The KJV: Is it THE Bible? Part 2: A Brief History of a Politically-Charged Translation
In our first post we introduced varieties KJV enthusiasm, and initial reasons why the KJV-only movement is divisive and counter-intuitive.
And now a brief history of the King James Bible. The KJV actually wasn’t the first English Bible, nor was it the first produced by the Church of England. English Bibles that came before it were Cloverdale’s (1535), Tyndale’s (1536), Matthew’s (1537), Taverner’s (1539), the Great Bible (1539), the Geneva (1560), the Bishop’s (1568), and the Rhiems-Douay (1582).
One of the main reasons the KJV came about was to produce a translation that would unify everyone, that would “corner the market” and prevent confusion between translations, two in particular. The Geneva was the preferred translation among the public (and the one Shakespeare quoted), while the Bishop’s Bible was used by clergy.
Enter a rigorous translation that could do the job. The KJV Bible was produced in 1611 after about seven years of labor by almost 50 scholars. Three different portions of the Bible were translated by forty-seven men from six companies at Westminster, Cambridge, and Oxford. Then, during a period of nine months, twelve scholars reviewed the translation and prepared it for printing.
This meticulous process was similar to how many translations are done today, and also brings a much-needed stability to the art of translating. This system of checks and balances within a translating team can help filter out blunders both grammatical and theological. The main drawback to this method is that different committees using different translations can define the same words differently in separate portions of scripture. This can create troublesome inconsistencies, leading readers to be puzzled.
In short, the KJV New Testament was translated from Bexa’s Latin Textus Receptus (partially translated from the Vulgate and texts that don’t match the Greek manuscripts in places), but was a more heavily revised version of the Bishop’s Bible, which was a version of the William Tyndale version. As we can already see, there is complexity at play. This was not a case in which men sat down to solely attempt to translate directly from the original languages, either word-for-word or by sense of dynamics of meaning. As Jack Lewis observes, “The King James scholars could have known fewer than twenty-five late manuscripts of the New Testament, and these were carelessly used” (1). Today, we have much better access to ancient manuscripts, as well as more educated scholars of Greek and Hebrew.
In creating the KJV much influence was drawn from the Latin Vulgate, and two Hebrew texts and four Greek texts were used for comparison. The Geneva Bible, the Rheims NT, Stephanus Textus, and other texts were consulted. The KJV translators didn’t actually use a single edition of the original Textus Receptus, but used a revised edition.
A 1-minute video about the role the KJV Bible has played in developing the English language
a more in-depth, 13-minute video of English phrases that came from the KJV
In the days of King James, translating the Bible was a political issue as well as a religious issue. Actually, translating the Bible always involves the theology and politics of translators, but in this case an English King was, shall we say, “invested” in the translation. We have no record of him investing money in the translation process, but he endorsed it vocally as being the one and only translation for the church to use. James White observed that “some translators hoped to gain favor with the king and advancement through their work on the translation itself”(2). You’re caring for the words of a spiritual king; meanwhile, the praise of an earthly king calls in the distance.
King James was a fervent believer that kings ruled by divine right, that kings existed before men did and already owned all the land, and that the Bible taught that kings were superior beings to the rest of mankind. Not exactly the humblest of opinions. One can’t help but wonder how the translators’ knowledge of this affected their work.
Also, the translators were members of the Church of England, a particular denomination that was heavily influential and politically tied to the English crown at the time. Well, that’s putting it mildly. The translators were ordered by the King to produce a translation that would support their already held theological beliefs, including their episcopal church structure. This was not what you might call a non-denominational or multi-denominational effort. The team belonged to one church faction, and carried the goal of producing a Bible version that supported the private interpretations of their order.
This was practically a “government issue” Bible, one produced in the name of a man-made kingdom, with man-made creeds attached to a man-made denomination whose loyalty was split between the temporal king and the eternal King.
One political curiosity about the KJV’s historical context is King James 1’s obsession with witchcraft. He considered the study of witchcraft to be a branch of Christian theology, writing tracts about witches and witchcraft, and believed that in his time witches worked real magic. Shakespeare’s MacBeth contains plenty of witchery for this reason, many say, as most scholars believe MacBeth was written to flatter King James. James Stuart himself personally oversaw women being tortured for practicing witchcraft. However, by 1611, his interest in witchcraft had declined.
Erasmus, who compiled the Textus Receptus, was a devout Catholic who opposed the Reformation Movement. Erasmus also admitted to “liking” the minority readings better (the ones that don’t match the Greek readings as much), and choosing them when composing the Textus Receptus. The King James translators relied heavily on his text. Some of the complaints would be about the reliance on a “Catholic” text.
Many advocates of the King James translation will accuse modern versions of heresy, yet not consider the Anglican ecclesiology behind their more favored translation. It is important to apply the same criticism to every translation, not just your granddaddy’s favorite. Lewis points out that “the feeling toward the KJV when it was new was no different from that shown toward new versions in the twentieth century” and “only the passage of time has afforded the KJV a privileged status” (3). People had complaints about this “new” and “modern” KJV translation when it first came about.Even in its day the KJV had its rivals.
“Throughout its history,” says Lewis, “the KJV has been charged with reflecting doctrinal bias,” and “the translators favored the king’s notions of predestination, election, perseverance, witch-craft, and familiar spirits.” (4). The pressures was not in any way apolitical. Thomas Fuller put it mildly when he said, “Some of the brethren were not well pleased with this translation” (5). Hugh Broughton, an expert in Hebrew language and thought, publicly decried the KJV, one reason being the many instances in which a word-for-word equivalence wasn’t applied. He even said that he “would rather be torn in pieces by wild horses than that this abominable translation [KJV] should ever be foisted upon the English people” . A bit too harsh. That’s about how I feel towards editions like The Patriot’s Bible.
We’ve looked at a brief history of the translation process and introduction of the KJV into the world, how it was endorsed, produced, and received in its own time. Next we will look at the language of the KJV, the dealing with the difficulties of language and meaning.
Here’s a question to non-Catholic advocates of the KJV: The original edition of the King James translation also included the Apocrypha. If the KJV has some special providential inspiration not found in any other translation, was it inspired only after the Apocrypha was removed?
In our next post we examine the problem of the message being “lost in translation“, and why this makes changes in translation scholarship necessary.
1 Lewis, Jack P (1992). The English Bible from KJV to NIV: A History and Evaluation. 2nd Ed. Baker Book House. p.42
2 White, James R (1995). The King James Only Controvsery. Bethany House Publishers. p.10-71.
3 Lewis, Jack P. (1992). p.31
4 Lewis, Jack P. p.62
5 Fuller. The Church History of Britain. 5:409.