Today, we have many Bible translations in English to choose from, but that wasn’t always the case. In the Middle Ages, people didn’t own Bibles. They only heard the Bible read at church; even then, they couldn’t understand it. It was read in Latin, a language the common people didn’t know.
A change began when a priest named Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. He launched the Reformation in 1517, preaching “sola scriptura,” or only the Bible for belief and practice. Within five years, Luther translated the New Testament into German.
In England, the priest John Wycliffe, an early reformer, had already translated the Bible into Middle English in the late 1300s. However, King Richard II of England banned Wycliffe’s teachings. The Catholic church forbade owning an English translation of the Bible and persecuted Wycliffe’s followers.
But the Reformation swept through Europe. In 1534, King Henry VIII officially broke the Church of England away from the Roman Catholic Church. His motives weren’t spiritual – he wanted to divorce his wife to marry his lover, and the Pope told him he couldn’t do that. Nevertheless, Henry VIII authorized an English translation of the Bible, called the Great Bible. It was called “Great” because of its enormous size. It wasn’t available to the general population. One copy was chained to a stand in the front of each church.
Henry VIII’s daughter Queen Elizabeth I commissioned a new English translation called the Bishops Bible in 1568. The Old Testament was mostly translated from the Latin Vulgate, making it a translation of a translation.
Origin of the King James and Douay-Rheims Bible:
King James Bible: In 1604, King James I of England authorized a translation of the Bible into English. Forty-seven Biblical scholars translated the New Testament from Greek manuscripts. They used Hebrew manuscripts for the Old Testament rather than the Latin Vulgate. However, the translation was essentially a revision of the Bishops’ Bible. They also heavily consulted the Geneva Bible, an English-language translation completed in 1560 by Protestant reformers in Switzerland.
The scholars also translated the Apocrypha from Greek and Latin. The Apocrypha are fourteen books written between 200 BC to 400 AD, which most Protestants do not consider to be inspired.
In 1611, the Authorized King James Version was published, containing thirty-nine Old Testament books, twenty-seven New Testament books, and the Apocrypha.
Douay-Rheims Bible: As more and more churches and European countries embraced the Reformation, the Roman Catholic church launched the Counter-Reformation, an attempt to bring the churches and countries back into the fold. The Catholic Church originally was against an English translation because they felt the Bible needed to be explained to the common people by the priests. They didn’t want people to read the Bible for themselves or even hear it read in English at church.
However, the Protestants were excited about having the Great Bible and the Bishops’ Bible translated into English, so they could understand it (the King James Bible hadn’t yet been translated). The Catholics produced the Douay-Rheims Bible in English to keep their flock from reading Protestant translations. The Douay-Rheims Bible was loaded with marginal notes explaining the Catholic perspective on theological issues. The Catholic church still didn’t encourage people to read the Bible independently, and it was illegal to own one in England.
This Bible is called the Douay-Rheims Bible because the translation took place in Douai and Rheims, France. In 1582, the New Testament was published. In 1609 and 1610, the two volumes of the Old Testament were published, which included the Apocrypha.
The Old and New Testaments were translated directly from the Latin Vulgate, which was translated from the original Hebrew and Greek. This made the DRB a translation of a translation. Jerome translated the Vulgate in 405 AD, and it became the official translation of the Roman Catholic Church.
Readability of each translation
King James Bible: The King James Version was originally meant to be read from church pulpits, not by individual people. Only about 20% of people in England could read then, and spelling was not standardized. However, literacy rose dramatically over the next century. With recently-developed printing presses, the “Authorized Version” (what the King James Bible was called in those days) became available to anyone who wanted to buy it.
The English language has changed so much since the King James Bible was originally printed in 1611 that it would be almost impossible to read that version today. For instance, the letter “v” was printed as a “u”, so the word “evil” was spelled “euil.” The letter “i” was often spelled with a “y”, so “void” was “voyd.” Here’s what Romans 12:9 looked like in 1611:
“Let loue bee without dissimulation: abhorre that which is euill, cleaue to that which is good.”
The King James Bible was revised several times to make it easier to read; however, it is still challenging. According to Bible Gateway, the King James Versions is at a 12+ grade level or age 17 and up.
One problem with readability is changes in idioms and word meanings. For instance, “conversation” in the King James Bible means behavior, not speech. Some words in the King James Bible, like concupiscence or besom, aren’t used today. The King James Version still uses archaic spelling, such as “shew” for “show” and “giveth” for “gives.”
