Editor’s Note: The CLC is pleased to publish the online version of the “Edwards Epistle,” a longstanding quarterly letter providing the reflections of Dr. James R. Edwards, Bruner-Welch Professor of Theology at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. Readers are invited also to subscribe to the print edition by contacting Phil Olson.
Those who Stand on the Shoulders of Giants Cast a Long Shadow
The Four Hundredth Anniversary of the King James Bible
James R. Edwards
2011 marked the quartercentenary—the four-hundredth anniversary—of the publication of King James Version (KJV). I would like to dedicate this double-edition of the Epistle to that remarkable achievement.
Let me begin with two preliminary remarks. It is often assumed that KJV was the first translation of the Bible into English. That is not the case. That distinction belongs to John Wyclif’s English translation of approximately 1380, which antedated KJV by some 230 years. Following Wyclif, seven major English translations appeared, all made from the original Hebrew (and Aramaic) and Greek. There were thus no fewer than eight major English translations that preceded KJV. Second, KJV is often considered the first translation of the Bible into a European vernacular. That is not true either, although it is not as untrue as the previous misconception. KJV did precede vernacular translations into French (1644), Dutch (1648), and Spanish and Italian (both 18th century). But the Germans preempted KJV by almost a century. Ninety years before KJV, in 1522 Martin Luther published his German NT. This was followed by the Swiss, who in 1529 translated the entire Bible into German in Zurich; and then by the German Lutherans with their complete translation of the Luther Bible in 1534.
Looking back on the past four centuries, it may seem that the “Authorized Version,” as it is known in England, was destined to exert the influence on the English-speaking world that it did. There were a number of exceptionally good English translations before it, however, and the viability of KJV was not guaranteed, and its eventual supremacy even less so. Why, then, did the star of the KJV rise so brightly, and to such a degree, that the lights of its predecessors faded into the darkness? Two reasons—not the only two, but certainly two of the most important—emerge. First, KJV consciously built upon the successes of its predecessors, recognizing the outstanding merits of each, incorporating them organically and graciously into its own achievement, thus making, in the words of its introduction, “a good [translation] better, or out of many good ones one principal good one.” Second, unlike its predecessors, KJV was a large—what today we would call an “interdisciplinary”—endeavor involving a scholarly community of clerics, professors, writers, and linguists whose mastery of Greek and Hebrew vastly exceeded the proficiency in the same of all English predecessors.
Style and scholarship, then, contributed to the greatness of the KJV, and I wish to speak briefly to both. As a scholarly endeavor the KJV project was a unique historical phenomenon. From the outset the project was overseen and influenced throughout by James I, king of England from 1603-25. The association of James I with the KJV has polished his name with a patina that was otherwise absent from his unpopular reign. His hostility to Puritans, sale of political offices, insistence on the divine right of kings, and shocking personal morals compromised his reputation and effectiveness as monarch. Within a year of his accession to the throne, however, he did the one thing that, from the perspective of history, would compensate for all his failings and establish his enduring fame in the English-speaking world. In July of 1604 he summoned a committee to Hampton Court to prepare an “authorized” translation of the Bible for all England. James I convened all its meetings, prepared its guidelines, chose reputable translators and secretaries, oversaw the translation process, and financed the entire project. In the dedicatory epistle to the KJV the translators “forcibly” acknowledge their gratitude to his sovereign Majesty, King James I.
The “king’s professors” numbered fifty-four translators all tolled. They were divided into six groups, nine per group, two groups each in Oxford, Cambridge, and Westminster Abbey (London). Three groups tackled the OT (Westminster: Genesis-2 Kings; Cambridge: 1 Chronicles-Song of Solomon; Oxford: Isaiah-Malachi), two the NT (Oxford: Gospels, Acts, Revelation; Westminster: Romans-Jude), and one the Apocrypha (Cambridge). I am aware of no other endeavor of religious scholarship in modern history (an ancient counterpart might be the translation of the Septuagint in the third century B.C.) that rivals the production of KJV. Its scale reminds one of the effort to crack the Enigma at Bletchley Park during WWII, or the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos to develop an atomic bomb. What a contrast to poor Luther perched in his Wartburg aerie with a bounty on his head, disguised as Junker Georg, fearing for his life, wracked with constipation and shivering in an unheated cell, translating the Greek NT into German for the first time in virtual solitary confinement!
