Translators of the King James Bible
God gave His word to man in perfect form. If this was important to Him, He must also be concerned about passing that word to later generations in identically perfect form. This concern with preserving His words is seen in the call of Moses in Exodus 4:10-16. Even though Moses thought himself incapable of speaking properly, God gave two reasons for trusting in His power to inspire. First, He had made Moses’ mouth (Exodus 4:11). Certainly, He could enable it to say His words. Second, God promised, “and I will be with thy mouth, and teach thee what thou shalt say” (Exodus 4:12). That is, He will control the mouth of Moses so that the words he speaks are inspired of God.
But even with this promise, Moses questioned his ability to speak. In some anger, God told him that He would send Aaron to help Moses. God would speak to Moses, and Moses could tell Aaron, and he would speak to the people (Exodus 4:14-15). But now, getting God’s perfect words to the children of Israel and to Pharaoh became more complex. It is not enough to be with Moses’ mouth. What if Aaron heard wrong or repeated the message with errors?
God also has the answer for this. He will give His words to Moses. Then, “thou shalt speak unto him, and put words in his mouth: and I will be with thy mouth, and with his mouth” (Exodus 4:15). God will be with the mouth of Moses. That is inspiration. But Aaron did not hear the voice of God. He heard the voice of Moses. So, God promised to be with his mouth as well. That is preservation.
God’s primary concern in transmitting His word is that it arrives perfectly to the ears and hearts of His people. Some people seem to think that He is only concerned about getting a perfect on paper somewhere sometime in the past. But then, He is not really concerned that later generations should have His perfect words. He has done His part in giving a perfect word. If earlier generations lost it, then that is just too bad for us.
However, this story in Exodus shows us differently. God’s greatest concern was that His words arrived intact to the target audience. And, He was willing to do whatever was necessary to make sure that this happened. This leads us to the question of the King James translators.
The King James Translators:
Are the translators important? Can we find value in a study of their lives, beliefs, and practices? This article presupposes a positive answer to the question. But why? What biblical reasons do we have for studying the translators? Here are four reasons:
- God uses men. God has used animals to preach His message (to Balaam and to Peter). He tells us that He could as easily use stones to sing forth His praise (Luke 19:37-40). However, by His own choice, He seeks for men (Ezekiel 22:30). He will “seal” His law among His “disciples” (Isaiah 8:16). He does not seal and secure His law in animals, machines, or computers. He uses people. Therefore, the translators themselves are important.
- God uses enabled men. Paul states, “Faithful is he that calleth you, who also will do it” (1Thessalonians 5:24). God backs up His calling with His enabling power. He then supplies the needed sufficiency according to His grace (2Corinthians 9:8). If God called the King James translators to do the work of translation, He would have enabled them. Therefore, we can properly look at their abilities.
- God uses diligent men. God blesses those who have “a mind to work” (Nehemiah 4:6). He works, but expects his servants to do their work “heartily” (Colossians 3:23). Therefore, the practices and actions of the translators are a proper object of study.
- God uses holy men. God reveals “his secret unto his servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7). He may on occasion use an unholy man to prove His power. But His practice is to use holy men to convey His holy words. God’s words were given when “holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2Peter 1:21). Therefore, we may properly look at the spiritual condition of the translators, which we will speak of as their attitudes.
- THEIR ABILITIES AS ENABLED MEN – Three abilities are absolutely necessary
- Proficiency in Bible Knowledge – The translators must have a deep knowledge of the Bible they are translating. The Bible must be an open book to them.
- The England of the King James translators encouraged this knowledge. John Green in A History of England states, “England became the people of a book, and that book was the Bible.” God’s word was familiar to every Englishman. It was read both in the church and in the home. The greatest motivation for popular education was to enable the people to read the Bible for themselves. To an extent hardly ever know in any country at any time, England was saturated with the Bible. This is the England in which the translators lived and learned.
- The Bible knowledge of the translators was of those who had from childhood known the holy scriptures (2Timothy 3:15). However, they carried this dedication with them through their lives.
- They were committed to their studies of the Bible. The Preface to the King James Bible was written by Miles Smith and is called The Translators to the Readers. It states: “The Scriptures then being acknowledged to be so full and so perfect, how can we excuse ourselves of negligence, if we do not study them?”
