All They That Labored: Scholars piece together the monumental job of creating the King James Bible- and reinterpret its legacy
Generations of Protestant Christians have heard God speaking through the language of the King James Bible. Four hundred years after it was first published, in 1611, it still has an unrivalled reputation as a shaper of English prose, its phrases a lasting contribution to how we use the language. It’s given us such expressions as “out of the mouth of babes,” “suffer fools gladly,” “seek, and ye shall find,” and “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Yet the 50 or so learned men who labored in teams to create the King James Bible did not set out to create a literary masterpiece. They wanted to establish as direct a connection as they could to the original languages of the Old and New Testaments. And it’s not a miracle that this monumental exercise in translation-by-committee turned out as well as it did. By the time they set to work, in 1604, the King James translators had a hundred years of pioneering work on which to draw. They leaned heavily on texts and translations put together by theologians and linguists such as Erasmus and William Tyndale.
In recent decades, scholarship on the making of the King James Bible has made it plain just how much cumulative human labor and debate went into its creation. “The King James Bible didn’t drop from the sky in 1611,” says Helen Moore, a fellow and tutor in English at Corpus Christi College at the University of Oxford. Moore led the curatorial committee that put together “Manifold Greatness,” an anniversary exhibit at Oxford’s Bodleian Library devoted to the making of the King James Bible. The most famous Bible in English, she says, was “made by many different people in many different places using many different people’s words and many reference texts.”
The King James Bible got its immediate start at a gathering called by Britain’s King James I in January 1604. The Hampton Court Conference brought together high-ranking clergymen and courtiers to discuss the calls for religious reform made in the Millenary Petition, which the Puritans had submitted to the new monarch the previous year. Present at the conference was John Rainolds, a Puritan and the president of Corpus Christi College at the University of Oxford. Rainolds complained, among other things, that English translations of the Bible from the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI were “corrupt and not answerable to the truth.” (For instance, he pointed out, a line from Psalm 105 should read “They were not disobedient” rather than “They were not obedient.”) James agreed. The following year, six companies, or teams of translators—two based at Oxford, two at Cambridge, and two at Westminster—undertook to create a new, more acceptable version.
The names of the translators won’t be familiar to most contemporary readers. But they were the academic and religious stars of their day, chosen for their knowledge of Scripture and of Greek and Hebrew and other languages. Many were fellows at Oxford and Cambridge; many were working clergymen.