Arthur Middleton on the creation of the Authorised Version of the Bible and its popularity through the centuries

Four hundred years ago in 1611 an English translation of the Bible was undertaken that came to be known as the Authorised Version or the King James Version. Though superseded by modern translations it continues to be revered for its poetical expressions and the inspiring tone of its language. Though Elizabeth I had died before it was published its Elizabethan English is regarded as the most beautiful sounding language. The translation was commissioned by King James who succeeded Elizabeth.

There were a number of English translations in circulation – the Geneva Bible, the Bishops’ Bible, the Great Bible, the Tyndale Bible and the Coverdale Bible were in use but had not been revised nor reprinted for many years. King James thought the time ripe for a new translation, without notes, to replace the Geneva Bible that he hated.

Shortly after becoming King of England, James organized a conference of churchmen and theologians at Hampton Court ‘for the hearing, and for the determining, things pretended to be amiss in the Church’. From the Hampton Court conference in January of 1604 came a resolution that a new translation should be made of

the whole Bible that was to be as close to the original Hebrew and Greek as possible. This new Bible would be used as the Church’s approved text. In the aftermath of the Reformation the mood was to recapture the true meaning of Scripture. Another factor that interested James was the resurgence of scholarship emerging during the Renaissance.

King James himself was prominent in organizing the work of translation. Six panels of translators, totalling fifty-four, divided up the work between them; the Old Testament was entrusted to three panels, the New Testament to two, and the Apocrypha to one. The qualifications of the translators and the guidelines ensured the best revision possible at the time. Old ecclesiastical terms were retained (‘church’ and not ‘congregation’, for example) and marginal notes were used to explain Hebrew and Greek words and cross-reference parallel passages. The existing chapter and verse divisions were retained, and new headings were to be supplied for the chapters.

Textual sources used were the Complutensian Polygot of 1517, and the Antwerp Polygot, 1569–72. These gave the Hebrew and Greek texts with versions in other languages added.

There was the Latin Vulgate, some fragments of early Church scrolls, the commentaries of the early Church Fathers, especially John Chrysostom, whose works Sir Henry Saville was editing, and there was the work of the Geneva scholar Theodore Beza (1519–1605). The outcome was not a literal translation from the Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, but an editing of the Geneva Bible (20%) and the Bishops’ Bible (80%) with the more difficult passages translated from the original, with a cutting and pasting from the other sources.

When the translation was complete, a concluding committee of twelve reviewed it and Bishop Thomas Bilson and Dr Miles Smith refined it. By 1609 the whole revision was ready for publication. There is no record of an official authorization of what became known as the King James Version and termed the authorized King James Version. It went through fifteen printings in the first three years. Many disagreed with its translation so that translators were forced to revise several time. The authorized version came in 1611. It took until 1662 before it was in churches. From its unpopular beginning it has grown exceedingly popular over the centuries, becoming a treasure of poetic prose.

Its impact on writers of distinction has been enormous. In our own day T.S. Eliot is an example: ‘the impact of the nobility and precision of speech of the King James Bible on Eliot’s poetry may be seen in numerous borrowings from it, of which the following from Four Quartets are representative of the ways in which he could incorporate that prose language and rhythm into his verse: ‘To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die … a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh…’ (Ecclesiastes 3:1-4)’ [Barry Spurr, ‘Anglo-Catholic in Religion’: T.S. Eliot and Christianity]. ND