Word order has also changed. For instance, here is Colossians 2:23 in the KJV:
“Which things have indeed a shew of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh.”
Nevertheless, the King James Version is still a beloved translation for many Christians. They love its poetic language and have become accustomed to the archaic language.
Douay-Rheims Bible: This was an extremely literal translation from the Latin Vulgate, which made it difficult to read. Rather than using everyday English (even 16th-century English), they used a Latinate form of English.
As with the King James Version, spelling wasn’t yet standardized. The Douay-Rheims New Testament was published twenty-nine years before the KJV, so spelling and grammatical changes were even more dramatic. For example, here is Ephesians 3:6 in the original Douay-Rheims Bible compared to the 1611 King James Version and today’s Berean Standard Bible:
- “The Gentiles to be coheires and concorporat and comparticipant of his promise in Christ JESUS by the Gospel” (1582 DRB)
- “That the Gentiles should be fellow heires, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ, by the Gospel” (1611 KJV)
- “. . . that through the gospel the Gentiles are fellow heirs, fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus.” (BSB)
Bible translation differences between the KJV and Douay-Rheims Bible
King James Version: The Old Testament translation used manuscripts from the Masoretic Hebrew text. The New Testament translation used the Koine-Greek Textus Receptus manuscripts. Erasmus compiled these in the 16th century, based on the Greek manuscripts available in his day. These weren’t the original manuscripts written by the apostles, but copies of copies of copies, mostly from the 12th century. They had been recopied for over one thousand years.
Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, which began using Latin for church services and its Bible translation, the Greek Orthodox Church of the Byzantine Empire continued using Koine Greek for church services. They did not translate the New Testament but kept using Koine Greek. Thus, they helped preserve the New Testament in its original language. Today’s more recent translations use the Textus Receptus along with other manuscripts that were unavailable to Erasmus. Some of these manuscripts are much older, meaning they were recopied fewer times and probably less likely to have changes or errors.
Douay-Rheims Bible: This translation wasn’t from the Hebrew and Greek texts at all but from Jerome’s Latin Bible, the Vulgate. The translators did refer to available Hebrew and Greek manuscripts.
Jerome studied Hebrew and lived in Bethlehem while working on his translation. With the help of Jewish scholars, he translated most of the Old Testament himself from Hebrew manuscripts while using the Greek Septuagint translation (200s BC) of the Old Testament as a reference.
Jerome revised earlier Latin translations of the New Testament, referring to Greek manuscripts. In the 4th century, Jerome had access to manuscripts that Erasmus didn’t have in the 16th century.
Bible verse comparison
These comparisons are the most recent versions of the King James Version and the Douay-Rheims Bible.
DRB: “I will shew thee, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requireth of thee: Verily, to do judgment, and to love mercy, and to walk solicitous with thy God.”
1 John 4:16
KJV: “And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love ddwelleth in God, and God in him.”
DRB: “And we have known and have believed the charity which God hath to us. God is charity: and he that abideth in charity abideth in God, and God in him.”
KJV: “Trust in the LORD, and do good; Dwell in the land, and feed on His faithfulness.”
DRB: “Trust in the Lord, and do good, and dwell in the land, and thou shalt be fed with its riches.”
KJV: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.”
DRB: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus in good works, which God hath prepared that we should walk in them.”
KJV: “Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.”
DRB: “Again I say to you, that if two of you shall consent upon earth, concerning any thing whatsoever they shall ask, it shall be done to them by my Father who is in heaven.”
King James Version: Cambridge University did two minor revisions in 1629 and 1631 to correct printing errors and make small translation changes. In 1644, the Apocrypha books were removed. Cambridge (1760) and Oxford University (1769) corrected more printing mistakes and updated spelling and capitalization to the 1700s usage. The Oxford University revision of 1769 is used in KJV Bibles today, except for the New King James Version (1982).
Douay-Rheims Bible: Richard Challoner, Vicar Apostolic of London, completed a substantial revision in 1752, heavily borrowing from the KJV. It was more like the KJV than the original Douay-Rheims version, which had been literally translated from Latin and was hard to read. He took out most of the marginal notes so that the entire Bible was now one volume. He made the updated version easier to read and understand.
Bernard MacMahon completed a revision of the New Testament in 1810, making it more different from the KJV. This revision is what is usually printed in the USA.
Target audience for both Bible translations
King James Version: this version appeals to adults and older teens who are traditionalists, who appreciate its classical elegance, and who can navigate through archaic English.
Douay-Rheims Bible: this version specifically targets Catholic readers. Since it hasn’t recently been updated, it appeals to those who appreciate tradition and poetic language.
