The King James Translation
The Church of England or Anglican Church had a most sordid spawning. Due to the inability of his Queen, Catherine of Aragon, to give him a son and male heir to his throne, as well as his infatuation with a lovely damsel in his court, Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII petitioned Pope Clement VII for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine. When the Pope refused Henry’s request, Henry usurped the supremacy of the Pope over the church in England and had himself, the head of the English state, declared the head of the English church as well. Afterward, he had the priests of England grant him an annulment of his marriage to Catherine so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. This is the sordid story behind the birth of the Church of England.
As one would expect, such a break from the Catholic Church, which had nothing to do with Catholic apostasy, resulted in the baggage of Catholicism’s heretical doctrines being carried over into the Church of England. However, during the reigns of Henry VIII’s son Edward and daughter Elizabeth I, many within the church of England, thanks to the Protestant Reformation, began calling for the purging of Catholic heresy from the English Church. Those calling for such a purifying of the Church of England became known as the Puritans.
By the time King James I ascended the throne of England, the conflict between the Puritans and the English church had reached a fever pitch. In fear that such dissent within the church would soon translate into division within the kingdom, King James called the Hampton Court Conference in 1604.
Hampton Court was one of the king’s royal residences located near London. The Hampton Court Conference was called by King James for a purely political reason, not for any religious one. As far as King James was concerned, he personally felt that “trivial matters” like church doctrine were beneath his royal dignity.
It was at the Hampton Court Conference that a Puritan, John Reynolds, president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, recommended that a new authorized version of the English Bible be translated from the original languages. Reynolds’ proposal was made in hopes of calming growing contention within England between Anglicans, Puritans, and Catholics. If this new English translation was adopted by Anglicans in place of their preferred Bishops’ Bible, by Puritans in place of their preferred Geneva Bible, and by Catholics in place of their preferred Reims-Douai Bible, then, church contention would be lessened and all England united around a single translation of the Bible.
King James pounced on the idea of a new authorized translation of the Bible, seeing it as a way to ease tempers among church factions becoming increasingly hostile toward one another over doctrinal disagreements and different translations of the Bible. He immediately ordered a new authorized translation with an accompanying decree that it would “embody the best in the existing versions” and become the new authorized version to “be read both in the public services of the church and in the homes by private individuals.”
King James’ resolution for the translation of a new authorized version of the English Bible was adopted by the church leaders at the Hampton Court Conference. In support of the King’s decision, the church leaders issued the following resolution of their own: “That a translation be made of the whole Bible, as consonant as can be to the original Hebrew and Greek; and this to be set out and printed, without any marginal notes, and only to be used in all Churches of England in time of divine service.”
Forty-seven translators were appointed to the work of the King James translation of the Bible. They were instructed to use the Bishops’ Bible, the English authorized version at the time, as the basis of their translation. In fact, one of the guidelines given to the translators was that they should follow and alter as little “as the truth of the original [languages] would permit” the “ordinary Bible read in church, commonly called the Bishops’ Bible.”
When the King James translation was finished, the first published copies came off the press with a Title Page. The Title Page read: “The Holy Bible, Containing the Old Testament and the New: Newly translated out of the original tongues, with the formal translations diligently compared and revised, by his Majesty’s special commandment. Appointed to be read in churches. Imprinted in London by Robert Blake, printer to the king’s most excellent majesty. Anna Dom. 1611.” The new translation also included a Dedication Page, which simply read: “To the most high and mighty Prince James.”
Printers were in such haste to zip out copies of the new translation that they often made mistakes. For instance, in some early copies the “sin no more” of John 5:14 mistakenly read “sin on more.” In another, Luke 20 recorded the “Parable of the Vinegar” rather than the “Parable of the Vineyard.” One early printing became known as the “Murderer’s Bible,” since it mistakenly printed “Let the children first be killed” rather than “filled” in Mark 7:27. And in the most infamous typo of all, the word “not” was omitted from the Seventh Commandment, causing it to read: “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Copies of this early printing became known as the “Adulterer’s Bible.”
Although it may come as a big surprise to many Americans, when the Pilgrims came to America in 1620, they did not bring with them the 1611 King James Version of the Bible. Instead, they brought with them the old Geneva Bible. Being Puritans and sympathizers with the Protestant Reformation, they preferred the Geneva Bible, which was translated by the Reformers. Furthermore, they had serious suspicions about the King James Version, since it was the authorized version of the Church of England, a church that not only opposed the Protestant Reformation, but also severely persecuted the Puritans themselves. In fact, it was their flight from such persecution that led them to sail the sea in search of a new world where they could find religious liberty.
The Pilgrims’ leader, William Bradford, wrote that they had left Holland, where they initially fled from English persecution, to board the Mayflower for the new world as “pilgrims.” It is from the penning of these words by the Pilgrims’ leader that they got their name. It is also their leader’s, William Bradford’s, bringing of the Geneva Bible with them to America that resulted in it, not the King James Version, being the translation most widely used by the early American colonists.
It was not just the Pilgrims who had doubts about the King James translation of the Bible, but many others as well. There were even those, like many today, who questioned the need for any new translation of the Scriptures. In response to their critics, the King James translators wrote a defense of their translation in its preface.1 Unfortunately, this preface is no longer printed in modern-day editions of the King James Bible. If it was, it would prove, much to the chagrin of many, that the King James translators were big fans of Bible translations, believing that new translations translated into better understanding of the Scriptures.
Far from advocating, as some evangelicals do today, the exclusivity of their translation, that it be read by all English-speaking people to the exclusion of all other English translations,2 the King James translators actually encouraged the comparing of different translations with one another. According to them, such comparisons would help, not hinder, the serious student of Scripture to better understand the Bible.
Within a few decades the King James Version became the preferred translation of the Bible for the English-speaking people of the world. It was finally accepted for what it truly is, an extraordinary translation of the Bible.
1 See Appendix 4: Translators’ Preface to the King James Bible
2 See Appendix 5: The King James Only Controversy