The year 1611 marked the authorisation by King James I of England to produce a new Bible in English. 2011 therefore marks the 400th anniversary of the commissioning.
The King James Bible was not intended as propaganda for an absolutist monarch - its purpose was to unify and enfold, to elide the kingliness of God with the godliness of kings. Royal power and divine glory would thus become indivisible and embrace the whole nation. When James VI of Scotland came south to become James I of England, he envisaged the creation of a kingdom where peace and harmony would reign, indeed a second Eden. In seeking to establish unity in Great Britain, James’ hopes foundered on the vanity, self-indulgence and incompetence which were hallmarks of his court and of his reign. Yet despite his obvious failings he had equally obvious virtues. Retreating from the brutality and anarchy of Scotland, he became immensely intellectual, seeking solace in study and showing appreciation of good learning. It is said that James spoke 'Greek before breakfast and Latin before Scots'. He also composed 'stiff' yet emotional Renaissance poetry, translated the Psalms, was capable on sight of turning any passage of the Bible from Latin into French, and equally of turning French into English.
Having journeyed south, he convened the Hampton Court Conference in 1604. The conference was chaotic and nothing came of it except for an agreement to produce a new Bible in English to replace the plethora of Bibles appearing in the previous century. The King James Bible was not merely a sop to meet Puritan demands. Neither did it stem solely from a desire to replace existing Bibles with their differing objectives; nor indeed was it simply for use as a catalyst in the creation of a harmonious kingdom. James was interested in theology and had a perpetual interest in the relationship of words, individual or combined, to mental action.
After the decision had been taken to produce a further version of the Bible, Richard Bancroft [Bishop of London and shortly to become Archbishop of Canterbury] impressed on the translators the need to base their revisions on the Bishops' Bible. They were also, however, to consult the translations of Tyndale, as well as many other Bibles including the Matthew, Coverdale [Great Bible] and Geneva, and even the Rheims translation of the N.T.. Indeed the translators widened their search still further, taking inspiration from the world around them as well as from great literature. They were alert to the glamour of antiquity, in many ways consciously archaic in phraseology and grammar, meticulous in their scholarship and always looking to the primitive and the essential as the guarantee of truth. Their translation was driven by the idea of a constant present, the sense that the riches, beauties, failings and sufferings of Jacobean England were part of the same world as that in which Job, David and Paul had lived. Their subject was neither ancient nor modern, but both or either. It was the universal text.
The work of translation was undertaken by six 'companies', two each from Oxford and Cambridge, and two from Cambridge-dominated Westminster. Each of the six was led by a director / chief translator and each was assigned to work on different books of the Bible. Two of the 'company' directors were Cambridge academics, of whom Lancelot Andrewes [Pembroke College, chaplain to Archbishop Whitgift and later Bishop of Chichester, Ely and Winchester in turn] was one, and in many ways the translation's hero too, being a scholarly and a passionate man, in love with the English language, but a man too with many contradictions in his character. As Dean of Westminster he was responsible for both Abbey and school, among whose pupils was the future poet George Herbert. Lancelot Andrewes' brother, Roger, himself a Fellow of Pembroke College, was also one of the translators. The other director of one of the Cambridge 'companies' was Edward Lively of Trinity Hall, Regius Professor of Hebrew in the University, and later prebendary at Peterborough. Another translator was Laurence Chaderton, a great Puritan and the very first Master of Emmanuel College, a Puritan hot-house. James Montagu [originally at Christ's College, Cambridge, and later the first Master appointed to Sidney Sussex College, another Puritan establishment, founded 1596, twelve years after Emmanuel] was a member of one of the Oxford 'companies'.
So how did these translators set about their work? Apart from careful consideration of the many sources available to them, the translators knew that the king - who acted in a quasi consultative role taking close interest in the work's progress - expected the finished product to be easily understood by the ordinary people of the day. After years of patient and scholarly work, the 'company' concerned then sent the book for which they were responsible to the two other companies for their additional consideration. Finally delegates of the six 'companies' came together in 1610. There, certain delegated members from each company met regularly over 9 months to listen to the product of their labours, the total text, which was read aloud verse by verse for the purposes of 'fine tuning'. This version of the Bible was meant not so much for private reading as for public declamation - in churches for a start. The language had to be clear and had to flow. And it did. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God".
They then approved the penultimate version of the text - the final revision being completed by Myles Smith and Thomas Bilson. What emerged was a work that drew on the age of literary elegance and brilliance which he inherited, the England of Marlowe [Corpus Christi College], Spenser [Pembroke College] and Shakespeare himself. The King James’ version, without illustrations, was printed specifically in large format to facilitate the reading of it to a public audience. It was, in its first edition, even larger than the Great Bible. Its 'black letter font' was intended to give it status and authority.
Some would also claim that it is the first classic of the literature of England, an exemplar of linguistic purity and beauty in English speech. Yet at its first appearance it was not universally acclaimed in the fraught world of 17th century English religion. Puritans disliked it, scholars picked holes in it, and many of the public preferred the Genevan version, if only because it had been in widespread use for the previous fifty years. Some people even claim that its eventual triumph was as much the result of state-sponsored monopoly as of literary or spiritual merit. As it was, it rapidly replaced the Bishops’ Bible and, in due course, the Geneva version too. It remained supreme until the late nineteenth century when it was ultimately replaced by the Revised Version. However, its brilliance was still appreciated; in 1828 Lord Macaulay wrote ‘…a book which, if everything else in our language should perish, would alone suffice to show the whole extent of its beauty and power’. Indeed the KJ Bible has sold more than 1 billion copies since 1611. The text has since been through several editions and revisions, but for generations it has maintained its prime position as an oracular expression of religious truth. It is the world's best-selling book and one of the permanent glories of the English language.