What follows is a research paper I wrote for my History of the English Language course at Tennessee Tech University over the 1611 English translation of the Scriptures, better known as the “King James Version.”
In the protestant congregations of the southern United States, the KJV is a hotly debated topic. Some claim that it is a translation whose language is dead and no more use to us than a Greek Bible. Others claim it is a good translation among many. Some claim it is the best English translation, while a few say it is the only viable translation.
What is absent from many of these groups is an actual knowledge about the KJV’s origin and history. Below, in my paper, I attempt in a concise way to show the story of the KJV in truth: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Wherever you stand on the KJV issue, I encourage you to read this.
The King James Bible: Milestone of the English Language
In 1604 A.D., the king of England, four Puritans, and nineteen bishops, deans, and royal advisers made the trip to Hampton Court for a conference to settle religious disputes within the Church of England. Many of them, the king included, assumed this would be a day to remember. It is doubtful if any of them were correct on what it would be remembered for. From this conference a new English translation of the Bible would be born, commonly known as the King James Bible, which would have literary and religious implications to this day. Edgar Goodspeed states, “the tremendous significance” the public attaches to the King James Bible “makes it imperative that the facts as to its origin and ancestry be well known, or the most fantastic misconceptions about these matters will arise and prevail” (Vance 13).
King James I of England was no newcomer to either kingship or religious disputes. For many years he was King James VI of Scotland, where he dealt contemptuously with Scotland’s presbytery, a religious council that had almost as much power as he did in many matters (Nicolson 48). Now that he was king of England as well, James hoped to unite the two dissenting factions in his new country as soon as possible under his leadership. The Church of England was by definition Protestant, but opinions differed as to how Protestant that Church should be. The bishops and deans in power believed the Church had undergone enough reform under prior monarchs to sufficiently separate it from the Roman Catholic Church and its perceived corruptions. The Puritans believed the Church leadership had not gone far enough, and that the Church of England remained flawed and corrupt, if not as corrupt as Rome. On his journey to London, James assented to a Puritan request to end “impropriate tithes*”, or the use of parish income to support bishoprics. This decision frightened bishops like Richard Bancroft, who feared the king might do away with Episcopal rule and establish a presbytery like Scotland’s. To this end, Bancroft convinced the king that the English crown depended on Episcopal rule and would be undermined by a presbytery. James ultimately revoked his decision. Puritans, however, saw his attempt at reform as a hopeful sign that he might sympathize with their cause (McGrath 151-53).
To that end the Puritans drafted the Millenary Petition. The petition, sent directly to James, requested that he hear their requests and concerns for reform at a conference to be set by him. James assented to the conference and set it for November of 1604 at the Hampton Court Palace near London. The actual conference would not begin until January 14th due to an outbreak of plague. Such a meeting convened without precedent; the king had never sat as moderator over a religious conference in England before (Vance 13-15). From the beginning, the conference was weighed heavily in favor of the established Church. There were nineteen representatives of the established Church, and only four Puritans (McGrath 156). To make matters worse for the Puritans, they were excluded from the first day’s session (Bobrick 209). The King made it clear he had three goals for the conference:
1. Clarification on questions of confirmation, absolution, and baptism.
2. Questions on excommunication, namely how it was to be done and who should do it.
3. Deciding on ministers for Ireland, which he delegated to the last day.
James made it very clear there was to be no change in the government of the church (Vance 18-19). Neither side’s agenda included a new translation of the Bible (Vance 13). At the opening of the conference King James asserted that unlike the monarchs since Henry VIII, he had little intention of changing much in the Church, but to settle that which was already in practice. After this speech, he proceeded to scold the Church of England for its corruptions for five hours. King James took particular issue on matters of Baptism, Confirmation, and Absolution, which to him sounded like popery. The Dean of Westminster later remarked, “the king did wonderfully play the Puritan that day!” (Bobrick 209-10). Whatever Puritan inclinations James might have shown on the first day, they had disappeared on day two when the Puritans were called in.
On the second day, the Puritans made their case, presented chiefly by John Reynolds. Reynolds presented a number of objections and proposed solutions, but all were rejected by the king. When Reynolds mentioned the creation of an English presbytery, he played right into Bancroft’s trap. The king flew into a rage and declared, “No bishop, no king!” (Vance 20) The Puritan cause seemed lost. Two of the Puritans fell at the king’s feet begging for special protection from persecution for Puritans, but the king refused. The Puritans knew there would be new persecutions by the Church and their hopes for even the most modest reforms were dashed. The king himself believed these honest petitions were the “Scots way.” In Scotland, sweeping reforms had not only changed the Church but undermined the king’s authority. James now feared the same might happen in England. Later, King James boasted of his victory over the Puritans, but others present felt the king was merely crude and overbearing (Bobrick 213-14).
