Last week we discussed the Apocrypha, and three English translations of the Bible that appeared in the latter half of the 16th century: the Geneva Bible, the Bishop’s Bible, and the Douai-Rheims Bible.  Each of these bibles was the work of very different groups of translators, arising from unique sets of circumstances and motivations.  The Geneva Bible was the product of Reformed Protestant exiles in Switzerland, the Bishop’s Bible that of Anglican clerics, and the Douai-Rheims Bible that of English Roman Catholic exiles in France.

One might suppose that the major English-speaking Christian factions of that day—the Anglicans, the Catholics, and the Puritans—would be content, each having its own translation produced by its own best scholars.  To be sure, these versions of the English Bible served their individual purposes for a time, but all of them would soon be eclipsed by another version, best known to us as the King James Bible.   Because of the enduring success and popularity of this particular version of the Bible, it behooves us to spend a good deal of time in reviewing the history of its origin and subsequent revisions.

As you likely are aware, the King James Bible has enjoyed so much popularity that there are those who argue that it is, or ought to be, the only legitimate English version of the Bible.  This, in short, is the position of the “King James only” advocates. (I will offer a brief critique of this position later.)

So why another English translation of the Bible?  Already the 16th century had generated at least eight different translations.[1]  Recall from week one of this study the four driving forces behind new translations.[2]  Of these four forces, I would argue that the forces most at play in the production of the King James Bible were (#2) a desire to improve on earlier translations and (#4) political motivations.  Let’s begin by considering the religious and political conditions that gave rise to this translation, and then consider briefly the process of this translation. 

The Elizabethan Settlement of Religion

The long reign of Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603) was marked by a religious policy of moderation.  John Knox once observed that Elizabeth was “neither good Protestant nor yet resolute Papist.”[3]  Above all else, what mattered to Elizabeth was political stability, which she realized could only be accomplished if the religious factions within the realm co-existed peacefully.  With cooperation from Parliament, Elizabeth very early in her reign forged a religious compromise known as the Elizabethan Settlement of Religion, “which essentially embraced Protestant doctrine with respect to the Eucharist but otherwise gave the Church, in its ritual and organization, a Catholic form.  The Anglican creed, known as the Thirty-Nine Articles…soon followed as an official statement of belief.”[4]  Thus Anglicanism was officially born.  Alongside Anglicanism arose Puritanism, which J.I. Packer describes as “that movement in 16th and 17th century England which sought further reformation and renewal in the Church of England than the Elizabethan settlement allowed.”[5]  To borrow Milton’s phrase, Puritanism was a movement “for the reform of reformation.” 

James I of England succeeds Elizabeth

When Elizabeth died in 1603, she was succeeded by her closest kin, a Scottish cousin, James VI who became James I of England.  James had already reigned 25 years in Scotland before assuming the English throne.  While in Scotland, he became well versed in Presbyterianism, as practiced by the Kirk (church) of Scotland, towards which he was favorably disposed, at least ostensibly.  For this reason, Puritans in England had high hopes for reforms in the Church of England under the rule of James.

In reality, James did not embrace Presbyterianism, nor the Puritan reform agenda which it engendered, for the simple reason that it was not as supportive of the monarchy as was the Episcopal form of church government found in Anglicanism.   With the ascension of James to the British throne, several prominent Anglican Bishops rightly perceived that the survival of the Church of England depended on a symbiotic relationship between the episcopacy and the monarchy, with the Church supporting the “divine right of kings” theory of governance.  The Puritans, on the other hand, viewed their relationship to the king very differently.  The classic expression of the Puritan view is found in Samuel Rutherford’s Lex Rex, first published in 1644.  In this classic refutation of the doctrine of “the divine right of kings,” Rutherford shows from a myriad of scriptural proofs that the king (civil magistrate) is bound by a covenant to both God and the people to rule according to the Law. The principles outlined in this treatise, which was banned by the British Crown, laid the foundation for many of the civil institutions in America. 

