In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word gave life to everything that was created.
In 1604, King James I of England, Ireland and Scotland commissioned a team of scholars to change the word, and produce a new translation of the English Bible. The resulting manuscript, titled, “THE HOLY BIBLE, Containing the Old Testament, AND THE NEW: Newly Translated out of the Original tongues: & with the former Translations diligently compared and revised, by his Majesties special Commandment,” has come to be known as the King James Bible.
2011 marks the quadricentennial of the King James Bible, and in April, Penn’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library observed the occasion with the exhibit “Translation Necessarie: The King James Bible at 400.”
Penn actually holds a first edition of the King James Bible. “It’s a massive folio volume and an enormous book,” says John Pollack, a library specialist at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library. “Just lifting it is a workout.”
Pollack says King James had political reasons for ordering a new translation of the Bible. He describes the King James Bible as a “state-sponsored project,” funded and organized by the government in an attempt to unify people of differing Christian beliefs.
“It was printed for the king,” he says. “It’s not for nothing that it’s nicknamed the King James Bible. And that’s, of course, just a nickname.”
Brooke Palmieri, curator of the exhibit and a 2009 Penn alumna, says King James sought to create political unity within his kingdom with his assented version. Previous English translations, the king believed, had posed a threat to the stability of the monarchy.
For his 1534 translation, “The New Testament, Dylygently Corrected and Compared with the Greke,” William Tyndale, the first scholar to produce English translations from Hebrew, Greek and Latin, was strangled and burned for heresy. His dying words were, “Lord, ope[n] the King of England’s eyes!”
A later translation, printed in 1560, with the title “The Bible, that is, the Holy Scriptures conteined in the Olde and Newe Testament,” also known as the Geneva Bible, was a favorite among dissidents, including Puritans who brought it to the New World.
“The Geneva Bible includes commentary that is quite anti-monarchical,” Palmieri says. “These were the translations produced on a controversial, grassroots level that became elevated to standards in England, so it was logical for James to replace them with a standard issued from above that also happened to be free of over-editorializing about the monarchy.”
David McKnight, director of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, says the King James Bible was intended to supersede earlier translations of the Bible, specifically the Geneva Bible.
“It was prescribed for use within the Church of England—the official state church rivaling the Pope and the Catholic Church,” he says.
The scholars King James appointed to translate the Bible—biblical experts and religious figures—began their work in 1604. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the Bishops’ Bible of 1568 was the text they used as a foundation, and “was not to be altered except where this was necessary for the removal of lexical or theological errors.”
Ironically, Tyndale’s controversial translation, for which he was killed, was also consulted. The final proof of the King James version was corrected and agreed upon at Stationers’ Hall in London in 1610.
Palmieri says that while King James, a religious man, had final say over his version, he remained fairly hands-off during the translation process.
“But let us not forget to what extent he grafted his religion onto his politics,” she says. “His writings on the divine right of kings, and the way in which that influenced his policies, really impacted the entire course of English history and especially the conflicts with Parliament among later monarchs that led to the English Civil War.”
Richard Bancroft, the archbishop of Canterbury and chief overseer of the entire King James Bible project, was the last person to read and approve the translation.
The King James Bible is still widely used in the 21st century. Other translations have emerged but there are believers and scholars who insist that the King James translation is the best that has ever been made, and the only authorized version.
Pollack says the “government-sponsored impetus” to make the translation succeed is a factor in its longevity. “Many people adopted it because that was the law, essentially,” he says. “But it also is a translation that many people find beautiful and it has continued to have a great deal of appeal, whatever your politics.”
Palmieri says the historical record also works in its favor. “We know that it was translated by the leading scholars of Hebrew, Latin and Greek of its day, and we also retain the primary texts that they worked from to produce their translation, so it’s possible to check their work even today.”
The exhibit was on display in the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center lobby only through April, but is still available for viewing online at www.library.upenn.edu/exhibits/rbm/kjb.
Those wishing to view Penn’s first edition of the King James Bible can do so online at the Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text and Image (sceti.library.upenn.edu), or in person, upon request, in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library’s Reading Room. Penn also has editions of the Geneva Bible and Tyndale’s translation.
Originally published on May 5, 2011