In 1603, Queen Elizabeth I died after a nearly forty-five year reign over England. Being childless, Elizabeth had left instructions that her third cousin, King James VI of Scotland, was to inherit the throne. Despite the noteworthy accomplishment of uniting Scotland with Great Britain, it seems doubtful many Americans would know anything about King James if it were not for the Book which carries his name. Ironically, the Bible known simply as the Authorised Version in the UK is more commonly known as the King James Version in the United States. This fact becomes even more paradoxical when one considers that the earliest American printings of the King James Bible expunged the king’s name from the title page.
Although the actual date of release has been questioned, the first edition of the King James Bible carries the date 1611. To celebrate the 400th anniversary of its first publishing, both sides of the Atlantic have been commemorating the event with special celebrations. In January, 1A Productions Ltd of the United Kingdom released the documentary KJB: The Book That Changed the World, narrated by John Rhys-Davies (famous for his roles in The Lord of the Rings and Indiana Jones) and directed by Emmy-winner Norman Stone. Numerous books about the Bible’s history and influence have been published. In April this year, The Bodleian Library of Oxford University first published Manifold Greatness: The Making of the King James Bible. The book is a collaboration between the famous Oxford Library and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC in honor of the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible. The libraries provided the illustrations of books, manuscripts, and other material, and leading scholars provided the text. The American version of Manifold Greatness is being distributed by the University of Chicago, and became available July 15, 2011.
While the Norman Stone documentary concentrates on the man behind the book, Manifold Greatness centers around the book itself—its history, translation, and “afterlife.” The relatively brief history of the Bible in English (before the KJV) is recounted, and brief bios of the men in charge of the translation are given. As is the case with much contemporary art, the beauty of the King James Bible was not appreciated during the reign of James I. It was not until the latter half of the seventeenth century that the Book became popular. This popularity was assured, at least in part, by the reforms of Charles II. Until 1662, Communion readings in the Book of Common Prayer were from the Great Bible produced during the reign of Henry VIII. The revisions under Charles II assured that congregations would be exposed to the “new” translation every week, whether they could afford their own copy of the King James Bible or not.
A striking thing about worship in conformity to the Book of Common Prayer was the sheer amount of the Bible to which congregations were exposed. On Sunday… [they] would hear read an Old and New Testament passage plus psalms in Morning Prayer, and then the epistle and gospel passages for the service of Ante-Communion or the full service, if Communion was taking place. Evening Prayer had the same structure as Morning Prayer. In other words, congregations were exposed to at least six passages of scripture per Sunday as well as a number of psalms. [p.135]
This practice not only exposed the faithful to the “official” version of the Bible, but it also was evidence of the Church’s acknowledgement of the Book’s importance. Manifold Greatness quotes sixteenth-century scholar Richard Hooker:
The reading therefore of the word of God, as the use hath ever been, in open audience, is the plainest evidence we have of the Church’s Assent and Acknowledgement that it is his word. [ibid.]
The reading of the King James Bible in local churches not only served a devotional purpose, but a doctrinal one as well. What the people were hearing was the Word of God. Through decade after decade, century after century, the KJV was, in the mind of much of English-speaking world, The Word of God. It is little wonder, even with all the modern translations available, there are still those who argue the KJV is the best English version. There is even a “King James Only” movement in the United States, with some King James Onlyists so extreme that
…one North Carolina Church hosts an annual Halloween book burning, casting into the flames all Bibles other than the King James. The history of the Bible in English has taken some odd turns Wyclif and Tyndale. [p. 176 - A footnote refers the reader to the website www.amazinggracebaptistchurchkjv.com.]
The writer is, of course, referring to the irony that the Wyclif and Tyndale translations, on which much of the KJV was based, were commonly burned.
Whatever your opinion of the King James Bible, you will find Manifold Greatness very informative. Although much of it is geared a bit toward the academic, there is still much the average layman can learn from it. Although the book is softcover, it is made with high-quality glossy paper and bound in heavy covers with french flaps; it should grace your personal library for many years to come. A great bargain even at the retail price of$35.00, but you should be able to purchase it for much less at discount outlets such as amazon.com.