|Title page to the original 1611 King James Bible|
When Queen Elizabeth died in 1603 without issue, King James VI of Scotland was called upon to govern the nation. This was no easy task for the thirty-seven year old Scotsman. Though Elizabeth had successfully held the kingdom together during her reign, tensions between various factions ran deep.
At the heart of the tensions lay acrimony between three different religious groups: Anglicans, Puritans and Roman Catholics. Each of these groups hoped to influence the monarch and, through him, the nation.
During the reign of Elizabeth’s predecessor, Mary Tudor (1516 –1558), Roman Catholics had enjoyed ascendency. Though Mary’s sister and successor, Elizabeth, had been fair to the catholic community, they resented being part of a nation that was once again officially Protestant. When James took the throne, the Catholics took heart. Even though they knew James was a Protestant, they hoped he would look kindly on them since his mother (Mary Queen of Scots) had been a Roman Catholic.
Another faction was the Puritans. The Puritan movement had its origins in the reign of Mary Tudor, when Protestants had been mercilessly persecuted. Those who remained faithful to the Anglican Church were imprisoned, burned and tortured. As a result, scores of English Protestants fled to the Continent, where many of them took up residence in Geneva Switzerland. Here the English Protestants were exposed to the more extreme forms of reformation preached by John Calvin and the exiled Knox. The result was that they became deeply dissatisfied with their native Anglican traditions, which they felt too closely resembled Roman Catholicism. They wished to purify the English church and make it more like the Reformed Church of Geneva or the Presbyterian Churches of Scotland. The Puritans hoped that they would have a champion in the new king, since his tutor had been the fiery Calvinist scholar George Buchanan.
The third faction was the Anglican bishops and those who wished to keep the Anglican church as it was. The bishops were deeply distrusting of the Puritans, who wanted to rewrite the Prayer Book and threatened to break the unity of the English church. Their concerns were not without warrant, given that thirty-nine years later the Puritans took to arms and criminalized the religious practices with which they disagreed. The Anglican bishops hoped that the new king would take a strong hand against the Puritan, whom they perceived to be trouble-makers.
The Hampton Court Conference
The various groups wasted no time trying to get the king to their side, knowing that the optimum time to persuade a monarch is when he is new and inexperienced. What they tended to forget was that James had already been a king in Scotland, and had acquired much experience in the art of governance.
Even before the king reached London to receive the crown, the Puritans approached him with a petition of more than a thousand signatures demanding that church services be purged of rites and ceremonies such as alter pieces and priestly vestments, physical gestures such as kneeling or making the sign of the cross during worship, exchanging rings as part of the wedding service, and so on.
To the dismay of his bishops, the king responded to the petition by scheduling a conference for the following autumn. This conference would provide an opportunity “for hearing and for the determining of things pretended to be amiss in the Church.”
When the conference convened at Hampton Court in January 1604, the Puritans found they had met their match in the new king. James was quite a learned theologian himself and was well versed in scripture. He had even made his own metrical version of thirty Psalms and a paraphrase of Revelation. Moreover, he was an exceptional clever debater and not without a keen sense of wit. Consequently, the king was able to dispute with the Puritans on their own grounds, exposing what he believed to be the pettiness behind many of their concerns.
As the conference continued, one thing was clear: the two sides had reached an impasse. The King’s archbishop, Richard Bancroft, was a staunch opponent of puritanism and refused to compromise with any of their requests. Unlike Bancroft, however, the King wished to appear conciliatory. He knew that it was important to enjoy some measure of popular support. The question was how to appease the Puritans without ceding any important ground to them.
"One Only Translation of the Bible"
The opportunity to grant the Puritans a request came when John Reynolds, Puritan scholar and Fellow and President of Corpus Christi College, suggested that there should be "one only translation of ye byble to be authenticall and read in ye churche."
James I of England and VI of Scotland was a man
of deep learning with a high regard for the Scriptures.
It is uncertain exactly why Reynolds suddenly came out with this request. Perhaps This was not in the schedule for the conference nor had it formed part of the Puritan’s petition. Moreover, there was no shortage of English Bibles at the time, including the Coverdale Bible of 1535, the “Great Bible” authorized in the reign by King Henry VIII, the “Bishop’s Bible” assembled in 1568 and the Geneva Bible. The translation of preference among the Puritans was the Geneva Bible, while the Anglican bishops preferred the Bishops Bible. (The Geneva Bible was the translation Shakespeare quotes from.)