Millenary Petition

Upon entering England in route to London, James passed through several towns and villages, enjoying himself immensely as he met his new subjects.  Near the town of Huntingdon a group of Puritan ministers presented the new king with the “Millenary Petition”, so called because it was subscribed by almost a thousand Puritan ministers (a tenth of the English clergy) from twenty-five counties, which enumerated a number of grievances against the Church of England they hoped he might address.”[6]

Hampton Court Conference

Well the Puritans eventually got a royal hearing, but not exactly in the fashion they would have liked.  Early in 1604, the king convened a conference of church leaders known as the Hampton Court Conference.  The invitees included “a mighty array of bishops and deans assembled to represent the power of the establishment; only four Puritans, handpicked as moderates by the king and his advisers, stood for the other side…”[7]  Two of the books listed in the bibliography of today’s handout (Bobrick and McGrath) include detailed accounts of the Hampton Court Conference, so I point you to those sources for more information.

The new king played a very active role in presiding over the three-day conference.  His concern was for religious peace and stability; thus his goal in hosting the conference was for the two parties to be able to present their respective concerns, with a view to achieving a resolution of religious tensions—tensions that were far worse than he had previously realized.[8]  But things were not exactly on even keel.   The small Puritan delegation was not allowed to attend the opening session.  With this inauspicious start, the conference proceeded with a pro-Anglican bias.   It was at the Hampton Court conference that James coined the phrase “no bishop, no king”

It should be noted that the conference was not intended to promote a new translation of the Bible.  The actual topics for discussion included the following:

  • The Book of Common Prayer, and divine service used in the church
  • Excommunication in the ecclesiastical courts
  • The providing of fit and able ministers for Ireland

However, in the course of events at the conference, the subject of translation was raised, but in a most unexpected manner.  On day two, the Puritan representatives were invited in to present their concerns, which James was not inclined to view with much sympathy.

“This left James in a somewhat unpromising position.  Wanting to be seen to be conciliatory…he was finding himself unable to offer any sops to this Puritan subjects.”[9]

Then came the breakthrough.  The leader of the small Puritan delegation, John Reynolds, proposed a new Bible translation.  According to McGrath, “it is not clear where this proposal came from, nor what the underlying motivation might have been.”[10]  The proposal by Reynolds met with opposition from the leader of the Anglican delegation, Bishop Bancroft, who belittled the suggestion by retorting “If every man’s humour were followed, there would be no end of translating.”

What mattered the most, however, is “what thinkest the king?” in regard to a new translation.  In short, he regarded it as a “win-win” proposition.  A new translation would supplant the Geneva Bible, whose marginal notes undermined the divine right of kings, and also supplant the new Catholic Bible, the Douai-Rheims Bible, which was completed in 1609.   The Douai-Rheims Bible potentially posed a threat to both the Geneva Bible and the Bishop’s Bible.  “If there was one thing that united both Anglicans and Puritans, it was a shared dislike and fear of Roman Catholicism.”[11]  Here was an opportunity to produce a translation that would serve the interests of all parties present at the Hampton Court Conference: it would satisfy the Anglican cleric-scholars, for they would be the chief translators; it would satisfy the Puritans, for one of them first proposed it[12]; and perhaps most importantly, it would serve the royal interests by unifying the realm under a single translation to which the king could affix his name.  The goal of having a single, preferred translation that all English speaking people could call their own was not new.  In fact, in 1597 while Elizabeth was still on the throne, Parliament secretly drafted an act calling “for the reducing of diversities of Bibles now extant in the English tongue to one settled” version, to be done by scholars from Oxford and Cambridge and subsidized by the Church.[13]  This goal was not acted upon, however, until King James called “for one uniform translation” to which the whole Church would be “bound unto it and none other”. 

The Process of Translation

The translation work began in earnest under the direction of Richard Bancroft, whom the king appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury shortly after the Hampton Court Conference.

The work was divided amongst six groups: two at Oxford, two at Cambridge, and two at Westminster.  Three groups handled the OT, two groups the NT, and one group the Apocrypha.  Thus the “King James Bible” was the first English version of the Bible that was produced by a sizeable committee.  Altogether some 50 scholars contributed, the large majority Anglican.  The translators were instructed to follow strict “rules of translation,” drawn up by Bancroft and approved by James, designed to minimize the risk of producing a Bible that might give added credibility to Puritanism, Presbyterianism, or Roman Catholicism.[14]  We have time to consider only a few of Bancroft’s 15 “translation rules”:

  • The Bishops’ Bible was the version to be used primarily for comparison; other versions could be used “when they agree better with the Text than the Bishops’ Bible: Tindoll’s, Matthew’s, Coverdale’s, Whitchurch’s, Geneva.” (rules 1 & 14)
  • “No marginal Notes at all to be affixed, but only for the explanation of the Hebrew or Greek Words, which cannot without some circumlocution, so briefly and fitly be expressed in the Text.” (rule 6)  (Despite this restriction, the original printing of the AV contained some 8000 marginal notes!)