James successfully secured Episcopal rule, but at the same time crushed his Puritan subjects. This was problematic for James, who desired unity. The solution to his majesty’s problem came when Reynolds inexplicably proposed a new Bible translation, something not on the original agenda of either side (McGrath 160-61). Reynolds proposed a new translation of the Bible into English stating, “those which were allowed in the reign of king Henry the Eight and Edward the Sixt were corrupt and not answerable to the truth of the original.” Reynolds gave several examples, comparing excerpts of modern translations to excerpts from the extant Hebrew and Greek manuscripts (Vance 21). Bancroft objected saying, “if every man’s humor was followed there would be no end of translating.” The king disagreed (Bancroft 214). It is interesting to note Bancroft’s objection to translating what would become the King James Bible is often the same objection people make today against new translations. James agreed to Reynolds’s proposal but for his own reasons. First, a new English Bible would soon be published by the Roman Catholics, the famed Douai and Rheims Bible, that James feared would carry an almost certain Catholic slant (McGrath 162). Secondly, the Puritans favored the Geneva Bible, a translation made in Geneva by Calvinists who shared their views and which contained a great deal of notes that smacked of an anti-monarchy sentiment. They deplored the Bishop’s Bible, which was very strongly pro-monarchy. James would commissioned the new translation, but it would have no notes, be a revision of the Bishop’s Bible, and most importantly, become the only translation permissible in church readings, which would forever delegate the Geneva Bible to private reading only (Nicolson 58-60).
The translators were mostly middle-aged, married, and ordained ministers. All were academics, members of the Church (about a fourth had Puritan inclinations), experts in ancient and/or modern languages, and educated in biblical scholarship, theology, and similar fields of study. They desired to be anonymous, so we do not know all we would like about them as individuals (Bobrick 217-18). All of the translators were Englishmen except Hadrian a Saravia, who was from Europe and had Flemish and Spanish ancestry. A number of translators died before the work was complete, including its overseer, Bancroft (Vance 30).
Most extant lists of translators indicate there were forty-seven translators in all, while in a letter King James states he appointed fifty-four men to translate the King James Bible. One possible explanation is that a number of these men were considered “overseers” and “directors” and not technically hands-on translators, but the more likely explanation is that some of those the King commissioned would or could not participate. In their preface, the translators state their number was “not too many, lest one should trouble another; and yet many, lest many things haply might escape them” (Vance 30-32). The translators were divided into six companies, with two companies each at Westminster, Oxford, and Cambridge. The Old Testament company at Cambridge was to translate Genesis through 2nd Kings and the New Testament company translated the Epistles. The Oxford Old Testament company would translate the Prophets and Lamentations, and the New Testament company there would handle the Gospels, Acts, and Revelation. At Cambridge, the first company would handle 1st Chronicles through the Song of Solomon, while the second group translated the Apocrypha (Vance 29-30). “Jointness was the acknowledged virtue of the age.” writes Nicolson. It was believed that an individual, no matter how pious, could never tackle the job of translating the Bible without serious error. Only a unified group of, “dyverse excellent learned men” could possibly avoid error and sin and translate an accurate Bible (Nicolson 68).
Fifteen rules were given to guide the translation process (see appendix A). The rules forbid any notes, insisted that wording conform to Church tradition where possible, that chapter divisions remain consistent with other translations, that the teams meet regularly to review each others work and to confirm it, that they should seek counsel from scholars if they cannot agree, and that they send copies of their work to nearby churches to be reviewed (Vance 45-46). In instructing the translators and educating the masses about the new translation, Bancroft and his assistants took care not to trample the history of English translations, for this would have given a weapon to Rome who could have claimed that the English Protestants had been in error all along.
The first of the fifteen rules recognized the Bishop’s Bible as the official and standard Bible at least in print. In truth many, especially Puritans, considered it a poor translation. Its language did not mirror closely that of the original texts, but instead made so ‘politically correct,’ by avoiding terms the Bishops thought ‘vulgar,’ that it hardly made sense to its readers. It often employed obscure Latinisms and strange phraseology which obscured a scripture’s intended meaning. It’s unlikely the translators took the first rule very seriously in their actual work. As a result, only about 8% of the King James Bible’s phraseology can be attributed to the Bishop’s Bible (Nicolson 72-73).
