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Of scripture, kings and peace-making

ISS Reports


The origins and ethos of the King James Bible.
A paper given at the seminar of the Institute for Spiritual Studies held on the 7th of June to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible

Delivered by Dr Charles Sherlock; Anglican Diocese of Bendigo; Honorary Research Fellow, Melbourne College of Divinity

Kings have perennial problems with the Bible. It has often raised problems for rulers, from ancient Israel to the present, not least in English history. But the distinctive gift of the King James Bible is that it arose from the vision of a monarch to leave a legacy of lasting peace.

Background: English and its use in church

The Norman invasion of the British Isles in 1066 was a turning-point in their cultural as well as political history. Latin may have been the language of church and diplomacy, and French the language of the court, but early English was becoming more widespread. Britons, Anglo-Saxons and Normans slowly shaped a common identity, in which England was less a French outpost than her English-speaking cousin. And the growing calls for church reform began to find English roots, most notably in the Lollard movement, in which the nationalist politician cum philosopher John Wycliffe played a decisive part. In the late 1300s, he translated the Latin Bible into passable English, as part of a wider political campaign for English independence of Rome (three popes were competing for power at the time). Copied by hand, and thus very expensive, these volumes were outlawed in 1407, but kept in secret: 150 survive today. A ban punishable by death was placed on translating the scriptures, allowing only the Latin of Jerome's Vulgate to be circulated — it would soon be the first typeset printed book, the 'Gutenberg Bible'.

Henry VIII came to the throne a century later, to a nation knowing peace after the Wars of the Roses, but on the verge of major religious and political upheaval. Henry was an adroit theologian, being awarded the title Defensor fidei by the pope for writing against Lutheran ideas, but he had a mixed record when it came to the scriptures! The matter of the king's divorce drew attention sharply to the question of their interpretation, a debate out of which Thomas Cranmer emerged as a reforming Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533.

Printed books could only be issued by royal licence: this new technology not only threatened the status quo if unregulated, but also allowed significant fortunes to be made. In the 1520s, William Tyndale lived a precarious life on the run across Europe, seeking to translate and have privately published the New Testament from the Greek, to bring spiritual freedom to the English nation. His unlicensed translation had plentiful marginal comments pointing readers to radical perspectives on both state and church — and when Sir Thomas More's spies found him in 1536, Henry had him garrotted and burnt.

But in the same year Miles Coverdale, Tyndale's former assistant, finished translating the whole Bible, this time hired by Cranmer, at Henry's request, on behalf of the English bishops. Meanwhile alongside this, John Rogers, under the pseudonym of Thomas Matthew, finished Tyndale's Bible, using much of Coverdale. In 1537 King Henry VIII licensed this, making it the first legal translation of the Bible into English. In the next year, 1538, he ordered copies to be placed in every parish church (a publisher's bonanza!): known as the Great Bible, due to its size, this was a revision of Matthews' work, directed by Coverdale with a team of assistants.

Thus, in three short years, Henry VIII moved from persecution to promotion of the English Bible. And from then on, reform of the Church of England — though inevitably intertwined with political intricacy and social change — was inevitable. But the shape of that reform was highly disputed, and changed as monarchs changed. Under Henry's protestant-raised son Edward VI, reformation flourished for four years, and with it the dissemination of scriptural teaching, most notably through Cranmer's first Book of Common Prayer: but the brilliant Edward died in his teens. His oldest sister Mary, devoutly Catholic daughter of Henry's first wife, Catherine of Aragon, set in place a Roman-inspired reaction — Cranmer was burnt, the Book of Common Prayer was banned, and English Bibles were for five years again under the counter.

Elizabeth, daughter of the executed Anne Boleyn, desperately wanted peace, and instituted what became known as the Refomation Settlement, restoring the Book of Common Prayer and English Bible. Roman Catholics who could not accept the Settlement left for the Continent, and at the English College in Douai, France, a translation was prepared that was approved by the Vatican: the New Testament was issued in 1582, leading to a revision of the Latin a decade later. The whole Douai Bible was published in 1610, with Roman-oriented notes and comments.