The Preface to the AV

The task of penning a preface to the new translation fell to one of the translators in the first Oxford Company, Miles Smith.  His was a very meaty—and  lengthy—introduction that gives the reader important insights into the purpose and process of the translation committee.  Regrettably, modern versions of the KJV do not include this preface, although some include the dedication “to the most high and mighty King James.”

A few items worth noting from this preface:

  • credit for the decision to translate is given to king James; Smith says that the issue was raised by the Puritans, but the translation was the king’s doing.  The Puritans, he says,  “could not with good conscience subscribe to the Communion Book, since it maintained the Bible as it was there translated, which was as they said, a most corrupted translation.  And although this was judged to be but a very poor and empty shift; yet even hereupon did his Majesty begin to bethink himself of the good that might ensue by a new translation, and presently after gave order for this Translation which is now presented unto thee.”
  • Standing on the shoulders of giants: regarding translators from the past:

    • “we are so far off from condemning any of their labors that travailed before us in this kind, either in this land or beyond sea…that 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…”
    • “building upon their foundation that went before us…(we) do endeavor to make that better which they left so good.”  Elsewhere Smith says “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 may good ones, one principal good one…” (underline my own)
  • the translators do not claim any special inspiration or perfection (as some in the “KJV only” ascribe to them)
  • the vernacular goal: “desire that the Scripture may speak like itself, as in the language of Canaan, that it may be understood even of the very vulgar.”  In the words of McGrath, “Ordinary people were to be given a pathway into the text, which its translators believed to be the doorway to salvation…Without actually intending to, those translators produced a literary milestone.  We can still celebrate both their achievements—the superb translation of the Bible that they intended to create, and the classic work of English literature that was an accidental, yet most welcome, outcome.  Our culture has been enriched by both aspects of the King James Bible.  Sadly, we shall never see its equal—or even its like—again.”[15]

KJV Only Controversy

Without a doubt the KJV succeeded in providing a high quality translation of the Bible that English-speaking Christians could unify around for almost four centuries.  In this respect, it is preeminent among all translations.  But with all the accolades that it rightly deserves, does that entitle the KJV to be considered the “only” or the “best” translation? Perhaps you have met Christians who answer this question in the affirmative.  They are proponents of what is termed the “King James only” position, which in certain conservative circles amounts to an actual movement.

I point you to a scholarly, yet readable, work on this subject by James White.[16] This book is endorsed by the likes of J.I. Packer, John McArthur, and Bruce Metzger, so I trust his scholarship.

White makes it clear in his introduction that this subject has generated much “heat” but not enough “light”.  The main reason for this is that the staunch “KJV only” advocates tend to equate the very words of the KJV with the very Word of God.  To tamper with one is to desecrate the other.  At the root of this belief is a misunderstanding—or perhaps a willful ignorance—of what is involved in the translation process, particularly the issues addressed by the science of textual criticism.[17]

Consider this example of the “KJV only” position, as it appeared recently as an advertisement in the weekly Christian news magazine World: “Wow! Did you know…the name Lord, Jesus, and Jesus Christ is deleted in many modern Bible translations?  For example, some popular modern versions* have deleted references to Jesus as Lord in 39 places, the name Jesus in 87 places, and Jesus as Christ in 52 places.”[18]  In very fine print at the bottom of this ad the reader is given an explanatory note about the modern versions: they are “based upon the modern critical text compared to the traditional text of the New Testament.” (underline my own)  The ministry that placed this ad is correct in that the differences in translations (at least as far as what verses are included/excluded in a particular translation) depend on what “text” is used by the translators.  But they do a disservice to the uninformed reader by explicitly characterizing the “modern critical text” as leading to “confusion”, and implying that because of all of these deletions, the “traditional text” has been tampered with.  This is why they begin the ad is “Wow!”  The reaction they wish to create on the part of the reader is a visceral one: “Don’t mess with the Word of God!” 

