Celebrating the Bible in English: 400 years of the King James Version

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The Project

The King James Version of the Bible was not the first English language version of the Bible, but the culmination of extensive translation activity (some illegal!) in the 1500's. This began with the work of William Tyndale and the printing of the first English New Testament in 1526. Following a tumultuous 75 years, King James I came to power in 1603, unifying a divided England. Three main English Bibles were in use: the Bishop's Bible (Church of England, the Geneva Bible (Protestants), and the Rheims New Testament (Roman Catholic Church), causing much confusion and dissension. To settle disagreements over reforms in the Church of England and respond to pressure from the Puritans, King James in 1604 approved a new translation of the Bible, primarily because he knew that it would reinforce his image as a political and spiritual leader. He appointed six committees, totaling 54 scholars, to prepare the new translation, using previous English Bible translation work, and using the best Hebrew, Greek, and Latin texts and manuscripts. The completed King James Version was published in 1611. The first editions were large pulpit Bibles (folios) to be read in churches, but were followed within a year by the printing of smaller versions (quartos) for personal use. Though slow to be adopted in the English-speaking world and to replace the more popular Geneva Bible, from the mid-1600's to the late 20th century, the King James Version was THE Bible of the English-speaking church. Though many recent modern translations have gained in popularity at the expense of the KJV, it remains the standard of measure for all new translations, and it still stands as the outstanding masterpiece of the English language.

King James Bible First Edition Pages

King James Bible
First Edition Pages
Printed 1611

These pages from first editions of the King James Bible are taken from editions or fragments which could not be sold as complete Bibles, because they were already missing pages when found. These fragment sections and pages are often used by restorers to put together complete Bibles that were not complete when discovered. The pages that are left over from the restoration process are often sold by the page. These pages are not the result of the destruction of complete Bibles.

The Texts

The new translation authorized by King James was done by six committees, three assigned to work on the Old Testament, two on the New Testament, and one on the Apocrypha. Once the work of the committees was completed, two members from each committee met for the final review before publication. The text was not really newly translated as claimed. Translators were told to follow the Bishops' Bible as much as possible, and to be guided by the previous translations of Tyndale and Coverdale when they agreed better with the original texts and manuscripts, supported by translations of available Biblical manuscripts. The New Testament was translated using the Textus Receptus (Received Text) series of Greek texts. For the Old Testament, the Masoretic Hebrew text was used, and for the Apocrypha, the Greek Septuagent text was used primarily. Since the translators were instructed to use the Bishops' Bible (1568) as a guide, which was a revision of the Great Bible (1539), which was a revision of the Matthew's Bible (1537), which was a revision of Coverdale's first Bible that included all of Tyndale's translation work (1535), the King James version includes much of the wording of the Tyndale and Coverdale translations. Thus the preface to the first edition says that the translators never set out to make a totally new translation, but to make out of many good ones, one principal good one. Interestingly enough then, the King James Bible reflects the spoken English of the early 1500's rather than the early 1600's in which it was printed. Scholars agree, that though the translation work was done by a committee, this large group of men, with diverse resources, produced a better version of the English Bible than had previously been available. It certainly was not perfect nor was the English text inspired, but it was carefully done, faithful as possible to the available texts and manuscripts, and has stood the test of time and study.

King James Printed 1613

King James Bible
Printed 1613

This copy of the King James Bible is a first black letter quarto version published by Robert Barker in London in 1613, one year after the first Roman letter quarto version was printed in 1612. This edition is called a "He" Bible because of the "he" instead of "she" reading in Ruth 3:15. Bound in this volume are a Common Book of Prayer and a 1614 Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter.

King James Printed 1617

King James Bible
Printed 1617

This copy of the King James Bible is a large folio lectern Bible printed in 1617 by Robert Barker in London, the third unrevised edition of the 1611 first printing. Thus this copy is essentially what a first edition looks like. This printing is called a "She" Bible because of the "she" instead of the "he" reading in Ruth 3:15.

The Editions

The first edition of the King James Version was printed in 1611 by Robert Barker in London. It appears that two issues were published that year, the printing being done possibly in two different shops to meet the expected large demand. The first two printings were large folio Bibles for use in churches, but smaller editions were soon produced for personal use, starting in 1612. With the proliferation of printings, early printer errors crept into the editions. For instance, the word not was left out of the seventh commandment, in what eventually came to be called the "Wicked Bible," which said "Thou shalt commit adultery." As well, if some printed sheets were left over from one printing, they were incorporated into another. Almost no two existing "original 1611" King James Bibles are exactly the same. Eventually there were various calls for the need to correct and revise the King James Version because of printer's errors over the years and the changes in spelling and word usage. Corrected editions were published by the Cambridge University Press, the first being in 1629, followed by another in 1638. Several of the revisers were part of the original group of translators of the KJV. Carelessly printed copies continued to appear, some even printed on the European continent in Holland. Thus in 1762, the most significant corrections were completed in an edition overseen by Dr. Thomas Paris of Trinity College in Cambridge. The work of Dr. Paris was refined by Benjamin Blayney in 1769; this edition then became the standard King James Bible in use up to today. There were almost 1000 editions printed from 1611 to 1769, all with minor corrections. No comprehensive revision of the King James Version was undertaken again until the middle of the 19th century.

