Monday, May 2, 2011

400th Anniversary of the King James Bible

Today marks the 400th anniversary of what is arguably the greatest Bible translation ever prepared. Standing on the shoulders of John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, Myles Coverdale, John Rogers, William Whittingham, among many other martyrs and scholars; launched at the 1604 Hampton Court Conference by the proposal of that "living library," Puritan John Rainolds, and commissioned by a king with his own anti-Puritan agenda; prepared by a great company of translators, including Rainolds himself, using these translation rules; and ultimately embraced by the vast majority of not only Puritans, who had previously enjoyed their beloved Geneva Bibles, but also the entire Western world for centuries, believers and unbelievers alike in their own way; the King James Bible represents the high-water mark of English Bible translation.

It was on May 2, 1611, that the King's Printer, Robert Barker, published what became known both as the 'Authorised' and 'King James Version' of the Bible. David Norton notes that it was 'appointed' by King James to be read in all the churches, rather than 'authorised.'

David Norton, A Textual History of the King James Bible, p. 46:

The finely engraved title page, by Cornelius Boel, reads:

The Holy Bible, Conteyning the Old Testament, AND THE NEW: Newly Translated out of the Originall tongues: & with the former Translations diligently compared and reuised: by his Majesties speciall Comandement. Appointed to be read in Churches. Imprinted at London by Robert Barker. Printer to the Kings most excellent Maiestie. ANNO DOM. 1611.

The use of 'appointed' and the absence of 'authorised' are striking -- the more striking in that the Bishops' Bible after 1565 had been 'authorised and appointed to be read in Churches' (H188). Moreover, there is no official record of authorisation (for these reasons I prefer to call this Bible the King James Bible).
Whether 'appointed' or 'authorised,' we can give thanks to God for the labors of those men who bequeathed to the world a legacy that lives on today, four centuries later. Thankful as I am for the Tyndale and Geneva Bibles, as well the labors of other faithful Bible scholarship, before and after 1611, it is true what T.S. Eliot said (Sunday Telegraph, No. 98 (16th December 1962), p. 7),

The age covered by the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I was richer in writers of genius than is our own, and we should not expect a translation made in our time to be a masterpiece of our literature or, as was the Authorized Version of 1611, an exemplar of English prose for successive generations of writers.

While I am not personally opposed to the ecclesiastical production of new, faithful English Bible translation one day that is based, as was the KJV, on the Majority Text, I have yet to see one among a 20th century landscape strewn with vastly inferior attempts at translation. C.S. Lewis has further rightly noted in a letter to T.S. Eliot that it is "Odd, the way the less the Bible is read the more it is translated (Letters, May 25, 1962).

For those who desire to study the textual and translation issues that underlie the modern attempts to supplant the KJV as the English ecclesiastical text, I recommend the literature of Dean Burgon, Edwards Hills, Theodore Letis, and the Trinitarian Bible Society. Joel Beeke has given his practical reasons for retaining the KJV here. For those seeking assistance in taking up the reading of the KJV, I recommend this aid prepared by Peter Lindstrom. For those seeking to better understand the legacy of the KJV, I recommend Leland Ryken, The Legacy of the King James Bible: Celebrating 400 Years of the Most Influential English Translation.

The King James Version of the Bible is a monument not to the infallibility of man -- it is a fallible translation, yet the best I know of in my native tongue -- but to scholarship and eloquence grounded in fidelity to the Word of God. Thanks be to God for such a faithful labor of love.

It is this thought from the translators to their readers that I would leave with you, friend, in praise of God's Word, which is a spirit that we should all cultivate in love to God and his voice to us:

