More Than 300 Years Ago, Church and State Alike Sought an Accurate and Beautiful English-Language Bible
In 1604, if someone purchased an English Bible, they bought the Geneva Bible. Produced by English and Scottish Protestants in Switzerland, the Geneva Bible was translated from the original Greek and Hebrew and drew heavily from William Tyndale’s pioneering translation work from the 1520s. The New Testament appeared in 1557 and the full version in 1560.
After Queen Elizabeth I lifted the ban on Protestantism in 1559, the Geneva Bible’s popularity soared. More than 140 editions were published by 1644. As one of the first Bibles to be outfitted with verse numbers, chapter headings, marginal notes, maps and tables, the Geneva was meant to be a Bible for private study.
Many of the marginal notes, however, reflected the influence of John Calvin’s teachings and were found to be subversive of royal authority by church and state officials. The Church of England had attempted to produce a more royal-friendly version in 1568 known as the Bishops’ Bible. But because the Bishops’ Bible was hastily thrown together and difficult to read, the Geneva Bible stayed firmly in place as the Bible of choice.
With the ascension of James I to the throne in 1603, the time was right to try again to create an official Bible that would please church and state officials, as well as more conservative Protestant groups. At a January 1604 conference of senior clergy and a few Puritans hosted by King James at his Hampton Court palace, John Reynolds raised the idea of a new, state-mediated translation.
“Those that were allowed in the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI were corrupt,” claimed Reynolds, “and not answerable to the truth.”
The new king agreed and commissioned 54 scholars to perform the work. Each received a list of 15 rules assembled and sent by the Bishop of London, Richard Bancroft, to follow throughout the translation process. The Bishops’ Bible was to be the base text. There were to be no marginal notes other than those about the Greek or Hebrew, and versions other than the Bishops’ Bible were only to be consulted when they were found to be a better translation.
The men split into six companies—two in Oxford, two in Cambridge, two in Westminster—each focusing on different parts of the Bible. For the next seven years, they worked toward their goal, pulling heavily from William Tyndale’s thorough and graceful work.
In 1611, the King James Version of the Bible went to press. “Fearing no reproach for slownesse, nor coveting praise for expedition, wee have at the length through the good hand of the Lord upon us, brought the worke to that passe that you see,” the translators wrote in the Bible’s preface.
This version used language appropriate for the time and was accurate and lyrical, but the initial reception was not enthusiastic. It would take several decades after its initial release for the KJV to overtake the Geneva Bible in popularity.
But slow suppression eventually took its toll. To help create demand for the KJV, the king’s printers were discouraged from printing the Geneva Bible. The KJV was printed continuously, and with the absence of any other new translations, it eventually became the default English Bible later in the seventeenth century.
The King James Version has remained in the hearts of the English-speaking world for the last 400 years, helping untold numbers to deepen their faith. But as its translators also noted: “We desire that the Scripture may speake like it selfe, as in the language of Canaan, that it may bee understood.”
In the twentieth century, this same desire prompted the creation of the New International Version.