Bible, King James Version
As the reign of Elizabeth (1558-1603) was coming to a close,
we find a draft for an act of Parliament for a new version of the Bible: "An act
for the reducing of diversities of Bibles now extant in the English tongue to
one settled vulgar [common] translated from the original." The Bishop's Bible of
1568, although it may have eclipsed the Great Bible, was still rivaled by the
Geneva Bible. Nothing ever became of this draft during the reign of Elizabeth,
who died in 1603, and was succeeded by James I, as the throne passed from the
Tudors to the Stuarts. James was at that time James VI of Scotland, and had been
for thirty-seven years. He was born during the period between the Geneva and the
One of the first things done by the new king was the calling
of the Hampton Court Conference in January of 1604 "for the hearing, and for the
determining, things pretended to be amiss in the church." Here were assembled
bishops, clergymen, and professors, along with four Puritan divines, to consider
the complaints of the Puritans. Although Bible revision was not on the agenda,
the Puritan president of Corpus Christi College, John Reynolds, "moved his
Majesty, that there might be a new translation of the Bible, because those which
were allowed in the reigns of Henry the eighth, and Edward the sixth, were
corrupt and not answerable to the truth of the Original."
The king rejoined that he "could never yet see a Bible well
translated in English; but I think that, of all, that of Geneva is the worst. I
wish some special pains were taken for an uniform translation, which should be
done by the best learned men in both Universities [Oxford and Cambridge], then
reviewed by the Bishops, presented to the Privy Council, lastly ratified by the
Royal authority, to be read in the whole Church, and none other."
Accordingly, a resolution came forth: "That a translation be
made of the whole Bible, as consonant as can be to the original Hebrew and
Greek; and this to be set out and printed, without any marginal notes, and only
to be used in all churches of England in time of divine service."
The next step was the actual selection of the men who were to
perform the work. In July of 1604, James wrote to Bishop Bancroft that he had
"appointed certain learned men, to the number of four and fifty, for the
translating of the Bible." These men were the best Biblical scholars and
linguists of their day. In the preface to their completed work it is further
stated that "there were many chosen, that were greater in other men's eyes than
in their own, and that sought the truth rather than their own praise. Again,
they came or were thought to come to the work, learned, not to learn." Other men
were sought out, according to James, "so that our said intended translation may
have the help and furtherance of all our principal learned men within this our
Although fifty-four men were nominated, only forty-seven were
known to have taken part in the work of translation. The translators were
organized into six groups, and met respectively at Westminster, Cambridge, and
Oxford. Ten at Westminster were assigned Genesis through 2Ki; seven had Romans
through Jude. At Cambridge, eight worked on 1Ch through Ecclesiastes, while
seven others handled the Apocrypha. Oxford employed seven to translate Isaiah
through Malachi; eight occupied themselves with the Gospels, Acts, and
Fifteen general rules were advanced for the guidance of the
The work began to take shape in 1604 and progressed steadily.
The translators expressed their early thoughts in their preface as:
- The ordinary Bible read in the Church, commonly called the Bishops Bible,
to be followed, and as little altered as the Truth of the original will
- The names of the Prophets, and the Holy Writers, with the other
Names of the Text, to be retained, as nigh as may be, accordingly as they were
- The Old Ecclesiastical Words to be kept, viz. the Word Church
not to be translated Congregation &c.
- When a Word hath divers
Significations, that to be kept which hath been most commonly used by the most
of the Ancient Fathers, being agreeable to the Propriety of the Place, and the
Analogy of the Faith.
- The Division of the Chapters to be altered, either not
at all, or as little as may be, if Necessity so require.
- No Marginal Notes
at all to be affixed, but only for the explanation of the Hebrew or Greek Words,
which cannot without some circumlocution [ie, further explanation], so briefly
and fitly be expressed in the Text.
- Such Quotations of Places to be
marginally set down as shall serve for the fit Reference of one Scripture to
- Every particular Man of each Company, to take the same Chapter or
Chapters, and having translated or amended them severally by himself, where he
thinketh good, all to meet together, confer what they have done, and agree for
their Parts what shall stand.
- As any one Company hath dispatched any one
Book in this Manner they shall send it to the rest, to be considered of
seriously and judiciously, for His Majesty is very careful in this Point.
any Company, upon the Review of the Book so sent, doubt or differ upon any
Place, to send them Word thereof; note the Place, and withal send the Reasons,
to which if they consent not, the Difference to be compounded at the general
Meeting, which is to be of the chief Persons of each Company, at the end of the
- When any Place of special Obscurity is doubted of, Letters to be
directed by Authority, to send to any Learned Man in the Land, for his Judgement
of such a Place.
- Letters to be sent from every Bishop to the rest of his
Clergy, admonishing them of this Translation in hand; and to move and charge as
many skilful in the Tongues; and having taken pains in that kind, to send his
particular Observations to the Company, either at Westminster, Cambridge, or
- The Directors in each Company, to be the Deans of Westminster, and
Chester for that Place; and the King's Professors in the Hebrew or Greek in
- These translations to be used when they agree better
with the Text than the Bishops Bible: Tyndale's, Matthew's, Coverdale's,
- Besides the said Directors before mentioned, three or
four of the most Ancient and Grave Divines, in either of the Universities, not
employed in Translating, to be assigned by the vice-Chancellor, upon Conference
with the rest of the Heads, to be Overseers of the Translations as well Hebrew
as Greek, for the better observation of the 4th Rule above specified.