- They were also skilled in their application of the scriptures. Consider the ample and wise use of scriptural pictures in The Translators to the Readers, “Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most holy place; that removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water, even as Jacob rolled away the stone from the mouth of the well, by which means the flocks of Laban were watered. Indeed, without translation into the vulgar tongue the unlearned are but like children at Jacob’s well (which was deep) without a bucket or some thing to draw with: or as that person mentioned by Isaiah, to whom when a sealed book was delivered with this motion, ‘Read this, I pray thee,’ he was fain to make this answer, ‘I cannot, for it is sealed.’” Only those who are mature in their understanding of the scriptures could write passages like this.
- The translators were specifically chosen because of their wisdom: “To that purpose there were many chosen that were greater in other men’s eyes than in their own, and that sought the truth rather than their own praise” (Translators to the Readers).
- Proficiency in the Languages
- Latin was universally taught. The name grammar school comes from the teaching of Latin grammar in the schools of the young. Good students commonly entered university at the age of fifteen or sixteen where proficiency in Latin was required for entrance. This only makes sense because all the classes except those teaching other languages were taught in Latin.
- Greek was usually taught in the grammar schools alongside Latin
- Hebrew was taught in a number of the grammar schools, but was certainly prominent in the universities.
- Translators to the Readers says of the translators, “Therefore such were thought upon, as could say modestly with Saint Hierome [Jerome], ‘Both we have learned the Hebrew tongue in part, and in the Latin we have been exercised almost from our very cradle.’”
- Individually – a look at individual King James translators
- Lancelot Andrews was recognized as the master of 15 languages. Each year, during a month-long summer vacation, he made it a practice to learn a new language.
- John Bois had read the Bible in Hebrew by the age of five. It was said that he could at any time turn to any word in the Greek New Testament.
- Miles Smith found Hebrew, Chaldee, Syriac, and Arabic almost as familiar as his native tongue. He was called “a very walking library” because of his extensive knowledge of history and literature. He authored the King James Preface, The Translators to the Readers.
- This kind of knowledge in the languages could be repeated in other translators. We can believe that it was the same for other translators of which we know little of their personal lives
- Proficiency in the English Language.
- At the time of the King James Bible, the English language was at a point of great maturity. English literature was at its peak with writers like William Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, John Donne, Ben Jonson, and others in their prime.
- The King James translators were accomplished students of the English language and were authors of a number of books. Their work on the Bible was certainly enabled by God.
- According to the Britannica Encyclopedia in reference to the King James translation, “The impact of the Hebrew upon the revisers was so pronounced that they seem to have made a conscious effort to imitate its rhythm and style in the Old Testament. The English of the New Testament actually turned out to be superior to its Greek original.”
- THEIR ACTIONS AS DILIGENT MEN – God does all things “decently and in order” (1Corinthians 14:40).
- The Foundation for the King James Bible
- There was a set of fourteen rules giving instructions to the King James translators as to how they were to approach their work.
- Rule #1 stated: “The ordinary Bible read in the church, commonly called the Bishop’s Bible, to be followed, and as little altered as the original will permit.”
- Rule #14 stated: “These translations to be used when they agree better with the test than the Bishop’s Bible, viz.; Tindal’s, Matthews’, Coverdale’s, Whitchurch, Geneva.” NOTE: Tindal is another spelling for Tyndale; Whitchurch is another name for Crammer’s Bible, which is also called the Great Bible.
- According to these rules, the King James Bible was based on six previous English translations. This would make it the seventh in this line of modern English translations of the Bible. Some have compared this to the statement in Psalm 12:6 where God speaks of His pure word as being “silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times.” The line of modern English Bibles referred to in the instructions for translation are as follows:
- Tyndale’s Bible (1526)
- Coverdale’s Bible (1535)
- Matthew’s Bible (1537)
- Great Bible (1539)
- Geneva Bible (1560)
- Bishop’s Bible (1568)
- King James Bible (1611)
- The preparatory work of William Tyndale
- He said to a scholar of his day, “If God spare my life ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough, shall know more of the scriptures than thou dost.”
