4 Interesting Facts about the Production of the King James Translation
I am a fan of the KJV as a religious and literary masterpiece. As Geddes MacGregor points out,
“In respect of both equipment and method, . . . the translation was made according to the highest standards of scholarship and the most advanced knowledge of the day.”
An amazing collection of scholars—most of the best of England’s biblical savants—were able to produce a work that made an impact on the world for four centuries, and that is something to be celebrated.
But sometimes the historical nitty-gritty surrounding an artifact that has been venerated for so long gets lost in the fog of adulation. So here are 4 interesting facts you may not know about this most revered of translations.
1. Its production was politically motivated.
King James had been the King of Scotland from the time of his first birthday, and, in his late thirties became the King of England upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I. When he took the crown in 1603 he was deeply concerned about the political strife caused by two main religious powers in the land, the Puritans and the Church of England. The bishops of the Church of England were more aligned with the crown. The Puritans wanted the practices of the Church (many of which had been established by Elizabeth as a nod to Catholics) to be overhauled, and they hoped that James, who had been raised among Presbyterians in Scotland, would be on their side. James couldn’t ignore the political clout of the Puritans, but he greatly depended on the political support of the Church of England; he needed religious stability as a cornerstone of political stability and was in a bit of fix. We need to understand that James was not personally very religious. He saw the religious context as a means to political ends.
So, King James called the Hampton Court Conference to bring the various religious leaders together. The powerful of the Church of England greatly outnumbered the Puritans, and James did not seem very responsive to the concerns of the latter. And then John Rainolds, a moderate Puritan leader, made a motion that a new translation would address some of the Puritan concerns. This appealed to James, who had studied the Bible himself and hated the Puritans’ preferred translation, the Geneva Bible, which had “study notes” that called into question the absolute right of Kings! With a new translation, he could be seen as working with the Puritans, while at the same time producing a Bible that undermined the Geneva Bible, which James said was “very partiall, untrue, seditious, and savouring too much of dangerous and traytorous conceits.” He saw that having both sides of the religious divide contribute several years to the production of a common translation could bring religious and therefore political stability. So, for the Puritans the translation was religiously motivated, but for James, the guy who made the decision that the translation would be produced, the motivation was political. James was not a popular king and had a weak reign. The KJV would be the highlight of that reign.
2. The KJV of 1611 differed considerably from our KJV today.
There are a number of ways that the original King James translation differed from the KJV we hold in our hands today. For instance, the original included the Apocrypha (books like Wisdom, Bel and the Dragon, and 1 & 2 Maccabees). Puritans would eventually move to exclude the Apocrypha from their editions, but that time was not yet. In fact, Archbishop Abbot, a leader of the Church of England, in 1616 decreed that if a person published a version of the Authorized Version (the KJV) without the Apocrypha, that person would be put in prison for a year! The Apocrypha was included in editions of the KJV consistently until 1826.
Other differences between the original and today’s KJV were spelling changes and other needed improvements. A major revision in 1629 was done because of a number of flaws in translation, and another revision was carried out in 1638. Our modern version of the King James dates back to editions like the Cambridge Bible of the Authorized Version of the 1760s, which updated spelling and corrected printing errors in the text.
3. There were lots of typos (some hilarious, some not) in printings of the King James Version.
Because the printing of the Authorized Version was done by private printers (and the legal battles between rival printers is a story in itself!) who tried to cut costs, there were lots of printing mistakes in the early editions; there were 182 editions printed between 1611 and 1644! Some of the mistakes are laughable. An edition of 1702 had Psalm 119:161 say, “Printers have persecuted me.” It should have read “Princes.” Another of 1653 was called “The Unrighteous Bible” since it printed 1 Cor. 6:9 as reading, “The unrighteous shall inherit the earth”! The most notorious error was in the 1631 edition dubbed “The Wicked Bible.” That edition left out the word “not” from the 7th commandment: “Thou shalt commit adultery.”
4. Not everyone loved it.
The King James translation was widely embraced by much of the church in England rather quickly, but not everyone was enthusiastic about it; in fact, it faced harsh criticisms for almost a century after its release, some accusing the translators of “blasphemy,” “most damnable corruptions,” “intolerable deceit,” and “vile imposture.” The Catholics had their own translation and had been left out of the process. The Pilgrims brought the Geneva Bible to the New World, not the KJV, which they rejected, believing it muted passages that rightly called into question the absolute authority of wicked kings.
Some scholars had been left out of the translation process, and, predictably, they were not happy with the KJV. First among these was a Hebrew scholar named Hugh Broughton, who most believe was left out because of his violent temper and arrogant disposition. When he was sent a copy of the translation, he said of it that it
“bred in me a sadness that will grieve me while I breathe, it is so ill done. Tell His Majesty that I had rather be rent in pieces with wild horses, than any such translation by my consent should be urged upon poor churches . . .”
He went on to suggest that it "be burnt"! Let’s just say the brother had sour grapes.
The Story surrounding the production of the King James Version is fascinating, and we have just touched the tip of the iceberg here. For more see one of the following:
Alister McGrath, In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture (Anchor Books, 2002).
Adam Nicolson, God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (Harper, 2003).
Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible (Baker Academic, 1999).
Next time we will deal with the question: "Why are some passages from the KJV left out of our modern translations?" (Hint: it has to do with the manuscripts behind each)