How We Got Our Bible (10): The King James Bible

As we have seen in the previous article in this series, the politics and ecclesiastical in-fighting that dominated the closing years of Elizabeth’s reign were given clear expression at the Hampton Court conference. This event was convened to address the concerns of those who wanted the further reformation of the English Church but ended in disappointment, as their requests were largely ignored or denied. It was in this atmosphere that the suggestion of a new translation of Scripture originated. It was hardly an auspicious start. Yet the translation of Scripture that resulted from John Reynold’s last minute suggestion was one of the greatest achievements of the English Reformation, one of the most enduring monuments of English literature, and the best loved English translation of Scripture. The Authorized or King James Version (KJV), as it came, with questionable accuracy to be known, occupies a unique place in the history of the English Bible. In the centuries that followed its translation, it helped to form the fabric of English language and literature. It is, for many of us, the most loved translation. We have memorized its renderings, its cadences work themselves into our prayers and our preaching, and it is, in a unique way, our Bible.

For all that, the King James Version is not perfect. No translation is, and, though the seventeenth century translators did their work well, they were not immune from human error, and shared the limitations of their age. But, in addition to these general imperfections, the KJV had two serious limitations built into it by design. Firstly, it was not really a new translation. It was a new translation that Reynolds had called for, and that had been agreed to. Unfortunately, James wanted results quickly, and the amount of time that a completely new translation would take was too great to allow his propagandistic purposes ideally to be served. So, when the translators began their work, their remit had changed. Now they were to concentrate on the revision of existing translations. The situation was made worse by the fact that they were instructed to base their work, not on the Geneva translation or on Tyndale, but on the Latinate Bishop’s Bible. Happily, the translators knew a good thing when they saw it, and managed to incorporate a great deal of Tyndale into their revision. It has been estimated that the translators of the KJV adopted over 80% of Tyndale’s renderings.

The second limitation of the KJV also sprang from political considerations. The instructions laid down to guide the translators insisted that they should not alter terms already in ecclesiastical usage. So, for example, while Tyndale had understood that the word ekklesia referred neither to a building or a system, and had correctly translated it as “assembly,” the KJV translators rendered it as “church.” Similarly, Tyndale had correctly translated presbyteros as “elder,” the KJV followed the Bishop’s Bible in translating the word as “priest.” To follow Tyndale in these translations would lend considerable support to the Puritan cause, and so scholarship came second to political concerns. In addition to its treatment of ecclesiastical terms, the KJV was a deliberately old-fashioned translation. 1 Corinthians 13 is the outstanding example of this. Where Tyndale used “love” throughout the chapter, the KJV uses the more dated, and even misleading “charity.” In general, the KJV is less modern than Tyndale and the Geneva translation even though Tyndale’s work had preceded it by more than 80 years.

None of this is intended to deny that the KJV is a very good translation. Indeed, the very fact that it has retained its preeminent position for over four centuries is testimony to just how good it is. It could have been even better, but the pressures and politics of the time militated against that. However, the circumstances of its production did prove advantageous in one way.

The work of translating the KJV was carried out by 47 translators, divided into six committees; two each at Westminster, Oxford, and Cambridge. The members of these committees were chosen solely on the basis of their linguistic ability. So, men like the brilliant Hebraist Lancelot Andrewes, who was, in some ways, almost a Catholic, worked together with Puritan scholars like Reynolds and Miles Smith. The presence on the committees of men from all strands within the English Church had the advantage of preventing any bias emerging in the translation. Apart from the treatment of ecclesiastical terms enforced on the translators, the KJV is a very impartial translation. It only enhanced that impartiality that the guidelines for the translators also prohibited them from supplying any explanatory notes. In contrast to the voluminous commentary to be found on the pages of the Geneva Bible, the marginalia of the KJV were to be limited to variant readings and cross-references. This fact has played no small part in the universal popularity and enduring usefulness of the translation.

Unfortunately for the historian, very little detailed information about the translation process has survived. We know that the committees were provided with 40 unbound copies of the Bishop’s Bible, printed on very large sheets. These pages provided the basis from which the translators worked. Each committee was given a particular section of Scripture, and these sections were then divided between the committee members. The individual members worked on their own sections, and their work was reviewed and corrected by the committee as a whole.

The translators’ work was completed in 1609 and two years later the first editions of the King James Version issued from the presses. The text was revised and corrected in 1769 and, in that version, it has never since been out of print. New editions continue to pour from the printing presses of Bible publishing houses. The KJV is not just the best-selling translation of the Bible ever, but the best-selling book in the history of printing.

The history of Biblical translation is a complex one. The motives underpinning Biblical translation are likewise complex, especially when we move from the solo projects of devout believers like Tyndale to the sort of committee approach taken by the translators of the KJV and most major modern translations. If this history teaches us nothing else, it confirms for us, time and again, that, behind the sometimes petty and ill-judged considerations that matter to men, the hand of God can be seen at work for the preservation and propagation of His Word and the blessing of His people. We have no basis – either historical or theological – for suggesting, as some do, that the translators of the KJV were divinely inspired in their activity. When we trace its history, however, we receive a compelling reminder of the power and grace of God in taking up flawed human instruments to make mighty and enduring use of them.