Richard Nisley

The King James Bible—on its 400th anniversary
History - World Released - Jan 01, 2017

2011 marked the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, a classic of English literature, and the most quoted book at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Indeed, the very ideals that exalted the Declaration of Independence were Biblical in origin: all men are created equal and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” The debates at both the Continental Congress of 1776 and the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were, at their core, a pursuit of truth. The truth they were seeking was grounded in Scripture, Scripture that supported the right of people to question their leaders, supported the legitimacy of the democratic process, and supported the idea that individuals were capable of discovering truth for themselves, without the need of clergy or kings.

The idea that there was a higher, unchanging law that governed the universe appealed greatly to the founders. Where else could they find a code as brief and comprehensive as the Ten Commandments? These Mosaic Laws were designed to meet a specific set of local conditions. Yet, they cover the whole field of human behavior and are equally living and effective after three thousand years of change. The first commandment establishes the nature of God, the oneness of God, as the only power governing the universe. The second commandment establishes man’s relationship with God. Commandments three though ten establish man’s relationship to man, often called the social commandments. The commandments appear in three places: Exodus 20, Exodus 34, and Deuteronomy 5. The three accounts differ somewhat. For example, the relative material which follows the fourth commandment, “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy,” differs in Exodus from that in Deuteronomy. The latter bases the command to grant rest to laborers and animals for Israel’s own deliverance from bondage in Egypt. It places a limit on the hours of labor, making it the first labor legislation in history.


Classic Greece is credited with having been the world’s first democracy. Overlooked, perhaps, is the fact that Moses established representative government that included courts of law, 500 years earlier. It was Moses’ father-in-law who suggested the idea. “. . . .thou shalt provide out of the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens.” (Exo 18: 21) These rulers were known as the Judges, and rotation in office was the rule. What this new form of government did was free Moses from the day-to-day cares of his people to concern himself with the direction and welfare of the nation as a whole and, like our Supreme Court, to adjudicate disputes that exceeded the authority of the Judges. “With the advent of the Judges, the Israelites were, as nearly as can be discovered, the most democratic people of the ancient world.” (Marchette Chute: THE SEARCH FOR GOD)

After the era of the judges, David, the shepherd boy who slew Goliath with his sling, rose up to become the first king of Israel. Yet, his beliefs were much like that of the Judges. He believed the king was under the same moral law as his most humble subject.

When Israel began to stray from Mosaic law and adopt the pagan rites of Persian religions, prophets rose up to act as the conscious of the nation. The greatest of them was Isaiah. Isaiah’s message was clear: spiritual growth of the individual was the key to a nation’s well-being and prosperity, and not the beliefs of its priests and the military power of its king. If Isaiah was the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, Jeremiah was a close second. He underscored Isaiah’s dictum in proclaiming that the understanding of God was not a matter of ecclesiastical organization but of individual responsibility. This was an idea the American founders would seize upon: a nation can only be as great as its people. “The nation of Israel had never been the keeper of the covenant; it had always belonged to the people,” writes Chute. In the United States, the covenant was the Constitution, which begins with the words, “We the people. . . .”


In the New Testament, the idea of true equality among men emerged with the ministry of Jesus and his disciples, and notably with the apostle Paul. In his book, INVENTING THE INDIVIDUAL, historian Larry Siedentop writes: “Followers of Jesus began to claim that his sacrificial life and death amounted to a dramatic intervention in history, a new revelation of God’s will. Understanding that revelation would, in due course, provide crucial underpinnings for what we understand as the nature and claims of the individual. . . . Previously in antiquity, it was the patriarchal family that had been the agency of immortality (i.e. ancestral worship). Now, through the story of Jesus, individual moral agency was raised up as providing a unique window into the nature of things, into the experience of grace rather than necessity, a glimpse of something transcending death. The individual replaced the family as the focus of immortality.”

Paul’s conception of the Christ overturned the assumption on which ancient thinking had hitherto rested, the assumption of natural inequality. Paul said we can and should see ourselves in others, and others in ourselves. Writes Siedentop: “Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus amounted to the discovery of human freedom — of a moral agency potentially available to each and everyone, that is, to individuals. This ‘universal’ freedom, with its moral implications, was utterly different from the freedom enjoyed by the privileged class of citizens in the polis” (cities of Rome).

