The King’s English: The 400th Anniversary of the KJV

KJV Small Cover

In nomine Patri et Filii et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.

Psalmi 118:33 He ostende mihi Domine viam praeceptorum tuorum et custodiam eam per vestigium.

Until the English Reformation, which ultimately gave birth to the King James Version of the Bible, most Western Christians only ever heard the scriptures and the mass in Latin.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the production of the King James Version of the Bible. We are celebrating today, with readings from it and this sermon and an exhibit of an exact half-size replica of the original volume on a stand in the Absalom Jones Chapel after the service.

The fires of the English Reformation which gave birth to the expression of the Church from which we are descended were kindled in part nearly ninety years before the King James Bible was produced, when William Tyndale translated the bible into English. Tyndale’s Bible was so influential that some eighty percent or more of the King James Bible derives directly from Tyndale’s work.

Listen to some of the translations that Tyndale wrote to render biblical expressions into English for the first time:

·       lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil 

·       knock and it shall be opened unto you 

·       twinkling of an eye 

·       seek and ye shall find 

·       ask and it shall be given you 

·       judge not that you not be judged

·       let there be light

·       the powers that be

·       my brother’s keeper

·       the salt of the earth

·       a law unto themselves

·       filthy lucre

·       it came to pass

·       gave up the ghost

·       the signs of the times

·       the spirit is willing

·       live and move and have our being

·       fight the good fight

In each case, William Tyndale chose these words, crafted them together and created the most influential English language translation of the bible.

Some of Tyndale’s translations have become so ingrained that many folk cannot believe that there is any other way to translate their original wording, or imagine the bible without them. But translating the bible into English literally cost Tyndale his life. In part because he didn’t get permission from the church to publish his translations. But Henry the VIII would have never given his permission.

Tyndale’s fortunes rose and fell with those of the infamous Henry VIII and his wives. The story of William Tyndale would make a great episode of the Tudors: William Tyndale was greatly influenced by the teachings of Martin Luther and believed that the scriptures ought to be read in the language of the people. But England was not quite ready for a reformation even as it was preparing to break with the Church of Rome. Henry VIII had Lutherans and other evangelicals burned as heretics in England. King Henry VIII wrote a famous pamphlet condemning Martin Luther and his teachings and was greatly honored by the Pope in turn. By publishing an English language bible, Tyndale was seen as not just being in rebellion against the old Church in Rome, but also against the new Church of England. Henry’s church was to be an English Catholic Church, not a Protestant one and common language bibles were decidedly Protestant.

Ultimately Tyndale was betrayed and arrested in Belgium, strangled and then burned; he died praying that God would open the eyes of the King of England. As the head of the Church Henry VIII eventually granted permission for Tyndale’s successors to translate the bible into English. Every version that followed was largely based on his work, including the King James Version.

In the King James Psalter we find the first line of our Psalm lesson, that I read earlier in Latin, “Teach me, O Lord, the way of thy statutes; and I shall keep it unto the end.” (Psalms 119:33)

I would imagine for Tyndale and the translators who have followed him – and I count myself in their number – being taught God’s statutes requires being able to read, hear and or understand God’s word, being able to understand the words in the Word in the words in which we ourselves speak.

Teach us O Lord, the way of thy statutes. The unknown Psalmist and William Tyndale and the translators who followed all understood that teaching and learning, like translation, are dynamic continuing processes. There were many translators and many English language bibles between Tyndale and the King James Bible and they were all indebted to Tyndales’s work in one way or another; simply copied Tyndale into their projects.

There was Myles Coverdale and his Coverdale New Testament, Thomas Matthews and the Matthews Bible, Thomas Barthlet and the Taverner’s Bible, the notorious Thomas Cromwell’s Great Bible – largely borrowed from Coverdale, Matthews, and Münster, William Whittingham’s Geneva Bible produced in Swiss exile – the New Testament of which was kissed by Queen Elizabeth I (Henry VIII’s daughter) on her way to her coronation; the Geneva Bible was the childhood bible of King James, it was the bible of William Shakespeare and the bible of the Puritans who immigrated to the Americas, Matthew Parker, then Archbishop of Canterbury produced the Bishop’s Bible and then the Church of Rome produced the Rheims-Douay Bible, and then in 1604 King James authorized a revision of all the previous English Bibles. He commissioned 54 scholars and churchmen who ultimately published 182 different editions of the KJV in the twenty-nine years between its first appearance in 1611 and last revision in 1640. The KJV was wildly popular but did not become entrenched as the bible of the Church until 1662, more than fifty years after its publication when the Book of Common Prayer began using it. And the translating continues…

Teach us O Lord, the way of thy statutes and we shall keep them unto the end. Let me ask you St. Thomas, are you letting God teach you? Do you read and study the scriptures? Do you take advantage of the wealth of bible translations before, since and including the King James? Do you have a bible you can understand? Do you read it? Do you teach the scriptures to your children? Do you read the lessons of the week? Do you know where and how to find them? Do you read the lessons of the day? Do you know where and how to find them?

The word of God is not the only way we come to know God. God reveals Godself to us in our lives, through the love of our families, through creation. God is in all things. But today we are celebrating the presence of God in the word of God being made available to us in our own language.

