Englishing the Word of God

The King James Bible: a Legacy of Heritage


© Jacqueline B. Wylde 2005


The King James Bible introduced only about eight hundred words to the English language (a miniscule number in comparison to the works of Shakespeare or the bible of Tyndale), it is full of purposely archaic language, and it was initially overshadowed by the Geneva Bible in sales and popularity.  Why and how did it have such a profound and lasting influence on the English language? 


In order to answer this question, it is necessary to look not just at the language of the King James Bible, but also at the tradition of Bible translation in England from 1525 to 1611. The King James Bible (KJB) is a carefully crafted, politically savvy amalgam of the translations that preceded it.  The cautious language found within the KJB shaped the English language not through the invention of new words, but through stabilizing and codifying a volatile process that saw much linguistic innovation over nearly one hundred years of bible translation.


Why a Bible in English?


The need for and the proliferation of English translations of the bible in 16th century England stems primarily from the Protestant Reformation.  Since one of the basic tenets of Protestantism claims that nothing or no one – neither priests, nor the pope - can intervene in the personal relationship between the self and God, it becomes very important for bibles to be widely available in the clear, comprehensible vernacular.


However, there are problems associated with translating the absolute Word of God, particularly considering the subjectivity, politics, and humanity of the individual translator.  There were therefore many different bibles produced between 1525 and 1611, each seeking to rectify earlier mistakes, and each seeking to be more politically and religiously correct (depending on what one’s notions of political or religious correctness may have been).  Some of the significant bibles from this period include:


Tyndale (1525)

Coverdale (1535)

The Matthew Bible (1537)

The Great Bible (1539)

Geneva Bible (1560)

The Bishop’s Bible (1568)

King James (1611)


William Tyndale and the English of Translation


The first printed Protestant translation of the New Testament was by William Tyndale in 1525; his translation of the Pentateuch was published in 1530. Much of the KJB relies on Tyndale’s fine translation based on ancient Greek and Hebrew (rather than Latin).  One of Tyndale’s main contributions were in his translation of Hebrew idioms directly into English, making English a much more idiomatic language than previously.  Some of his translated idioms include:

Apple of his eye

The salt of the earth

The powers that be

My brother’s keeper

Lick the dust

                                    (McGrath, 263-265; Daniell, William Tyndale, 289)


David Daniell asserts that another of Tyndale’s linguistic innovations is the possessive noun + of + noun construction.  For example, rather than Moses’ Book, in Tyndale’s bible there is the Book of Moses. When describing a superlative, rather than the Best King, Tyndale writes, King of Kings, giving both kingliness and godliness a sense of grandeur and size that King James, nearly one hundred years later, would have appreciated.  According to Daniell, the construction is a direct translation of the Hebrew, and since this construction was to be found in many bibles to come, it takes on the weight of biblical authority and adds a register of formality to the language (Daniell,  William Tyndale, 285).


The Bible Englished, or the Bible Translated?


In the Protestant England of the latter half of the 16th century, it was generally agreed that a bible in English was necessary, but what kind of English should be used?  Not only were different versions of the language spoken in different parts of the country, but there was a controversy (known as the inkhorn controversy) in which questions of British nationalism become intertwined with language use. The inkhorn controversy debated whether English was learned enough as a language to adequately describe complex scientific, philosophical, legal and theological concepts. 


Cheke’s Version

Sir John Cheke, a Cambridge scholar of Greek, believed that the influx of borrowed words from classical languages was unwarranted. He believed in an Anglo Saxon English “clean, pure, unmixt and unmangled with the borrowings of other tongues” (quoted in Sykes Davies, 6).  He therefore made a statement by writing translations of Matthew and part of Mark wherein he eschews Latinisms and uses English words or at least English based words whenever possible.  For example,

Where Cheke uses:                                           the KJB uses:

            Moond                                                             Lunaticke

            Hunderder                                                        Centurion

            Frosent                                                 Apostle

            Crossed                                                           Crucified

                                                                                                (Sykes Davies, 7)

Douai Rheims

By the late 16th century, it became clear to English Catholics that a bible translation would be necessary.  For the Catholics, fidelity to the Latin Vulgate was of paramount importance, in order to minimize the corruption of the word of God. Due to this mandate, the Douai Rheims bible has a number of rather incongruous Latin “loan words”.

