The Story of the King James Bible

In seeking to understand the origins of the King James Bible –an extraordinary literary achievement– we require an account of the politics and culture of the era in which it was conceived. Therefore, I offer the following terse survey. Following Henry VIII’s bombastic reign, there followed the brief but troubled rule of his son, Edward V (1470-1483), a vehement Protestant, who was followed by his elder sister, Mary I (1516-1588), who reignited a resurgence of Roman Catholicism. Following Mary’s childless death in 1588, the Tudor dynasty found the end of its long shadow in the reign of Elizabeth I (1533-1603), a committed Protestant. However, since Elizabeth was a “virgin queen,” she did not produce an heir. Thus, her Scottish rival, Mary Queen of Scots’s son, James I, assumed the throne upon Elizabeth’s death.

After James came to power, there was concern among learned men over the establishment of an authoritative English Bible. Under Mary’s persecutions of the Protestants, outcasts had developed their own bible, the Geneva Bible, which was created by English refugees in Geneva, and it became the Bible of choice for the Puritans (though not among the more conservative clergy). Previously, Henry VIII had commissioned the “Great Bible” and Elizabeth had commissioned the “Bishops’ Bible” but now James sought to commission the most authoritative version of the Bible in the English language. In addition, the English translation in the Geneva Bible was influential in the creation of the King James Bible (it was based directly on translations from Hebrew and Aramaic). In particular, the more radical groups, like the Puritans, took issue with certain translations of the “Great Bible” as well as in the “Bishops’ Bible.” There was need for an authoritative holy text. Continuing a long tradition throughout the history of Christianity, the faith was once again ensconced in a search for authority.

Thus, James approved a group of 54 revisers and translators for the project (47 of which actually participated). The Bible was divided among six companies, two members of each working at Cambridge, Oxford, and Westminster. Three panels worked on the “Old Testament” and two panels worked on the New Testament (one panel also took on fourteen books of the Apocrypha). Richard Bancroft, the Archbishop of Canterbury, oversaw the whole process. This was the first royally sponsored translation of the Bible since the Septuagint in the 3rd and 2nd centuries. The objective was to bring the bible into the popular (or “vulgar”) vernacular, one that was not simply read by the highly educated Latinate Catholics, and also the goal was to achieve a text that was devoid of biased secondary footnotes.

The translators used a variety of popular English Biblical texts, including William Tyndale’s partial English translation of the New Testament. Prior to Tyndale there was only the Wycliffe Bible, an English translation by John Wycliffe largely based on the Latin Vulgate.

Bible: King James frontispiece
The original frontspiece of the King James Bible created in 1611 by Cornelius Boel, a Flemish engraver

After laboring for years, the project was complete. The King James Bible was first published in 1611 with two editions, though it underwent revisions in the coming years, most notoriously for the infamous error in the Old Testament (forgetting to include “not” in “thou shalt not commit adultery.”) Over the following one hundred years, the authorized King James Translation became the standard Bible (replacing the Latin Vulgate) and it was also used in the development of the Book of Common Prayer in England in 1662. The literary style and rhythm made the KJV one of the greatest literary endeavors of the modern era.

The printing commission went to Robert Barker, of the famous Barker family printing company in London. The complete folio of the KJV was sold initially for ten shillings as loose leaf, or twelve shillings if bound. However, amusingly, Mr. Barker racked up significant debts printing the new KJV so he was forced to sub-lease portions of the printing to rival printers. Financial disputes broke out as Barker refused to share the full authorized KJV with anyone else, and profits were not being shared equally. Decades of litigation, debt, and imprisonment dogged these competing printing families.

In the early years, the KJV was simply referred to as the “English Translation” (Thomas Hobbes referred to it as such) – it wasn’t until later that the “King James” moniker emerged in honor of the project’s patron. With the emerging standardization of the English language and its written form, a standard KJV Bible emerged in 1769.

The first quarto version of the KJV from 1612

The significance of the KJV and its release cannot be overstated. For the first time, lay people were granted permission to read the sacred scriptures without punishment. No longer was Latin the sole source of communing with the divine (Latin was a relic of the old Roman Empire which established Christianity as the official religion of Rome under Constantine). Prior to the technological explosion of the printing press and translations of the Bible into the common vernacular, Jerome’s Vulgate was the only acceptable version of the Bible, and thus the text had remained an exclusive book reserved for the most highly educated scholars (an exclusivity that was vigorously defended by Sir Thomas Moore and others).

Norton, David. The King James Bible: A Short History from Tyndale to Today. Cambridge University Press; Illustrated edition (February 14, 2011).

1 thought on “The Story of the King James Bible

  1. Pingback: The Stuarts: James I (1603-1625) – Great Books Guy

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