The English of the King James Bible

Can we trust modern translations of the Bible? Photo: Donald L. Brake

VANCOUVER, Wa., August 14, 2012 — The King James Bible forged a new path for Biblical translations. No longer would translations into English be the sole endeavor of a single translator.   

The King James Bible was the product of nearly 100 years of translation work. Beginning with Tyndale’s New Testament (1526) through the Bishops’ Bible (1568), each succeeding translation depended on its predecessors. Without a philosophy of translation, translators focused on impacting the readers with the emotion and meaning of the original writer. 

No philosophy of translation was developed for the King James translators. The general principle was to produce a translation that was accurate, without a conscious emphasis on language style. Richard Bancroft, appointed by King James as “chief overseer,” fashioned 15 rules to guide the translators in their work. They did not have a single rule for regulating any particular style of writing. Neither did they consider the educational level of their reading audience.  

The nature of Bible translations changed with the turn of the 20th century. In the 20th century a plethora of modern versions placed the emphasis on the receptor language. Style, reading audience, vocabulary, and syntax play as great a role as a accurate translation. 

Modern linguistic theory developed a scientific method that considered the relationship of accuracy of the translation from the original language (source language) to modern style and readability (receptor language).   

The King James Bible was intended to be a literal, word-for-word translation. They insisted on an English word for every Hebrew and Greek term. Any additional words for the sake of English grammar necessity were to be printed in italics. Ecclesiastical terms were to be retained from the Bishops’ Bible when possible. However, they frequently abandoned these principles. No language can be translated directly into another without additional works to clarify or explain a nuance of meaning or metaphoric language.

A non-spoken principle admonishing only literal translations was occasionally abandoned for the sake of stated rules: “No Marginal Notes at all to be affixed, but only for the explanation of the Hebrew or Greek Words, which cannot without some circumlocution, so briefly and fitly be expressed in the Text.”  Again the Preface notes: “Another thing we think good to admonish thee of that we have not tied ourselves to an uniformity of phrasing, or to an identity of words, as some peradventure would wish that we had done.”

The translators deliberately employed a variety of English synonyms to express the same terms in the original languages. While it often raised criticism, it allowed for a more readable text.

In Romans 5 the exact same Greek term is translated three different ways: “we… rejoice in the hope of glory of God (5:2), “we glory in tribulations” (5:3), and “we also joy in God” (5:11). The Revised Standard Version, the English Standard Version (ESV), The New International Version, and the New English Translation (NET) translate each word as “rejoice.” The New Living Translation (NLT) uses the terms “joyfully” and “rejoice.” The question remains, “Is it crucial every time a Greek or Hebrew word is used that it should be translated the same way?”

Normal response would suggest that the same word in the source language should always be translated with the same word in the receptor language. If we are seeking to have the same impact on the modern reader that was intended by the original readers, then we suggest the original writer meant what he said. However, the same word in different contexts often has a different nuance of meaning. The differences in modern versions are often just the choice a synonym. 

A single word must have a context to specify its meaning. The Greek word mentioned above has a number of meanings: boast, glory, or pride. It is the context that determines which word to use. The English word “rejoice” has many synonyms:  celebrate, cheer, joyfulness, exalt, be glad, delight, and even express joy. Various modern versions reflect these synonyms in their translations. 

There are a number of places in the King James Version that are not literal translations from the original languages. These are translations of a literal original language meaning that are translated into an English idiom. While the practice abandons the literal principle, it communicated to 17th century Englishmen:

KJV—“God save the king” (I Sam 10:24, 2 Kings 1:31) Literal meaning: “Let the King Live”

KJV—“Gave up the Ghost” (Gen 25:8, 17, 35:29, Job 3:11, Mk 15:37,39) Literal meaning: “breathed his last” ESV or “he expired” 

KJV—“Thieves also, which were crucified with him, cast the same in his teeth.” (Mt 27:44) Literal meaning: “reviled him” ESV

KJV—“And they covenanted with him for thirty pieces of silver.” (Mt 26:15) Literal meaning: “they paid him” ESV

KJV—“God forbid” (Rom 3:4, 6, 31; 6:2, 15; 13:9 etc.) Literal meaning: “By no means!” (ESV) 

Read and enjoy the King James Version. It has been and is a wonderful and influential Bible. It can be read today in a metrical style whose very words bring comfort to the sick and dying, and hope for the living. But for an accurate translation that reflects the original meaning of the Bible, modern translations will probably transcend the KJV. 


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Donald L. Brake, Sr.

Donald L. Brake, Ph.D., is Dean Emeritus of Multnomah Biblical Seminary, past president of Jerusalem University College, Israel; author of A Visual History of the English Bible: The Tumultuous Tale of The World’s Bestselling Book; Baker Books, 2008 (a 2009 ECPA Christian Book Award finalist), A Visual History of the King James Bible: The Dramatic Tale of the World’s Best-Known Translation, Baker Books, 2011, A Royal Monument of English Literature: The King James Bible 1611, Credo House Publishers, 2011; and antiquarian collector with his extensive collection of rare and significant Bibles and artifacts currently at the Dunham Bible Museum, Houston Baptist University, Houston, Texas.

Contact Donald L. Brake, Sr.


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