The Wisdom of the KJV Translators
In 604, most records show that 54 men were appointed by King James to a committee charged with producing a new version of the Holy Bible. It appears that only 47 or so of that number actually worked on the new version. All were men noted for their scholarship in some area of language or in syntactical expertise. All were ministers affiliated with the Church of England to some degree. A few had leanings to Puritanism, others had a bent toward Calvinism, and still others were descendants of old Catholic families.
This varied group of prelates were divided into six companies to work at different locations and on varying parts of Scripture. For about three years they met erratically, and assumedly worked on research the part of the Bible to which they were assigned. In 1607-08 they got into a higher gear with more frequent meetings and interaction. By 1611 they had published what would become known as the King James Version.
The purpose of this article is to express the wisdom employed by the translators in how they approached and viewed their work. Their thoughts were revealed in their Preface to the new version. They were well aware of the deep feelings those in England embraced regarding the Bible in their own language. Their countrymen had long been denied God’s Word in their own tongue, being forced to use only the Latin Vulgate version or its English translation by Wycliffe. After Tyndale was burned at the stake for using Erasmus’ Greek text to make an English translation from the original language, King Henry relented to allow some new versions to be produced. The Great Bible and the Bishop’s Bible were the most recent and were currently in the widest use by the clergy.
The most popular English version among the lay citizenry, however, had been published in Geneva by Whittingham, Calvin and Beza in 1560. It was simply called the Geneva Bible. Its marginal commentary had become a bone of contention with King James. He disliked it because his personal theory of the divine right of kings was not promoted in the marginalia. The biblical text itself was not substantially different from what the KJV would be, and the translators actually lifted many of the phrases from the Geneva Bible in use in their own Bible.
So how were the KJV translators wise in their approach to a new Bible? They knew that a new version would not soon become the Bible of choice with either the ministry or the laity. Change is fraught first with curiosity—why is a new version being done when we have others already? They had to justify its necessity. They did so by critiquing the Douay-Rheims Version of 1582 (with updates in 1609-10), published in France by the University of Douay. That version had been authorized by the Roman Catholic Church. The KJV translators’ claim was that it was full of obsolete words and phrases that could possibly confuse the readers. The KJV translators scored the “Romanists” (Catholics) in their Preface for using terms like “azimes, tunike, rational, holocausts, praepuce, pasche, and a number of such like, whereof their late Translation is full,” claiming their purpose was “to darken the sense, that since they must needs translate the Bible, yet by the language thereof, it may be kept from being understood.”
They were wise to recognize this and point out their objective: “We desire that the Scripture may speak like itself, as in the language of Canaan, that it may be understood even of the very vulgar [the uneducated].” Adopting the philosophies of Wycliffe and Tyndale, understanding was the stated motivation for the KJV translators. Although tethered to the king guidelines, they seemed to want the English-speaking people of their day to precisely comprehend what God’s Word was saying. Therefore, they changed some of the renderings from previous English versions in the interest of current clarity. Why should that same motivation and those actions be condemned today?
The translators were also wise to inform their readers that they should not construct dogma on the basis of their interpretation or choice of words alone. They wrote in their Preface: “It hath pleased God in His divine providence, here and there to scatter words and sentences of that difficulty and doubtfulness, not in doctrinal points that concern salvation, (for in such it hath been vouched that the Scriptures are plain) but in matters of less moment…in such a case, doth not a margin do well to admonish the Reader to see further, and not to conclude or dogmatize upon this or that peremptorily? ...They that are wise, had rather have their judgments at liberty in differences of readings, than to be captivated to one, when it may be the other.”
Countering the current extremist view that theirs was a “perfect translation,” the KJV translators were plainly saying, “Nothing is begun and perfected at the same time.” In other words, consult the readings in other versions. Ours may be biased in some way, or incorrect in the translation. They didn’t say that this version is the final Bible translation that will ever be needed. Future versions may shed more light and provide a clearer understanding. This admission, of course, flies in the face of the KJV Only claim that the KJV is God’s Word in total, inspired, perfect, without flaw of any kind, and no future effort will be able to improve it. The translators said the opposite of that. In retrospect, their wisdom was showing.
