The Bishop of Birmingham tells Diane Parkes why the King James Bible remains a cornerstone of our culture and society 400 years after it was first published.
The King James Bible was the end result of seven years of work by a committee of top scholars. For years they pored over every chapter, every verse and every word.
First published in 1611, the King James or Authorized version, is one of countless translations and paraphrases of the Bible and yet it remains at the heart of Christianity today.
So why is this version so special?
Recently succeeding to the throne of a country riven by religious differences King James I of England ordered the new translation to be written in an attempt to bring God’s word to the public – and to heal the rifts in the church.
From 1604-1611 a translation committee of more than 50 scholars debated every single word, looking into its origins and its contemporary meaning to a divided church.
Derived from ancient Greek and Hebrew manuscripts with reference to earlier translations into the vernacular, the new Bible was to appeal to a populace who were generally illiterate so was designed to be read aloud.
Definition, sound and politics all played their part in the King James Bible.
Initially it failed to gain widespread support but little by little this translation gradually replaced its predecessors becoming the Bible of the English-speaking world.
Bishop of Birmingham the Rt Rev David Urquhart says there are reasons it remains pre-eminent.
“When this Bible was created it, above all, aimed to be a text which people could understand and enjoy,” he says.
“Famously, before any verse was agreed it was read aloud and that means we have these wonderful sections and phrases, many of which have entered the English language and the hearts and minds of the people of England.
“These are not only some of the great theological phrases but also the jargon which has become words that are used all the time.
"Let there be light, the powers that be, filthy lucre, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, O ye of little faith.
"Studies of this language help us to appreciate just how deep it has gone into our ordinary phrasing.
“The other reason it is so important is that some traditions regard it as not just authorised but authoritative. This is partly because it has been around for a long time, partly because it is in English and partly because the teaching of the various traditions has been based on that translation.
“The King James version of 1611 is not precisely accurate, as some of the best scholars of Hebrew and Greek can demonstrate, but it is a reliable translation.
“The other thing that it is valued for is that it was produced at a high point in the English language.
"It is connected in history with the publication of Shakespeare’s plays and other great poetry and writing. So those who have studied literature recognise the King James Bible as being from a high point of English literature.”
With the Bible translated into English, its words and stories would become familiar to people up and down the country.
“For human beings to have heard the Bible every Sunday meant that the truths in the Bible and the truths about God and Jesus could become part of their daily lives,” says Bishop David.
“And, because it was the main Bible for hundreds of years that people would have heard read out Sunday by Sunday, some of the phrases of the King James come back again and again. And certainly the Christmas story becomes familiar in that language.
“If we look at the Nine Lessons and Carols, which is not a very old tradition, those lessons are read from King James. People are hearing all those carols and the story of the incarnation of Jesus and then we are suddenly taken back to the reading in John 1: 1-14 ‘In the beginning was the Word’ which takes us back to Genesis and then it concludes ‘and the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us’. You wouldn’t want to change that because, when you read it out, it works in both theology and literature.”
But Bishop David says that sometimes we need to see beyond the familiar.
“People have the Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus story and the carols – it is very familiar to a lot of people because of the school nativities,” he says. “But this is a story that we can connect with even today. It doesn’t take much for us to imagine the life of an young mother who is unmarried, in exile and has little money.
“I hope our imaginations are stimulated to respond to people around us today. People who have lost their families, refugees, teenagers who are pregnant, families which are falling apart, people living in poverty, people suffering from food shortages in East Africa, families torn apart in Libya. The King James Bible may be 400 years old but its message still speaks to us today.
“In a sense it is the idea of the vulnerability of the child which connects then with what God is up to. That then begins to get people thinking again about what on earth was God up to?
“My prayer for Birmingham this Christmas is that everyone receives the gift of love whatever their circumstances. That their Christmas is about love, caring for others, family and friendship.
“There is a very real message and there are lots of life-changing stories which can be found in the pages of the Bible. Reading it or hearing it read is something that everyone should experience this Christmas.”
Phrases derived from or popularised by the King James Bible
Let there be light – Gen 1:3
Turned the world upside down – Acts 17:6
Escaped with the skin of my teeth – Job 19:20
The root of the matter – Job 19:28
Be horribly afraid – Jeremiah 2:12
Stand in awe – Psalms 4:4
How are the mighty fallen – II Samuel 1:19
Killed the fatted calf – Luke 15:27
Blessed are the peacemakers – Matthew 5:9
Fell flat on his face – Numbers 22:31
A lamb to the slaughter – Isaiah 53:7
Put words in his mouth – Exodus 4:15
A thorn in the flesh – II Corinthians 12:7
Suffer little children – Luke 18:16
There was no room for them in the inn – Matthew 2:7