- He translated the New Testament into English in 1526 and later finished good-sized portions of the Old Testament.
- In 1526, he was strangled and then burned at the stake as a heretic. His last words were, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.” Although this may have been fulfilled partially when Henry VIII allowed a translation to be made, it was certainly completely fulfilled with the King James Bible. The King James Bible was commissioned in 1604, only one year after James had taken the throne and after the rules of two queens: Mary and Elisabeth.
- 80% to 90% of the wording of the King James New Testament is identical to that of Tyndale’s New Testament. For example, in Matthew 7:7-20, there are 30 changes from Tyndale’s translation to the King James Bible, with four verses being word-for-word identical. In comparison, the New King James (which claims to be only another revision) makes 68 changes and leaves none of the verses untouched.
- The Program for the Translation
- The number of translators
- 54 men were appointed to the work, but only 47 actually worked on the translation
- Of them, The Translators to the Readers states, “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.”
- Their division – They were divided into six companies with two companies each located at three locations: Westminster, Cambridge, and Oxford.
- Their practice
- Each company was given a portion of the Bible to translate. Initially, each member of the company would make an individual translation. There were evidently at least seven members in each company, so each passage would be translated a minimum of seven times at this stage.
- Each company would then go over the work together and come up with a joint translation.
- The translations were then passed along to the five other companies for their review and correction.
- For the final review of the entire translation, a general committee was made up of two men from each of the original companies.
- In addition, other scholars not on the formal committees were encouraged to give comments and suggestions throughout the translation process.
- By using this method, each passage was closely gone over at least 14 times.
- God’s Handiwork in the Actions of Translation
- God often stamps His work with the number seven. The number seven is seen throughout the translation of the King James Bible.
- From the commission of the translation in 1604 until the completion of the translation in 1611, seven years expired. By comparison, another work greatly blessed by God and accomplished by a chosen king was Solomon’s temple. According to 1Kings 6:37-38, the temple was started in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign (compare 1604) and completed in the eleventh year of his reign (compare 1611). These details may not prove anything, but the God who knows all knew it would work out this way. Perhaps He allowed it to encourage us in our faith in His providential care of His written word in the English language.
- The King James Bible was the seventh modern English translation in a line mentioned in the rules of instruction for the King James translators.
- The number of instructions for translation was fourteen, which is two times seven.
- As described above, each passage was carefully gone over at least fourteen times (2 x 7).
- The translation was completed by seven different companies
- Six original companies
- The general committee of revision
- A minimum of seven men worked on each committee
- It is no wonder that most copies of the Bible today have seven small bands across the spine in memory of the seven seals of the seven-sealed book of Revelation 5:1.
- THEIR ATTITUDES AS HOLY MEN
- Their Attitude Toward God
- Their reverence toward God can be seen in the following quote from The Translators to the Readers: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God; but a blessed thing it is, and will bring us to everlasting blessedness in the end, when God speaketh unto us, to hearken; when He setteth His Word before us, to read it; when He stretcheth out His hand and calleth, to answer, Here am I; here we are to do thy will, O God. The Lord work a care and conscience in us to know Him and serve Him, that we may be acknowledged of Him at the appearing of our Lord JESUS CHRIST, to who with the Holy Ghost, be all praise and thanksgiving. Amen.”
- A comparison of The Translators to the Readers with the prefaces to the later Revised Version can help us understand the difference in attitudes between the two sets of translators. The comparison is a fair one. The Preface to the Revised Version New Testament (1881) added to the Preface of the Revised Version Old Testament (1885) is almost the exact same length (about 11,000 words) as the Preface to the King James Bible. Several comparisons will be made below.
- The prefaces to the Revised Version refer to deity by name (as in God, Lord, Jesus Christ, etc.) for a total of ten (10) times. Five of these times are in a discussion on the translation of Jehovah.
- However, the Preface to the King James Bible refers to deity by a name a total of 72 times. The preface includes such descriptive names as the Sun of righteousness, Saviour, the Spirit of grace, the Father of our Lord, and the living God. We can easily see where these translators had their hearts and minds.
