The translation of the King James Bible was an official government project, like Social Security and Medicare. But it was never properly funded, not even by the monarch whose idea it was.
Not that James I of England was stingy. Far from it! He loved to give expensive gifts to his friends and perpetually had holes in his budget that he never patched, even when it was clear to everyone who mattered that he was living beyond his means.
Still, in spite of his money troubles, James was a canny intellectual, well-read and theologically astute -- with a hatred of Calvinism not as a theological system (most of whose tenets he thought right and proper) but as a leveling political program ill at ease with monarchy and bishops.
James distrusted the Puritan form of Calvinism, which in his view tended toward argumentative Presbyterianism at best and implacable Separatism at worst.
James had inherited an official Bible from the Elizabethan Church, the so-called Bishops’ Bible. Its translation was badly done, often obscure and generally disliked by everyone who had the right to an opinion. The most popular English Bible by far was the unauthorized Geneva Bible, translated into vigorous English by exiles in Geneva, complete with notes, maps and illustrations.
But James loathed the Geneva Bible in spite of its unchallenged popularity. The translation was far too Puritan in its sentiments for his taste. For example, whenever the original text of the Bible used the word “king,” the Geneva translators invariably -- and, from James’ perspective, inexcusably -- rendered it in English as “tyrant.” No king with even a modicum of political sense could let that seditious translation stand unchallenged, much less appoint it to be read in churches.
So James asked 50-plus translators not to make an entirely new translation of the Bible but to revise and improve the Bishops’ Bible in light of the original Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic texts.
Though James wanted a broad consensus on the text of his new translation, he did not want Roman Catholics or Separatists working on it. Catholics and Separatists were beyond the pale. What James needed was as wide a participation of the various parties within the Church of England as possible, but no wider.
All the translators chosen were members of the Church of England (all but one ordained). They were robustly Protestant in their convictions. Generally speaking, they differed more sharply in their practices than in their theology. Lancelot Andrewes loved beauty, ceremony and incense, while Lawrence Chadderton presided at communion in a chapel as stripped down and bare as an empty warehouse.
The translators worked in six companies (or committees): two at Cambridge, two at Oxford and two at Westminster. Each company circulated its translation among the five other companies for comment and improvement. They considered every available English translation, from William Tyndale’s New Testament (94 percent of which they kept) to the all-but-banned Geneva Bible.
The new 1611 translation was not a haphazard patchwork of existing translations that displayed no regard for the original languages or the rhythms and music of the early modern English. The translators were determined to make David sing like an Englishman.
At the same time, the translators remained as literal as possible in their rendering of the text. Simple English parishioners, literate and illiterate alike, should hear the word of God as it was originally spoken by prophets and apostles and not as the translators might have preferred it to be understood. If not, why appoint it to be read in churches?
When a representative committee drawn from all six companies met to approve the final text of the King James Version (KJV), they had original texts and earlier English translations in front of them but no proposed copy of the KJV. Instead, the text of the KJV was read to them. They heard it as parishioners would hear it in their parish churches.
After all, large portions of the Bible were spoken before they were written, and the acts of reading and preaching restored the Bible to its original spoken form. The KJV is intended to be part of the auditory event in which ordinary men and women encounter the living God. “Faith,” Paul said, “cometh by hearing.” If so, what more appropriate method could be devised to approve the final draft of the text than by hearing it read?
Judged by their own standards, the translators achieved most of the goals they set for themselves: They corrected the mistakes and theological howlers in earlier translations. They used no words that were not in common use at the time. And they translated the text as literally as they could without damaging the integrity, beauty, majesty and inherent music of the English language. In short, they gave James everything he had hoped for when he first proposed the new Bible.
Of course, there were limitations. The KJV did not have access to all the best original manuscripts (not even the Codex Bezae) and made some unfortunate errors in translation. Moreover, the first edition was marred by a shameful number of printer’s errors.
Nevertheless, the KJV -- warts and all -- has had an incredible longevity. Americans can buy a copy of the KJV in almost any bookstore without the least difficulty. Indeed, it has remained the most popular translation of the Bible in the U.S. after the New International Version. Even today, most Protestants learn the Lord’s Prayer and the Twenty-third Psalm in King James English.
There are therefore both cultural and religious reasons for not abandoning a continuing interest in this landmark of English prose. The King James Bible was not an original work of genius by a single author (such as “King Lear” and “The Tempest,” written by Shakespeare at the same time). But it was a translation of ancient religious documents made by a committee of all unlikely authors as part of a government project of all unlikely sponsors.
Unlikely origins do not preclude a satisfying ending. Andrewes and Chadderton would not have been surprised to be reminded that the wisdom of God, which often transforms what appears to be sheer folly into something wonderfully wise, had done it again -- this time in the case of the improbably successful King James Bible.