The Authorized King James Version”.


But why has that title survived for over 400 years?


Assuming there ever was a suggestion to retitle the KJV Bible, that idea would likely have been crushed, either by the British, owing to their fascination with, and allegiance to, their royals, or by the political power wielded by the Church of England (Anglican Church).  Shortly after the KJV Bible was published in 1611, the Church of England made the King James Version the de facto standard Bible of the church, taking the place of the Bishops' Bible, which had been the standard Anglican Bible since 1568.

(The KJV is also the standard Bible of the Episcopal Church in America)


I discovered that the most popular Bible of the Elizabethan era was the Geneva Bible, published in 1560, and dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I, who was Protestant.  It was translated according to the original Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic. 

King James ordered that the KJV Bible was to be translated from the Bishop’s Bible, which had been translated from Latin manuscripts that originated from the Roman Catholic Church.

Note: The Latin Vulgate version of The Holy Bible was translated by St. Jerome in 380 A.D.  He translated into Latin the Old Testament from the Hebrew and the New Testament from Greek.  The Latin Vulgate became the Bible of the Western Church until the Protestant Reformation in the 1500's. It continues to be the authoritative translation of the Roman Catholic Church to this day.


Since only the well-educated upper class and the clergy were taught Latin, the Bible had been published in Latin to force illiterate parishioners, as well as educated parishioners that couldn’t read Latin, to seek the clergy to read and interpret its meaning, which kept the authority within the church.  Neither the Church of England nor the Church in Rome wanted people to read the Bible and discover that some of the church doctrine and teachings did not come from the Bible at all.  In fact, the Catholic Church had, until relatively recently, historically discouraged Catholics from reading the Bible, encouraging them to seek a priest to interpret the Bible for them. 


The Geneva Bible was published by the Church of Geneva, in what is now Geneva Switzerland, in 1560, with the help of a number of Protestant Reformation leaders who had fled their home country to avoid religious persecution by the Roman Catholic Church.  With the protection of the Genevan civil authorities and the support of John Calvin (successor to Martin Luther and leader of the Protestant Reformation) and the Scottish Reformer John Knox, the Protestant leaders and the Church of Geneva determined to produce an English Bible without the need for the official church permission of either England or Rome.


While other English translations failed to capture the hearts of the reading public, the Geneva Bible was instantly popular, and is unique among all other Bibles.  It was the first Bible to use chapters and numbered verses and became the most popular version of its time because of its extensive marginal notes. These notes, written by Reformation leaders including John Calvin and others, were intended to help explain and interpret the Scriptures for the average reader.

With its variety of scriptural study guides and aids—which included cross-reference verse citations, introductions to each book of the Bible, maps, tables, woodcut illustrations, indexes, and other features—the Geneva Bible is regarded as history's first study Bible.  For forty years after the publication of the King James Bible, the Geneva Bible continued to be the Bible of the home.


However, those marginal notes were considered outspokenly anti-Roman Catholic (i.e., in the Book of Revelation: "The beast that cometh out of the bottomless pit (Rev. 11:7) is the Pope, which hath his power out of hell and cometh thence."), and King James disapproved of the Geneva Bible because of its Calvinistic leanings (referring to John Calvin).  James also frowned on what he considered seditious marginal notes on key political texts (A marginal note for Exodus 1:9 indicated that the Hebrew midwives were correct in disobeying the Egyptian king's orders, and a note for 2 Chronicles 15:16 said that King Asa should have had his mother executed and not merely deposed for the crime of worshipping an idol). 


The King James Version of the Bible grew out of the king's distaste for these brief but potent doctrinal commentaries.  He considered the marginal notes to be a political threat to his kingdom. 


By coincidence, a delegation of Puritans presented James a petition that outlined religious grievances and reforms they desired.  James seized on the opportunity.  In a royal proclamation in October 1603, the king announced a meeting to take place at the Hampton Court Palace, a luxurious 1,000-room estate just outside of London, built by Cardinal Wolsey. 


The Hampton Court Conference was held in 1604, with the king, his Privy Council of advisors, nine bishops and deans, and four moderate representatives of the Puritan cause in attendance.  The king listened to a suggestion by the Puritan scholar John Reynolds that a new translation of the Bible was needed.  Because of his distaste for the Geneva Bible, James was eager for a new translation. "I profess," he said, "I could never yet see a Bible well translated in English (apparently he preferred Latin); but I think that, of all, that of Geneva is the worst."


So, James ordered a new translation of the Holy Bible.  Completely disregarding the Puritans’ desires, the king ordered that it was to be accurate and true to the originals.  He appointed fifty of the nation's finest language scholars and approved rules for carefully checking the results.  James also wanted a popular translation. He insisted that the translation use old familiar terms and names and be readable in the idiom of the day.  And, James made it clear that he wanted no biased notes affixed to the translation, as in the Geneva Bible. Rule #6 stated: "No Marginal Notes at all to be affixed, but only for the explanation of the Hebrew or Greek Words." 


Also, James was looking for a single translation that the whole nation could rely on "To be read in the whole Church," as he phrased it.  He decreed that special pains be "taken for an uniform translation, which should be done by the best learned men in both Universities, then reviewed by the Bishops, presented to the Privy Council, lastly ratified by the Royal authority...”

(“The Royal authority” being himself, of course).


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