The third rule commanded the translators not to change the traditional translations of certain words (‘church’ for ecclesia, and ‘priest’ for presbyteros). Some of the new English translations interpreted ecclesia to mean ‘congregation’, and prebyteros to mean ‘elder’. If ecclesia only means a local assembly of believers, then the massive church infrastructure was not only unnecessary, but unbiblical. If presbyteros meant only ‘elder’ and not ‘priest’, then no link to the old system of intermediaries from the Old Testament could be established. Everyone would be his own priest, as Martin Luther once put it. Such things would certainly undermine the authority and power of the bishops, and so would be forbidden in the King James Bible (Nicolson 75-76).
Though the sixth rule forbade marginal notes, the seventh rule amended this, permitting notes that explained the meaning of some complicated words. In most cases however, the King James translators used flourishing circumlocution to avoid direct statements which might offend or shake established doctrine. Certain phrases were intentionally written to be as ambiguous and indirect as possible. These efforts resulted in some of the King James Bible’s most beautiful phraseology for which it is well known (Nicolson 77-78).
The eighth through tenth rules laid down instructions for correcting and revising one another’s work. When a translator was finished translating a chapter of his assigned text, he would pass it to the other translators in his company who would review and critique his work. Once an entire book was finished, that book was sent to the other companies for revision. At the end of the entire enterprise the leaders of each company would meet to revise the entire Bible (Nicolson 79).
Rule fourteen states that “Tindoll’s (Tyndale), Matthew’s, Coverdale’s, Whitchurch’s, Geneva” translations be used as a reference point when they agreed with the original texts better than the Bishop’s Bible. The work of the translators was mainly one of revision and correction, building a new translation out of the best of the older ones, making few new changes except where new information on the original texts existed. In the preface the translators said it this way, “to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one” (McGrath 175-77). So the King James Bible was not strictly a new translation, but rather a revision of the Bishop’s Bible, which was a revision of the Great Bible, which was the combined product of Tyndale and Coverdale’s prior work. The King James Bible must not be thought of as merely the copy of other copies. Bobrick asserts, “the translators consulted every known text, commentary and translation, ancient or modern” (Bobrick 238).
There exist no official or unofficial records of the events surrounding the translation period between the commission of the translation in 1604 and its publication in 1611. A few extant manuscripts, mainly personal letters and compilations of notes from the translators, can help us get a picture of what went on. Most revealing are extant copies of notes supposedly made by John Bois, one of the translators, who worked on the New Testament. The originals are long since lost, but copies remain. The copies differ slightly in some areas. While it is lamentable we do not have the originals, it is fortunate to have what we do. The copies show that the translators took painstaking care in examining and scrutinizing the original Greek manuscripts, coming up with many variations of how to alter the word-for-word translations into understandable English, and how each of these choices were made (Vance 38-39).
Some historians have speculated that the actual work of translation did not begin until 1607, owing to a statement in the preface that, when calculated, amounts to exactly 1,008 days of work, not including the nine months of revision at London. However, this would mean the translators worked seven days a week for nearly three years, which is inconceivable. A number of extant personal correspondences show that the translators were at work as early as 1604 (Vance 42).
After the general work of the translators was finished, a smaller group of men, chosen from among the companies, reviewed the entire work for errors or discrepancies. After this, the work was sent to the Bishop of Winchester and Doctor Smith for a “final examination” of the text. After this, various bishops came and reviewed the text as well, making a number of changes which the translators had already agreed upon (Vance 50-52). The first edition, or editio princeps, of the King James Bible was a large folio with 1,464 11×16 inch pages, double column (Vance 54). Even the final copy that was sent to the press was not the master copy, for even as the press was being set; more changes were being made at the last minute. This copy was lost in the Great Fire of London in 1666 (Vance 57).
It is believed that there were two different 1611 versions, sometimes nicknamed the “He” and “She” Bibles due to a variation in Ruth 3:15. They contain small differences in certain passages and the “She” Bible is usually dated 1613 but many of the general titles have had their date changed to 1611. The “She” Bible corrects many of the first editions errors but introduces many of its own. In fact, some copies of the same Bible don’t even agree with each other. The bibliographer Alfred Pollard explains that these discrepancies were caused when unfinished Bibles from one edition were finished on new plates intended for the next, so that some of the first run of Bibles had printings from the second run and some of the second runs had printings from the first. Many refer to these crossovers as the ‘1613-1611 edition’ (Vance 58-60). According to Samuel Ward at the Synod of Dort in 1618, the King James Bible was to contain a Genealogy and map of the Holy Land, much like modern Bibles (Vance 48).
