Starring John Rhys-Davies of Lord of the Rings fame, the 90 minute film KJB: The Book That Changed The World provides the historical context for the development of the King James Bible. The film is directed by Norman Stone, known for works such as the award-winning Shadowlands, and most recently The Narnia Code with Michael Ward.
Interspersing documentary style context, academic interviews, big movie music, strong production values, filmed on location, and mini-dramas we are drawn into the stories of those who influenced the creation of the King James Bible. The film starts with a dying Queen Elizabeth, a Queen who has earnt her place in power, but whose death heralds change, change feared by many. Out of three possible claimants to the throne, two are women. James VI of Scotland’s mother, Mary Queen of Scots, and Queen Elizabeth knew each other well, but had never met. (Only in the modern day have we put so much emphasis on face-to-face meetings!). At a time when religion was seen as worth both living and dying for, James had effectively been brought up as a prisoner with George Buchanan as tutor (a Calvinist who believed that King’s were the servant of God) giving him a strongly Biblical education. Having witnessed many power struggles, James developed a strong desire for unity.
It’s not until 30-40 minutes into the film that the story of the development of the KJB starts to be made explicit. In lessons with Buchanan, James said “no King can interpret God’s words for any other man”. James believed that that if thinking men (of all levels) understood the Bible, they would understand what to do with that knowledge. With a strong belief in the importance of scholarship, at the age of 18 he took control of the Scottish kingdom, depicted in this film as gaining popularity with his romance and wedding to Anne of Denmark (aged 14). With fractious Clans, and few luxuries for the Scots, James looked in envy at England, and ensured that he kept in contact with Elizabeth.
The seed of the idea for the King James Bible appeared to have been sown at Burnt Island Church in 1601, when James attended one of the annual Kirk meetings. There were calls for a new translation of the Bible, and James, with his desire for unity, wanted to find a single, mutually acceptable version of the Bible. This got lost in a committee, but as James took power in England, the various factions, including the Church of England and the Puritans, looked to the new monarch, James, with high hopes. Each faction championed its own Bible: the Church of England has the Bishops Bible, described as a ‘lazy’ work, full of poor translation; the Puritans had the Geneva Bible, whose notes were often written by anti-monarchists. James, an excellent debater, is depicted winning arguments with both camps, with the Church of England accused of corruption and ineptitude, and the Puritans overly concerned with unimportant minutiae. 55 minutes into the film, James calls for a new Bible, a project of scholarship and clarity, to be the finest translation ever produced, produced ‘by committee’, with scholars from across the religious traditions to ensure a balanced translation, and with his personal supervision of the work.
The film takes us to a number of places of importance to the story, including original translation work kept at Lambeth Palace (although not much has survived), Merton College Oxford, The Bodleian Library, where James liked to study, and into the type of church where the translation was intended to be read aloud, with dignity and gravitas. We see the development and impact of the Guy Fawkes plot, the printing process in action – the time consuming nature of this would have added to the value of the printed book.
The King James Bible was developed by 50 scholars over seven years, and the final 20 minutes of the film demonstrates how the suspicion and distrust of each other was broken down, as the translators sought to find common ground, sharing knowledge, research and scholarship to produce an accurate translation. James didn’t see the final translation until it was printed, when he was ‘profoundly moved’.
The film is more a biography of James, than the story of the KJB, but gives us great insight into the context of the Bible, it’s translation, production, and the man who drove it. After the Bible was produced, James’ standing went into decline, as his version of the Bible didn’t sell – until 50 years later. James was buried in Westminster Abbey in 1625, but the film identifies the KJB as his real ‘monument’ to society, as it drastically changed western culture. Well paid, and decently paced, if you love a good biography, and some historical context, you’ll love it.