Also known as The Authorised Version, the 1611 translation of the Christian Bible which is today most commonly referred to as the King James Version is perhaps the only book to have had a greater influence on the English language than the works of William Shakespeare. For a book ostensibly intended to bring the Good News of God’s love and peace it has a history rich in controversy, conflict and bloodshed, because the King James Version (or KJV) was far from the first translation of the Bible into the English language.
As early as the 14th century John Wycliffe had undertaken the first complete translation of the Latin texts, which circulated widely as handwritten manuscripts, much to the consternation of both civil and religious authorities – Wycliffe also founded Lollardism, a pre-Reformation movement which openly denounced the pomp and power of the church authorities. Needless to say, as in so many conflicts, the Lollards were only too eager to claim that God was on their side, and Wycliffe’s translation made it easy for them to do just that (and all without actually mistranslating anything).
Wycliffe was declared a heretic, but fared better than the next famous Bible translator, William Tyndale, who was the first known English-language translator to work directly from Hebrew and Greek texts, and to take advantage of the newly-developed printing press. He denounced the practise of prayer to the saints, taught justification by faith, and preached the coming return of Jesus. He also publically opposed King Henry VIII’s divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and although his execution in 1536 was ostensibly for translating and circulating an English-language Bible (a criminal offense at the time), it’s entirely possible that this is the real reason for which he was killed.
By this time the Protestant Reformation was well underway and within four years Henry VIII had authorised the publication of no less than four English translations of the Bible, including the first ‘official’ English Bible, the Great Bible. The Great Bible was prepared by Myles Coverdale, who shamelessly (and ironically) made extensive use of Tyndale’s incomplete translation. Remind me again what Jesus said about hypocrisy? Anyway, Coverdale was working for Thomas, Lord Cromwell, who was both secretary to Henry VIII and Vicar General. In 1538, Cromwell issued the following instruction to all the clergy in England: to take “one book of the bible of the largest volume in English, and the same set up in some convenient place within the said church that ye have care of, whereas your parishioners may most commodiously resort to the same and read it.” It is because these Bibles were so huge that they came to be known as the ‘Great Bible’.
In 1553 Henry VIII’s eldest daughter, Mary, became Queen Mary I of England. Mary was a Catholic, and a number of prominent English Protestant scholars were swift to sense the change in the political wind and decamp to Geneva in Switzerland, then a hotbed of Protestant activity. One result of this was the publication of yet another English translation, this time in smaller editions intended for purchase by private citizens. Many fell in love with it due to its style, which was considered more ‘forceful’ and direct than that of the Great Bible, but the authorities, both church and civil (which were still more or less the same thing) loathed it not so much for its popularity as for the extensive footnotes and commentaries which were made available with it, and which were unashamedly Protestant, Puritan and Calvinistic in nature. The Geneva Bible was the version used by such notable figures as John Donne, William Shakespeare, John Bunyan, and the Mayflower pioneers.
In response to the Geneva Bible two more English translations were swiftly published by the English religious/civil Establishment: the Bishop’s Bible in 1568 (subsequently extensively revised several times) at the behest of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, and the Douay-Rheims under the auspices of the Roman Catholic church in 1582.
All these Bibles may be regarded as the direct predecessors of the King James Version. In Part 2 I’ll be looking at the translation and influence of the KJV itself.