The making of the King James Bible

Four hundred years after it was first published, Pauline Croft considers the genesis of the "most important book in the English language"

An engraving of the frontispiece to the first edition of the King James Bible. Published in 1611, the Bible was soon to become required reading across the English-speaking world. (Culture Club/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the March 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine

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From the opening salvo of Genesis (“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”) to the closing words of Revelation (“The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen”), one book has had a greater impact on the English-speaking world than any other. That book contains such well-used phrases as “Let there be light,” “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and “A multitude of sins”. It’s routinely plagiarised by the media – “Is David Cameron hiding his light under a bushel?” demanded a British newspaper recently. It even turned up in a lyric by Irving Berlin, who declared: “Get thee behind me, Satan”.

The book in question is the Bible – or more particularly, the King James or Authorised Version of the Bible. This is an important distinction for, though many of the above phrases had been used in earlier translations, it was the King James Version that was to become required reading throughout the American colonies and the rest of the British empire.

The King James Bible was the product of cutting-edge 17th-century scholarship in Hebrew, Greek and Latin – scholarship that made it possible to produce an English version that’s proved to have enduring influence.

Yet, while the Bible’s reach and impact are unparalleled, its beginnings were fraught. It was published in the early years of the reign of the King James after whom it is named – James VI of Scotland, and after 1603, also James I of England – at a time when the realm was being subjected to the tremors of the Reformation. In 1604, James arranged a conference at Hampton Court to try and settle the simmering differences between the Church of England authorities and Puritans, who were among those Protestant reformers challenging the Catholic traditions of the church. One of the Puritan requests put to James was for a new translation of the Bible, to which he willingly conceded.

Political concessions

The King James Bible was published, in English, some seven years later, in 1611. As a highly educated man, James found the translation project worthwhile in itself, yet the Bible also served him politically – as a tactical concession to those who were unhappy with the state of the Church of England.

However, political considerations only tell part of the story – for the real driving force behind the publication of an English Bible was the emergence of a transformative new technology: printing.

The year 1456 witnessed the emergence of a printed version of the Latin Vulgate Bible – the fourth-century translation by St Jerome – which was followed by a wave of learned editions of classical texts. These inspired the brilliant young scholar William Tyndale to try and print the New Testament in English, but the reigning king in England, Henry VIII, was still very much against the Protestant movement at this time so Tyndale fell under suspicion of heresy and fled to Germany in the 1520s.

Tyndale probably met the Protestant reformer Martin Luther at Wittenberg only two years after Luther’s German New Testament appeared in 1522, and his own English New Testament was printed at Worms in 1526. Tyndale left some Old Testament translations in manuscript and – though he was burned as a heretic in the Low Countries in 1536 – much of his translation of the New Testament passed almost unchanged into the 1611 version.

By the time of Tyndale’s death, the idea of an English Bible was becoming mainstream. Miles Coverdale, a Cambridge monk, published in 1535 a complete Bible tactfully dedicated to Henry VIII. Coverdale knew German, so he could put Luther’s translations into English; the rest he translated from the Latin Vulgate. Coverdale did not know enough Hebrew to tackle the Old Testament afresh, but his translation of the German Psalms became an English liturgical classic.

In 1537, with Henry VIII’s opposition to Bible translations softening, a revised version using the texts of both Tyndale and Coverdale emerged. This was Matthew’s Bible and the first to carry royal authorisation. ‘Matthew’ was almost certainly the radical Protestant John Rogers, who promoted his version, but paid a high price for his work, since he was burned under Mary Tudor.

Then, in 1539, came the Great Bible, printed in Paris under the patronage of Henry’s leading minister Thomas Cromwell, in response to the royal injunctions of 1538. These ordered a lectern-size Bible to be set up in all churches – so ‘great’ referred merely to its size. The title-page is superb, almost certainly from a woodcut by Hans Holbein, showing God blessing Henry VIII, and handing down copies of the Bible to Archbishop Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell. Here is the royal supremacy in action: there is no sign of the pope.

All these 1530s editions rely heavily on the work of Tyndale and Coverdale. However, in 1539 the Oxford scholar Richard Taverner produced a revision of Matthew’s Bible with improved versions from the original New Testament Greek. Taverner knew no Hebrew, so he based his translation of the Old Testament on the Latin Vulgate.

