History of the King James Version I

Initiation, Companies, and Persons


This famous translation of the Bible emerged as almost an afterthought from the Hampton Court Conference of January, 1604, when representatives of the Puritan party, and prominent Anglican bishops met with King James I, son of the ill-fated Mary, Queen of Scots, and recently arrived from Scotland as successor to Elizabeth I. The Puritans in their Millenary Petition had demanded revisions to the Anglican liturgy and practice, limitations to the powers of the bishop, and other changes to alleviate tender consciences.

The conference, in its primary intention, was a total failure. James showed both his dislike of the Puritan party, and also his pretensions to absolute monarchy, while he received with approval the flattery of the bishops, such as, “clearly your majesty speaks by the special assistance of God’s Spirit”.

Just as the conference was about to break up in an impasse, Dr. John Reynolds of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and leader of the Puritan party, suggested a new translation of the Bible, which could have the approval of all sides. The idea appealed to James, as he fancied himself as a scholar, while he expressed his dislike of the Geneva Bible with its contentious anti-Catholic notes, but popular among the Puritans, as well as being the official Bible in Presbyterian Scotland. James stigmatised the Geneva version as “very partiall, untrue, seditious, and savouring too much of dangerous and traytorous conceits”. He particularly objected to the note at Exod.1:19, “Their disobedience to the king was lawful, though their dissembling was evil”. For James any notion of ‘lawful disobedience’ to the king contradicted his exalted notions of Divine right’.

Equally, however, he did agree that the Bishops’ Bible of 1568 did need improvement, and accordingly made moves to undertake a fresh translation.


R-BancroftJames’ Criteria for the Translators

James found an able champion for his new project in the sycophantic, energetic, and passionate anti-Puritan Richard Bancroft, whom James appointed the Royal agent and Convenor for the new Bible. At the Hampton Court Conference Bancroft was Bishop of London, but with the death of John Whitgift the following month James appointed him to fill the vacant See at Lambeth, and he was duly enthroned in November, 1604.


James, via his newly appointed mouthpiece Richard Bancroft, set out the following criteria for the translators to follow:


  1. The ordinary Bible read in the Church, commonly called the Bishops' Bible, to be followed, and as little altered as the original will permit. - The Bishops’ Bible was acknowledged to be inferior to the Geneva; in fact, its OT was something of a botch for its pomposity, obscurity, and inaccuracy.
  2. The names of the prophets and the holy writers, with the other names in the text, to be retained, as near as may be, accordingly as they are vulgarly used.  - The Puritans objected to the use of “St.” with the names of the apostles, and the Bishops’ Bible spelt Biblical names differently from their equivalents in Geneva.
  3. The old ecclesiastical words to be kept, as the word church, not to be translated congregation.  - This was aimed at the Puritans, who preferred congregation for church, washing for baptism etc. Anything which savoured of presbyterianism was to be rejected.
  4. When any word hath divers [various] significations, that to be kept which hath been most commonly used by the most eminent fathers, being agreeable to the propriety of the place and the analogies of faith. - This allowed appeal to patristic scholarship, of which these theologians had made particular study
  5. The division of chapters to be altered either not at all, or as little as may be, if necessity so require.
  6. No marginal notes at all to be affixed, but only for the explanation of the Hebrew or Greek words, which cannot, without some circumlocution [explanation], so briefly and fitly be expressed, in the text.  - This too was aimed at the Geneva Bible, which had copious notes.
  7. Such quotations of places to be marginally set down as shall serve for the fit reference of one Scripture to another.
  8. Every particular man of each company to take the same chapter or chapters; and, having translated or amended them severally by himself where he thinks good, all to meet together to confirm what they have done, and agree for their part what shall stand.
  9. As any one company hath dispatched any one book in this manner, they shall send it to the rest, to be considered of seriously and judiciously; for his Majesty is very careful on this point.
  10. If any company, upon the review of the book so sent, shall doubt or differ upon any places, to send them word thereof, to note the places, and therewithal to send their reasons; to which if they consent not, the difference to be compounded at the general meeting, which is to be of the chief persons of each company, at the end of the work.
  11. When any place of special obscurity is doubted of, letters to be directed by authority to send to any learned man in the land for his judgment of such a place.
  12. Letters to be sent from every bishop to the rest of his clergy, admonishing them of this translation in hand, and to move and charge as many as, being skillful in the tongues, have taken pains in that kind, to send their particular observations to the company, either at Westminster, Cambridge, or Oxford, according as it was directed before in the king's letter to the archbishop.
  13. The directors in each company to be the Deans of Westminster and Chester, for Westminster, and the king's professors in Hebrew and Greek in the two universities.
  14. These translations to be used, when they agree better with the text than the Bishops' Bible: Tyndale's, Coverdale's, Matthew's [Rogers'], Whitchurch's [Cranmer's], Geneva."
  15. By a later rule, “three or four of the most ancient and grave divines, in either of the universities, not employed in translating, to be assigned to be overseers of the translation, for the better observation of the fourth rule.”


