All for One

New Light on the Committee Whose Collective Genius Produced the King James Bible

Rummaging in the Cambridge University archives, a scholar found documents that bring us closer than ever to understanding the genesis of the King James Bible.

We know something of the beginnings. Within a year of James Stuart succeeding to the English throne in 1603, he was on the case. England already had two competing Bibles on the go: the Bishops’ Bible, right wing, authoritarian, and cloth-eared, famously translating the phrase we know as “Cast thy bread upon the waters” as “Lay thy bread upon wet faces;” and the Geneva, beloved of puritans, clear in its language and stuffed with the kind of radical notes that would make any king’s hair curl, consistently translating the word “king” itself, which appears more than 400 times in the Old Testament, as “tyrant.” There was no way England could put up with the Bishops’ Bible; and no way James could tolerate the Geneva. And so, after a conference at Hampton Court in 1604, the King James Bible was born.

Apart from that initial impulse, the making of the great new book is swathed in obscurity. James and his archbishop of Canterbury, a rough, north-country pursuer of radical puritans called Richard Bancroft, who liked to wrestle with other bishops in his spare time, drew up some rules for the translation. Six committees of learned scholars and divines were chosen, two from Westminster, two from Oxford and two from Cambridge, nine men in each. The committees were given chunks of the Bible to translate, three for the Old Testament, three for the New, and set to work. But then a virtual silence descends. How were they paid? How was the work organized? How did they get on? Who did what? No one really knows.

Only in the last 50 or 60 years have a series of assiduous scholars, nearly all of them American, rootling around in dusty English archives, started to find some evidence of what actually happened: a working copy of the Bishops’ Bible, covered in annotations and revisions by a member of one of the Oxford committees; a manuscript in the archbishop’s library in Lambeth laid out like a double entry accountant’s book, showing suggested translations on one side, possible revisions on the other; a letter or two; and some notes made by one of the scholars in the final revising committee which met in London in 1610, describing, fascinatingly, the conversation in Latin between the scholars deciding on the exact wording of the greatest book ever written in English.

But now, excitingly, another discovery. Jeffrey Alan Miller, English professor at Montclair State University, digging deep into the manuscripts held at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge, has found a notebook in which one of the translators, a puritan called Samuel Ward, was working out his suggestions for parts of the Apocrypha. The college had blandly catalogued it as a “verse-by-verse biblical commentary,” but Miller realized that this was Ward’s working document, the process of scholarly translation actually occurring on the pages in front of him. Line by line, verse by verse, Ward was comparing the ancient Greek text of the Septuagint with the Hebrew original, suggesting and revising on the pages of the notebook, “making mistakes and changing his mind,” as Miller has said, correcting the Bishops’ Bible readings, offering his own. Here, for the first time, we can now see the King James Bible in the making.

So what does it show? Can one see in this new document any of the grounds for the excellence of the translation? The most intriguing aspect is that it demonstrates a system at work exactly as James and Bancroft had originally envisaged it in the rules they gave to the translators, especially Rule 8: “Every particular man of each company to take ye same chapter or chapters, and having translated or amended them severally by himselfe where he thinks good, all to meete together, confer what they have done, and agree for their Parts what shall stand.”

That is just what appears on the pages of Miler’s newly discovered notebook. Ward is reading the Bishops’ Bible and the Geneva, comparing them with the Greek text and the Hebrew where it applies, alone or “severally by himselfe,” as Jacobean English has it. He then, on these pages, but in a later hand, changes some of his own translations, as Miller has said, “assuredly in response to suggestions provided by another of his colleagues … perhaps in the context of a company-wide discussion.” And many of those amended versions are what appear in the printed text.

This is the subtle mechanism at the heart of the King James Bible: deep scholarly attention to the detail of the original; long private engagement with the best possible way of rendering it in an English that does not traduce the original; many different scholarly imaginations applied to the task; and that variety of solutions put through the careful sifting of the joint meeting. The mouth of the net is wide and inclusive, but the filter is fine-mesh and carefully discriminatory. Imagination, scholarship, linguistic skill, and close control are closely bound in with each other.

That, anyway, was the idea. It didn’t always work and the King James Apocrypha in particular is something of a mish-mash, relying in different places on different Greek versions of the original, a symptom of the first part of the process failing to be sorted out by the second, bubbling Jacobean individuality overwhelming tight Jacobean control.

Miller’s discovery is wonderful because it brings the reality of a distant moment so close. What makes it even better is that the translator he has lighted on, Samuel Ward, is one of the most knowable of them all, not because he became an important man, Master of the Cambridge college that has preserved his papers, but because as a young man, ten years or so before, he wrote one of the most revelatory of diaries from Elizabethan England. The young Ward describes in close detail all the agonies of the puritan. Day after day, too much cheese, too much laughter, eavesdropping on other people’s conversations, thinking himself cleverer than anyone else, exciting dreams about “the grievous sinnes in T[rinity] Colledg, which had a woman which was [carried?] from chamber in the night-tyme.” He had “proud thoughts” when he want to see a Crocodile with an important friend. He ate too many plums, slept through sermons, and all in all took “overmuch delite in these transitory pleasures of this world.” But that too may be one of the King James Bible’s secrets: the men who made it so good were not that good themselves.

Adam Nicolson is the author of God’s Secretaries: the Making of the King James Bible and numerous other books about history, travel, and landscape. His most recent book is Why Homer Matters.