Here we see a pattern being established: where translators did not have all the linguistic skills necessary, they improvised, using what was already available. Printing had vastly increased the number of inexpensive copies that could be sold, so scholars and publishers alike saw a commercial opportunity, not just a religious one. However, commissioning a translation of the whole text of the Bible with a uniform prose style would need considerable resources to support academics for the length of time required. Meanwhile, the best that publishers could offer was an amalgam of different pieces of translation.

Royal intervention

Such developments were brought to a juddering halt on the execution of Thomas Cromwell in 1540. The conservative faction at court were suddenly returned to power, along with the Latin Vulgate for official use. In 1546, the use of Tyndale and Coverdale’s New Testament translations was forbidden by royal proclamation. Following a brief respite during the reign of the fiercely Protestant Edward VI, English Bibles were suppressed once again under the Catholic Queen Mary. Yet by now, printing had made it virtually impossible for any government to control the translations that people had already bought for home use.

In exile at Geneva, the Oxford classicist and Calvinist William Whittingham published in 1557 a revised New Testament, for English Protestants there. For the first time the text was divided into numbered verses for easy reference, and printed in Roman type. When everybody else rushed back to England on Mary’s death in 1558, Whittingham stayed behind to supervise a complete translation and in 1560 he produced the Geneva Bible, dedicated to Mary’s successor, Elizabeth I. It is possible to see the influence of Calvin and other reformers, as well as that of French translators like LeFèvre d’Étaples. The Geneva Bible was popularly known as the Breeches Bible, from its rendering of Genesis, where Adam and Eve, realising they were naked, made themselves ‘breeches’. It remained influential under Elizabeth and many passages were re-used in the Authorised Version.

At the same time, following Elizabeth’s accession, the Great Bible of Cromwell and Cranmer returned to popularity. In 1568, Archbishop Matthew Parker and his colleagues completed a revision known as the Bishops’ Bible, and in 1571 all churchwardens were ordered to obtain a copy for their churches. The Bishops’ Bible followed the Geneva Bible in dividing the text into verses for easy reference, a practical device now popular with both readers and preachers. Any phrases containing “lightness or obscenity” were discreetly tidied up, and to avoid contention, no marginal notes were allowed. The translators worked book by book, without much co-ordination, so the translation varied in quality.

But what of Elizabethan England’s Catholic minority? Soon they were able to read their own version of the New Testament – courtesy of a translation provided by the English Catholic college at Reims (which later moved to Douai) in 1582. An English Old Testament followed in 1609. Much of the English in the two books is truly Elizabethan – direct and vivid – and the translators of the Authorised Version undoubtedly read the New Testament produced in Reims.

It was the proliferations of versions of the Bible in circulation by the end of Elizabeth’s reign – together with increasing scholarly knowledge of Hebrew and Greek – that led to the Puritan request at Hampton Court in 1604 for a new translation. The leading Puritan speaker Dr John Reynolds asked for “one only translation of ye bible, to be authenticall and read in ye church”. Another version has the rather more courtly: “May your majesty be pleased that the Bible be new translated.”

Richard Bancroft, the authoritarian bishop of London, was opposed, but James was open to the idea, not least because he had strong objections to the Geneva Bible, offensive in its explicit condemnation of royal rule and its frequent use of the word ‘tyrant’. Significantly, the word is not found at all in the Authorised Version.

The king’s views were made clear. “His Highness wishes, that some especial pains should be taken in that behalf for one uniform translation… and this to be done by the best learned of both the universities; after them to be reviewed by the bishops and chief learned of the church: from them to be presented to the Privy Council; and lastly to be ratified by his Royal authority, to be read in the whole church, and no other.”

The bishops were required to find livings for the translators of more than £20 per year – a decent income. The translating committee was to be divided into six companies of eight members, with six directors supervising them, although we only know the names of 50 men. Bancroft insisted that the base text must be the Bishops’ Bible, as little altered as was compatible with the original texts. His instructions were discreetly ignored: modern studies have shown that perhaps as little as a quarter of the Authorised Version can be traced to the Bishops’ Bible.

The scale of the project was remarkable: the translators divided into six groups, two each working in Oxford, Cambridge and Westminster. Each cleric was to produce an individual translation, which was then discussed by the group. An agreed text was circulated to the other five groups, until a final version emerged. If the translators disagreed about any passage, or found something obscure, they could ask for assistance. There was also an insistence on uniformity.

We know little about the translators’ work once the project was in process. Only scraps remain. In November 1604, Bishop Lancelot Andrewes sent a note to the secretary of the Society of Antiquaries that he could not attend the weekly meeting, as “the afternoon is our translation time”.

