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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
I Samuel 21:9 KJV 1611
Early in the morning of March 24, 1603, England's Queen, Elizabeth I, died at Richmond Palace. Her 45-year reign was over. To thwart those who would seek to seize the throne, she had refused to name her successor. Then only hours before her death she told Sir Robert Cecil, her principal Secretary of State, "... a king shall succeed me; and who should that be but our cousin of Scotland?"
As James, Elizabeth's "cousin of Scotland," journeyed to London, the Puritans—those who wanted to "purify" or simplify the liturgy and government of the Church of England, presented him with the "Millenary Petition."
The petition reflected the concerns of close to a thousand who held Puritan views, one-tenth of all the clergy of the Church of England. It asked that the sign of the cross be abolished in baptism, the use of a ring be dropped from the marriage ceremony, and that the wearing of a cap and surplice —the loose-fitting white gown worn by some of the clergy—be made optional.
Other more demanding Puritan petitions followed. "The fantastical giddy-headed Puritans are very eager that they may be heard," wrote the Archbishop of York. In response to these petitions, James called churchmen and theologians to meet on January 14, 1604, at Hampton Court Palace, "for the hearing, and for the determining, things pretended to be amiss in the Church."
John Whitgift, the aging Archbishop of Canterbury, with eight bishops of the Church, eight deans of the Church's principal cathedrals, and two doctors of divinity represented the traditionalists of the Church of England at that meeting.
James and his advisers had invited only four representatives of the reform-minded Puritan element of the Church: the learned John Rainolds, President of Corpus Christi College at Oxford, who was to become the father of the King James Bible, Laurence Chaderton of Oxford, John Knewstubs, and Thomas Sparke.
The Puritans were not asked to join the conference until the second day. As the day began. Dr. Rainolds spoke firmly of the Puritan concerns, questioning some of the procedures of the Church. At one point, Bancroft, the Bishop of London, retorted angrily to one of Rainolds' complaints, "Schismatics are not to be heard when they speak against bishops." Throughout the day, this kind of crossfire increased.
At one point, tired of the seemingly small matters raised by the Puritans, James said to Dr. Rainolds, "If these are the greatest matters you are grieved with, I need not have been troubled with such importunities and complaints ... some other more private course might have been taken for your satisfaction."
As the day wore on, Rainolds opposed "the Communion [prayer] book, since it maintained the Bible as it was there translated [in the Great Bible], which was ... a most corrupted translation."
A New Translation Proposed
Then almost in an aside, Rainolds "moved his Majestie, that there might bee a newe translation of the Bible, because those which were allowed in the raignes of Henrie the eight, and Edward the sixt, were corrupt and not aunswerable to the truth of the Originall." [As copied from the book]
Bancroft, soon to be the Archbishop of Canterbury, retorted, "If every man's humor were followed, there would be no end of translating."
But James had begun to weigh Rainhold's idea. To all those present he observed, "I could never yet see a Bible well translated in English; but I think that, of all, that of Geneva is the worst."
James had used the Geneva Bible since he was a child in Scotland. When he studied the Bible, it was "that of Geneva" that he read. But he made it clear that it was the notes in the Geneva Bible that troubled him. Some of them, he said, were "very partial, untrue, seditious and savouring too much of dangerous and traitorous conceits."
Then he added, "I wish some special pains were taken for an uniform translation, which should be done by the most learned men in both Universities, then reviewed by the Bishops, presented to the Privy Council, lastly reviewed by Royal authority, to be read in the whole Church, and none other."
A Bible Without Notes
Bancroft, seeing the King's intent, now urged that if there was to be a new translation, it should be made without notes, and James quickly agreed.
The next day the King met with his ministers and bishops. Almost none of the matters raised by the Puritans were resolved. But one action has marked the Hampton Court Conference in Christian history. It was moved:
"That a translation be made of the whole Bible, as consonant as can be to the original Hebrew and Greek; and this to be set out and printed, without any marginal notes, and only to be used in all Churches of England in time of divine service."
To help with the translation, the King instructed his advisers to look for those "who had taken pains in their private study of the Scripture." In all, forty-seven men were selected, "all our principal learned men within [the] kingdom."
In the lengthy preface to the King James Version, Miles Smith wrote, "And in what sort did these assemble? In the trust of their own knowledge, or of their sharpness of wit, or deepness of judgement, as it were in an arm of flesh? At no hand.
