Laurence Vance has written an exhaustive book of original research, King James, His Bible, and its Translators. The book is comprised of twenty-seven chapters. In this post I will deal with the first four chapters, regarding the origin and history behind the King James Bible.
Before beginning, a couple of comments: first, it is really phenomenal how much detail is offered in the book; the amount of original research in primary sources Vance put into this work is overwhelming. I would grant him a Ph. D. for this work if I could, and if it mattered to him.
Second, I don’t intend to have a debate about the quality of the King James Bible itself. Certainly in this first post, there will be no cause for this as the history behind the translation is just the history. With this, let’s begin:
When King James VI of Scotland became also King James I of England, he not only began the process of uniting the two countries under one head, he began the process of uniting all of Protestant Christendom under one Bible.
He became King of England in 1603, having been King of Scotland already for 36 years, taking that throne at 13 months of age. The backstory of how he came to each throne – especially that of England – is a chapter unto itself, and Vance covers it in detail.
For some additional context to this time, it was in 1605 when the Gunpowder Plot was foiled, attempted, apparently, by Catholic Jesuits, presumably against the Protestant king. This plot plays the background for the movie V for Vendetta.
The King James Bible was first published in 1611. However, its roots trace back to the Hampton Court Conference of 1604 – within a year of when James took to English throne. Hampton Court Palace is located about 15 miles southwest of London. The land contained a manor house and fields for grazing and farming.
The purpose of the conference was to deal with the Millenary Petition, a petition signed by a thousand Puritan petitioners. They wanted to see reform in the elements in the Church of England that still held too much Catholic practice. There was no challenge of royal supremacy here; they stressed that they were not separatists.
The petitioners sought “a due and godly reformation,” and closed by addressing the king as Mordecai did to Esther: “Who knoweth whether you are come to the kingdom for such a time?”
The demands came under four headings: regarding Church Service, Church Ministers, Church living and maintenance, and Church Discipline. The conference was to be held even before James’ first meeting with Parliament. Initially schedule for November 1, 1603, it was delayed until January – primarily due to a plague.
The king was looking for satisfaction on three points: The Book of Common Prayer, Excommunication, and providing for fit ministers for Ireland. The Puritans had been instructed to propose moderate reforms along these lines. There was no mention regarding authorization of a new Bible.
The idea of a new Bible translation was proposed by Dr. John Rainolds, president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford. His credentials, along with the credentials of the other protestant leaders at the conference, are both amazing and typical for the time: multi-lingual, multiple degrees, well-stocked libraries.
By the end of the conference, there was a list of fifteen things to be reformed in the Church. One of these was regarding a new translation of the Bible. Most of the reforms were mentioned in the original Millenary Petition, albeit the principal objections of the Puritans were ignored.
There were fifty-four translators appointed to the work of the new Bible. There were fifteen rules provided to guide the work, the first of which was that they were to base the new translation on the Bishops’ Bible, the ordinary Bible read in church. Forty copies of this Bible were presented to the translators.
This Bishops’ Bible was first published in 1568, the product of the bishops of the Church of England. Earlier Bibles in English – such as William Tyndale’s – were burned, as the purchase or possession of Bibles translated to English was forbidden. The Bishops’ Bible was not the first authorized English translation, however, with other volumes appearing thirty years before.
There were six rules that these translators were to follow, including: follow the common English translation except where it does not properly follow the Hebrew or Greek; include a note to the reader that he is free to ignore reading the genealogies; use convenient terms and phrases where a proper translation would otherwise offend. Make of that last one what you will.
Ultimately there were eighteen editions of the Bishops’ Bible, published between 1568 and 1602. It appears that the final edition from 1602 was used as the basis for the new King James translation.
One other earlier translation came into play – that of Tyndale. Tyndale’s translation introduced several new words into the English language; 128 such words from his translation are recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary and an additional 104 new words from his other writings. Words like anathema, long-suffering, Passover, and scapegoat are in the first category; allegorical, declarative, and dunce in the second. There are additional words officially attributed to other authors (like Shakespeare), but that many believe originated with Tyndale.
Charles C. Butterworth would write, regarding Tyndale’s influence on the King James Bible:
The chief place of honor is undoubtedly Tyndale’s. it was he who gave to our biblical speech its organic features, shaping it out of the language of his time. …He set the general standard to which the later versions adhered.
Others would also write of Tyndale’s influence: the translators adopted his style, through his translation we find the strength of the Authorized version, his translation has been incorporated indirectly into the King James Bible.
After analyzing several passages in Tyndale’s version compared to the King James, Vance concludes that there is no dispute regarding the reliance of the authorized translators on Tyndale’s work. Others who have studied selected passages find that more than 80% of the words are taken directly from Tyndale.
Many modern translators are critical of the Authorized King James translation. As with every translation one can surely find faults, and the nuance of the original Greek or Hebrew is not always easy to capture. In the preface to their work, the translators would write words not often seen in any translation, praying to the Lord:
O let thy Scriptures be my pure delight, let me not be deceived in them, neither let me deceive by them.
William Tyndale was betrayed by Henry Phillips to authorities of the Holy Roman Empire in Antwerp in 1535. He was tried and found guilty of heresy, strangled to death and burned on the stake.
His final words, spoken "at the stake with a fervent zeal, and a loud voice", were reported as "Lord! Open the King of England's eyes."
Within four years, four English translations of the Bible were published in England at the King's behest, including Henry's official Great Bible. All were based on Tyndale's work.