The Text of the 1611 King James Version

Gordon Zerbe, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies, Canadian Mennonite University

Each of the six companies of forty-seven translators (all members of the Church of England, most clergy, and some with Puritan leanings) was assigned a section of the Bible, including the Apocrypha, and the work of translation began in late 1604 among smaller committees doing independent work, with the results later compared and revised in conversation with other committees. The entire completed draft was reviewed and edited in 1609 by a “General Committee of Review,” and Archbishop Richard Bancroft also reserved a final say, making fourteen of his own changes.

In a self-consciously erudite preface, “The Translators to the Reader,” the translators explain and defend the general idea of Bible translation from the original languages to the vernacular (for the sake of the “unlearned”) and their particular work and philosophy of translation (along with their own intellectual and moral credentials). They justify their own endeavors between two fronts: on the one hand, “Popish persons at home or abroad,” who “desire still to keepe [the people] in ignorance and darkness,” and who are “afraid of the light of the Scripture,” and on the other hand “selfe-conceited brethren [of Puritan or Nonconformist persuasion], who runne their owne wayes, and give liking unto nothing but what is framed by themselves.”

The new translation proceeded formally as a revision of the 1602 edition of the Bishops’ Bible. Forty unbound copies of this edition were specially printed, and distributed to the companies of translators, so that the agreed upon changes could be recorded in the margins. A comparison between the King James Bible and the other English Bibles approved for comparison (Tyndale, Coverdale, Matthew’s, Great, Geneva) reveals that the King James Bible follows the Bishops’ Bible fairly closely, and where it departs it typically follows the reading of the Geneva Bible. But from time to time, one can also find dependence on readings from Wycliffe or the (Roman Catholic) Douay-Rheims Bible, both which were not officially endorsed for the purposes of comparison. In their preface to the reader, the translators confirm their significant indebtedness to prior translations:

Truly (good Christian Reader) wee never thought from the beginning, that we should neede 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 principall good one, not justly to be excepted against; that hath bene our indeavour, that our marke.

. . . we are so farre off from condemning any of their labours that traveiled before us in this kinde, either in this land or beyond sea, either in King Henries time, or King Edwards (if there were any translation, or correction of a translation in his time) or Queene Elizabeths of ever-renoumed memorie, that we acknowledge them to have beene raised up of God, for the building and furnishing of his Church, and that they deserve to be had of us and of posteritie in everlasting remembrance. . . . Therefore blessed be they, and most honoured be their name, that breake the ice, and glueth onset upon that which helpeth forward to the saving of soules.

It has been estimated that roughly 80% of the text of the King James Bible is the legacy of Tyndale.

At the same time, the translators place considerable weight on translating directly from the original languages:

. . . the Hebrew text of the Olde Testament, the Greeke of the New. These are the two golden pipes, or rather conduits, where-through the olive branches emptie themselves into the golde. Saint Augustine calleth them precedent, or originall tongues; Saint Jerome, fountaines.  . . . If trueth be to be tried by these tongues, then whence should a Translation be made, but out of them? These tongues, therefore, the Scriptures wee say in those tongues, wee set before us to translate, being the tongues wherein God was pleased to speake to his Church by his Prophets and Apostles.

Accordingly, the translators worked from the best Hebrew and Greek editions available at the time. Moreover, they surrounded themselves with a variety of ancient (e.g. Syriac, Ethiopic) and modern (e.g. French, Dutch) translations and commentaries. The translation of the Old Testament reveals a very careful attention to the original Hebrew, although in a number of verses considered to have Christological significance, adjustments are made in favour of the Greek Septuagint or Latin Vulgate.

Demonstrating a high regard for the original languages, the translators follow a syntactically quite “literal” rendering of the original words: their purpose was to translate the sense of words, not the general sense of a phrase or sentence. The sentence structure largely follows that of the Hebrew and Greek. In accordance with this word-for-word literalism, additionally supplied words (not directly in the originals) to clarify the sense in English are placed in roman script, not in the black-letter typeface reserved only for the translated text itself, continuing an “italicizing” practice of the Geneva and Bishops’ Bibles.

