by Charles Piddock
Monday, May 16, 2011
King James Bible: Origins
The Making of the King James Bible
Slightly over 400 years ago, on May 2, 1611, a new translation of the Bible came off the press in England. Those opening its covers first came upon, not the book of Genesis and the creation of the world, but a fulsome dedication to King James penned by Miles Smith, Bishop of Gloucester. The dedication was addressed: “To the most high and mighty prince JAMES by the grace of God, King of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, &c. The Translators of the Bible wish Grace, Mercy, and Peace through JESUS CHRIST our Lord.”
The newly translated Bible was “the authorized” version, meaning it was authorized to be used in churches by King James, but it wasn’t long before it acquired the name it has today: the “King James Bible.”
James, in fact, had a lot to do with the Bible that now bears his name. He ascended the throne of Scotland as James VI during a time when religious passions were high. In Scotland, he was constantly badgered by quarreling Presbyterians who did not believe in the divine right of kings or the concept of bishops, which they felt was a vile Catholic practice that had nothing to do with true worship.
When Elizabeth I died, James, who was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the closest living relative of Elizabeth, was elevated to the throne of England as James I. He could not have been more delighted. England, of course, was a much richer country than Scotland. Its climate was a great deal better, and it was a great European power. But England, as Scotland, suffered from religious quarrels and divisions. The country was safely Protestant, due to Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, but the Protestants continually argued and fought amongst themselves. Calvinists and Puritans, in particular, felt that the English established church retained too many Catholic elements and wanted it purified.
This religious difference also included the English bibles churches used. The Bishops’ Bible, published in 1568 by leaders in the Church of England by the authority of Queen Elizabeth, was the official Bible used in churches. The Geneva Bible, produced in 1560 by exiled Protestant leaders in Geneva, Switzerland, had been adopted and embraced as the bible of the Puritans and others who followed Calvinism.
The Conference at Hampton Court
James felt that he was appointed by God to bring agreement and harmony to these Protestant factions. Accordingly, in January 1604, the king convened a conference of church leaders at Hampton Court palace to look for ways to calm religious differences. (The conference was originally scheduled to take place in 1603, but an outbreak of bubonic plague in London caused Church leaders to flee into the safety of the countryside.)
At the Hampton Court conference, John Reynolds, the head of the English Puritan Church, proposed a new English translation of the scriptures. Reynolds said that such a translation would go a long way toward uniting the churches and people of England. James received Reynolds’ proposal with alacrity and the king ordered English church leaders to begin work on the new Bible translation.
The first step was to pick the men who would translate the new Bible from the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Later that year, James approved a list of 54 prospective “revisers,” from which 47 Translators (capitalized) were selected. They were divided into six committees, called “companies” working separately at Westminster, Oxford, and Cambridge. Each of the committees was to take a different part of the bible to translate.
A Distinguished Group
The Translators were a distinguished group. They included such men as Lancelot Andrewes (1555—1626), dean of Westminster, later Bishop of Winchester, and a scholar of some 15 ancient and modern languages. It was said of Andrewes that he could have been “interpreter general” at the Tower of Babel; John Overall (1561—1619), dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral and former regius professor of divinity at Cambridge; Miles Smith (1554—1624), expert in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and eventual author of the Bible’s preface. Dr. Smith was a man so impatient that he had famously walked out of boring sermon and went off to a pub; the Puritan leader John Reynolds (1549—1607) mentioned above, who was president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and a number of scholars too long to mention here. The chief overseer of the project was Richard Bancroft (1544—1610), Archbishop of Canterbury.
King James, in his instructions to the Translators said he did not want creativity or invention in the translation. What he cared about was clarity, simplicity and (very important!) doctrinal orthodoxy. The translators worked hard at these instructions; yet they also spent a lot of time adjusting and tweaking each word, phrase, sentence, and paragraph in the text in the interest of euphony and musicality. After all, this was an age when the Bible was to be read aloud. This was also the age of Shakespeare and Marlowe, the golden age of the English language. Time and time again the words the Translators put into the new Bible almost unconsciously fell into poetic rhythm. The Translators also made use of repetition and even dramatic pauses. Notice how the commas require pauses and help create the rhythm: “In the beginning God created the Heaven, and the Earth. And the Earth was without forme, and voyd, and darkness was upon the face of the deep: and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”
Greatest Monument of English Prose
It took seven years of translating, arguing, debating and fine-tuning until the bible was printed in 1611. What emerged (after most of the typos of the first printing were corrected) is now recognized by some as perhaps the greatest monument of English prose and poetry. According to British writer Adam Nicolson, the King James Bible “is not the poetry of a single mind, nor the effusion of a singular vision, nor even the product of a single moment, but the child of an entire culture stretching back to the great Jewish poets and storytellers of the Near Eastern Bronze Age.” The Bible has “a sense of an entirely embraced and reimagined past.”
“[The] translation was driven by the idea of a constant present, the feeling that the riches, beauties, failings and sufferings of Jacobean England were part of the same world as the one in which Job, David or the Evangelists walked. The KJ translators could write their English words as if the passage of 1,600 or 3,000 years made no difference. Their subject was neither ancient nor modern, but both or either. It was the universal text.”
The Anniversary Year
In the 400 years since its first printing, the King James Bible has consciously and unconsciously influenced just about every American writer from Walt Whitman to Abraham Lincoln to William Faulkner to Toni Morrison. Its phrases have entered into the common tongue to stay. In this anniversary year, hundreds of events are scheduled in Britain, the United States and other English-speaking countries this year to celebrate the King James Bible. They include lectures, reading marathons, symposia, concerts, conferences and television documentaries. Here in America, celebrations are scheduled in Texas, Kentucky and Louisiana. A conference at Ohio State University will explore the influence of the KJB on writers such as William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison.