A Brief History of the Authorised (King James) Version

Most people would agree that the two greatest influences on the English language are the works of William Shakespeare and the King James Version of the Bible. But, though Shakespeare has done nothing to influence the morals of a nation, the King James Bible has been used of God to shape a nation, and English-speaking peoples of the world, and to reveal Himself to men and women for four hundred years. A prominent critic of Christianity once said of the King James Bible that it is ‘unquestionably the most beautiful book in the world’.

It must be remembered that the Authorized, King James, Version of the Bible, first published in 1611, was not the first Bible translated into English. In the 1380’s, John Wycliffe was the first to produce a hand-written translation of the New Testament into English, for which his bones were dug up and burned forty-four years after his death. Following the invention of printing by Gutenberg, William Tyndale re-translated and had printed in 1525 an English translation of the New Testament, which was hugely popular, though banned by the king and the church, and for which Tyndale was executed in 1536. The first complete Bible in English was translated by Miles Coverdale in 1535. There followed several translations including the Great Bible in 1539, the Geneva Bible in 1560, and the Bishops’ Bible in 1568. The Geneva Bible was the most influential of them all and was the one promoted by many when King James VI of Scotland became James I of England.

Why, then, was another translation into English needed? The answer lies as much in politics as it does in accuracy of translation. When James became King of England on the death of Elizabeth I, he was faced with a sharp division of theological interpretation in England between the Anglicans and the Puritans as Roman Catholic influence had waned. The Puritans were delighted to have James as king of England because he had publicly supported the Calvinistic Presbyterianism of the Scottish church. The Anglican party in England were alarmed at his coronation, believing him to be pro-Puritan. In fact, James had been thoroughly disturbed at the Puritan teachings he encountered in Scotland, and was secretly determined not to encourage their influence in England. He was also a firm advocate of the ‘divine right of kings’, regarding himself as God’s representative and regent. The Geneva Bible included in its translation marginal notes that denied the divine right of kings and encouraged its readers to rebel against kings and tyrants who defied God’s word. James was, therefore, much more inclined to promote Anglicanism, which linked a king’s authority with bishops and the church, than the Puritanism which placed a king under God’s authority and under the authority of His word and His ministers. ‘No bishops, no king’, thought James.

After much lobbying on the part of both Puritans and Anglicans, King James called a conference at Hampton Court in 1604 to arbitrate between the two factions about various ecclesiastical issues including the use of the Anglican Prayer Book. As the conference proceeded, it became clear to the Puritans that the king was favouring the Anglicans more than they had hoped and that James was defending the use of the Prayer Book. One of the Puritans, Dr. John Reynolds, then surprised everyone by proposing a new translation of the Bible. Surprisingly, James accepted a new translation with alacrity, declaring the Geneva Bible ‘the worst of all’ English Bibles. Although Bishop Bancroft initially opposed any new translation, the king’s mind was made up and the most famous resolution of the Hampton Court Conference was that a new translation of the Bible was to be made ‘as consonant as can be with 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’.

In part the Anglican bishops accepted a new translation of the Bible into English because James gave them the ultimate choice of who was to be included in the panel of translators. Those selected were, in the main, either of an Anglican persuasion or were lay professors of Greek and Hebrew. Very few Puritans were on the panels of translators, and Bancroft ensured that the bishops of Winchester and Gloucester were to approve the final draft and he himself had the last say over the printed text. Bishop Bancroft’s translation rules, issued to all six panels of translators, included the stipulation that ‘the Old Ecclesiastical Words be kept, viz., the word Church not to be translated Congregation, etc’. And although Bancroft’s first rule was that the new translation was to be based upon the Bishops’ Bible, he did also stipulate that other versions were to be consulted, including Tyndale’s, Coverdale’s, and the Geneva Bible.

And so, some seven years after King James authorized a new translation, the King James Bible was printed and circulated. Although it did not receive immediate acceptance, it has become the most influential book ever written. It has been, and still is, loved by millions and we celebrate, this year, the four-hundredth anniversary of a God-blessed translation of His word.

Print
0