Paul used Jesus’ emphasis on the fatherhood of God to insist on the brotherhood of man. In Galatians Paul writes: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Says Siedentop: “Through his letters, Paul provided an ontological foundation for ‘the individual’, through the promise that humans have access to the deepest reality as individuals rather than merely as members of a group.”

These ideas of equality were adopted and expanded by Augustine in the fourth and fifth centuries, and began to influence secular law in the 12th and 13th century. If Christianity declared all men equal in the sight of God, should not they be equal in the sight of secular law? Unlike the ancient cities of Rome, liberty was being claimed, not merely for the medieval towns, but for the individuals who lived and worked there. “It is to Jesus Christ that we owe the development of the laws and advantages of our city,” proclaimed the citizens of Marseilles in 1219.

The reach of Kings did not extend to the merchant cities of medieval Europe, thanks to hard won town charters that guaranteed self rule. It was from these cities that capitalism, the middle class, and democracy emerged in the middle ages. But what of the Christian church that fostered the ideals of equality and individual freedom enjoyed in the merchant towns? “The church was both present and absent at the birth of a new form of society, something that has confused discussions of the nature of secularism ever since,” writes Siedentop. “Christian beliefs provided a sanction for the individual as the fundamental social role, an egalitarian understanding of justice. But in most other aspects, the church did not seek to shape urban institutions directly. Its influence remained indirect.”

Ironically, as the medieval towns were increasingly tolerant of differing religious beliefs, the church became increasingly intolerant, going so far as to decree the very safety of the Catholic religion “lay in ignorance of the text,” and thereby put a stop to translations of the Bible from the original Greek and Hebrew text into the popular languages of the people. By Papal decree, the average church-goer was forbidden from reading the very book that had been the source of his freedom—the Bible. What was in the Bible and its meaning became the domain of priests. Just how far the European world had strayed when reading the Bible could mean a date with the executioner. During the Spanish Inquisition, the first question asked was: Do you read the Bible in your native tongue? The rack and the stake awaited the wrong answer.


Enter Erasmus (1466 -1536) who called the Bible “the food of the soul.” He pointed out that the evangelists themselves had translated into Greek what Christ Himself had spoken in Aramaic. In fact, Christ had spoken in the broadest possible terms, in similitudes and parables, to be widely understood. Why not translate such language into the native tongues of everyone? William Tyndale (1495-1536) took Erasmus' words to heart. A Cambridge scholar of very great gifts, he set out to translate the Bible into English so that everyone could read and understand it. "...I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scriptures than (the Pope.)"

Tyndale succeeded beyond his expectations, and paid the ultimate price. He was tried for heresy and burned at the stake. Threat of death for reading Tyndale's translation did not stop the English Bible from circulating secretly among the masses. It wasn’t allowed in the churches, so it was shared and read wherever common people gathered—in pubs, in coffee houses, and in people’s homes. Translations of the Psalms and the four Gospels were the first to be circulated. With the arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press, the Bible in full became available to everyone. Public education was a direct result of the people’s desire to read the Bible.

The English people gradually came to realize that religious power resided not with the established church but in their very own hands. This led to the Protestant Reformation in England, as we'll as in Germany and the Netherlands where for the first time the Bible was translated into the native tongues of these countries. After a few generations of this mindset, it wasn't too much of a stretch for people to realize that political power did not reside in the hands of the Monarch, but in their own desire to be self-governed. In England, this led to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and eventually to the American Revolution of 1776.

Seventy years after Tyndale's death—on the order of King James—a committee of 60 Cambridge and Oxford scholars translated the Bible into English, based mostly on Tyndale’s ground-breaking translation. This translation became known as the King James Version, or KJV, which was published in 1611.

“The idea of equality before the law is rooted in religious concepts about the dignity of each individual before a divine being. For centuries, this concept has been steadily adopted around the world, challenging the social impositions of race, position, and wealth.” (Christian Science Monitor, 11-7-16)

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