The King James Bible is called by its followers the ‘Authorized Version’. In truth it is unknown if the King James Bible was ever officially ‘Authorized’ by an Order in Council. A fire at Whitehall in January of 1618 obliterated the records of the Council and its registers for the years 1600-1613. Today, we do not know whether or not the king did or intended to authorize the Bible that would come to bear his name, but he did at least endorse it with the stipulation that it and it alone, would be the Bible read aloud in English churches (McGrath 164).
Today a controversy exists surrounding the King James Bible. There are some who believe this translation to be superior to any other translation. Around the 1760s, a myth and superstition grew surrounding the King James Bible of 1611, elevating the text itself to divine status in some people’s minds. To such individuals the ‘Authorized Version’ was not simply a translation of God’s Word, but was God’s Word, directly inspired by his Spirit and therefore perfect and infallible. This is sometimes called ‘Avolatry’ and is similar to the increased adoration of Shakespeare’s works which were occurring around the same time (called ‘Bardolatry’) (Vance 133). Some people are so enraptured by the King James Bible they willingly forsake the older texts in the original languages of the writers. William Cathcart, for example, writes in The Baptist Encyclopedia, “the English translation has been made the standard to which all other translations should conform and not the inspired originals” (Vance 136).
There are detractors, however. C.S. Lewis claims, “No translation can preserve the qualities of its original unchanged. On the other hand, except where lyrical poetry is in question, the literary effect of any good translation must be more indebted to the original than to anything else.” He goes on to say later that the narrative account depends on the translator only to a very small extent. If the King James Bible exerts a special influence, then it is a credit to the original authors of the Bible, not the specific translation (Lewis 3). Many claim the stories and accounts in the King James Bible have changed our culture. Lewis retorts, “But this does not seem to be a fact of any importance. The persons and stories would be the same in whatever text they were known” (Lewis 16).
While the King James Bible was truly a developmental milestone of the English language and of Biblical translation, it was only one more step in the journey for both. The English language did not stop with the form used in the King James translation. It continued to change into the modern English of today. Then as now, translators continue to translate the ancient biblical texts into the language spoken by the people of their time. Therefore, the reason for translating the Bible into contemporary language remains the same today as it did at the Hampton Court Conference in 1604. Richard Bancroft was right; there will never be, nor should there be, any end to translating while the earth lasts.
A. Bancroft’s Fifteen Rules (McGrath 173-175)
1. The ordinary Bible read in the Church, commonly called the Bishop’s Bible, to be followed, and as little altered as the Truth of the original will permit.
2. 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 vulgarly used.
3. The Old Ecclesiastical Words to be kept, viz. the Word Church not to be translated Congregation etc.
4. 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.
5. The Division of the Chapters to be altered, either not at all, or as little as may be if Necessity so require.
6. No Marginal Notes at all to be affixed, but only for the explanation of the Hebrew or Greek Words, which cannot without some circumlocution, so briefly and fitly be expressed in the Text.
7. Such Quotations of Places to be marginally set down as shall serve for the fit Reference of one Scripture to another.
8. Every particuler man of each company to take ye same chapter or chapters, and having translated or amended them severally by himselfe where he thinks good, all to meete together, confer what they have done, and agree for their Parts what shall stand.
9. 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.
10. If 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 Work.
11. 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.
12. 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 Tounges; and having taken pains in that kind, to send his particular Observations to the Company, either at Westminster, Cambridge, or Oxford.
13. 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 either University.
14. These translations to be used when they agree better with the Text than the Bishop’s Bible: Tindoll’s, Matthew’s, Coverdale’s, Whitchurch’s, Geneva.
15. Besides the said Directors before mentioned, three of 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.
Bobrick, Benson. Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired. New York: Penguin Books, 2001
Lewis, C.S. The Literary Impact Of The Authorized Version. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963.
McGrath, Alister E. In The Beginning : The Story Of The King James Bible And How It Changed A Nation, A Language, And A Culture. New York : Doubleday, c2001.
Nicolson, Adam. God’s Secretaries: the making of the King James Bible. New York: Perennial, 2004.
Vance, Laurence M. King James, His Bible, and Its Translators. Pensacola: Vance Publications, 2006.
Author: Jason Cohoon
Professor: Dr. Robert Cloutier
Course: History of the English Language 4521-001
Date: March 23, 2010
Edited for blog: October 18, 2010