The Translators and their Committees

While Bancroft could boast in a memorandum to the king in mid-year 1604 that he had assembled a team of 54 translators, in fact only 47 of the men appointed for this work are known to have engaged in it. These were divided into six companies, two of which met at Oxford, two at Cambridge, and two at Westminster. They were presided over respectively by the Dean of Westminster and the two Hebrew Professors of the Universities. The committees worked on certain parts separately; then they submitted the drafts produced by each committee for comparison so as to harmonise with each other.

Some of these men are well-known, who for good or ill were household names in the Jacobean period; others are mere names, whose birth and death dates are unknown.

The committees were (with the director of each in heavy type):

First Westminster Company, translated from Genesis to 2 Kings:

Lancelot Andrewes, John Overall, Hadrian à Saravia, Richard Clarke, John Layfield, Robert Tighe, Geoffrey King, Richard Thomson, William Bedwell, Francis Burleigh.

First Cambridge Company, translated from 1 Chronicles to the Song of Songs:

Edward Lively (d. 1605), John Richardson, Lawrence Chaderton, Roger Andrews, Thomas Harrison, Robert Spaulding, Andrew Bing, Francis Dillingham.

First Oxford Company, translated Isaiah to Malachi:

John Harding, John Reynolds (d. 1607), Thomas Holland, Richard Kilby, Miles Smith, Richard Brett, Richard Fairclough

Second Oxford Company, translated the Gospels, Acts, and Revelation:

Thomas Ravis, George Abbot, Richard Eedes (d. 1604), Giles Tomson, Sir Henry Savile, John Peryn, Ralph Ravens, John Harmar, John Aglionby (d. 1609), Leonard Hutten, James Mountague.

Second Westminster Company, translated the Pauline and Catholic Epistles:

William Barlow, John Spencer, Roger Fenton, Ralph Hutchinson (d. 1606), William Dakins, Michael Rabbet, Thomas Sanderson.

Second Cambridge Company, translated the Apocrypha:

John Duport, John Bois, William Branthwaite, Jeremiah Radcliffe, Samuel Ward, Andrew Downes, John Ward, Thomas Bilson, Richard Bancroft

It will be observed that four translators died within three years of the project’s commencement. The place of the Puritan representative, John Reynolds, was never refilled, while that of Edward Lively as director of the First Cambridge Company was filled with the new Regius Professor of Hebrew, Robert Spaulding.


Six members of the Committee call for special comment:

L-AndrewesLancelot Andrewes: Dean of Westminster in 1604, but the following year became Bishop of Chichester, and in 1609 Bishop of Ely and Privy Councillor. In every way Andrewes epitomised the new Anglican ‘high-churchism’: mystical, ethereal, ornate, ceremonial, and obsequiously regal. Although strongly anti-Puritan (he had partnered with Bancroft and Whitgift in rooting out Puritan conventicles during the late Elizabethan period), he was exemplary in his piety, asceticism, and devotion: he would normally spend the first five hours of each day in prayer. An outstanding scholar - he was seen as a living encyclopaedia - yet he could be self-serving as well: during a plague outbreak in 1603 he forsook his Cripplegate parish and sought refuge in the country, for which one Puritan pamphleteer roundly castigated him.


