Life's Little Mysteries

Why is the King James Bible so popular?

A congregant holds the King James Bible during a church service in South London in 2013.
A congregant holds the King James Bible during a church service in South London in 2013. (Image credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Shortly after he ascended the English throne in 1603, King James I commissioned a new Holy Bible translation that, more than 400 years later, is still widely read around the world. 

This Bible, known as the King James Version (KJV), helped King James leave behind a lasting cultural footprint — one of his goals as a leader. "James saw himself as a great Renaissance figure who wanted to impart on the world culture, music, literature and even new ways of learning," Bruce Gordon, a professor of ecclesiastical history at Yale Divinity School, told Live Science.

But given the KJV's age, why is it still so popular across different Christian denominations?

Related: Why does Christianity have so many denominations?

In short, the KJV's influence has waxed over the centuries because, Gordon said, it was the version that was most widely read and distributed in countries where English was the dominant language and that its translation was "never really challenged until the 20th century." In that time, the KJV became so embedded in the Anglo-American world that "many people in Africa and Asia were taught English from the KJV" when Christian missionaries brought it to them, Gordon said. "Many people weren't even aware that it was one of many available translations," he added, "they believed the King James Version was the Bible in English." 

But there's more to the story that goes back to the translation's inception.

Why did King James want a newly translated Bible? 

Before James commissioned the KJV in 1604, most people in England were learning from two different Bibles — the Church of England's translation, commonly read during worship services (known as the Bishops' Bible, first published in 1568), and the more popular version most Brits read at home, known as the Geneva Bible, first published in 1560. The Geneva Bible was the Bible of choice among Protestants and Protestant sects, and as a Presbyterian, James also read that version. However, he disliked the lengthy and distracting annotations in the margins, some of which even questioned the power of a king, according to Gordon. 

What's more, when James assumed the English throne in March 1603, following the death of Queen Elizabeth I, he inherited a complicated political situation, as the Puritans and the Calvinists — religious followers of reformer John Calvin — were openly questioning the absolute power of the Church of England's bishops. James' own mother — Mary, Queen of Scots — had been executed 16 years earlier in part because she was perceived to be a Catholic threat to Queen Elizabeth's Protestant reign. "Mary's death made James keenly aware of how easily he could be removed if he upset the wrong people," Gordon said.

A portrait of James VI and I, King of Scotland, England and Ireland (1566-1625). The portrait, painted by Daniel Mytens in 1621, is on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

A portrait of James VI and I, King of Scotland, England and Ireland (1566-1625). The portrait, painted by the Dutch painter Daniel Mytens (also spelled Daniël Mijtens) in 1621, is on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London.  (Image credit: Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

To moderate such divisions, James commissioned a Bible that aimed to please both parishioners of the Church of England and the growing Protestant sects by removing the problematic and unpopular annotations of the Geneva Bible while remaining true to the style and translations from both Bibles that each group revered. Despite James' efforts, Gordon said, "the KJV didn't really succeed while James was alive." That's because the market for James' version didn't really arise until the 1640s, when Archbishop William Laud, who "hated the Puritans," suppressed the Geneva Bible that the Puritans followed, Gordon said. 

James died from a stroke in March 1625, so he never saw his Bible become widely accepted. But even during his lifetime, after James commissioned the translation, he didn't oversee the process himself. "It's almost as if he got the ball rolling, then washed his hands of the whole thing," Gordon said. 

Related: Was the 'forbidden fruit' in the Garden of Eden really an apple?

How the KJV was translated

To oversee the translation, James commissioned six committees made up of 47 scholars from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. They were tasked with translating all of the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Old and New Testaments into English. It was a complicated and sometimes contentious process that took seven years to complete. Though we don't have a lot of the records of those committees, "through our best reconstructions, we understand it was a very rigorous debate with everyone committed to the most accurate translation of the Bible," Gordon said.

Much of the resulting translation drew on the work of William Tyndale, a Protestant reformer who had produced the first New Testament translation from Greek to English in 1525. "It's believed that up to 80% of the King James Version stems from the William Tyndale version," Gordon said. 

A comparison between Tyndale's Bible, 1528: I Corinthians, chapter 13, 1-3, (top) and the King James Version, 1611: I Corinthians, chapter 13, 1-3, (bottom).

A comparison between Tyndale's Bible, 1528: I Corinthians, chapter 13, 1-3, (top) and the King James Version, 1611: I Corinthians, chapter 13, 1-3, (bottom).  (Image credit: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

For a book that was published in 1611, it's amazing how influential and widely read the KJV still is today. Though there are hundreds of versions and translations of the Bible, the KJV is the most popular. According to market research firm Statistica, as of 2017, more than 31% of Americans read the KJV, with the New International Version coming in second place, at 13%. Five large denominations of Christianity — Baptist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Latter-day Saints and Pentecostal — use the KJV today.

The KJV "works as both a word-for-word and sense-for-sense translation," meaning it acts as both a literal translation of many of the words believed to have been used by Jesus Christ and his Apostles and accurately conveys the meaning behind those words and events, Gordon said. One line of manuscripts used in the KJV — the Textus Receptus of Erasmus, translated from Greek to Latin by the 16th-century Dutch scholar and philosopher Desiderius Erasmus — is thought by some to be a particularly important inclusion in the KJV, especially for those who see it as the purest line of the New Testament going back to the Apostolic Age (A.D. 33 to 100), Gordon said. 

Despite the KJV's popularity throughout the centuries, Gordon said some scholars now view parts of it as outdated. He cautioned that there have been other ancient manuscripts discovered since the KJV was commissioned that enhance scholars' understanding of some biblical events and possibly even change the meaning of certain words. 

Related: What led to the emergence of monotheism?

For example, in the mid-20th century, "many translators believed that 'maiden' or 'young woman' was a more accurate Hebraic translation to use to describe Jesus' mother Mary, instead of 'virgin,'" Gordon said. If correct, the interpretation would have far-reaching implications as the Old Testament prophet Isaiah had prophesied that the Messiah would be born of a virgin. "Translations," Gordon said, "are not neutral things."

To that end, many KJV readers (known as "King James Onlyists") don't believe the Bible should be updated at all and hold to the notion that James' version was translated from the most reliable manuscripts. What's more, Gordon said, some Onlyists believe that the scholars who oversaw the KJV translation were "divinely inspired" and that more modern translations should be disregarded because they have been "carried out by nonbelievers." 

Even casual religious observers or nonbelievers are affected by the prose of the KJV Bible in ways they may not realize. Its poetic language has influenced generations of artists and activists, with many biblical phrases becoming part of our everyday language. A few examples include "the blind leading the blind," "the powers that be," "my brother's keeper," "by the skin of your teeth," "a wolf in sheep's clothing," "rise and shine" and "go the extra mile," according to Wide Open Country. Even the famous opening line "Four score and seven years ago" from President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was inspired by language used in the KJV.

Originally published on Live Science.

Daryl Austin
Live Science Contributor

Daryl Austin is an editor and writer based in Utah. He writes about history and health, including on topics such as mental health and the COVID-19 pandemic. His work has been published by National Geographic, The Wall Street Journal, NBC News, The Guardian, Business Insider, The Atlantic, USA Today, The Washington Post and Newsweek.