This counters the current extremists’ claims that the KJV is the “seventh purification” of God’s Word (arbitrarily considering particular previous English versions). If the KJV translators are to be hailed as the ultimate in wisdom and scholarship, shouldn’t the wisdom expressed in their Preface at least be acknowledged by current KJV advocates? Some who insist that the KJV is the only legitimate Bible generally do so in the belief that the translators were “divinely inspired,” an attribute they themselves denied. They did not feel they were inspired or that their work was infallibly perfect. They were not writing a Bible; they were mostly copying Bibles already published with some of their own translation choices from the Textus Receptus thrown in. If the KJV translators died without knowing they were inspired and their work infallible, how did those who are making that claim today find out? Dr. John R. Rice said it plainly: “The doctrine of the infallibility of the translation in the KJV is not a Bible doctrine…it is a man-made scheme by some partly ignorant and some partly influenced by bad motives.”
They acknowledged in their Preface that every new translation is apt to be “glouted upon by every evil eye” and “gored by every sharp tongue.” As historian Thomas Fuller recounts, “Some of the brethren were not well pleased with this translation.” Among the more vocal critics was Hugh Broughton, thought by many to be the foremost Hebrew scholar of the day, who noted its many errors. He contended that the translators had put the errors in the text and the correct readings in the margins.
The KJV translators provided an analogy: “As the Kings Speech which hee uttered in Parliament, being translated into French, Dutch, Italian and Latine, is still the Kings Speech, though it be not interpreted by every Translator with the like grace, nor peradventure so fitly for phrase, nor so expresly for sense, every where.” They go on to note that even a man considered handsome may have a wart or two! The apostles and their fellow-writers of Scripture were infallible. Translators and copyists are not. So in translation, blemishes here and there are normal but do not in every case lessen its impact as the Word of God. They suggest the pre-eminent example of this is the Greek translation of the Old Testament used by the early church. It was not perfect, but it was embraced by the apostles and others as God’s good Word. They were wise to accept and acknowledge that theirs was an imperfect work.
The translators eliminated virtually all of the marginal commentary that had appeared in previous versions, but still had several thousand entries therein. “In the KJV margins are 4,223 more literal meanings, 2,738 alternative translations, 104 variant readings, and 113 references to the Apocrypha.” They explained their need and preference for retaining marginalia: “Some peradventure would have no variety of senses to be set in the margin lest the authority of the Scriptures for deciding of controversies by that show of uncertainty [not knowing for sure the exact meaning of a word or phrase, or how to best translate it] should somewhat be shaken.” In other words, providing a footnote or bracketing a word or phrase to let the reader know there may be a more appropriate or better informed rendering, should not shake the reader’s faith.
They further explained their actions: “Now in such a case, doth not a margin do well to admonish the reader to seek further, and not to conclude or dogmatize upon this or that peremptorily? For as it is a fault of incredulity, to doubt of these things that are evident: so to determine of such things as the Spirit God hath left (even in the judgment of the judicious) questionable, can be no less then presumption. Therefore as S. Augustine saith, that variety of translations is profitable for the finding out of the sense of the Scriptures: so diversity of signification and sense in the margin, where the text is not so clear, must needs do good, yea, is necessary, as we are persuaded. ...They that are wise, had rather have their judgments at liberty in differences of readings, than to be captivated to one, when it may be the other” [italics mine). They were admitting that they were dealing with manuscripts and former versions that had variant readings. They had to make a choice of wording—again exercising their own scholarly judgment—or, in a few cases, that of the king. For those places where the meaning is not so clear and open to question, a variety of renderings can be appropriate and helpful for understanding.
The translators clearly expressed in their Preface that they did not wish to be confined too closely to a consistency of rigidly rendering the original wording. They demonstrated this bent as they quoted Genesis 15:6 three different ways in the NT, at James 2:23, Galatians 3:6, and Romans 4:3. Deuteronomy 32:35 is quoted twice in the NT (also likely from the LXX) and rendered it in two ways in Romans 12:9 and Hebrews 10:30. When Paul used the Greek word for “covet” in Romans 7:7,8, the KJV translators chose “concupiscence” or “lust” to express verbal variety, which the translators praised in their Preface, when God and Paul wanted the force of repetition. The word for “immediately” was used 42 times by Mark, but the translators often used “straightway” or “forthwith,” “anon,”…as soon as.” Compare Psalm 95:11 with renderings in Hebrews 3:11 and 4:3. The translators probably saw the variety as enhancing the beauty of the text, and in a way it does.
Concerning perfection of their work, they went even further: “Now to [our critics] we answer; that we do not deny, nay we affirm and avow, that the very meanest translation of the Bible in English, set forth by men of our profession… containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God…. No cause therefore why the word translated should be denied to be the word, or forbidden to be current, notwithstanding that some imperfections and blemishes may be noted in the setting forth of it. For whatever was perfect under the Sun, whether Apostles or Apostolic men, that is, men endued with an extraordinary measure of God’s Spirit, and privileged with the privilege of infallibility, had not their hand” [italics mine]?