¶ The praise of the Holy Scriptures

But now what piety without truth? What truth, what saving truth, without the word of God? What word of God, whereof we may be sure, without the Scripture? The Scriptures we are commanded to search. John v. 39. Isaiah viii. 20. They are commended that searched and studied them. Acts xvii. 11 and viii. 28, 29. They are reproved that were unskilful in them, or slow to believe them. Matth. xxii. 29. Luke xxiv. 25. They can make us wise unto salvation. 2 Tim. iii. 15. If we be ignorant, they will instruct us; if out of the way, they will bring us home; if out of order, they will reform us; if in heaviness, comfort us; if dull, quicken us; if cold, inflame us. Tolle, lege; tolle, lege; Take up and read, take up and read the Scriptures, (for unto them was the direction) it was said unto St Augustine by a supernatural voice. Whatsoever is in the Scriptures, believe me, saith the same St Augustine, is high and divine; there is verily truth, and a doctrine most fit for the refreshing and renewing of men’s minds, and truly so tempered, that every one may draw from thence that which is sufficient for him, if he come to draw with a devout and pious mind, as true religion requireth. Thus St Augustine. And St Hierome, Ama Scripturas, et amabit te sapientia, &c. Love the Scriptures, and wisdom will love thee. And St Cyrill against Julian, Even boys that are bred up in the Scriptures, become most religious, &c. But what mention we three or four uses of the Scripture, whereas whatsoever is to be believed, or practised, or hoped for, is contained in them? or three or four sentences of the Fathers, since whosoever is worthy the name of a Father, from Christ’s time downward, hath likewise written not only of the riches, but also of the perfection of the Scripture? I adore the fulness of the Scripture, saith Tertullian against Hermogenes. And again, to Apelles an heretick of the like stamp he saith, I do not admit that which thou bringest in (or concludest) of thine own (head or store, de tuo) without Scripture. So St Justin Martyr before him; We must know by all means (saith he) that it is not lawful (or possible) to learn (any thing) of God or of right piety, save only out of the Prophets, who teach us by divine inspiration. So St Basil after Tertullian, It is a manifest falling away from the faith, and a fault of presumption, either to reject any of those things that are written, or to bring in (upon the head of them, ἐπεισάγειν) any of those things that are not written. We omit to cite to the same effect St Cyrill, Bishop of Jerusalem in his 4. Cateches. St Hierome against Helvidius, St Augustine in his third book against the letters of Petilian, and in very many other places of his works. Also we forbear to descend to latter Fathers, because we will not weary the reader. The Scriptures then being acknowledged to be so full and so perfect, how can we excuse ourselves of negligence, if we do not study them? of curiosity, if we be not content with them? Men talk much of εἰρεσιώνη, how many sweet and goodly things it had hanging on it; of the Philosopher’s stone, that it turneth copper into gold; of Cornucopia, that it had all things necessary for food in it; of Panaces the herb, that it was good for all diseases; of Catholicon the drug, that it is instead of all purges; of Vulcan’s armour, that it was an armour of proof against all thrusts and all blows, &c. Well, that which they falsely or vainly attributed to these for bodily good, we may justly and with full measure ascribe unto the Scripture for spiritual. It is not only an armour, but also a whole armoury of weapons, both offensive and defensive; whereby we may save ourselves, and put the enemy to flight. It is not an herb, but a tree, or rather a whole paradise of trees of life, which bring forth fruit every month, and the fruit thereof is for meat, and the leaves for medicine. It is not a pot of Manna or a cruse of oil, which were for memory only, or for a meal’s meat or two; but as it were a shower of heavenly bread sufficient for a whole host, be it never so great, and as it were a whole cellar full of oil vessels; whereby all our necessities may be provided for, and our debts discharged. In a word, it is a panary of wholesome food against fenowed traditions; a physician’s shop (St Basil calleth it) of preservatives against poisoned heresies; a pandect of profitable laws against rebellious spirits; a treasury of most costly jewels against beggarly rudiments; finally, a fountain of most pure water springing up unto everlasting life. And what marvel? the original thereof being from heaven, not from earth; the author being God, not man; the inditer, the Holy Spirit, not the wit of the Apostles or Prophets; the penmen, such as were sanctified from the womb, and endued with a principal portion of God’s Spirit; the matter, verity, piety, purity, uprightness; the form, God’s word, God’s testimony, God’s oracles, the word of truth, the word of Salvation, &c.; the effects, light of understanding, stableness of persuasion, repentance from dead works, newness of life, holiness, peace, joy in the Holy Ghost; lastly, the end and reward of the study thereof, fellowship with the saints, participation of the heavenly nature, fruition of an inheritance immortal, undefiled, and that never shall fade away: Happy is the man that delighteth in the Scripture, and thrice happy that meditateth in it day and night.

1 comment:

  1. VH
    Are you familiar with the New Cambridge Paragraph Bible edited by Peter Norton with an accompanying volume on the textual history of the KJV?
    Available here:
    or here:

    It is in the vein of Scrivener's Cambridge Paragraph Bible and textual history of the KJV from 1873.
    On the basis of a rediscovered Bishop's Bible that the translators used, he wants to get back behind some of the printers's errors and other revisions of the standard text of the KJ as well as format it in paragraph. He updates the vocabulary, but leaves the second person pronouns though the italics get left out.
    I think you will find it of interest.

    Bob S