How the King James Bible Came About

king-james-bibleToday 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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Bonus Facts:

  • While it’s commonly said that Jesus was a carpenter before becoming a “Rabbi” or teacher, this perhaps isn’t correct. It is supposed from Mark 6:2-3 that he was, like his step-father, a “carpenter” as commonly translated. However, the chosen translation from the Greek word “tecton” to mean “carpenter” is thought by some modern scholars to be a mistranslation, or at least a presumption.  In fact, “tecton” (in Mark) or “tekton” (in Mathew) is more aptly translated into a more general word describing a “contractor”; specifically, contracting  as a “builder” or “handyman.”  This could mean a carpenter as we think of it, but more likely most of the jobs he would have taken wouldn’t have anything to do with wood. You had something that needed mended/fixed, designed, or built and he was the guy to call.  And note, this isn’t just referring to small jobs such as repairing a leaky roof or the like, though this type of thing would have likely been a part of what he did when bigger business was slow; it also refers to such things as designing and building bridges, stone temples, etc.   So perhaps by today’s notion of the profession, he’d more aptly be called an “engineer.”
  • 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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  • Ross Thompson

    In the first paragraph, “James IV of Scotland” should be “James VI of Scotland”.

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Ross Thompson: Thanks for catching that! Fixed. 🙂

  • LOVEPAREEK

    VERY INFORMATIVE. GREAT ARTICLE. IS THERE SOME ORG WHICH MAILS HARD COPIES OF BIBLE TO INTERESTED PERSONS (OF COURSE, FOR FREE….AS A PROPAGANDA) ? IF THERE IS, PLS INFORM THE SAME.

    • David Clark

      Why not just stay in a cheap motel for a night and steal the one the Gideons left there. Sounds about your speed.

  • Ralph

    Thanks for dispelling some of the myths that surround the 1611 translation…such as it was a divinely inspired English translation lowered down from heaven itself. Many believe that King James himself was involved in the translation process…which he wasn’t. It is not known that the King even looked at it. One of he rules the king had in place was that it had to follow as closely as possible the older “Bishop’s Bible” which was an English version done a few years before. So, the so-called “King James” Bible was really a revised Bishop’s Bible. As folks came to the shores of America they brought with them the Geneva Bible, which is understandable since the reason they were coming was because of the persecution being brought on them by King James himself. It would still take about 100 years for the King James version to catch up to the popularity of the Geneva Bible. In fact, it was Protestants who began calling the 1611 version the “King James” Bible, but it was done for a rather negative reason.
    For fun, here’s you a project….the 1611 was not the first English Bible authorized by an English King. What was the Bible, and what was it NEVER called?

    • Rebuttal

      First I thought King Henry VIII’s “Great Bible”

      but then I found “The first hand-written English language Bible manuscripts were produced in the 1380’s AD by John Wycliffe, an Oxford professor, scholar, and theologian.”

      and then I found “Although John Wycliffe is often credited with the first translation of the Bible into English, there were, in fact, many translations of large parts of the Bible centuries before Wycliffe’s work. The English Bible was first translated from the Latin Vulgate into Old English by a few select monks and scholars. Such translations were generally in the form of prose or as interlinear glosses (literal translations above the Latin words)”
      (thank you google.com, with results from http://www.greatsite.com and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bible_translations_into_English)

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  • john hobson

    Oh I’m afraid this article is severely deficient. You didn’t once mention Tyndale, but he was responsible for nearly a third of the King James bible and the bulk of its structure. Plus English uses his many phrases to this day. Tyndale was whitewashed out of history by the Tudors after his execution and not once is his name mentioned in the King James version. Please don’t perpetuate this coverup! There are many web sites about Tyndale’s legacy. Could I suggest he will make a great article to make amends!
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tyndale_Bible

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