KJV translators proudly translated from the fresh “Hebrew fountain” and clear “Greek stream,” to use their words, rather than from the “muddy” Latin Vulgate. In the 16th and 17th centuries Hebrew scholarship was emerging with the force of puberty from centuries of neglect in the west. The OT translators included stellar scholars for the day: Miles Smith, John Reynolds, Thomas Harrison, and above all Lancelot Andrewes, translator preeminent, who was proficient in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, and Syriac. In addition, he was reputed to have mastered fifteen modern languages. The Hebraic proficiency of the OT team included not only knowledge of the OT in the original, but also of medieval Jewish exegesis and grammar as represented in the twelfth century Jewish scholar David Kimchi. The Hebrew text on which the KJV translators relied was the Leningrad codex. Produced sometime around the year A.D. 1000, Codex Leningrad was not ancient, but it was very reliable, indeed the most reliable Hebrew manuscript available to the KJV translators and to all Bible translators until the discovery of the Dead Scrolls in the late 1940s. Codex Leningrad, although supplemented today by the Scrolls, still remains the major Hebrew manuscript for OT translation.
Finding good Hellenists to translate the Greek New Testament was not nearly as noteworthy or difficult as finding good Hebraists to translate the Old, for virtually all educated Englishmen knew Greek; and as for Latin, well, “in the Latin we have been exercised almost from our very cradle,” the translators casually inform us. From a textual perspective, however, the NT teams were not as fortunate as the OT teams. The particular text at their disposal was prepared in 1588 by Theodore Beza, a friend and successor of John Calvin in Geneva. Beza’s text was in all essentials the same as that of his famous predecessor, Desiderius Erasmus, who in 1516 published the first Greek text of the NT in Basel, Switzerland. Erasmus was the Titan of Renaissance humanist scholars north of the Alps, but his Greek NT, although destined to dominate NT studies for four centuries, even by standards of that day still left much to be desired. Roman Catholics in Spain were working on their own Greek text, scheduled for publication in 1517. Erasmus conspired to preempt the by publishing his Greek NT a year earlier in 1516. That Erasmus’s text would achieve the distinction of the Textus Receptus, the “received text,” is one of history’s curious anomalies. It was, in fact, a “debased” text, the result of a publish-or-perish endeavor that relied primarily on a half-dozen “late and haphazard” manuscripts. The problem was not that Erasmus did not have good Greek manuscripts at his disposal. He had several manuscripts of superior quality, but their differences from his trusted half-dozen rowdy manuscripts caused him to dismiss them in suspicion.
Here are two defects of the Textus Receptus that were reproduced in KJV. For the book of Revelation Erasmus had but a single Greek manuscript, dating to the twelfth century, which was missing the last six verses of the book. Erasmus compensated for this defect by translating the Latin Vulgate into Greek. The result? The last six verses of Erasmus’s Greek NT, on which KJV are based, present text unknown in any Greek manuscript. Erasmus also included a spurious passage in 1 John 5:7-8 on the Trinity. The KJV, again relying on Erasmus’s text, includes this passage (“For there are three that bear witness in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one”). Like the end of Revelation, 1 John 5:7-8 is not present in any reputable NT Greek manuscript. Nevertheless, despite its faults Erasmus’ Greek NT marked a quantum leap forward for Bible translation. The Greek text of the NT had been wholly lost to Western Christianity for nearly a thousand years until the publication of Erasmus’s Greek NT in 1516. The Textus Receptus, vulnerable though it was to criticism, represented the first fruits of the passion ad fontes, “back to the original sources.”
Two additional points deserve mention regarding KJV scholarship, both of which, unusual for the time, anticipate modern scholarship. First, the occurrence of the same Hebrew or Greek word was not always rendered with the same English word each time it was translated. KJV translators were sensitive to the significance of context in the meaning of words, and they translated words according to their contextual meaning as well as dictionary definition, avoiding “the scrupulosity of the Puritans” (read: Geneva Bible), and shunning “the obscurity of the Papists” (read: Rheims), so “that the Scripture may speak like itself, as in the language of Canaan, that it may be understood even of the very vulgar. . . . Indeed, without translation into the vulgar tongue, the unlearned are but like children at Jacob’s well (which was deep) without a bucket or something to draw with.” Second, the translators were ruthless in revising their work not just once or twice, but “seventy times seven” they assure us, “bringing back to the anvil that which we had hammered” in order to find the right word or phrase. The authors of Manifold Greatness place a crown of laurel leaves on the heads of KJV translators: “The translators’ grasp of their sources may not always have been perfect, but we can only be awed by the breadth of their learning and the comprehensiveness of the resources available to them.”
KJV built upon the foundation laid by seven prior English translations based on Hebrew and Greek originals. They were the Tyndale (ca. 1530), Coverdale (1535), Matthews (1537), Great Bible (1539), Geneva (1560), Bishop’s Bible (1568), and Douay-Rheims (1582). All but Geneva and Douay-Rheims were greater or lesser revisions of Tyndale. Capitalizing on the near century-long tradition of revising Tyndale, KJV translators make the Bishops’ Bible, the capstone of the Tyndale tradition, their base text of translation which they compared critically with its three most important predecessors: Tyndale’s original translation, Geneva, and Rheims.