Conversely, English Protestants who had earlier fled Mary's regime to Europe made a new translation, the Geneva Bible, bringing back the New Testament back in 1557; and the full Geneva Bible was issued in 1560. Beautifully printed, with illustrations, maps and appendices, it was also full of Tyndale-like notes scrutinizing many aspects of English religious and political life — not least questioning the validity of unrestrained royal power. The Elizabethan bishops responded with their own version, the 1558 Bishops' Bible, with few notes. This somewhat ponderous translation was what English parishioners heard on Sundays in church, though it was Geneva that was read in homes, and most preachers (including leading bishops such as Lancelot Andrewes) more often used Geneva for their sermons. It was the Geneva Bible that the Pilgrim Fathers took to America in 1607. As is the case today, several English translations thus jostled with one for readers' attention, offering competing perspectives on authority in church and nation.

The emergence of the King James Bible

How then does the King James Bible (or 'Authorised Version', as some came to call it, though it was not!) fit into this picture?

Elizabeth died in 1603: in her somewhat 'stale' final years, the kingdom had become divided over how far reform should proceed. Those known as 'Puritans' embraced a wide range of serious Christians: today we would probably call them 'progressives ' politically — they wanted a 'flatter' society in which Parliament had more power and royalty less; in which local congregations had more say in their affairs and bishops less; in which the plain teaching of the scriptures had more influence, and inherited traditions held sway much less. At the heart of all these issues was the place of the Bible in English life — and Elizabeth's successor was her distant cousin, James VI of Scotland, all too familiar with the pressures brought upon monarchs by those who used the scriptures to limit their power.

Being now James I of 'Great Britain', as he liked to be called, the new king had also seen enough of the effects of civil strife in Scotland, having reigned there with regents for two decades.[1] James was well educated, fluent in languages ancient and modern, and took as his motto Rex pacificus — peace-making king. As he made his way grandly from Edinburgh to London, a petition signed by a thousand clergy was presented to him (the 'Millenary Petition'), requesting various reforms, including changes in the Book of Common Prayer. But his coronation — in London, then not much larger than Bendigo — took place in the midst of the plague, which saw 30,000 deaths. And his initial relations with Parliament, which denied him funds, were testy — James wanted richness and splendour rather than Elizabethan austerity or Puritan simplicity, but he needed to get to know English ways.

So, as Rex pacificus, in 1604, a year after ascending the throne, having already initiated processes which he hoped would lead to a Europe-wide ecumenical Council, James called a Conference at Hampton Court bringing together the bishops and Puritan leaders. The king took the chair, on the first day (Friday) engaging the deans and bishops (led by Richard Bancroft of London, soon to be Canterbury), many of whom had Puritan sympathies. Then, with a few royalist-sympathizing bishops on hand, on day two (Monday) he took on the four Puritan divines — carefully chosen academics and moderates, having no truck with 'riff-raff men'. Deeply familiar with the Calvinist arguments of the day about church governance from his Scottish background, James gave little away to either side — he critiqued both sides, wanting peace, albeit on his terms, which were set out on the final day (Wednesday, on which the Puritans were absent).

At one point James is reported to have made the comment, "no bishop, no king". Behind this claim lay the vexed question of where ultimate authority in interpreting the scriptures lay in relation to governance. It was one thing to agree on the ultimate authority of scripture, another to agree on whose interpretation ruled — and the Bishops' Bible and the Geneva Bible offered different perspectives. The leading Puritan scholar John Reynolds, Master of Corpus Christi College, is said to have asked, "May your Majesty be pleased to have the Bible newly translated?" And James took the suggestion up — he loathed the Geneva Bible's annotations, but also knew that the Bishops' Bible was seen by many as an establishment document. So — while out of the Hampton Court conference came a few changes to the Book of Common Prayer (the most notable being the Catechism's inclusion of a section on sacraments), efforts to tighten clergy discipline, and a sense that a still-divided Church and nation should try and live in unity, its most long-standing outcome — as it were an accident of debate — and greatest fruit was the King James Bible.