"Truly (good Christian Reader) we never thought from the
beginning, that we should need to make a new Translation, nor yet to make of a
bad one a good one,.. but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones,
one principal good one, not justly to be excepted against, that hath been our
They had at their disposal all the previous English
translations to which they did not disdain:
"We are so far off from condemning any of their labors that
travailed before us in this kind, either in this land or beyond sea, either in
King Henry's time, or King Edward's...or Queen Elizabeth's of ever renowned
memory, that we acknowledge them to have been raised up of God, for the building
and furnishing of his Church, and that they deserve to be had of us and of
posterity in everlasting remembrance."
And, as the translators themselves also acknowledged, they had
a multitude of sources from which to draw from: "Neither did we think much to
consult the Translators or Commentators, CHaldee, Hebrew, Syrian, Greek, or
Latin, no nor the Spanish, French, Italian, or Dutch."
The Greek editions of Erasmus, Stephanus, and Beza were all
accessible, as were the Complutensian and Antwerp Polyglots, and the Latin
translations of Pagninus, Termellius, and Beza.
Four years were spent on the preliminary translation by the
six groups. The translators were exacting and particular in their work, as
related in their preface:
"Neither did we disdain to revise that which we had done, and
to bring back to the anvil that which we had hammered: but having and using as
great helps as were needful, and fearing no reproach for slowness, nor coveting
praise for expedition, we have at the length, through the good hand of the Lord
upon us, brought the work to that pass that you see."
The conferences of each of the six being ended, nine months
were spent at Stationers' Hall in London for review and revision of the work by
two men each from the Westminster, Cambridge, and Oxford companies. The final
revision was then completed by Myles Smith and Thomas Bilson, with a preface
supplied by Smith.
The completed work was issued in 1611, the complete title page
"THE HOLY BIBLE, Conteyning the Old Testament, and the New:
Newly Translated out of the Originall tongues: & with the former
Translations diligently compared and revised, by his Majesties Special
Commandment. Appointed to be read in Churches. Imprinted at London by Robert
Barker, Printer to the Kings most Excellent Majestie. ANNO DOM. 1611."
The New Testament had a separate title page, the whole of it
"THE NEWE Testament of our Lord and Saviour JESUS CHRIST.
Newly Translated out of the Originall Greeke: and with the former Translations
diligently compared and revised, by his Majesties speciall Commandment.
IMPRINTED at London by Robert Barker, Printer to the Kings most Excellent
Majestie. ANNO DOM. 1611. Cum Privilegio."
The King James Bible was, in its first editions, even larger
than the Great Bible. It was printed in black letter with small italicized Roman
type to represent those words not in the original languages.
A dedicatory epistle to King James, which also enhanced the
completed work, recalled the King's desire that "there should be one more exact
Translation of the Holy Scriptures into the English tongue." The translators
expressed that they were "poor instruments to make GOD'S holy Truth to be yet
more and more known" while at the same time recognizing that "Popish persons"
sought to keep the people "in ignorance and darkness."
The Authorized Version, as it came to be called, went through
several editions and revisions. Two notable editions were that of 1629, the
first ever printed at Cambridge, and that of 1638, also at Cambridge, which was
assisted by John Bois and Samuel Ward, two of the original translators. In 1657,
the Parliament considered another revision, but it came to naught. The most
important editions were those of the 1762 Cambridge revision by Thomas Paris,
and the 1769 Oxford revision by Benjamin Blayney. One of the earliest
concordances was "A Concordance to the Bible of the Last Translation", by John
Downham, affixed to a printing of 1632.
The Authorized Version eclipsed all previous versions of the
Bible. The Geneva Bible was last printed in 1644, but the notes continued to be
published with the King James text. Subsequent versions of the Bible were
likewise eclipsed, for the Authorized Version was the Bible until the advent of
the Revised Version and ensuing modern translations. It is still accepted as
such by its defenders, and recognized as so by its detractors. Alexander Geddes
(d. 1802), a Roman Catholic priest, who in 1792 issued the first column of his
own translation of the Bible, accordingly paid tribute to the Bible of his time:
"The highest eulogiums have been made on the translation of
James the First, both by our own writers and by foreigners. And, indeed, if
accuracy, fidelity, and the strictest attention to the letter of the text, be
supposed to constitute the qualities of an excellent version, this of all
versions, must, in general, be accounted the most excellent. Every sentence,
every work, every syllable, every letter and point, seem to have been weighed
with the nicest exactitude; and expressed, either in the text, or margin, with
the greatest precision."
As to whether the Authorized Version was ever officially
"authorized", Brooke Westcott, one of the members of the committee that produced
the Revised Version, and the editor, with Fenton Hort, of an edition of the
Greek New Testament, stated that:
"From the middle of the seventeenth century, the King's Bible
has been the acknowledged Bible of the English-speaking nations throughout the
world simply because it is the best. A revision which embodied the ripe fruits
of nearly a century of labor, and appealed to the religious instinct of a great
Christian people, gained by its own internal character a vital authority which
could never have been secured by any edict of sovereign rulers."
This article was taken from the book "A Brief History of
English Bible Translations", by Dr. Laurence M. Vance.