For example:

            Concorporat and comparticipant (Ephesians 3:6)

            He exinanited himself (Phillipians 2:7)

            If thou be a prevaricator of the law, thy circumcision is become prepuce

            (Romans 2:25)

            Give us this day our supersubstantial bread (Matthew 6:1)


Though these words may seem amusing to the 21st century reader, it is important to note that the KJB translators read the Douai Rheims bible and used some of its Latinisms in the KJB, such as acquisition, advent, calumniate, evangelize, and victim (Bobrick, 191).


The King James Bible

 Why is another translation necessary?


When James acceded to the throne, the Geneva bible was the popular bestseller.  The monarch did not look favourably upon this translation as it had a Puritan slant and its margin notes were clearly opposed to the notion of the divine right of Kings. 


For example, Psalm 105:15 was often cited as a defense for the divine right of Kings, with the implication that kings are anointed by God. The Geneva’s notes have a different and even inverse interpretation:


Touch not mine (h) anointed, and do my (i) prophets no harm.

Notes: (h) Those whom I have sanctified to be my people

(i) Meaning, the old fathers, to whom God showed himself plainly, and who set forth his word.                                   (Geneva. Psalm 105:15; McGrath, 148)


In the Genevan interpretation the anointed are the Christian people and it is implied that the kings should not touch them, not the other way around.  This kind of interpretation would have been insupportable for a king who had very firm ideas about the rights of the crown.  James wanted a bible that was controlled and controllable, a bible that was majestic enough to bear the name of the king.


The KJB’s Translating Mandate


The King James Bible was a theologically moderate, conservative endeavour.  There was an emphasis on making the language interesting, appealing, and even beautiful.  The translators read aloud to each other to ensure that the flow and cadence of the phrases suited both the voice of the preacher and the ears of the congregation, and the translators chose to use as much variety of English vocabulary as possible – words of both Anglo Saxon and Latinate origin - so as to interest the reader and the listener.  There are very few margin notes in the KJB, thus subtly discouraging the more radically Protestant notion of self study that was encouraged by the Geneva.  In the preface to the 1611 version, the translators note “wee thought to savour more of curiositie then wisedome. . . For is the kingdome of God become words or syllables?  Why should wee be in bondage to them if we may be free?”  (Preface, KJB 1611)


At the same time, however, this freedom was curtailed by strict and conservative rule that was designed to honour the accuracy and heritage of the translation. The KJB was translated by six separate translating committees in order to limit the subjectivity of one translator.  Moreover, the translators were bound by strict, conservative instructions to follow set out by Richard Bancroft, the Archbishop of Canterbury:

·        “The ordinary Bible read in the Church, commonly called the Bishop’s Bible, to be followed, and as little altered as the Truth of the original will permit”

·        “These translations to be used when they agree better with the Text than the Bishop’s Bible: Tindoll’s, Matthew’s, Cloverdale’s, Whitchurch’s, Geneva.

                                                                                    (McGrath, 173 – 175)

The King James Bible’s innovation was in its respect for its forbears: it was intended to  “not make of a bad one a good one, but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one”(Preface, KJB 1611).


The Language of Conservatism


The KJB’s conservatism is well demonstrated by the archaic language used in the bible.  Alistair McGrath gives the following illustrative examples:


Thou and You

            Thou was originally the second person singular pronoun, but had mostly fallen    from the language by 1611.  The KJB maintains the distinction between the      singular thou and plural you. 

-eth and s (e.g. sayeth v. says)

            By 1611, -eth ending was virtually obsolete, but it is used in the KJB.   

His vs. Its

By 1600, the pronoun his was beginning to be used exclusively as the masculine possessive pronoun, and less as the neuter possessive pronoun (which was being taken over by its).  However, the linguistic case was hardly closed, so the KJB translators decided to avoid the issue by using the word thereof. 


For example

Instead of “its height was six feet”

They used: “the height thereof was six feet”


This could be confusing.  For example, in Exodus 30:2-3:


A cubit shall be the length thereof, and a cubit the breadth thereof; foursquare shall it be: and two cubits shall be the height thereof: the horns thereof shall be of the same.  And thou shalt overlay it with pure gold, the top thereof, and the sides thereof round about, and the horns thereof; and thou shalt make unto it a crown of gold round about.              (McGrath, 265-276)



These old fashioned forms were used because of the order to retain as much as possible from the previous texts.  The translators used the Bishop’s Bible, which was little altered from the Great Bible, which was a revision of the Matthew Bible, which itself was a revision of Tyndale’s bible.  In 1611, the translators produced a bible written in the accepted language of 1525.