Tyndale was the most important of the three. When William Tyndale began his translation of the NT into English in the mid-1520s there had been a ban on either translating or publishing an English Bible since the condemnation of Wyclif’s English translation in 1409. The ban was capital, that is, one violated it at the cost of one’s life. The study of theology today is not normally considered a high risk endeavor, but in Tyndale’s day it was. Translators of three KJV predecessor versions would be sentenced to death by burning at the stake, other translators and publishers paid lesser though costly penalties, and confiscated English Bibles were regularly publicly burned during the ban.
Tyndale’s methodology was modeled throughout on Martin Luther’s, who sought to render the Bible in a German understandable to the milkmaid in the kitchen and ploughboy in the field. Tyndale published a homely and racy English NT in 1526, followed by portions of the OT in the early 1530s. Due to the English translation ban, Tyndale’s edition was produced in Worms, Germany, and smuggled illegally into England. Like Luther, Tyndale sought to divest the Bible of a hierarchal ecclesiology, and his translation reflected that commitment. Ekkle̅sia was rendered “congregation” rather than “church”; presbyter “senior” rather than “elder”; baptismos “washing” rather than “baptism,” ko̅me̅, “shire” rather than “town”; charis “favor” rather than “grace.” Tyndale also opposed English political tyranny, and his translation reflected that commitment as well, calling Pharaoh and King Nebuchadnezzar “tyrants.” These particular innovations did not find their way into the KJV, but many unforgettable words and phrases did. Memorable KJV vocabulary such as shewbread, passover, long-suffering, scapegoat, the Lord’s anointed, flowing with milk and honey, In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth, Let there be light, In the beginning God created the Word, filthy lucre, Jehovah, and many more all derived from Tyndale. The KJV debt to Tyndale is so great that it could appear as wholesale plagiarism. William Tyndale’s biographer, David Daniell, bluntly declares that “Nine-tenths of the Authorized Version’s New Testament is Tyndale’s.”
Tyndale was also the father of the annotated Bible with the “helps” (footnotes, cross references, glosses, short commentaries) that are common in most Bibles today. Most of Tyndale’s comments intended to clarify difficult passages, but some took pot shots at Catholics. At Numbers 23:8, “How shall I curse whom God curseth not?” Tyndale commented, “The pope can tell how.” The Douay-Rheims version later produced by Catholics would return fire in their notes against Protestants. KJV would not follow Tyndale’s annotations, ultimately deciding to limit marginal notes to explanations of Greek and Hebrew words. Tyndale’s narrative portions are without superior, even in comparison with KJV. He rendered—and was the first to render—the “spoken English of his day a fit vehicle for the communication of Holy Scripture and determined the fundamental character of most of the subsequent versions.” Ten years after Tyndale published his English NT, but before he could complete the OT, he was arrested and imprisoned in Brussels for sixteen months, then strangled and burned at the stake. John Rogers, Tyndale’s protégé and anonymous translator-editor of the Matthews’ Bible, would suffer the same fate under “Bloody” Mary I twenty years later.
A second important source of KJV was the Geneva Bible of 1560. Both Tyndale and Geneva, to quote C. S. Lewis, “towered head and shoulders above all other” predecessor translations. Produced by Calvinist exiles led by John Knox, the Geneva Bible was the first English Bible with an appearance familiar to the eye of Bible readers today. It was printed in Roman rather than Gothic type, it italicized words not present in the original Greek and Hebrew, it signified paragraph divisions by ¶, supplied subtitles, headnotes, brief annotations, and most important, was the first English Bible divided into numbered verses. All these innovations were retained in KJV. Geneva acquired a nickname, the “Breeches Bible,” derived from its translation of Genesis 3:7, “Then the eyes of [Adam and Eve] were opened, and they knewe that they were naked, and they sewed figge tree leaues together, and made them selues breeches.” This overly-colloquial rendering should not negatively influence one’s judgment of Geneva, for its scholarship was superlative, especially its Hebrew proficiency, and preface and notes, which for the most part were translations of the same in John Calvin’s French Bible. KJV translators made ample use of Geneva’s most memorable phrases, as they had of Tyndale’s. Smite them hip and thigh; vanity of vanities; except a man be born again; comfort ye, comfort ye my people; cloud of witnesses; a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump; in a glass darkly, the government will be upon his shoulders, and a host of others reappear verbatim in KJV. The Geneva Bible was the Bible brought to America on the Mayflower. Had KJV not been produced, Geneva would probably have become the heir apparent English Bible.