George-AbbotGeorge Abbot: from poor parents who had suffered for the Gospel under Mary Tudor, he advanced up the episcopal ladder, eventually to become Archbishop of Canterbury in 1612. At the time of the Hampton Court Conference he was Dean of Winchester, a post he had purchased for £600. He had a reputation as both a brilliant scholar, but of stiff and morose disposition; he also displayed that penchant for prolixity, a feature of the age, by preaching 260 sermons on Jonah! However, he was the acknowledged leader of English Calvinists, and a firm Puritan sympathiser, who stood for conscience when the demand was for compromise, whether on divorce, or on the Sabbath issue.


John Bois: Would be a mere name but for the discovery in the Bodleian Library in 1959 of a whole set of his own notes recording the debates and deliberations of the Company in which he served, a beam of light on the whole process which produced the KJV. They reveal both the deliberations of his own company (Apocrypha), and the revision work from the other companies.
Bois himself came from a firm Protestant family who had fled to Hadleigh during the Marian persecution, and learned both Hebrew and Greek from his father. By the age of 5 he had read the Bible through in its original languages! At 14 he entered Cambridge and became a brilliant academic, but after he married a “Miss Holt” he fell into debt and had to sell his books to defray his debts. Nevertheless, they parented seven children, but only one of them lived beyond teens.


Miles-SmithMiles Smith: Famous in the whole project for his lengthy preface, “Translators to the Reader”, which set out the principles of the translation and established guidelines for the reader. A graduate of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, he was a highly accomplished scholar who excelled in Biblical languages. At the time of Hampton Court Smith was Dean of Hereford, but was appointed Bishop of Gloucester in 1612. However, when Andrewes’ protégé, William Laud, the future Archbishop of Canterbury, was appointed as his Dean in 1616, he (Laud) immediately made the communion table into an altar at the “east end”, and introduced altar rails. Smith vociferously opposed these Romanising trends and innovations, and since his strong Calvinist and Puritan sympathies would not allow him in good conscience to work with Laud, he never entered the cathedral again until his death in 1624.


ChadertonLaurence Chaderton: This staunch Puritan is indeed noteworthy for his very long life, if nothing else! Born at the time of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries (1537), he lived to see the opening of the Long Parliament in 1640! Though born of a zealous Catholic, resulting from his studies at Christ’s College, Cambridge, Chaderton embraced Reformed views, c.1565, and went on to become a renowned Puritan scholar. When Sir Walter Mildmay founded Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 1584 he prevailed on Chaderton to be its first Master. This position he held at the time of Hampton Court, and was one of the four Puritan representatives at the conference. However, he resigned Emmanuel in 1622 in favour of John Preston, another Puritan, but remained an elder statesman of the movement until his death. A treatise on Justification survives from his written works.


Henry-SavileSir Henry Savile: The only non-clergyman on the translation team, he offered his rooms for the Second Oxford Company in their deliberations. Born in Yorkshire, he rose to intellectual stature as a mathematician during the Elizabethan period, when he showed a taste for the new astronomy, as well as having an antiquarian appetite, for which he toured Europe in 1578. He became interested in Chrysostom, obtaining the best manuscripts then available, and eventually published an 8-folio edition in 1610-13 (a commercial flop!). Savile’s European vision ensured that the KJV was not merely an insular English product, but that the European Renaissance would also play its part.
Through much manoeuvring Savile eventually gained the post of Provost of Eton, and although implicated in the Essex putsch of 1601 he still managed to win favour with James I, eventually gaining a knighthood in 1604. However, this flamboyant social climber was more renowned for his rather Machiavellian political machinations than for his holiness.