The bible is the Church’s book, and the Synagogue’s book. It is God’s Word; it is one place where we know we will find God’s words – even if we have to read above, below, behind and between the lines. But here is a puzzle: What makes the bible scripture is not what God says, but what we say. Written words become scripture when a community says these are the words through which God reveals Godself and is known. Anyone can say that anything is scripture, but if you don’t believe in it, it is not scripture for you. Our ancestors said that they heard God in these stories and told them to their children and their children’s children. If we claim the bible as scripture then we need to pass it on.

The KJV was commissioned as the bible of the Church of England. As the Church’s book, our church’s book, the KJV was more than a translation; it included as many resources as its editors and translators could imagine would be useful for the people. It included a calendar of Anglican commemorations and feast days and a rubric for determining when to pray morning and evening prayer. 

As the Church’s book, the KJV included all of the scriptures of the Church: thirty-nine Old Testament books, fourteen books called Apocrypha and twenty-seven New Testament books, eighty in all. All Christian bibles, whether Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant had all of these books in some configuration for more than another century; some had even more books. And while Martin Luther was critical of some of the Apocryphal books (and the Epistle of James) even he included them in his translations of the scriptures. 

It wasn’t until 1782 that any books were removed from the bible. An American book printer named Robert Aitken from Philadelphia got permission from the new Congress – since there was as yet no American Anglican Church – to print a bible for the newly independent colonies. He decided on his own, without any church consultation, to publish the bible without the middle books. Some say it was cheaper for him. Another American publisher put them back in. Eventually the short bible would become the bible of choice for Protestants, while Anglicans, Catholics and Orthodox keep the older configuration. Ironically, it is nearly impossible to find a King James bible today with all of the books that were originally included in it – even when it has 1611 stamped on the cover. Sadly, the KJV is no longer an Anglican or Episcopal bible.

Teach us O Lord, the way of thy statutes and we shall keep them unto the end. The Psalmist’s cry strikes me as so very appropriate for this commemoration; we need to be taught. All of us, clergy and lay. There is so much we don’t know about the scriptures and yet we claim as our savior, a Rabbi, a teacher. Teach us O Lord, the way of thy statutes and we shall keep them unto the end.

The KJV like all of the English versions that preceded and succeeded it was designed to help people live out their faith. The clergy needed a common language translation of the scriptures as much as the people. There were very few seminaries and few clergy were literate. They could recite prayers and verses by rote, but very few were learned enough to study and teach the scriptures in Latin, let alone in Greek or Hebrew.

In our lessons, the Psalmist in days gone by made a commitment that is binding on us in our time: if God teaches us God’s word we will keep it. Our ancestors knew this promise. They kept it for us and expected us to keep it for the next generation no matter the price.

There was a terrible price to be paid here in the Americas. Here in the United States it was illegal to teach black people to read for one reason – we might read the bible. Every story I have ever heard about any enslaved person who learned to read even if they taught themselves was that the first thing they read was the word of God. The bible is a radically liberating text, even with its own stories of slavery and subordination of women, the bible has set people – nations and individuals – free. We can’t take it for granted that we can read and understand the word of God because our literacy was purchased in blood.

And yet so many treat God and God’s word like an undiscovered country. All of us are called to study the word. How is your calling expressed? Are you called to study the word of God in personal, private, devotional time? Are you called to study the word of God with your family? Are you called to study the word of God with your friends? Are you called to study the word of God with your church? Are you called to study the word of God in college or university? Are you called to study the word of God in seminary or graduate school? How are you answering God’s call to study God’s word, to be taught by God?

How often do you read the word? How often do you listen for God’s voice in the word? How well do you know the word?

Don’t get it twisted, the Episcopal Church is a biblical church. We read four lessons from the scriptures when we gather to celebrate life, teaching, death, resurrection and reign of Jesus preserved in the scriptures. Our prayers are drawn from the scriptures, our music is drawn from the scriptures. We proclaim, profess and confess the scriptures as a church and as the worldwide Anglican communion. But what do you do when no one is looking?

William Tyndale gave his life that we might be able te read the word of God. Hundreds of thousands of African slaves went to their deaths so that we would be able to read anything, everything, but most especially the word of God. For it is in and through the Word of God that we encounter God. It was with the Word that God created the world, building the universe out of the sacred letters: yud and heh, which spell chai, life, and in Genesis are combined as yehi, “let there be…”

It is through the word of God that we come to know the love of God. It is through the word of God that we come to know the grace of God. It is through the word of God that we come to know the mercy of God. It is through the word of God that we come to know the Son of God. It is through the word of God that we come to know the salvation of God. It is through the word of God that we come to know the redemption of God. It is through the word of God that we come to know God.

This year’s celebration of the publication of the King James Version of the bible is an opportunity to reflect on the treasure that is the word of God. The word of God is God’s good gift to us. Unwrap it. Open it. Share it.

Psalm 119:33 Teach me,

O Lord, the way of thy statutes;

and I shall keep it unto the end. 

34 Give me understanding, and I shall keep thy law;

yea, I shall observe it with my whole heart. 

35 Make me to go in the path of thy commandments;

for therein do I delight. 

36 Incline my heart unto thy testimonies,

and not to covetousness. 

37 Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity;

and quicken thou me in thy way. 

38 Stablish thy word unto thy servant,

who is devoted to thy fear. 

39 Turn away my reproach which I fear:

for thy judgments are good. 

40 Behold, I have longed after thy precepts:

quicken me in thy righteousness. Amen.