The third influence on KJV came from an unexpected source for the day, the English Roman Catholic translation known as Douay-Rheims (1582). Rheims was translated from the Vulgate, but its translators consulted the Hebrew and Greek originals throughout the translation process, so it too can claim contact with original sources. Rheims was a more literal translation than either Tyndale or Geneva, and also, as might be expected of a Catholic effort, more consciously Latinized. Words like verity rather than truth, benignity rather than kindness, justice rather than righteousness, longanimity rather than patience, and dominion rather than power, all appear in the KJV and endow its homely language with an appropriate solemnity. The influence of Rheims is especially significant in Paul, as seen in the following: “Christ being raised from the dead, dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him” (Rom 6:9). KJV translators as a rule sought for “simplicity and integrity,” but here they wisely adopted “dominion” here over “power” (so Tyndale, Geneva, and others), endowing Paul not simply with integrity, but with appropriate gravitas.
KJV did not immediately supersede and supplant its predecessors in 1611. Particularly the Geneva Bible retained a foothold in English usage. That foothold was reduced to a toehold by mid-seventeenth century, however, and by 1700 it had lost its grip on the British public. Within fifty years of its publication, the victory of KJV was “so complete that its text acquired a sanctity properly ascribable only to the unmediated voice of God; to multitudes of English speaking Christians it has seemed little less than blasphemy to tamper with the words of the King James Version.” One example of that intolerance occurred in the early 1950s when the Revised Standard Version committee received a tin can full of ashes in the mail. The ashes were those of the RSV—and happily not its translators—which an irate pastor who loved his KJV and who imagined the RSV to be “a heretical and communist-inspired Bible” had incinerated with a blow torch in a Sunday morning church service.
KJV prevailed not by burning its predecessors, but by learning from them and excelling them. Allow me to close with the testimony of the KJV translators to their endeavor. They acknowledge with gratitude the “labours that travelled before us, for they deserve to be had of us and of posterity in everlasting remembrance.” “Nothing is begun and perfected at the same time: so, if we building upon their foundation that went before us, and being holpen by their labours, do endeavour to make that better which they left so good; . . . we persuade ourselves, if they were alive, would thank us.” (That phrase was crafted after Hebrews 11:40, that God ordained that our predecessors would not be perfected apart from us.) “Truly, good Christian Reader, we never thought from the beginning that we should need to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one, but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones one principal good one.” And finally, this quintessential sentence in justification of their translation effort: “Now if this cost may be bestowed upon the gourd, which affordeth us a little shade, and which to day flourisheth, but to morrow is cut down; what may we bestow, nay, what ought we not to bestow, upon the vine, the fruit wherof maketh glad the conscience of man, and the stem wherof abideth for ever?” In one sentence four different Scripture images are woven seamlessly together: the gourd from Jonah 4, the grass that flourishes today and is burned tomorrow from the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6), the making glad of the conscience of man (Ps 46, and the true vine that abides forever (John 15). The long immersion in the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, in the English translations of Tyndale, Coverdale, Matthews, Great Bible, Bishops’ Bible, Geneva, and Rheims, transformed the diction, minds, and hearts of the KJV translators themselves.
This, indeed, is what the translators hope will happen to the readers of the KJV. “The king’s professors” labored faithfully in scholarship and style, but they labored even more faithfully in piety—and for the piety of their readers. In the final paragraph of the preface they speak to this hope, with which I close: “Gentle Reader . . . . It remaineth that we commend thee to God, and to the Spirit of his grace, which is able to build further than we can ask or think. He removeth the scales from our eyes, the vail from our hearts, opening our wits that we may understand his word, enlarging our hearts, yea, correcting our affections, that we may love it above gold and silver, yea, that we may love it to the end.”
 Uncredited quotations are taken from the preface to the 1611 King James Version, entitled, “The Translators to the Reader.”
 Gareth L. Jones, Helen Moore, and Julian Reid, Manifold Greatness. The Making of the King James Bible, eds. H. Moore and J. Reid (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2011), 93-94.
 Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament. Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (New York: Oxford, 1964), 103, 105.
 Manifold Greatness, 103.
 D. Daniell, William Tyndale. A Biography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 1; cited in Manifold Destiny, 28.
 S. L. Greenslade, The Cambridge History of the Bible (Cambridge: University Press, 1976), 3.144-45.
 C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954), 211.
 S. L. Greenslade, The Cambridge History of the Bible, 3.168.
 Bruce M. Metzger, Reminiscences of an Octogenarian (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1977), 78-79.