All They That Labored: Scholars piece together the monumental job of creating the King James Bible- and reinterpret its legacy
January 9, 2012
Generations of Protestant Christians have heard God speaking through the language of the King James Bible. Four hundred years after it was first published, in 1611, it still has an unrivalled reputation as a shaper of English prose, its phrases a lasting contribution to how we use the language. It’s given us such expressions as “out of the mouth of babes,” “suffer fools gladly,” “seek, and ye shall find,” and “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Yet the 50 or so learned men who labored in teams to create the King James Bible did not set out to create a literary masterpiece. They wanted to establish as direct a connection as they could to the original languages of the Old and New Testaments. And it’s not a miracle that this monumental exercise in translation-by-committee turned out as well as it did. By the time they set to work, in 1604, the King James translators had a hundred years of pioneering work on which to draw. They leaned heavily on texts and translations put together by theologians and linguists such as Erasmus and William Tyndale.
In recent decades, scholarship on the making of the King James Bible has made it plain just how much cumulative human labor and debate went into its creation. “The King James Bible didn’t drop from the sky in 1611,” says Helen Moore, a fellow and tutor in English at Corpus Christi College at the University of Oxford. Moore led the curatorial committee that put together “Manifold Greatness,” an anniversary exhibit at Oxford’s Bodleian Library devoted to the making of the King James Bible. The most famous Bible in English, she says, was “made by many different people in many different places using many different people’s words and many reference texts.”
The King James Bible got its immediate start at a gathering called by Britain’s King James I in January 1604. The Hampton Court Conference brought together high-ranking clergymen and courtiers to discuss the calls for religious reform made in the Millenary Petition, which the Puritans had submitted to the new monarch the previous year. Present at the conference was John Rainolds, a Puritan and the president of Corpus Christi College at the University of Oxford. Rainolds complained, among other things, that English translations of the Bible from the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI were “corrupt and not answerable to the truth.” (For instance, he pointed out, a line from Psalm 105 should read “They were not disobedient” rather than “They were not obedient.”) James agreed. The following year, six companies, or teams of translators—two based at Oxford, two at Cambridge, and two at Westminster—undertook to create a new, more acceptable version.
The names of the translators won’t be familiar to most contemporary readers. But they were the academic and religious stars of their day, chosen for their knowledge of Scripture and of Greek and Hebrew and other languages. Many were fellows at Oxford and Cambridge; many were working clergymen.
“They were essentially the most learned people in England at the time,” says Hannibal Hamlin, an associate professor of English at Ohio State University. Hamlin co-curated the American version of the “Manifold Greatness” exhibit, which runs through January 15, 2012, at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.
The translators were given a set of rules to follow as they worked. The rules organized them into six companies, each responsible for a particular section or sections of the Old and New Testaments. The companies were to circulate their drafts among the others. After all the teams completed their work, a smaller group drawn from all three met to prepare an agreed-upon final version.
Rainolds, the prime mover of the idea, served on the First Oxford Company, which was charged with translating the Old Testament prophets. Officially headed by John Harding, the president of Magdalen College, that company met in Rainolds’s lodgings. Thomas Ravis, the dean of Christ Church, led the Second Oxford Company, responsible for preparing the four Gospels of the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles, and the book of Revelation. The First Cambridge Company, under Edward Lively, worked on the Old Testament from 1 Chronicles to Ecclesiastes; the Second Cambridge Company, led by John Duport, took on the Apocrypha. The First Westminster Company, directed by Lancelot Andrewes, handled the Old Testament from Genesis to 2 Kings, while colleagues on the Second Westminster Company, led by William Barlow, the dean of Chester, were assigned the New Testament epistles.
“We know quite a bit about how things worked,” Hamlin says. “The actual process was probably exceptionally dull. They’re basically slogging through, year after year, word by word, thinking about the most minute detail and trying to get it as perfect as possible.”
Moore imagines the process as “very discursive, very communal, and very multiple,” meaning that the translators worked through multiple drafts and from multiple sources. “One of the things that made the translation possible at all was the publication, in 1519, of Erasmus’s Greek New Testament,” Moore says. “Once there was a standard text, translation could really take off.” Erasmus’s text had many idiosyncrasies and flaws but it gave other scholars something substantial to work with.
Every member of the translation companies was given a loose-leaf copy of the Bishops’ Bible, an English translation first published in 1568, to use as a base text. David Norton, a professor of English at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, is author of The King James Bible: A Short History From Tyndale to Today (Cambridge U. Press, 2011), probably the most detailed account of how the translators did their job. In it, he makes the case for the Bishops’ Bible as “of very particular importance as a draft of the King James Bible.”
The translators were also intimately familiar with a translation called the Great Bible of 1539 and with the Geneva Bible (1560), compiled by Protestant exiles in Europe. Small and printed in roman type, the Geneva Bible was much more of a pocket edition than the Great Bible. Moore describes the Geneva Bible as “the reading Bible of the Elizabethan public,” the Bible that Shakespeare used…