 Significant Omissions

While there were a number of quite eligible scholars left out of the reckoning for the project, one is outstanding:

Hugh Broughton: a brilliant Hebrew scholar who made his name in the Elizabethan period, his main claim to fame being his A Consent of the Scriptures, a work on Biblical chronology and textual criticism, published in 1588. This work, however, met with considerable opposition, even from some of his Puritan colleagues, such that he gave a public defence shortly afterwards. In 1589 he travelled abroad and met with many scholars, even Romanists and Jewish rabbis, all of whom were impressed with his learning. When in 1591 he returned to England he incurred the wrath of Archbishop Whitgift, and had to flee abroad again, and there remained until Elizabeth’s death. During this time he published a work on “Christ’s descent into Hell”, which explained the phrase simply as Christ descending into the abode of death, a conclusion reached from his studies of the Hebrew terms.
From his expertise in Hebrew Broughton certainly believed that he should have been included on the team for the new version, and others expected him to be, but he was regarded as one of the more radical Puritans, whom James wanted to exclude from any influence. When the new version appeared he denounced it in no uncertain terms, which he maintained was not “the dictates of passion” (or “sour grapes”, as we would say), but simply “the resentment of a zealous mind”. Broughton died in 1612.

Textual Basis
Contrary to a widespread impression, the KJV translators did not use
“The Received Text” for their translation. Instead, they referred to different published texts, albeit very similar: for the most part they used the third edition of Robert Estienne (Stephanus), publ.1550, regarded by many as the standard text of the Greek New Testament. But in addition, the translators had at their disposal the editions of Erasmus (1516, 1519, 1522), Beza’s edition (1589), and the Ximenes’ Complutensian Polyglot (1514-1522). Moreover, in certain places the translators apparently depended upon readings from the Latin Vulgate for which there was no supporting Greek text. Hence the translators engaged in at least small-scale textual criticism, following different readings from various available texts.

No underlying Greek text for the KJV was published until the nineteenth century, but in 1825 Oxford Press published such a Greek text containing all the words that underlie the English of our Authorized Version. However, it was the editions published by F. H. A. Scrivener (1894, 1902) which served to entrench this “underlying Greek text”, but which in toto corresponds neither strictly to Beza, Stephanus, or the Polyglot. Scrivener’s 1894 edition is the one currently reprinted by the Trinitarian Bible Society.

In particular, Scrivener found 87 places where the KJV agrees with Beza against Stephanus; and then 23 places where KJV follows either the Complutensian Polyglot or Erasmus against both Beza and Stephanus. Of interest is one place where the 1769 revision of the KJV wrongly italicised a word, as though it corresponded to nothing in the Greek, when in fact it did: the word “through” in 2 Peter 3:18.

The Apocrypha
Why did the KJV project include the Apocrypha, especially when Art.VI of the 39 Articles states, “And the other books [of the Apocrypha] the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine…?”

Miles Coverdale had led the way in his Bible of 1535 in rejecting these books as “not…of like reputation with the other scripture”. However, the acceptance to some degree of the Apocrypha was part of the divide between Anglican and Puritan: copies of the Geneva Bible of 1599 edition dropped these books altogether, likewise the 1640 Amsterdam edition of Geneva deliberately omitted them. The Puritans rejected these books outright, a view enshrined in the Westminster Confession (1647), ch.I.iii:

“The books commonly called the Apocrypha, not being of Divine inspiration, are no part of the canon of the Scripture, and therefore are of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings.”

Anglican views were rather different: even the Calvinist Archbishop Abbot in 1615 forbad any printer to issue a Bible without an Apocrypha, while lessons from certain Apocryphal books found their way into the 1662 Prayer Book. Suffice it to observe that the traditional Anglican estimate in this regard has been more positive than the stricter Puritan view, even if Anglicanism does not appeal to the Apocryphal books to establish points of doctrine.

Continued in Part II

Select Bibliography
J.D. Douglas (Ed.), The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, Paternoster, 1974
Lancelot Andrewes (tr. Alexander Whyte), Lancelot Andrewes and His Private Devotions, repr. Baker, 1981
F.F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments, 3rd Ed., Pickering & Inglis, 1963
Idem,     History of the English Bible, 3rd Ed., Oxford, 1978
D. Daniell, The Bible in English, Yale University Press, 2003
J.P Lewis, The English Bible from KJV to NIV, Baker, 1982
A.    Nicolson, Power and Glory: Jacobean England and the Making of the King James Bible, Harper, 2003
James White, The King James Only Controversy, Bethany House, 1995
W. Webster, The Old Testament Canon and the Apocrypha, Christian Resources, 2002



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