King James I of England 1621

An image of King James I of England 1621

In May 1601, King James VI of Scotland attended the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland at St. Columba's Church in Burntisland, Fife, at which proposals were put forward for a new translation of the Bible into English. Two years later, he acceded to the throne of England as King James I of England.

The Authorized Version was first conceived at the Hampton Court Conference, which the new king convened in January 1604, in response to the problems posed by Puritans in the Millenary Petition. According to an eyewitness account, Dr John Rainolds "moved his majesty that there might be a new translation of the Bible, because those which were allowed in the reign of King Henry the Eighth and Edward the Sixth were corrupt and not answerable to the truth of the original."

Rainolds offered three examples of problems with the versions then most commonly used in church: "First, Galatians iv. 25 (from the Bishops' Bible). The Greek word susoichei is not well translated as now it is, bordereth neither expressing the force of the word, nor the apostles sense, nor the situation of the place. Secondly, psalm cv. 28 (from the Great Bible), 'They were not obedient;' the original being, 'They were not disobedient.' Thirdly, psalm cvi. 30 (also from the Great Bible), 'Then stood up Phinees and prayed,' the Hebrew hath, 'executed judgment.'

King James proposed that a new translation be commissioned to settle the controversies; he hoped a new translation would replace the Geneva Bible and its offensive notes in the popular esteem. After the Bishop of London added a qualification that no marginal notes were to be added to Rainolds' new Bible, the king cited two passages in the Geneva translation where he found the notes offensive; Exodus 1:17, where the Geneva Bible had commended the example of civil disobedience showed by the Hebrew midwives; and also II Chronicles 15:16, where the Geneva Bible had criticised King Asa for not having executed his idolatrous mother, Queen Maachah. James believed – with good reason – that the Geneva Bible notes on this latter scriptural passage had been instrumental in promoting the death of his own mother Mary Queen of Scots. King James gave the translators instructions, which were designed to discourage polemical notes, and to guarantee that the new version would conform to the ecclesiology of the Church of England.

King James' instructions included requirements that:

1. The ordinary Bible, read in the church, commonly called the Bishops' Bible, to be followed, and as little altered as the original will permit....

2. The names of the prophets, and the holy writers, with the other names in the text, to be retained, as near as may be, accordingly as they are vulgarly used.

3. The old ecclesiastical words to be kept; as the word church, not to be translated congregation, &c.

4. When any word hath divers significations, that to be kept which has been most commonly used by the most eminent fathers, being agreeable to the propriety of the place, and the analogy of the faith....

5. No marginal notes at all to be affixed, but only for the explanation of the Hebrew or Greek words, which cannot, without some circumlocution, so briefly and fitly be expressed in the text.

6. Such quotations of places to be marginally set down, as shall serve for the fit references of one scripture to another....

7. These translations to be used when they agree better with the text than the Bishops' Bible, viz. Tyndale Bible, Coverdale Bible, Matthew's Bible, Great Bible, Geneva Bible. (Influence from Taverner's Bible and the New Testament of the Douai–Rheims Bible can also be detected, but the Douai Old Testament was published too late to have any effect.)

King James' instructions made it clear that he wanted the resulting translation to contain a minimum of controversial notes and apparatus; and that he wanted the episcopal structure of the Established Church, and traditional beliefs about an ordained clergy to be reflected in the new translation. The instructions did not state, but James clearly implied, that the translation should accord with Anglican exegisis in support of the Divine Right of Kings. His order directed the translators to revise the Bishop's Bible, comparing other named English versions. It is for this reason that the flyleaves of most printings of the King James Bible observe that the text had been "translated out of the original tongues, and with the former translations diligently compared and revised (by His Majesty's special command.)"

The Authorized Version was translated by 47 scholars, although 54 were originally approved, working in six committees, two based in each of the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, and Westminster. All except one – Sir Henry Savile – were ordained priests of the Church of England, but the panels included scholars with Puritan sympathies, as well as High Churchmen. Forty unbound copies of the 1602 edition of the Bishops' Bible were specially printed so that the agreed changes of each committee could be recorded in the margins. They worked on certain parts separately; then the drafts produced by each committee were compared and revised for harmony with each other. The scholars were not paid directly for their translation work; instead a circular letter was sent to bishops,, encouraging them to consider the translators for appointment to well paid livings as these fell vacant. Several were supported by the various colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, while others were promoted to bishoprics, deaneries and prebends through royal patronage. In overall scope and scale – and in the thorough application of procedures for checking, cross–consulting and review – this was far the most ambitious biblical translation project undertaken in Europe in the Reformation era.

First Westminster Company, translating from Genesis to 2 Kings:

Lancelot Andrewes,
John Overall,
Hadrian Saravia,
Richard Clarke,
John Layfield,
Robert Tighe,
Francis Burleigh,
Geoffrey King,
Richard Thomson,
William Bedwell;

First Cambridge Company, translated from 1 Chronicles to the Song of Solomon:

Edward Lively,
John Richardson,
Lawrence Chaderton,
Francis Dillingham,
Roger Andrewes,
Thomas Harrison,
Robert Spaulding,
Andrew Bing;

First Oxford Company, translated from Isaiah to Malachi:

John Harding,
John Rainolds (or Reynolds),
Thomas Holland,
Richard Kilby,
Miles Smith,
Richard Brett,
Daniel Fairclough;

Second Oxford Company, translated the Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, and the Book of Revelation:

Thomas Ravis,
George Abbot,
Richard Eedes,
Giles Tomson,
Sir Henry Savile,
John Peryn,
Ralph Ravens,
John Harmar;

Second Westminster Company, translated the Epistles:

William Barlow,
John Spenser,
Roger Fenton,
Ralph Hutchinson,
William Dakins,
Michael Rabbet,
Thomas Sanderson;

Second Cambridge Company, translated the Apocrypha:

John Duport,
William Branthwaite,
Jeremiah Radcliffe,
Samuel Ward,
Andrew Downes,
John Bois,
John Ward,
John Aglionby,
Leonard Hutten,
Thomas Bilson,
Richard Bancroft.

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