The Makings of History King James and His Bible

James Charles Stuart, King of England, won eternal glory by commissioning the biggest best seller in history: The King James Bible.

Tom Segev
Tom Segev
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Tom Segev
Tom Segev

James Charles Stuart was one of the colorful kings worthy of the BBC's wonderful historical series. He was crowned king when he was 13 months old. His mother was Mary, Queen of Scots, who was executed by Elizabeth I, the queen of England. James succeeded Elizabeth too, and became the first king of Scotland, England and Ireland together. He was a great wastrel, got entangled in unnecessary wars, and considered Parliament a nuisance. He occasionally ordered his political rivals to be hanged. He had at least half a dozen male lovers, but also a wife and six children.

All of this might not have been enough for him to be remembered, but he won eternal glory by commissioning the biggest best seller in history: The King James Bible, one volume containing the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and several of the Apocrypha - 788,258 words in all.

King James. Credit: Getty Images

Four hundred years later, it is still considered the most authoritative English version of the holy book. Festivities are under way to mark the anniversary; Queen Elizabeth II is scheduled to participate. Christian fundamentalist organizations in America, too, are investing a sizable effort in publicizing the occasion. Over the past 400 years, an estimated 1 billion copies of the book have been sold.

To date, the Bible has been translated into an estimated 2,500 of mankind's 6,000 languages. Before the King James Version, and predating the printing press, there had been partial English translations. Don't try to figure out what led King James to commission a new translation. It is a complicated story, one involving theological debates and political power struggles. It seems that, among other things, the king sought to tone down the Prophets' criticism of monarchs. Whatever the case, in 1604 he appointed 50 scholars who then spent seven years on the project. They based their work on earlier translations into English, and between them also knew Latin, Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew. Among other things, they used Hebrew books printed 80 years earlier in Venice, by Daniel Bomberg.

The first copies of the KJV were printed in a large format, and were relatively expensive. They were meant primarily for churches. The demand for the book quickly led to legal disputes among various printers. There are still 150 extant copies of that first edition, which does not bear King James' name but is described as an authorized version of the Holy Scriptures. The king's name was added apparently only at the beginning of the 19th century.

Over the years, other English translations have appeared, not only in response to the book's commercial success but also in order to adapt the English text to various communities' religious outlook. Some versions were created by English-speaking Jews, for example, who started producing their own translations in the 18th century. The first Jewish translation of the entire Hebrew Bible into English is attributed to Abraham Benisch, who was the editor of The Jewish Chronicle; it was published in 1851. In recent years, new translations have come out in the United States. Most have not drawn much attention in Israel, in part because they are popular mainly among Reform and Conservative congregations.

One version available is a Jewish Publication Society translation called Tanakh. Its second edition uses punctuation that does not appear in the Hebrew original, including quotation marks, brackets, question marks and numerals. The book's publishers pride themselves on its having been recognized as the official translation for the World Bible Quiz. In contrast to the King James Version, the books are ordered in keeping with the original, but the translation differs greatly not only from the "authorized" King James Version but also from the Hebrew original, as can be seen in the very first sentence. Instead of "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth" is "When God began to create heaven and earth - the earth being unformed and void - with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water - God said, 'let there be light'; and there was light."

King James' scholars did it better; the Hebrew original did it best of all.



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