Without the King James Version of the Bible, one writer speculated, "There would be no Paradise Lost … no Pilgrim's Progress … no Negro spirituals, no Address at Gettysburg." Another imagined what would happen if the KJV were to suddenly disappear: "People would not know what the great [English and American] writers were talking about."

But the King James Version hasn't disappeared. Even though today there are more accurate and contemporary translations of the Bible, the KJV holds sovereign place in the English-speaking world: it continues to be printed and circulated more widely than any other version.

How did this remarkable work originate? Did King James sit down and write it, as some have imagined? In fact, it was the work of fifty-some scholars following more than two hundred turbulent years of translating the Bible into English.

Wycliffe Bible without Wycliffe

English translations of portions of the Bible go back about as far as the English language itself. King Alfred the Great (d. 901) began a translation of the Psalms, and in the tenth century, the Gospels were translated into various regional dialects.

The first attempt to translate the complete Bible into English, though, is associated with fourteenth-century theologian John Wycliffe.

Toward the end of his life, Wycliffe became critical of the established church (see "The Fiery Man behind the First English Bible,"), and as a result, in 1381 he was removed from his post at Oxford University. He withdrew to the church in Lutterworth, where he was surrounded by disciples who began to translate the Bible into English, certainly under his inspiration and probably at his bidding. There is no evidence Wycliffe took part in the actual work of translation.

The church ...

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