Preparing the new translation

But the path from ideal to reality was long and difficult. To ensure that Genevan impulses were minimised, Bancroft, newly-appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, drew up 14 'Rules' to guide the 'Translators' — a title which in later years became one of great honour. Six 'companies' of eight academics were formed, 47 men in all, including bishops like Lancelot Andrews, Puritan divines such as John Reynolds, academics like Miles Smith (who wrote the Preface), the recently cuckolded Dean of St Paul's, John Overall, and the super-rich gardener Sir Henry Savile (the only layman, after whose family Savile Row is named). Clergy members not in academic appointments had parish livings arranged for them to fund their work — an interestingly ironic use of pre-Reformation methods! Each team was allocated a major section — there were three Old Testament teams, one for the Apocrypha and two for the New. Two teams each were based at Westminster, Oxford and Cambridge respectively, working under the eyes of officialdom.

The Rules were very significant in controlling and shaping the work:

Rules 1-5 ensure continuity:
Bishops' Bible was to be the base, checked against the Greek, Hebrew and Aramiac manuscripts (not Latin); names were not to be translated (e.g. Adam, not Red Earth); 'old ecclesiastical words to be kept', notably 'church', not 'congregation' for ekklesia; ambiguous terms were to follow patristic usage; and chapter divisions were left unchanged.
Rules 6-7 exclude contention:
no notes beyond explanations of the Hebrew or Greek, and the whole Bible was to be treated as one volume (producing a 'steamroller effect' that flattened the stylistic variations in the originals and unified the translation).
Rules 8-13 insist on integrated translation:
each member brought his translation to a meeting, all present had to agree on it, this work is sent to all other teams for checking, and the outcome checked by the bishops! No wonder it took seven years' work!
Rule 14
allows the Translators to take account of 'Tindall, Matthews, Coverdale and Geneva' (presumably in that order), while Rule 15 requires that Old Testament quotations in the New Testament be rendered as they had been in the Old (reflecting a 'conservative' view of divine inspiration).

During their translating work, events took place of biblical proportions (as today's media loves to say), each of which inevitably affected the Translators' work. The 'Bye and Main' (1604) and Gunpowder Plots (1605) cemented anti-papal feeling (and got Parliament to grant James all the money he ever wanted); the Pilgrim Fathers found James' peace-making efforts over-bearing, and left in 1607 for 'New England' in America; Shakespeare wrote Othello, King Lear and more besides, and the first golf links and the first shopping mall (for the very rich) in England opened — testimony to the Jacobean delight in gilded richness, majesty, pleasure and ornament. Indeed, Adam Nicolson argues that this rejoicing in 'stuff' and decoration is reflected in the translation:

The two tastes lay within each other: a love of stuff, of the material thing, was wrapped in a baroque enhancement with the flickering, the dramatic, the elaborated and the enriched. The interplay of these two aesthetic principles, of show, and in Hamlet's famous phrase to his mother, of 'that within which passeth show', is one of the governing tensions of the great Jacobean translation of the Bible. Beauty was about firmness but it was also about brilliance; clarity vied with glitter; candour with bitter irony; simplicity with complexity; a vision of the pure with a relishing of the lush.[2]

The finished translations were sent to the bishops for checking, and then to the king, in manuscript form for final approval:[3] no quarter was to be given to sectarian or idiosyncratic instincts. The first volumes, in blackletter type, came off the presses in 1611 — it was all a rush: the manuscript copies were lost, no original copy exists, and the many typographical errors and spelling inconsistencies were not sorted out until the 19th century! The new book was not the instant success for which James had hoped: Lancelot Andrews, for example, even though he led the first Old Testament team, continued to use only the Geneva Bible in his preaching. It was not until after the Civil War (1642-4), Restoration (1661) and Glorious Revolution (1688), three generations later, that the King James Bible came to have the predominance it would hold for nearly three hundred years. Why this delayed response? Several reasons are suggested.

