A panoramic view of the King James Bible’s origins

By on December 1, 2003

After reading two books on the creation of the King James Bible, the influence of which has followed English speaking peoples around the world, I had an overwhelming feeling of that sentiment expressed in older baptismal liturgies, “conceived in sin and born in iniquity.” Equally strong was a sense of the breadth of God’s redemption. In retrospect there can be no question that the king, and the bishops, scholars and courtiers who surrounded him, were all people of deep convictions, entrenched prejudices, flagrant ambitions, and committed to political ‘hard ball.’ James I (VI of Scotland) feared for any diminution of the inherent power and authority vested in the monarchy which was threatened by the republicanism accompanying the reforming instincts of the Puritans, influenced as they were by European reformers. The Church of England bishops feared for their own survival should the Puritans gain ascendancy and impose Presbyterianism as the model for the English church. The Puritans were unyielding in their opposition to what they saw as privilege and corruption in the status quo and in their fear of any signs of ‘popery.’ [pullquote]It all came together at the Hampton Court Conference of 1604 which James convened in an attempt to resolve the situation. Generally the conference resolved little, but in order to save it from complete disaster he responded to a late request of John Reynolds, leader of the Puritan delegation, for “one only translation of the Bible” which was to be “declared authentical, and read in the church.” It is very doubtful that what Mr. Reynolds had in mind, perhaps authentication of the Geneva Bible with its Protestant marginal notes, and what James saw as an opportunity had much in common, but a decision was made and the project launched was completed in 1611. The directions for the translation were dictated by James himself and the work allotted to six companies of translators: two companies drawn together in Westminster , and two in each of Oxford and Cambridge universities. Membership in these companies brought together leading scholars of the day, some 47 to 51 (number uncertain) of them with power to co-opt scholars from farther afield, representing varying religious and political convictions ? although heavily weighted towards the King’s favour. The editorial process allowed for true scholarly endeavour but also for political reliability. Out of it all came a translation that not only became a bedrock in the development of English Christianity but also of English culture, creating a monument to the grace and power of the English language which has not been surpassed. In The Beginning, the Story of the King James Bible and how it changed a Nation, a Language and a Culture by Alister McGrath (principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford), published in 2001, provides a panoramic picture of the ferment of the times. He addresses the importance of the new printing technology and its power to spread abroad vernacular translations of the scriptures. He tells the story of the influence of the newly translated Bibles as social, economic and political texts through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He also explains how passages were translated with a view to equivalent meaning as well as textual accuracy, and how the English language was evolving to express their work. In an afterword he considers translation and revision and how the latter is always necessary due to changes in language and culture plus new insights gained from continuing scholarly research In God’s Secretaries, The Making of the King James Bible, published in 2003, Adam Nicolson brings to light the lush context of Jacobean England and delves more deeply into the characters of the individual translators causing him to wonder, “How could this Bible emerge from such a world?” It was a period of extremes in which people worked hard and played hard, but there was also an awareness of the over-riding importance of God in peoples’ lives and in society. Therefore the standards the translators set for themselves were exacting, with careful attention to how such a translation could become an agent for unifying rather than dividing the country as well as the church. The work of biblical revision goes on and in the last 60 years many new translations have appeared. They have been helpful for individuals and study groups, but as texts for public reading they all fall flat. As the author describes it in the words of T.S. Eliot’s response to The New English Bible: it “astonishes in its combination of the vulgar, the trivial and the pedantic.” The rhythms and cadences of the King James translation still resonate and in the process reveal God’s grace and mercy at work in the world. These two books tell a lot about how God works through “clay vessels.”

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