In the short time remaining, let me critique the criticism found in this ad, which is representative of the KJV only position.  To begin with, I will grant them this much: an explosion of modern translations in the past 50 years or so has resulted in “loss of easy memorization” but I do not agree that it necessarily has resulted in the “loss of unity within the local church.”  Members of a church need not all use the same translation in order to be unified.  Yes, for the sake of uniformity in public reading of the Bible, a common translation is required (for this church the “pew Bible” is the NIV), but that translation is not mandated for personal study or devotions, or even to follow along during sermons.

The crux of the KJV only position concerns what in this ad is called the “Traditional text of the NT,” which is lay terminology for what scholars call the “Textus Receptus.”  I mentioned this in passing in week one of this study in the context of Erasmus’ contribution to the science of textual criticism.  In short, the TR refers to the NT text available to the KJV translators, which was the result of the Greek NT textual scholarship in the previous century by three scholars: Erasmus, Stephanus, and Beza (Calvin’s protégé).  The TR was based on Byzantine manuscripts (recall our prior discussion of “text families”) dating no earlier than the 10th century.

By contrast, most modern translations (which will be the topic of our discussion next week) are based not on the TR, but on another text of the Greek NT, which this ad refers to as “the modern critical text.”  In Fundamentalist circles—from which this ad originates—the terms “modern” and “critical” are buzz words for things bad, and thus to be avoided (hence the title of promo book Touch Not the Unclean Thing).  Yet stripped of their fundamentalist connotations, these words are perfectly legitimate descriptors of the NT text that underlies modern translations; it is “modern” in the sense that the manuscripts upon which it is based were discovered in the modern era (since the time the KJV was published), and it is “critical” in the sense that all NT texts must be critical—making informed decisions about the existing manuscript evidence, in particular choices regarding variant readings.   (Recall that we have seen how the KJV contained marginal notes for the purpose of explaining these type of issues.)

The literature on both sides of the “KJV only” argument primarily concerns the merits of the NT texts used in translation: the TR in the case of the KJV, and in the case of most modern translations, specific texts based on more modern scholarship, of which there are several.  These are typically designated by the name of individual scholars (e.g., Nestle-Aland) or committees (e.g., United Bible Society/ UBS).  The main difference between the TR and all of the modern texts is that the modern texts reflect critical review of manuscripts discovered since the time of the KJV.  Several of these manuscripts date to a much earlier period (e.g. papyrus 72, which dates to AD 200) than the manuscripts upon which the TR is based.   I refer you again to White’s book for details of this debate.

In my reading on this subject, I noticed a tendency on the part of the KJV only advocates to cast aspersion on the reliability of the modern texts because the scholars involved in putting together these texts are considered “liberal” or otherwise not to be trusted.  For example, on the Web site for the ministry that sponsors this ad I found the following criticism: “Almost all editors of the modern Critical Text have direct associations with theological liberalism or apostasy.”  While it may be true that this or that scholar is more liberal than our own persuasion, should we ipso facto discount their scholarly work?  I think not, anymore than we should discount or exclude the scholarly contributions of someone like Erasmus, who remained a Roman Catholic. 


[1] 16th c. English translations of the Bible (in chronological order): Tyndale (1525-NT, 1530-first portion of OT), Coverdale’s Bible (1535), Matthew’s Bible (1537), Taverner’s Bible (1539), The Great Bible (1539), The Geneva Bible (1560), The Bishops’ Bible (1568), The Douai-Rheims NT (1582)

[2] 1. Desire to have the Bible accessible to English speaking folks  2. Desire to improve on earlier translation(s)  3. Changes in the English language over time  4.  Political and/or economic motivations

[3] Spitz, Lewis, The Renaissance and Reformation Movements, vol. 2, p. 525

[4] Bobrick, Benson, Wide as the Waters: the Story of the English Bible and the Revolution it Inspired, p. 173

[5] Packer, J.I., A Quest for Godliness: the Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, p.35

[6] Bobrick, p.203

[7] Ibid, p.209

[8] McGrath, p.155

Ibid., p.160

Ibid., p.161

[11] McGrath, p.163

[12] John Reynolds also served as a translator of the AV in the first Oxford Company assigned Isaiah to Malachi

[13] Bobrick, p.215

[14] McGrath, p.173

[15] McGrath, p.310

[16] White, James, The King James Only Controversy: Can you Trust the Modern Translations?, Bethany House Publishers, 1995

[17] please refer to week one of this study for a brief discussion of textual criticism

[18] Advertisement by for book Touch not the Unclean Thing written by a Fundamentalist Baptist minister