King James Version: As of January 2023, the KJV is the fourth most popular Bible translation by sales, according to the Evangelical Publisher’s Association.
Douay-Rheims Bible: This is the authorized version for Roman Catholics, so it has a smaller audience. Some traditionalist Catholics insist on only using the DRB. Of 532 ratings on Amazon Books, it has 4.8 stars (of 5). On Goodreads, it has an average rating of 4.6 out of 1552 ratings.
Pros and cons of both translations
King James Version: Many people appreciate the elegance and poetic nature of the KJV, which lends itself to memorization. The downside is archaic spelling and sentence construction, which makes it harder to read and understand than newer translations.
Douay-Rheims Bible: The Douay-Rheims Bible is a translation of a translation at the cost of meaning and clarity. However, many Catholics feel this is positive because Jerome’s Latin translation was excellently done and approved by the Catholic church. When translating difficult passages, the translators purposefully kept the verses obscure rather than changing the text to make it more understandable. The more recent revisions followed an approximation of the King James Version with obtuse passages.
Pastors who use them
King James Version: According to the Christian Post, the denominations that most often use the KJV are Baptists, Episcopalians, Pentecostals, and Presbyterians. Some pastors who used the KJV include:
- Steven Anderson of the New Independent Fundamentalist Baptist movement and pastor of Faithful Word Baptist Church
- Gloria Copeland, one of President Trump’s evangelical ministers, co-founder of Kenneth Copeland Ministries, author, and television teacher on faith healing
- Gail Riplinger, pulpit teacher in Independent Baptist churches and author of New Age Bible Versions
- Shelton Smith, editor of Sword of the Lord newspaper and Independent Baptist church pastor
- Douglas Wilson, pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho, professor at New Saint Andrews College, and Reformed evangelical theologian.
- Andrew Wommack, TV evangelist and founder of Charis Bible College.
Douay-Rheims Bible: this was the only English-language version of the Bible used by priests in the pulpits of Roman Catholic Churches until 1943. At that time, Pope Pius XII authorized translations from Greek and Hebrew, so Catholic pastors since have used mostly newer translations. The most common Bible versions used in Catholic churches today are the Jerusalem Bible, New American Bible, and the Revised Standard Version (in Catholic editions). Traditionalist Catholics favor the Douay-Rheims Bible.
Other Bible translations
- The NIV (New International Version) is the best-selling Bible, according to the ECPA. Over one hundred scholars from thirteen denominations translated it. Rather than revising older translations, this was a new translation from the Greek and Hebrew texts. It was first published in 1978 and has been revised several times. It is not a word-for-word translation, so it is not as literal as some translations, but easier to understand, with a reading level of age 12 and up. It uses gender-inclusive and gender-neutral language. For instance, instead of “brothers,” it will say “brothers and sisters” when it’s obvious that women are included. Here is Micah 6:8 in the NIV (compare to KJV and DRB above):
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
- The NLT (New Living Translation) has moved up to #2 on the Bible bestselling list. It is a revision of the 1971 Living Bible and is the easiest translation to understand. Over ninety evangelical scholars translated and revised the NLT. It is a thought-for-thought translation and uses gender-inclusive and gender-neutral language. Here is Micah 6:8 in the NLT:
“No, O people, the LORD has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”
- The ESV (English Standard Version) has moved up to #3 on the bestselling list. It is a word-for-word translation, so more accurate and closer to the Greek and Hebrew texts than the NIV or NLT. Only the New American Standard Bible is more literate than the ESV. It is a revision of the 1971 Revised Standard Version (RSV). The ESV is at a 10th-grade reading level. Here is Micah 6:8 in the ESV:
“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Which translation should I use?
Choose a translation you love so much that you will read it daily. You want a Bible with an accurate translation, but you must also consider your reading level. It’s no use getting the most literal translation if it’s gathering dust on the shelf.
One way to explore Bible translations is to use Bible Hub’s comparative readings. For instance, you can read Micah 6:8 (and any other passages you want to look up) in over twenty different translations.[i] You can even check out the Greek and Hebrew transliteration.
The King James Version and the Douay Rheims Bible were originally translated over four centuries ago. The DRB was translated by Catholics for Catholics, and Protestants translated the KJV for Protestants. Both translations served a valuable role in allowing people to hear the Bible read in a language they could understand. Eventually, as literacy increased and more Bibles were printed, most English-speaking people could have a copy of their own to read. Both versions are beloved and cherished even today.