First, the translators did not intend to use the ordinary language of the day (as is commonly supposed). Their words are direct, preferring solid Anglo-Saxon resonance to Latinate technicality — the Puritan sensibility: but they are replete with Jacobean richness. As Adam Nicolson again puts it, the book swings "between majesty and tangibility, the setting of the actual and perceptible within an enormous and enriching frame, the sense of intimacy between great and small ... the sense that the universe, from God to heifer, is one connected fabric".[4] The volume was, if you like, England's great cathedral of language, shaping the architecture of the imagination for centuries. Yet it took time for its sonority to become familiar, pervasive and welcomed — and in time it was, even by the most anti-royal, anti-establishment ultra-congregationalist groups — what today we might call 'fundamentalists'.[5]

Many have commented that it seems a miracle that six committees and such a laborious checking process should have produced so profoundly satisfying a piece of verbal artistry. The skill of the secretaries, developed under Elizabeth, the longing for 'joint-ness' under James as Rex pacificus, and the enjoyment of the new social reality, the 'company' — all these factors contributed, and shed light on the second reason for the translation's longevity. It is a volume whose origins lay in the desire for principled peace — and it seems that it was not until England had finally accepted some sort of realistic religious toleration that such a translation would be valued.

Yet this value is also grounded in the adherence of the Translators to the original Hebrew and Greek, beyond the demands of propagandists, to the point where their idioms became part of the English language — "it came to pass", for example, let alone the countless sentences commencing with 'And' (the way Hebrew indicates the past tense on an imperfective verb, and vice versa). They strove, as Nicolson memorably puts it, "to make English godly than to make the words of God into the sort of prose that any Englishmen would have written".[6]

In short, the King James Bible represents the notion that the best handmaiden of peace is truth. And divine truth is wide in reach: as Psalm 19 sings up, God's ways are intertwined in nature and in the Lord's statutes, testimonies, ordinances — the Law, prophets and writings of the holy scriptures. These are not always easy to comprehend, as Peter observes of Paul's letters, particularly when it comes to matters of communal living. Over the century past growing gaps have appeared among the churches over the exercise of authority regarding gender and sexuality, for example. Votes for women were both supported and resisted on the basis of what the Bible was claimed to teach: then there was divorce reform, shifts in work and child-raising patterns, 'family values' defended and derided.[7] Clergy who are women are having their ministries both appreciated and contested and today gay relationships are debated ... As noted at the beginning, the scriptures raise problems for all in authority — and for those who seek to subvert it.

The great virtue of the King James Bible, I want to argue, is that its origins lay in peace-making, a principle which undergirded its ministry for three centuries or more. Its language is today not well understood, so I am not recommending that you use it! Rather, we honour that translation today by committing ourselves, as we hear, read mark and inwardly digest the holy scriptures, to the ongoing work of godly peace-making.


  1. See W.B. Patterson, James I and VI and the Reunion of Christendom (Cambridge, 2000) for a beautifully organised study of James as Rex pacificus. Hampton Court was a local version of James' wider idea of a Europe-wide ecumenical council, which he promoted vigorously (but unsuccessfully): see chapter 2.
  2. Adam Nicolson, Power and Glory. Jacobean England and the making of the King James Bible (London: Harper Perennial, 2003) 142. This lively text to my mind underdoes James' ecumenical endeavours.
  3. The manuscripts were unbouned folio sheets of the Bishops' Bible, on which handwritten comments were made: only a few survive, these of early stages in the work.
  4. Nicolson, 159.
  5. I was perhaps perversely amused by the issuing of a 'King James II' Bible by some American ultra-conservative Protestants some years back: though the 'II' was intended to refer to the version, it reads as if meaning James II, who in 1688 became a Roman Catholic and so was forced to abdicate, leading to the Glorious Revolution of William & Mary and the Protestant supremacy in Ireland!
  6. Nicolson, 211.
  7. Interestingly, neither Hebrew nor Greek have a word corresponding to the current meaning of 'family' — 'clan' and 'household' are the smallest elements of social organisation they know.

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