There is also an extraordinary vellum-bound book of 125 pages, in Lambeth Palace Library, entitled An English Translation of the Epistles of Paul the Apostle. Evidence points to its origins within the second Westminster company under William Barlow, and the manuscript has gone through several hands for corrections. It is clear that such books were called in when they were needed for final editing. Lastly, the Bodleian Library possesses a copy of the Bishops’ Bible printed in 1602. Marked on it are the suggestions made by a translator, followed by his colleagues’ comments and corrections.

By spring 1610, it only remained to pull together the work of the teams into one reasonably coherent whole. The translators met at Stationers’ Hall in central London with the aim of fulfilling this very task – and, by early 1611, a final text was ready for the printer. Bishop Miles Smith of Gloucester wrote that text’s long and beautiful preface: “Translation it is, that openeth the window, to let in the light.” He hoped the translation would bring readers “the light of understanding, stableness of persuasion, repentance from dead works, newness of life, holiness, peace, joy”. The result was a masterpiece of English prose. Moreover, as the work of a team that collated their drafts before arriving at the final version, it was homogeneous – from Genesis to Revelation. God’s word was now speaking with one divine voice and, since the king had initiated the project, carried an aura of royal authority.

Despite having the monarch’s official blessing, it wasn’t until the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 that the King James Version became universally familiar, both in Britain and the American colonies. In fact, in its infancy it was regarded as simply a revision of earlier texts. It wasn’t even entered into the official Stationers’ Register – and contained numerous misprints.

Yet, once the King James Version finally became the only Bible used in British churches, it remained so until the Revised Standard Version of 1881–85. To this day it is the best-known translation. Its long history at the centre of the religious culture of the English-speaking world makes it the most important book in the English language. In 2011 we celebrate an extraordinary achievement: not solely religious, but also literary, cultural and international.


The Reformation

The Reformation was the Protestant reaction against Catholicism. It was initiated in Germany by the priest Martin Luther, who taught that the Bible, rather than the pope, was the sole source of divine authority. The Reformation in England began during the reign of Henry VIII. Henry was theologically conservative, and initially opposed to Protestantism, but the pope’s refusal to grant the king a divorce led him to split from Rome in the 1530s.

In the short reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI, a much more determined attempt was made to make England more fully Protestant. This was brought to a sharp halt when Edward died and was replaced by his sister Mary, who re-established Catholicism in England. Yet a final twist on Mary’s death saw her half-sister, Elizabeth, ascend to the throne. Elizabeth restored Protestantism, but in her religious settlement of 1559 some ceremonial and organisational elements, such as the structure of bishops of the Catholic church, were retained. This led to the rise of a group known as Puritans, who wanted rid of anything that inhibited a personal and direct relationship with God.


Timeline: the history of the English Bible

c700s–1300: Early scriptures

Anglo-Saxon versions of the Gospels and Psalms become the first vernacular scriptures. By around 1300, there are translations of Genesis, Exodus and Psalms in ‘middle English’.

1300s: English manuscripts

The Lollard reform movement, led by John Wycliffe (d1384), produces two English manuscript versions which closely follow the wording of the Latin Vulgate Bible.

1456: The Gutenberg Bible

The Latin Vulgate (c404 AD), the Bible translation of St Jerome, becomes one of the earliest printed books. Appearing in 1456, it is known as the Gutenberg Bible.

1526: English translations

William Tyndale (c1494–1536) makes English translations from the Greek and Hebrew originals of the New Testament and parts of the Old.

1530s: Two more translations

Under Henry VIII, the 1530s are a key Reformation decade, with Miles Coverdale’s Bible appearing in 1535 and ‘Matthew’s Bible’ in 1537.

1539: The Great Bible is published

The Great Bible of 1539 is published as a lectern Bible intended for use in churches. It has a superb woodcut frontispiece by Holbein showing Henry VIII handing down copies.

1560: The Breeches Bible

William Whittingham, exiled in Geneva, publishes in 1557 a New Testament, divided into verses for the first time. In 1560 he produces the Breeches Bible.

1568: Easy reference in the Bishops’ Bible

The Bishops’ Bible of 1568 (revised 1572) is a revision of the Great Bible and continues the division of the text into verses for easy reference.

1604: The King James Bible

The King James or Authorised Version is begun in 1604 after the Hampton Court conference, and completed in 1611. It is still used worldwide.

1881–85: Revised Standard Version

The Revised Standard Version of 1881–85 incorporates advances in biblical scholarship but the text doesn’t stray far from the 1611 version.

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Pauline Croft is professor of early modern history at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her books include King James (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).