May 022015


On this date in 1611 the King James Bible (KJB), also known as the Authorized Version (AV) and the King James Version (KJV), was published for the first time in London by the king’s printer Robert Barker. This was the third translation into English to be approved by the English Church authorities. The first was the Great Bible commissioned in the reign of King Henry VIII (1535), and the second was the Bishops’ Bible of 1568. In January 1604, King James I & VI convened the Hampton Court Conference where a new English version was conceived in response to the perceived problems of the earlier translations as suggested by the Puritans, at that time a faction within the Church of England.


James gave the translators instructions intended to guarantee that the new version would conform to Anglican church law and reflect the episcopal structure of the Church of England and its belief in an ordained clergy. A bit of an irony given that he was Catholic. The translation was done by 47 scholars, all of whom were members of the Church of England. In common with most other translations of the period, the New Testament was translated from Greek, the Old Testament was translated from Hebrew and Aramaic text, while the Apocrypha were translated from the Greek and Latin.

A primary concern of the translators was to produce a Bible that would be appropriate, dignified and resonant in public reading. Although the KJV’s written style is an important part of its influence on English, research has found only one verse – Hebrews 13:8 – for which translators debated the wording’s literary merits. While they stated in the preface that they used stylistic variation, finding multiple English words or verbal forms in places where the original language employed repetition, in practice they also did the opposite; for example, 14 different Hebrew words were translated into the single English word “prince”.


In a period of rapid linguistic change the translators avoided contemporary idioms, tending instead towards forms that were already slightly archaic, like “verily” and “it came to pass. The pronouns “thou/thee” and “you” are consistently used as singular and plural respectively, even though by this time “you” was often found as the singular in general English usage, especially when addressing a social superior (as is evidenced, for example, in Shakespeare). For the possessive of the third person pronoun, the word “its,” first recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1598, is avoided. The older “his” is usually employed, as for example at Matthew 5:13: “if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted?”; in other places “of it,” “thereof” or “bare it” are found. Another sign of linguistic conservatism is the invariable use of -eth for the third person singular present form of the verb, as at Matthew 2:13: “the Angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dreame”. The rival ending -(e)s, as found in present-day English, was already widely used by this time (for example, it predominates over -eth in the plays of Shakespeare and Marlowe). Furthermore, the translators preferred “which” to “who” or “whom” as the relative pronoun for persons, as in Genesis 13:5: “And Lot also which went with Abram, had flocks and heards, & tents” although “who(m)” is also found.

The influence of KJV on modern English is debatable, and claims are highly exaggerated according to David Crystal, author of Begat. The King James Bible and the English Language (2010). Crystal argues that rather than being an influence on English writing style many of its stylistic forms are either obsolete or actively discouraged now. A typical example is the dislike of initial “and” in a sentence:

I suspect many of you were taught that it was ‘bad grammar’ to begin a sentence with And. But what do we find in the opening chapter of Genesis?—thirty-one verses, all but two of them beginning with And—’And God said… And God made…’. Only the opening verse (‘In the beginning God created the heaven and earth’) and verse 27 (‘So God created…’) do otherwise.

Phew !! I begin sentences with “And” all the time (see below).

Crystal also tried to put a precise figure on the number of current-day idioms found in KJV such as “out of the mouths of babes” and “fly in the ointment.” After exhaustive research he came up with 257. Furthermore, most of the idioms he found don’t originate in KJV but come from Tyndale‘s translation or the Bishops’ Bible of 1568. By his count, only 18 expressions are unique to the 1611 version. They include “how are the mighty fallen,” “the root of the matter,” and “a thorn in the flesh.” The aim of the translators was to make the text readable rather than linguistically innovative. Shakespeares they were not.

Likewise Crystal’s online search of OED reveals that a mere 43 words in KJV were first used there:

abased (adj.), accurately, afflicting (n.), almug, anywhither, armour-bearer, backsliding (adj.), battering-ram, Benjamite, catholicon, confessing (n.), crowning (adj.), dissolver, epitomist, escaper, espoused (adj.), exactress, expansion, Galilean (n.), gopher, Gothic (adj.), grand-daughter, Hamathite, ingenuously, Laodicean (n.), light-minded, maneh, miscarrying (adj.), Naziriteship, needleworker, night-hawk, nose-jewel, palmchrist, panary, peaceable kingdom, phrasing (n.), pruning-hook, Sauromatian, shittah, skewed, way-mark, whosesoever, withdrawing (adj.)

Compare this with my list from Shakespeare:

And (!) I would hardly call “almug,” “catholicon,” and “maneh” household words.

Crystal’s assertion is that KJV did not so much create new literary forms and idioms, but popularized what already existed via public readings from the pulpit.

The result was that an unprecedented number of biblical idioms captured the public imagination, so much so that it’s now impossible to find an area of contemporary expression that doesn’t from time to time use them, either literally or playfully. We find them appearing in such disparate worlds as nuclear physics, court cases, TV sitcoms, recipe books, punk rock lyrics, and video games, and being adapted in all kinds of imaginative ways to suit their new settings. The banking crisis produced Am I my Lehman Brothers’ keeper? A political confrontation produced Bush is the fly in Blair’s ointment. No other work has generated so many variations. The adaptations are legion. It is in this sense that the influence of the King James is without parallel.