- Their Attitude Toward God’s Word
- Their elevation of scripture can be seen in another quote from The Translators to the Readers: “[The Scripture is] a fountain of most pure water springing up unto everlasting life. And what marvel? The original thereof being from heaven, not from earth; the author being God, not man; the inditer, the Holy Ghost, not the wit of the Apostles or Prophets; the penmen, such as were sanctified from the womb, and enduced with a principal portion of God’s Spirit; the matter, verity, piety, purity, uprightness; the form, God’s word, God’s testimony, God’s oracles, the word of truth, the word of salvation; etc.; the effects, light of understanding, stableness of persuasion, repentance from dead works, newness of life, holiness, peace, joy in the Holy Ghost; lastly, the end and reward of the study thereof, fellowship with the Saints, participation of the heavenly nature, fruition of an inheritance immortal, undefiled, and that never shall fade away. Happy is the man that delighteth in the Scripture, and thrice happy that meditateth in it day and night.”
- Comparison of the prefaces
- Titles for scripture as a whole are mentioned in the prefaces to the Revised Version only ten (10) times.
- Titles for scripture as a whole are mentioned in the preface to the King James Bible a total of 75 times. This includes scriptures (23 times), scripture (13 times), Bible (11 times), the word of God (9 times), and the word (6 times). Also included are other titles such as the word of truth, the word of salvation, the Book of God, the written word, the oracles of God, and His holy writ.
- Their Attitude Toward Earlier Translations
- They had only praise for their predecessors
- “…we acknowledge them to have been raised up of God, for the building and furnishing of his Church, and that they deserve to be had of us and of posterity in everlasting remembrance.”
- “Therefore blessed be they, and most honoured be their name, that break the ice, and give the onset upon that which helpeth forward to the saving of souls.”
- Compare this with what the prefaces to the Revised Version say about the work of the King James Bible and its translators.
- “…one of the blemishes in their work.”
- “…many inconsistencies.”
- “…we may wonder that the incongruities which remain are not more numerous.” (NOTE: Talk about a backhanded compliment.)
- “The frequent inconsistencies in the Authorised Version have caused us much embarrassment…”
- “…a degree of inconsistency that cannot be reconciled with the principle of faithfulness.”
- “…a subject often overlooked by our predecessors…”
- “…the Authorised Version being either inadequate or inconsistent and sometimes misleading…”
- Their Attitude Toward Their Own Translation
- They saw themselves as building on an earlier foundation: “Yet for all that, as nothing is begun and perfected at the same time, and the later thoughts are thought to be the wiser: so, it 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, no man, we are sure, hath cause to mislike us;”
- They saw themselves as sons of the truth: “If we will be sons of the Truth we must consider what it speaketh, and trample upon our own credit, yea, and upon other men’s too, if either be any way a hindrance to it.”
- They trusted in the Lord: “And in what sort did these assemble: In the trust of their own knowledge, or of their sharpness of wit, or deepness of judgment, as it were in an arm of flesh? At no hand. They trusted in Him that hath the key of David, opening, and not man shutting; they prayed to the Lord, the Father of our Lord, to the effect that S. Augustine did: ‘O let thy Scriptures be my pure delight, let me not be deceived in them, neither let me deceive by them.’”
- They endeavored to make one principle translation: “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, not justly to be excepted against; that hath been our endeavor, that our mark.”
The King James translators never considered themselves or their translation to be perfect, but they leaned heavily upon the Lord, exalted highly His word, built soundly upon an earlier foundation, and translated the English Bible to the best of their ability. We can see the full import of the miracle of translation God wrought with the King James Bible only by looking at it from a distance. From our present vantage point, we can better see the powerful work God did with the English Bible as found in the King James Bible of 1611. Consider these facts before you go out and buy any other English translation:
- 270 years transpired before anyone dared produce another major English translation.
- The King James Bible dominated the time in history characterized by the greatest Bible preaching and teaching, missionary work, evangelism, church building, and doctrinal development the world has ever known.
- The King James Bible became the primary influence on the literature, education, government, law, and philosophy of numerous generations of English-speaking people around the globe.
- The King James Bible has been read, studied, quoted, memorized, believed, and loved by more people than any other version of the Bible in any language in history, including that of the original languages.