I recently read ‘A VISUAL HISTORY OF THE KING JAMES BIBLE‘, by Donald L. Brake with Shelley Beach. (Baker Books)
Brake begins with a brief overview of the evolution of what we call the “English Language” and traces the extremely complex weave of many separate tongues that came together, as one invader (or colonizer) after another crossed the English Channel or the North Sea. And during these same early centuries of the Common Era, the establishment and growth of the Christian faith had resulted in the formation of an organized church structure, a body of texts in Greek and Latin, and a populace which was beginning to feel the need of increased access to those “holy scriptures”.
A Yorkshire layman, Caedmon, was one of the earliest writers to bring scripture to life in verse form and one of his manuscripts in Anglo-Saxon English, CAEDMON’S HYMN, dated ca. 737, is still available to read in the Cambridge University Library. Alfred the Great (849-899) defeated the Vikings and assured that the language of the British people would continue to be English. He mastered Latin in order to contribute English language translations of the Ten Commandments, parts of Exodus and Acts, and one form of the Golden Rule. But it was in the 10th century that a translation of the four gospels into English was achieved.
During the Middle-English period (1066-1500) the English language continued to evolve and more and more materials began to be made available to the (rare) reader. It was in the 14th century that a complete Bible in the English language was produced by John Wycliffe in 1382. There are only 250 copies of the Wycliffe Bible, all hand-copied by various monks using hand-made styluses and lamp-black ink. Inevitably, there were a great many instances where different copies disagree due to human error.
Then when Johann Gutenberg of Germany printed the Bible, in 1454-56, a new era began. William Caxton imported the art of printing into England in 1475 but was able to produce only fractions of the Biblical text due to regulations established by the official church and the British government.
The next pioneer in this work was William Tyndale (ca 1494-1536) who produced an almost complete English translation of the Bible but was forced to have his work printed in Europe due, again, to regulations issued by officials of the established Church in England. William Tyndale may be the world’s first author to have his book “banned in Boston” when church officers ordered copies of it burned-causing a demand for the book which actually saved it!
During this period, there were a number of translations of the Bible and they became ikons we now remember-Bishop’s Bible, Coverdale Bible, Douay-Rheims Bible and the Geneva Bible.
A new era began when on her death bed, Queen Elizabeth I designated James VI of Scotland as her successor. He was proclaimed James I of England, France, Scotland and Ireland on March 22, 1603. James was solidly Protestant, a man profoundly devoted to all areas of the Christian religion. He was highly educated and the author of books on politics, religion, and even left us a book that condemned the use of tobacco!
James I came to the throne of England as the Puritan movement was challenging the dominance of the Anglican Church. James’ background was Presbyterian, but he refused to be dominated by any one group. In the midst of considerable turbulence, a Puritan named John Reynolds of Oxford proposed that a new translation of the Bible was needed.
Under the sponsorship of James I, 54 translators were assembled and divided into six companies-two companies each from Cambridge and Oxford Universities and Westminster Abbey. Out of this group a team of twelve were selected to review and edit the combined and ongoing work, and a further group of three were given oversight of the work of the twelve. All of these men were highly educated and capable, and their work was the first instance of a translation effort being made by a group, rather than a single man.
Each of the various companies received a specific assignment of a group of contiguous books of the Bible. For example, the First Westminster Company was assigned Genesis through 2nd Kings. Surprisingly detailed records have been kept of every man involved in the massive project and of their proceedings. Inevitably many questions of translation and choice of words had to be settled, but the author notes that at no time did William Shakespeare enter into this effort, although he had already established himself as a master at the time.
Those of us who cherish the King James Version of the Bible will often comment on what author Alred Pollard describes as “the rhythm and strength and the melody” of the language. We now learn that King James appointed Archbishop Richard Bancroft of Westminster to be the over-all supervisor of this massive project, and Bancroft decreed that the style of language be that of the 16th century in the Bishop’s Bible.
A VISUAL HISTORY OF THE KING JAMES BIBLE (also available as an E-book) contains a wealth of illustrations and complementary quotations which help to enlarge one’s understanding of a complex endeavor which took place in a complex era of our common history, and resulted in the production of a book which is treasured and read throughout the world today.