The KJV that is used today is not the 1611 original but a substantial revision from 1769. To begin, the spelling was regularized. In 1611 English, spelling was not entirely standardized and variants of words were common. By 1769 there was a fixed orthography. Over the years various errors crept in as the text was reset. The most infamous of these occurred in what became known as the Wicked Bible. The word “not” was accidentally omitted from the commandment not to commit adultery:


For an hilarious list of historical typos, go here:

In the UK television show Red Dwarf, an obscure fundamentalist Christian sect on the moon Io based its worship on a Bible wherein 1 Corinthians 13:13 reads “Faith, hop, and charity, and the greatest of these is hop.” The sect is consequently known as “Seventh Day Advent Hoppists” and members spend every Sunday hopping.

Certain printing conventions were also modernized. For example, in the 17th century for “u” and “v,” the letter “v” was used for both letters as an initial, and “u” for both in other positions.

The 1611 and 1769 texts of the first three verses from I Corinthians 13 are given below, respectively.

1. Though I speake with the tongues of men & of Angels, and haue not charity, I am become as sounding brasse or a tinkling cymbal. 2 And though I haue the gift of prophesie, and vnderstand all mysteries and all knowledge: and though I haue all faith, so that I could remooue mountaines, and haue no charitie, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestowe all my goods to feede the poore, and though I giue my body to bee burned, and haue not charitie, it profiteth me nothing.

1. Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

In these three verses, there are eleven changes of spelling, sixteen changes of typesetting (including the changed conventions for the use of u and v), three changes of punctuation, and one variant text – where “not charity” is substituted for “no charity” in verse two, in the erroneous belief that the original reading was a misprint.


The 1611 printing also uses the long “s” (looking like an “f” without the cross stroke and “y” for the now obsolete runic letter Ϸ (thorn) — pronounced “th” as seen in this copy of John 3:16. The latter convention gave rise to the mistaken belief that Elizabethans said “ye” instead of “the” in horrible names such as “Ye Olde Tea Shoppe.”

There is a strong preference for KJV in certain circles, notably the so-called King James Only movement. I don’t need to go into great detail about this. People with this mentality seem to have a feeling (and not much more) that KJV is “inspired” by God and, thus, superior to all other translations. As far as I am concerned you can believe what you want. I use whatever translation is to hand – usually New Revised Standard, the one I used in college. When precise meaning is an issue for me I go to the original Hebrew or Greek. Translations are irrelevant.

In the KJV there is this passage from Ezekiel 4:

9 Take thou also unto thee wheat, and barley, and beans, and lentiles, and millet, and fitches [spelt], and put them in one vessel, and make thee bread thereof, according to the number of the days that thou shalt lie upon thy side, three hundred and ninety days shalt thou eat thereof.

10 And thy meat which thou shalt eat shall be by weight, twenty shekels a day: from time to time shalt thou eat it.

11 Thou shalt drink also water by measure, the sixth part of an hin: from time to time shalt thou drink.

12 And thou shalt eat it as barley cakes, and thou shalt bake it with dung that cometh out of man, in their sight.

13 And the Lord said, Even thus shall the children of Israel eat their defiled bread among the Gentiles, whither I will drive them.

14 Then said I, Ah Lord God! behold, my soul hath not been polluted: for from my youth up even till now have I not eaten of that which dieth of itself, or is torn in pieces; neither came there abominable flesh into my mouth.

15 Then he said unto me, Lo, I have given thee cow’s dung for man’s dung, and thou shalt prepare thy bread therewith.

It’s a “recipe” of sorts for a bread that Ezekiel is required to eat whilst prophesying concerning the siege of Jerusalem. It’s more like a list of ingredients for a flatbread, with some nasty and not so nasty ways of cooking it. The reference to excrement is about the kind of fire to cook it over (not a suggestion for a flavoring!). Dried cow dung was the usual cooking fuel in those days (still common among east African pastoralists). It produces a low temperature for slow cooking. God’s suggestion for using human feces instead symbolizes the horror of Jerusalem’s sins.


I don’t have the ability right now to try to replicate the recipe. I do note, however, that there are many recipes for “Ezekiel Bread” online, and a commercially available version called Ezekiel 4:9®. Almost all of them take liberties with the “recipe” (for the literalist), notably in the use of yeast, and also in the addition of other ingredients, for the sake of the modern palate; plus the use of a modern oven. Ezekiel’s is clearly a flat unleavened bread, not baked in an oven, but cooked slowly over a low flame. When I get a kitchen I will experiment with proportions of the ingredients and use a grill. For now you can do it for me if you wish.

The grains and legumes would have been ground using a quern, then mixed with enough water to make a paste, shaped into flat rounds like pita, and cooked on a heated stone or over an open fire. It’s possible the grains were sprouted before being ground, but Ezekiel is silent here. Either way. Sprouting increases the nutritive value and alters the flavor (barley turns to malt, for example). I will say that I am not in a hurry to experiment. Based on experience with other similar combinations of grains and legumes I believe this bread would be leaden and only marginally palatable.  The ingredients would make a nice soup, but I’d add some meat for flavor (not pork out of deference to kashrut). In this case I’d use whole grains and legumes rather than ground.

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