The King James Bible was first published in 1611, and it quickly became the standard English translation of the Bible. But there are a number of King James Version Bible errors and mistranslations that completely altered the meaning of the original text. For example, one 1631 edition ordered people to commit adultery. Yes – you read that right.
The Bible has changed over time, just like depictions of Jesus slowly became whiter over time. And every translation of the Bible introduces new changes. The history of the King James Bible is no exception. It includes multiple mistranslations, errors, and other problems. Ever heard of the Holy Ghost? That’s an error in translation – it’s supposed to be the Holy Spirit. Translation is always a challenge – but it’s particularly difficult when the translators don’t even know the dialect of the original text, as was the case with the King James Bible.
The King James Bible was created in the early 17th century to placate England’s Puritans, making it a deeply political text. On top of that, the King James Bible includes fantastical creatures that seemed plausible in 1611, like unicorns and giants. It also attacks witches, who King James hated and personally tortured – but who don’t seem like such a huge problem today.
King James I of England (or, as he was known before his cousin Queen Elizabeth I died, King James VI of Scotland) was the first Stuart king of England. He ascended to the throne during a tense moment for religion. The Reformation was still in full swing, and his two predecessors on the English Throne, Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Mary I (also known as Bloody Mary) had both undertaken religious persecutions. Mary executed at least 250 Protestants, while Elizabeth banned the Catholic Mass and seized the goods of anyone found with a rosary.
By the time James came along, members of the Church of England who considered existing versions inaccurate and insufficient were actively requesting a new English translation. James approved a new translation of the Bible, a text Anglicans could more readily embrace. To carry out this task, he commissioned the new iteration. To translate, 47 Anglican scholars were organized across Westminster, Cambridge, and Oxford, with Archbishop of Canterbury Richard Bancroft supervising the edition.
King James wanted to protect Britain from a contentious religious war like the ones that had torn France and Germany apart in the 16th century. So he appointed a committee of 54 scholars and clergymen to write the King James Bible. It took them over seven years to complete the translation.
As writer and editor Charles McGrath points out, “From the start, the King James Bible was intended to be not a literary creation but rather a political and theological compromise between the established church and the growing Puritan movement.” Essentially, James wanted a clear text with no room for doctrinal dispute.
But the King James Bible still contained a number of mistranslations that have confused readers for centuries.
Translating the Bible is a major undertaking. The King James version of the Bible has 783,137 words, and the committee had to argue about every single one. But even punctuation could play a major role in how people interpreted Scripture. Just take a look at the “blasphemous comma.”
In some editions of the King James Bible, a single comma was removed that made Jesus sound like a criminal. In Luke 23:32, the text is supposed to read “And there were also two others, malefactors, led with [Jesus] to be put to death." But some editions dropped the comma, creating a blasphemous implication: “And there were also two other malefactors led with [Jesus],” making it sound like Jesus was also a criminal at the front of a criminal duo.
In 1611, no one was quite sure whether unicorns really existed. In his influential Histories of the Animals, 16th-century naturalist Conrad Gesner had included unicorns. Gesner even gave readers advice on how to distinguish between authentic unicorn horns and fake knock-offs.
The King James Bible mentions unicorns nine times, as when Isaiah 34:7 warns about the doom coming to the enemies of God’s church: “And the unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with the bulls; and their land shall be soaked with blood.”
The term is a mistranslation from the Hebrew re’em, which has also been translated as rhinoceros, wild ox, oryx, or aurochs. For over 400 years, readers of the King James Bible have been waiting on unicorns because of a mistranslation.