King's College London
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'To make a good one better': translating the Bible

The King James Bible

New Testament title page from the second edition of the King James BibleNew Testament title page from the second edition of the King James BibleIn 1604 King James I called an ecclesiastical conference at Hampton Court. By far the most important outcome of this meeting was the agreement that ‘a translation be made of the whole Bible, as consonant as can be to the original Hebrew and Greek; and this ... only to be used in all churches of England.’

James gave this proposal his hearty approval, declaring that he had never yet read a good English translation of the Bible, the Geneva version being ‘the worst’ of all.

In expressing this view, James was probably objecting largely not to the quality of the Geneva translation (which was very good) but to the Calvinist tone of its marginal notes, for he stipulated that the new translation should have no marginal notes at all. This was to be a Bible to unite the divergent strands of English theological opinion, not divide them further.

The translation was undertaken by 47 churchmen, organised into six panels, each panel responsible for a portion of the Bible. The draft text was then reviewed by a sub-committee of twelve, comprising two members of each panel. Miles Smith and Thomas Bilson oversaw the printing process and Smith wrote the preface, ‘The translators to the reader.’

In this important preface Smith pays tribute to the efforts of all those in whose footsteps he and his colleagues were treading; rather than emphasising the superiority of the new version, he places it in a long and continuing tradition. He discusses some of the dilemmas faced by the translators and the decisions they have taken, both on purely stylistic questions:

We have not tied ourselves to an uniformity of phrasing, or to an identity of words ... as for example, if we translate the Hebrew or Greek word once by purpose, never to call it intent; if one where journeying, never travelling ... For is the kingdom of God become words or syllables?

and on questions of a more doctrinal nature:

... we have avoided the scrupulosity of the Puritans, who leave the old ecclesiastical words, and betake them to other, as when they put washing for baptism, and congregation instead of Church; as also ...we have shunned the obscurity of the Papists, in their azymes, tunike, rational, holocausts, prepuce, pasche, ... whereof their late translation is full, andthat of purpose to darken the sense ... But we desire that the Scripture ... may be understood even of the very vulgar.

On display is the second (1613) edition of the King James Bible, sometimes known as the ‘Judas’ Bible, owing to a misprint of ‘Judas’ for ‘Jesus’ in Matthew xxvi:36. The New Testament title page, shown here, is dated 1611.

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