King James Bible celebrates its 400th anniversary

Hans
Hans Rollmann
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‘Out of many good ones, one principal good one’

Four hundred years ago, Robert Barker, printer to the King, published a large, heavy folio volume that left a formidable imprint not only on the Church of England but also on English language and culture.

That book is the legendary King James Bible, the so-called Authorized Version.

The official authorization by Parliament has, however, never been discovered. If such an Order in Council existed at all, it may have perished with other documents in the Great Fire of London. Its original publisher, Robert Barker, who had inherited from his father a monopoly in printing Bibles in England, died impoverished in a debtors’ prison.

Alister McGrath tells the story of the origin and reception of this great English Bible in a fascinating study available in print or digital formats, “In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Language and a Culture” (New York: Anchor Books, 2000).

What struck me when I read McGrath’s historical narrative was that  —  unlike Martin Luther’s German Bible — this Bible was very much a community product.  Like Luther’s Bible and writings, it became widely known because of the new printing technology.

A new translation 

John Reynolds of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, originally suggested a new translation of the Bible in the presence of King James I of England at a conference in 1604 at Hampton Court.

Reynolds, a Puritan spokesman, was concerned over poor biblical translations in the English liturgy. The new Bible version that resulted from this suggestion would eventually replace all other competitors, including the one favoured by the Puritan party, the Geneva Bible. It was Archbishop Richard Bancroft, a fierce opponent of Roman Catholics and Puritans, who not only determined the ground rules for the translation project, but also controlled the final product.

Right from the beginning, it was determined that the new translation would respectfully use those versions that had preceded it, notably the Elizabethan ecclesiastically approved Bishops’ Bible. The preface to the King James Bible acknowledges this wider use of other translations: “Truly (good Christian Reader) we never thought from the beginning, that we should need to make a new Translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one … but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one.”

Wisdom of the past

The King James Bible should be understood “in the light of the Renaissance approach to human wisdom, in which one generation is nourished and sustained by the intellectual achievements of its predecessors,” according to Alister McGrath.

“Each era,” he writes, “draws on the wisdom of the past, and builds upon it, before handing a greater wisdom on to its successors.”

As the historical theologian and Reformation scholar contends, “The King James Bible can be seen as one of the most outstanding representatives of this corporate approach to cultural advance and the enterprise of gaining wisdom.”

Yet, one of the great slogans of Renaissance humanism was also “ad fontes,” (to the sources), a sustained effort to recover and revive the classics of antiquity and a new appreciation for the ancient Hebrew and Greek manuscripts among the assembled translators.

“If you ask what they had before them,” states the original preface written by Miles Smith, “truly it was the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, the Greek of the New. These are the two golden pipes, or rather, conduits where-through the olive branches empty themselves into the gold.”

A community of translators

The task of translation itself was given to six companies of translators — two meeting at Westminster, two at Oxford University and two at Cambridge University — nearly 50 scholars in all. Some were assigned Old Testament books, some the New Testament, and one company the Apocryphal Books.

After considerable revision, the collective product was once more examined by representatives from each company of translators assembled at Stationers’ Hall in London. The finished manuscript was then sent to the printers, the whole translation process having lasted seven years in all.

Today, the 17th-century Bible is still read by a faithful clientele, although its language has been revised. Newer biblical versions rely on a more ancient textual witness, but, with the authors of “The Ancestry of Our English Bible,” we may appreciate the King James Bible for “its simple, majestic Anglo-Saxon tongue, its clear, sparkling style, its directness and force of utterance,” which “have made it the model of language, style, and dignity of some of the choicest writers of the last … centuries.”

This Bible’s “phrasing,” as these critics say, “is woven into much of our noblest literature; and its style, which to an astonishing degree is merely the style of the original authors of the Bible, has exerted very great influence in moulding that ideal of simplicity, directness, and clarity which now dominates the writing of English.”

Hans J. Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at MUN and can be reached

by email: hrollman@mun.ca.

Organizations: Corpus Christi College, Church of England, Geneva Bible Oxford University Cambridge University

Geographic location: London, England, New York Oxford Westminster

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