The Geneva Bible had been produced in 1560 by exiled Protestant leaders in Geneva, yet it contained radical notes that could easily be interpreted as being anti-monarchical. For example, some of the marginal commentary seemed to encourage Christians to stand up against tyrants. James knew this and viewed the Geneva Bible as potentially subversive to his rule. On the other hand, he was himself a learned theologian and must have understood the need for a translation more accurate than the Bishop’s Bible, the preference among his senior clergy.
When he requested that there be “one only translation of the Bible to be…read in the church”, perhaps Reynolds’ was hoping that the Geneva Bible would be made more universal. Or perhaps he envisioned a totally new translation. In any event, the king saw this as an opportunity to break the hold that the Geneva Bible had on England while, at the same time, making him appear conciliatory towards his Puritan subjects. The king also must have hoped that a new translation of the scriptures would be a rallying point for the different factions, drawing them together behind a common cause. Not least he must have hoped that by sponsoring the project, it would help to solidify the sense that he was the nation’s spiritual leader.
Process of Translation
The king appointed archbishop Richard Bancroft to assign the work of translating to over fifty scholars drawn from both Puritans and non-Puritans, though all were members of the Church of England.
The scholars relied heavily on earlier English translations, including the Geneva Bible which formed the backbone of the text.
Besides being experts in Biblical languages, the scholars were men of deep devotion to God. For example, Dr. Andrews, who was fluent in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Chaldee, Syriac, Arabic and at least fifteen other languages, is reported to have spent an average of five hours each day in prayer. John Bois, who became chairman of the company which translated the Psalms, read through the Hebrew Bible by age five, and by age six was writing Hebrew legibly. He was often found studying Greek at the Cambridge library from 4 am until 8 pm.
Similar stories could be told about dozens of other scholars involved in the project. Bill Bradley, Professor of Bible and History, at Landmark Baptist College, wrote,
Of the fifty-four translators, four were college presidents, six were bishops, five were deans, thirty held PhD’s, thirty-nine held Masters degrees, there were forty-one university professors, thirteen were masters of the Hebrew language, and ten had mastered Greek. Every man involved in the King James Bible translation believed in the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures, all believed in the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and all were men of prayer. Many were not only Biblical scholars and master linguists, but also God-called, Spirit-filled preachers. Yet the translators considered themselves “poor instruments to make God s holy truth to be yet more and more known unto the people.”
Printing and Reception
After the text was prepared, it was sent to the King’s printers. When they finished printing it, the Bible was not an immediate success. The Geneva Bible continued to be preferred by many English-speaking Christians. This was partly because churches could not afford to buy the new Bible.
Only very gradually did the new translation come to occupy the prominent position it has enjoyed in the history of English literature. By the mid 18th century it was understood to stand beside the works of Shakespeare as being seminal in helping to shape the English language. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch was hardly exaggerating when he said that the Authorized Version was “the very greatest literary achievement in the English language.”
If the story of the Authorized Version has anything to teach us today, it is the supreme value of sacred scripture. Despite their different theological backgrounds, all the translators were united in their high regard for the Bible as the Word of God. Here are some of the things the different translators said about the Scriptures:
“that inestimable treasure which excelleth all the riches of the earth”
“so full and so perfect,”
“a fountain of most pure water, springing up into everlasting life.”
“the original (Scriptures were) from heaven, not earth; the author being God, not men; the penmen, such as were sanctified from the womb and endued with a principal portion of God’s Spirit.”
“God s Truth,”
“the Word of salvation.”
Study of the Scriptures brings “light of understanding, stableness of persuasion, repentance from dead works, newness of life, holiness, peace, joy in the Holy Ghost, fellowship with the saints, participation of the heavenly nature, fruition of an inheritance immortal, undefiled, and that shall never fade away.”
The above sentiments culminated in the closing comments of the translators to the reader. Their words remain as relevant now as they were 400 years ago:
Gentle Reader, we commend thee to God, and to the Spirit of His grace. He removeth the scales from our eyes, the veil from our hearts, opening our wits that we may understand His Word, enlarging our hearts, yea correcting our affections, that we may love it above gold and silver, yea that we may love it to the end. Ye are brought unto fountains of living water which ye digged not. Others have labored, and you may enter into their labors; O receive not so great things in vain, O despise not so great salvation! It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God; but a blessed thing it is, and will bring us to everlasting blsessedness in the end, when God speaketh unto us, to hearken; when He setteth His Word before us, to read it; when He stretcheth out His hand and calleth, to answer, Here am I, here we are to do thy will O God.”
This article will be appearing in the monthly magazine of Christian Voice, a UK ministry whose website is http://www.christianvoice.org.uk/. The article is reprinted here with permission.
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