King James Printed 1629

King James Bible
Printed in 1629

This copy of the King James Version, a large quarto edition, is the first Cambridge (England) printing of the KJV. It was the first printing since the first edition in 1611 in which editors included a number of revisions, chiefly incorporating more literal readings originally presented in marginal notes. As well, the editors attempted to restore the proper text which had been affected by many misprints in previous printings. Two who participated in the Cambridge printing, Dr. Samuel Ward and John Bois, worked on the original translation of the King James Version in 1611.

King James Printed 1762

King James Bible
Printed 1762

This copy of the King James Version, a large quarto edition printed in Cambridge in 1762, is considered to be the "standard" edition of the King James Version, becoming, along with the Blayney Oxford edition of 1769, the foundation of the modern King James Bible. Led by Dr. Thomas Paris as editor, this was the first edition of the KJV with standardized spelling, based on Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755. As well, the language was modernized, marginal references were expanded, and previous printing errors were removed.

The KJV in Early America

Many of the early settlers in America from England came seeking religious freedom. The Pilgrims arrived in 1620 and brought with them the Geneva Bible, not the King James Bible. The KJV was seen as the Bible of the English King and the state Church of England which had been persecuting them. But by the mid-1600's, the King James Bible was arriving in the New World with the increasing flow of settlers. However, the first Bibles printed in America were not English Bibles. The very first was John Eliot's Algonquin Indian language Bible which was printed in 1663. The first Bible printed in America in a European language was Luther's German translation, printed in 1743. It was much later in the colonial period, in 1782, when the first complete King James Bible was printed in America. Prior to that time, English Bibles were readily available as imports from England and the English Crown owned the "copyright" on the printing of the King James Version. With the coming of the Revolutionary War, the importation of British goods was seriously curtailed, so Robert Aitken, who had started printing the King James New Testament in the Colonies in 1771, gained the support from the United States Congress to print the entire King James Bible, which he did in 1782. His Bible became known as the "Bible of the Revolution," because it was printed in a small size so copies could be distributed to the soldiers in the Colonial army. Late in the 18th century, other printers began publishing the complete King James Bible. Isaac Collins printed his Bible in 1791; the Collins Bible became known as the first "Family Bible" printed in America. Isaiah Thomas published the first illustrated King James Bible in 1791. And John Thompson in 1798 produced the first King James Bible to be hot-pressed in America. This printing technique helped to sear the ink clearly into the paper with heat. Thompson's Bible was a large pulpit folio, the largest Bible printed in America up until that time. As the new United States of America moved into the 19th century, many new milestones of Bible printing would follow.

Aitken Bible Page

Aitken Bible Page
Printed 1782

This original page from a King James Bible is from a copy printed in Philadelphia in 1782, Robert Aitken's only edition of the first English Bible printed in America. The page measures about 6 inches by 4 inches, making the Bible small enough to fit into the pocket of a Continental Army soldier. The text on these two pages is from I Corinthians 7:1 to 8:7.

King James Bible Thompson Hot-Press Edition

King James Bible
Thompson Hot-Press Edition
Printed 1798

This copy of the King James Bible was printed by John Thompson in Philadelphia in 1798, the first hot-pressed printing of the Bible in the American colonies. This copy was re-bound in leather in 2004 by the artisans at the Ohio Book Store in Cincinnati, Ohio.

New Testament

New Testament
Printed 1807

This copy of the King James Bible New Testament, published during the time of the presidency of Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809), was printed in New York in 1807 by Duyckinck and Mesier.

The Revisions

Into the early 19th century, because of changing literary styles, diction, and language usage, several attempts had been made periodically to revise the King James Version to make its language more current. None of these had any lasting significance. However, since the translation in the early 17th century, earlier and more accurate biblical manuscripts had been discovered, a greater understanding of the intricacies of Greek and Hebrew grammar construction had developed, and archeological research had provided new perspectives on life in biblical times. As well, in several centuries, the English language itself had undergone significant changes. In the 1870's, serious work began on a major revision of the King James Version to reflect all of these new realities. A committee of over 50 English and American scholars was established and began meeting in 1871. The result was the publication in 1881 of the English Revised Version, or Revised Version, which was the first and remains the only officially authorized revision of the King James Bible. The New Testament was published in 1881, the Old Testament in 1885, and the Apocrypha in 1895. During the project, an American revision committee had consulted with the English revisers of the Revised Version and in 1901 the American Standard Version, which was officially the American standard edition of the English Revised Version, was published. The ASV had a much stronger reception in the United States than the Revised Version had in England. In fact, copies of the ASV were imported back into England, but neither the RV nor the ASV replaced the popularity of the King James Bible. While the language of the ASV lacks the beauty of the King James Version, it became the standard Bible for many of the Sunday School publications in the early 20th century because of its greater precision in language use. As the 20th century moved on, a plethora of new translations appeared, but none, like the English Revised Version or the American Standard Version, were seen as revisions of the King James Bible.

Revised New Testament

Revised Version New Testament

This copy of the Revised Version of the New Testament (or English Revised Version) is a presentation copy from the American Committee of Revision given in 1881 to those who had provided donations for the expense of the translation and publishing work of the Revised Version.

American Standard Version

American Standard Version Bible

This copy of the American Standard Version of the Bible (or the American Standard Edition of the English Revised Version) is typical of those published by the American Revision Committee in 1901.