When it comes to the sense of individual words, however, the translators avoid using the same English word for a particular Hebrew or Greek word. As they explain:

An other thing we thinke good to admonish thee of (gentle Reader) that wee have not tyed our selves to an uniformitie of phrasing, or to an identitie of words, as some peradventure would wish that we had done, because they observe, that some learned men some where, have beene as exact as they could that way. Truly, that we might not varie from the sense of that which we had translated before, if the word signified the same thing in both places (for there bee some wordes that bee not of the same sense every where) we were especially carefull, and made a conscience, according to our duetie. But, that we should expresse the same notion in the same particular word. . . .

For is the kingdome of God become words or syllables? why should wee be in bondage to them if we may be free, use one precisely when wee may use another no lesse fit, as commodiously?

Adde hereunto, that nicenesse in wordes was alwayes counted the next step to trifling, and so was to bee curious about names too: also that we cannot follow a better patterne for elocution then God himselfe; therefore hee using divers words, in his holy writ, and indifferently for one thing in nature: we, if wee will not be superstitious, may use the same libertie in our English versions out of Hebrew & Greeke, for that copie or store that he hath given us.

As a result, a single Greek word can be translated with a variety of words in different contexts. But more striking, however, is a reverse procedure : fourteen different Hebrew and Greek words are all translated “prince” (in accordance with their great deference given to King James in the opening dedication: “To the most high and mightie Prince, James by the grace of God King of Great Britaine, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, &c. The translators of The Bible, wish Grace, Mercie, and Peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord”; King James is extolled in the preface as the great guardian of Religion, likened even to Caesar Augustus and Constantine the Great).

Also showing profound respect for the original languages, the translators include some 8,500 marginal notes to indicate alternative translations or different textual traditions. Defending against the detraction that this waters down the Bible’s sense of authority, they explain that this nowhere involves any significant point of doctrine and that it preserves the very nature of the text as a translation:

Some peradventure would have no varietie of sences to be set in the margine, lest the authoritie of the Scriptures for deciding of controversies by that shew of uncertaintie, should somewhat be shaken. But we hold their judgment not to be so be so sound in this point. . . .

Therfore as S. Augustine saith, that varietie of Translations is profitable for the finding out of the sense of the Scriptures: so diversitie of signification and sense in the margine, where the text is not so cleare, must needes doe good, yea is necessary, as we are perswaded.

These marginal notes, are also placed in roman script.

Significantly absent, however, are explanatory notes or interpretive comments in the margins. This absence of any “sectarian” or “polemical” gloss is one of the key reasons why the King James Bible eventually could be embraced by all English speakers as the commonly shared text. While there are no marginal comments, each chapter does begin with a (sometimes interpretive) précis. In addition, there are one- or two-word thematic titles in the headers for each of the columns. Again, all of this additional (and explanatory) material is placed in roman type, to distinguish it from the actual translated text.

In accordance with the instructions given to the translators by King James at the beginning of their work—that this new version should conform to the ecclesiology and episcopal structure of the Church of England and its beliefs pertaining to the ordained clergy—the translators offer the following:

wee have on the one side avoided the scrupulositie of the Puritanes, who leave [off] the olde Ecclesticall words, and betake them to other, as when they put washing for Baptisme, and Congregation in stead of Church: as also on the other side we have shunned the obscuritie of the Papists, in their Azimes, Tunike, Rational, Holocausts, Præpuce, Pasche, and a number of such like, whereof their late Translation is full, and that of purpose to darken the sence, that since they must needs translate the Bible, yet by the language thereof, it may bee kept from being understood.

Generally speaking, the translators prefer English words with Latin roots, lean toward traditional renderings, and avoid contemporary idioms. They claim, however, that ultimately

we desire that the Scripture may speake like it selfe, as in the language of Canaan, that it may bee understood even of the very vulgar.

Finally, it should be observed that the text of modern editions of the KJV is not the same as the 1611 text. Modern editions of the KJV conform especially to the Oxford revision of 1769 (led by Benjamin Blayney), in which some 24,000 changes were made, mostly pertaining to spelling and punctuation, but sometimes in connection with textual or translation decisions.