They trusted in him that hath the key of David, opening, and no man shutting; they prayed to the Lord. the Father of our Lord, to the effect that St. Augustine did; 'O let thy Scriptures be my pure delight; let me not be deceived in them, neither let me deceive by them.' In this confidence, and with this devotion, did they assemble together; not too many, lest one should trouble another; and yet many, lest many things haply might escape them."
The scholars were divided into six companies to meet at Cambridge and Oxford University and at Westminster.
Rules to Guide Them
For three years, from 1604 to 1606, each man worked privately on the chapters assigned to him, guided by fifteen specific rules which had most likely been drawn up by Bancroft and approved by King James. Some of the most important rules were that the Bishops' Bible was "to be followed and as little altered as the truth of the original will permit, ... no marginal notes at all to be affixed, but only for the explanation of Greek or Hebrew words" or for providing cross-references; "these translations to be used when they agree better with the text than the Bishops' Bible— Tyndale's, Matthew's, Coverdale's, Whitchurch's [Great Bible], Geneva."
The first King James Versions were printed in a type style very much like Old English script. The translators chose to indicate in a Roman typeface (a typeface similar to that used in today's Bibles) words necessary to complete the sense which were not in the original language.
The same portion of Scripture was translated by each of the men of the company to which that portion had been assigned. Then each man's work was carefully compared with that of the others in his company. When a book was completed in this fashion. it was sent to the other companies for review and suggestions. The meetings of the six companies took another three years, from 1607 to 1609. Suggestions from the individual companies were resolved by "the chief persons of each company at the end of the work."
The Translators' Resources
The King's translators had a rich array of other translations and texts to assist them in their work. While they were instructed that the Bishops' Bible was "to be as little altered as the truth of the Original will permit," it has been estimated that only about four percent of the King James Version is, in fact, drawn from the Bishops' Bible.
It was as if two other men—William Tyndale and Bishop Miles Coverdale—sat around the study tables of Westminster, Cambridge, and Oxford. Over ninety percent of the language of the King's New Testament is the language of Tyndale. And everywhere is the mark of "that consummate master of rhythmical prose," Miles Coverdale. And this was to be expected, for these two men had deeply influenced virtually every other English Bible used by the translators in their new work.
Weighing Each Word
Slowly, carefully, the translators examined the Bible text, weighing each word before writing it down, digging ever deeper to ascertain the true meaning of the original languages.
Miles Smith, speaking for his fellow translators, stated that they did not "disdain to revise that which we had done, and to bring back to the anvil that which (they) had hammered; but having and using as great helps as were needful, and fearing no reproach for slowness, nor caviling praise for expedition, we have at length, through the good hand of the Lord upon us, brought the work to the pass that you see."
When all the books had been translated and the translations circulated, two "chief persons of each company" met daily at Stationers' Hall in London. Here they carefully considered the completed work of each of the companies.
As they worked together, "that part of the Bible was given to him who was most excellent in such a tongue, and then they met together, and one read the translation, the rest holding in their hands some Bible, either of the learned tongues, or French, Spanish, Italian, etc. If they found any fault they spoke; if not, he read on."
Thomas Bilson, the Bishop of Winchester, and Miles Smith of the Oxford Old Testament company put the finishing touches to the work.
Time and time again the carefully developed phrases suggested by the six final reviewers were revised still further by Bishop Bilson and Miles Smith,
Andrew Downs had suggested, for Hebrews 4:15, "such an one as had experience of all things." The King James reads, "in all points tempted like as we are."
In Hebrews 6:6, the notes taken by John Bois proposed, "caused him to be had in derision, or traduced him." The final version read "put him to an open shame."
The King James Version encouraged memorization. From the most ancient of times people have sung their history and passed it on from generation to generation in this way. The rhythmic words and the music made the stories easier to remember. The King James translators knew this, and they often wrote with a sense of rhythm, as if the words of Scripture were meant to be sung.
In Hebrews 11:3 the notes suggested "made of things which were not extant." The final revisers chose to say "Things which are seen were not made of things which do appear." The proposed language for Hebrews 13:8, "yesterday and today the same and forever," became the more rhythmic "the same yesterday and today and forever."
The sermons of Bishop Bilson and Miles Smith which have been preserved do not show this grace of language, this blend of mystery and simplicity. It must surely have been the awesome responsibility they faced and the enabling grace of the Holy Spirit that guided their final choice of language, for the version of the Bible they produced was so much more than the sum of their combined human skills.