How the King James Bible Came About
Today I found out about the origin of the King James Bible.
Back in 1603, Queen Elizabeth I passed away. She had ruled England for 45 years, was well-loved, and provided a sense of stability and security during her reign. Described as “neither a good protestant nor yet resolute papist,” she was able to provide a relatively happy medium between the two warring sects. Having had no children of her own, though, the throne was open to King James VI of Scotland, who became King James I of England upon her death.
England had been at war with Scotland on and off over the years. James’ own mother, Mary, had been beheaded by Elizabeth. Still, many people saw the rise of a new king to be the opportunity for religious reform that they had been waiting for.
On his journey south to his English coronation, King James was stopped by a delegation of Puritans who presented him with a list of grievances and proposed reforms. It was signed by over 1000 clergymen—10% of England’s clergy at the time—and was subsequently called the Millenary Petition. They addressed things such as banning the use of wedding rings and wearing a cross, but didn’t mention anything about a new bible translation.
The new King James called for a meeting at Hampton Court Palace to address the concerns in the Millenary Petition, which took place in early 1604. The Puritans weren’t allowed to attend the first day of the conference, and James largely disregarded most of their requests. In fact, James was happy with the set-up of the English Church, having been extremely frustrated with the Scottish Presbyterian model.
Eventually, Dr. John Reynolds, the lead Puritan voice at the conference, brought up the idea of a bible translation because “those which were allowed in the reign of King Henry VIII and King Edward VI were corrupt and not answerable to the truth of the original.” James, who hated the popular Geneva bible for its anti-royalty message, agreed that a new translation would be for the best. And despite the other outcomes of the conference, the Puritans were happy because they believed they would have a say in the new translation, perhaps enabling them to bring about some of the reforms they wished for anyway.
The translation of the bible didn’t begin until 1607. Fifty-four bible experts (only forty-eight were recorded, as some died before the translation was finished) gathered at Oxford, Westminster, and Cambridge to discuss the translation. They came from all levels of religion and had different ideas about the reform that they wanted to see. They had to follow 15 rules for translation, including making no notes in the margins of the Bible and keeping the language accessible to the common people (many of whom were wholly illiterate at the time).
The translators were broken into subcommittees. Each translator independently translated the same section of the bible, which he then brought back to the subcommittee. All of the translations were compared, and one was selected to be sent to the general revising committee. The revising committee listened to the translation rather than read it; because much of their audience was illiterate, they wanted the bible to sound right more than look right. If the translation didn’t sound good, the general committee would debate and revise the passage until it did. Afterwards, they would send their approved passages to a few Bishops, who would then send the passage on to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who would send it to King James who had the final say in the approval of the new translation.
The new translation was finally completed in1610, but didn’t become available to the public until the following year. It was printed by Robert Barker, King James’ personally appointed printer. Unfortunately, the new translation had been so anticipated that Barker rushed to the printer and many mistakes were made. Barker had paid £3,500 for the right to publish the bible, and spent even more trying to fix mistakes and fend off pirating publishers. By 1635, he ended up in debtor’s prison where he would later die.
Aside from printing two different versions of the bible at the same time and allowing their pages to get bound up together rather than separately, major typos were discovered in the 1631 printing, which later became known as “The Wicked Bible.” Among other discrepancies, “God’s greatness” was misprinted as “God’s great asse” and the word “not” was left out of the commandment “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Because of this, it isn’t exactly a mystery as to why the King James Version wasn’t popular from the start.
Over time, the King James Bible underwent a number of revisions from the original translation. Typos were corrected, new chapter summaries were included, and marginal references were added and verified for accuracy. The revisions opened the door to increasing the King James Version’s popularity. Today, the Christian Post reports that the King James Bible is the second bestselling bible behind the New International Version.
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- The Geneva Bible, which was the precursor the King James, was the first widely distributed English translation of the bible, coming about after much debate about Bishops reading the Bible in Latin, which few could understand.
- The King James Bible was the first to feature the translation “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18). Some people believe that the original word was the Greek pharmakeia, meaning “pharmacy,” which should make the translation something along the lines of “though shalt not suffer a poisoner to live.” However, the idea that this portion was mistranslated isn’t widely accepted. Doubters point to the Hebrew word kashaph, which can be translated to “sorceress,” meaning basically the same thing as “witch.”
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