If the KJV translators were the greatest, noblest, most brilliant men before them or since, why do the KJV advocates not heed the counsel of these men? The most vociferous of these advocates deny that any renderings other than what appears in the KJV is the Word of God. How distinct that attitude is from that of the translators. They knew what they had done was not perfect—as some partisans now choose to affirm—and would need further refinement. To claim perfection for any translation is tantamount to claiming double inspiration that obviously isn’t there.
As the foregoing statements reveal, the KJV translators did not believe their version was the only legitimate Bible. They did not denigrate the former English translations (other than to chide the Catholic Rheims Bible for obsolete words) but gladly consulted them in their effort “to make a good [translation] better.” They recognized that the vast majority of their work had already been satisfactorily done. The fact that they consulted more than one Greek text (various versions of the TR and the Complutensian) reveals that they did not believe that only one text was always irrefutably accurate at every word. The Greek texts and actual manuscripts they consulted did not agree at every verse. If the same group of translators were living today, and were asked to accept the challenge of a new translation, there is no doubt in my mind that they would consult the older manuscripts and the newer versions based on those manuscripts that have become available since 1611.
The translators anticipated opposition to their work and expressed it in the Preface: “Zeal to promote the common good, whether it be by devising anything ourselves, or revising that which hath been laboured by others, deserveth certainly much respect and esteem, but yet findeth but cold entertainment [reception] in the world. It is welcomed with suspicion instead of love, and with emulation instead of thanks: and if there be any hole left for cavil [trivial objection] to enter, (and cavil, if it do not find a hole, will make one) it is sure to be misconstrued, and in danger to be condemned. This will easily be granted by as many as know story [history], or have any experience. For was there ever any thing projected, that savoured any way of newness or renewing, but the same endured many a storm of gainsaying or opposition?”
As these expressions clearly suggest, the KJV translators seemed to know with certainty that later discoveries and research would help to clear up the meaning of the original words in question. They candidly admitted that “some imperfections may be noted in the setting forth of it [their translation]….” Unfortunately, the Preface that explains this is no longer printed in the KJV Bibles. Its omission may be one of the reasons some fundamentalist groups believe that the KJV is the inspired Bible, that it has no flaws and is perfect in every way. As F. F. Bruce once quipped, “Some people would prefer a false appearance of certainty to an honest admission of doubt.”
Every English-speaking generation since 1611 owes a debt of gratitude to the KJV translators. They did their work in difficult and challenging times that we cannot fully appreciate. They knew its flaws would need fixing and its scholarship would call for updating. Problems were being pointed out while the first edition was still being printed. They were open about this inconvenient truth and for that they deserve commendation. Although perfection lies beyond the labor of all men, what they produced accomplished positive things for people all over the world who hold English as a first language. It is a simple thing to point out their shortcomings and flaws, both in scholarship and character, but the Bible itself gained traction from their work it had never before enjoyed. So we salute their wisdom and the legacy they left, both from their version and its enlightening Preface.
2. James B. Williams, God’s Word…, digital version; loc 820.
3. Thomas Fuller, The Church History of Britain (London: Oxford University Press, 1845), 5:76. Cited in Jack P. Lewis, The English Bible: From KJV to NIV (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), p. 29.
4. Hugh Broughton, A Censure of the Late Translation for Our Churches, c. 1612 (S.T.C. 3847). Cited in Jack P. Lewis, The English Bible: From KJV to NIV (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), p. 29. See also J. Patterson Smyth, How We God Our Bible (New York: James Pott & Co., 1915); p. 144.
5. Baxter, p. 75.
6. While these examples do not substantively alter the meaning as we interpret them today, they do express a certain “looseness” followed by the KJV translators at places of their own choosing. In Romans 4, the Greek word for “accounting” occurs 11 times but is rendered by the translators using three different words: “counted, reckoned, and imputed.” Any informed reader can see the possibilities created by inconsistent rendering of the same words when the intent is the same, as was here displayed.
7. James Melton, http://www.av1611.org/kjv/knowkjv.html. Other KJV apologists make similar statements.
8. We should remember that every translation is “inspired” as far as they accurately convey the true meaning of the words of the autographs.
9. F. F. Bruce, History of the Bible In English (Cambridge, UK: Lutterworth Press, 2002), p. 102,103.