However, not all of Tyndale’s language remained; the translators excised many of Tyndale’s more radically Protestant translations, such as his translation of the Greek ekklesia as congregation rather than church, or of presbyterios as senior, not the more Catholic priest (Nicolson, 75). Richard Bancroft’s rules clearly stated that “The Old Ecclesiastical Words to be kept, viz. the Word Church not to be translated Congregation &c.” (quoted in McGrath, 173).  The traditional, conservative language is intended to reflect the conservative, high doctrine of the English church.


‘The Bible’ and its Linguistic Legacy 


The old-fashioned language revived in the KJB did not bring forms such as thou back into the language, but the language gave the bible a sense of ancient authority, and helped to create a formal literary register in the English language. Indeed, it is the very conservatism that helped the KJB to eventually supplant all of the other bible translations.  According to Adam Nicolson, the KJB became popular after the Restoration because it was an echo of an earlier time of Kings; by then, the language of the King James was more than old fashioned, it sounded ancient, hallowed, and mythic (229). 


The King James Bible became known as The Bible, not just one of many possible bible translations. By the 19th century and at the height of the British Empire, The Bible was often considered English; for example, in Shaw’s Pygmalion, Henry Higgens tells Eliza Doolittle “your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton, and The Bible”.  Alistair McGrath notes that Richard Whately (1787 – 1863), the Archbishop of Dublin declared during a diocesan conference while holding the KJB, “Never forget, gentlemen, that this is not The Bible.  This is only a translation of the bible” amid apparent gasps of astonishment (302).  The once foreign Hebraic idioms introduced by Tyndale became such a part of the language that the speakers did not realize that they were translations.


The KJB therefore did not introduce many innovations to the language, in fact, it tried to retain features that had already left everyday speech; but it did give the linguistic innovations of Tyndale, Coverdale, and many other translators the weight of absolute, godly authority – authority that the translators themselves would never have claimed. The very conservatism of the KJB was in fact its greatest innovation.  By creating a definitive, stable edition of The Bible in the KJB, the linguistic creations of the many different translators became more than products of translation.  Like the new words found in Shakespeare’s corpus, the biblical, translated innovations found in the Authorized King James Bible became themselves authorized, authoritative and a part of English language heritage.




Bobrick, Benson.  Wide as the Waters: the Story of the English Bible and the Revolution     it Inspired.  New York: Simon and Shuster, 2001


Bruce, F.F. The English Bible: A History of Translations.  London: Lutterworth Press,          1962. 


Crystal, David.  The Stories of English.  London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2004.


Daniell, David.  The Bible in English: its History and Influence.   New Haven: Yale   University Press, 2003.


Daniell, David.  William Tyndale: A Biography.  New Haven: Yale University Press,   1994.


McGrath, Alistair.  In The Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How it            Changed a Nation.  New York: Doubleday, 1953. 


Metzger, Bruce M. The Bible in Translation: Ancient and English Versions.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001.


Nicolson, Adam.  God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible.  New York:       HarperCollins, 2003.


Price, David, and Charles C. Ryrie.  Let It Go Among Our People: An Illustrated History     of the English Bible from John Wyclif to the King James Version.  Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2004. 


Salmon, Vivian.  “Language Politics of the 16th and 17th-Century English Church.”         Language and Society in Early Modern England: Selected Essays 1981 – 1994.        Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Co., 1996.  77-97.


Sykes Davies, Hugh.  “Sir John Cheke and the Translation of the Bible”.  Essays and    Studies 1952.  Ed. Arundell Esdaile.  London: John Murray, Albemarle Street W.,     1952.  1-12.


The Geneva Bible, 1560. Ed. Berry Lloyd Eason.  Madison: University of Wisconsin   Press, 1969.


“The King James Bible, 1611”  Literature Online.  Accessed November 13, 17, and   December 16, 17, 18, 2005.              http://lion.chadwyck.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca