The King James Bible: Translating as a Political Act

The King James Bible: Translating as a Political Act

The King James Bible: Translating as a Political Act

Glen Edward Taul

Lecture, 400th Anniversary Celebration
of the King James Bible
Campbellsville University
October 6, 2011

            It was not part of the agenda.  The delegates to the Hampton Court Conference had not gathered on a wintery day to argue for another English translation of the Bible.  They convened, at the behest of King James I of England, to resolve religious tensions which had simmered since the Elizabethan Settlement of Religion of 1559.  The Puritans had petitioned King James, even as he progressed from Edinburgh to assume the English throne in London, to reform the English church.  They were pushing for the elimination of practices and symbols that smacked of popery.1

            After acceding to the throne in 1558, Elizabeth I sought to establish a religious peace between Roman Catholics and Protestants.  She feared that bitter religious controversies of the past would ignite a civil war that could drag her kingdom into conflict with its powerful Catholic neighbors, such as Spain.  She compromised between the extremes of the contending factions.  To reassure her Catholic subjects, the governing structure of the Church of England remained Catholic as did the requirements that clergy should wear robes and vestments and that the Prayer Book be used.  For Protestants, Elizabeth introduced some Protestant ideas into the Church of England.  For example, a strong Protestant position on doctrinal matters was adopted in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion of 1563.  Many traditional Catholic teachings were rejected.  As instituted by her father, Henry VIII, the sovereign remained head of the church.  The Settlement placated neither adamant Catholics nor radical Protestants, who were known as Puritans.2


Figure 1: Portrait of King James I (1566-1625), attributed to John de Critz the Elder, c. 1552/3-1642. Courtesy of Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.
©Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

            During Elizabeth's reign, Puritans either went into exile in Geneva or they remained within the Church of England, awaiting a new reign to provide them with a more favorable political climate to truly reform the church.  With the succession to Elizabeth's throne by King James VI of Scotland in 1603, the Puritans saw an opportunity to advance their agenda to rid the English church of all vestiges of popery.  The Puritans believed that King James's own religious views were similar to their own and that he would be favorable to an established Presbyterian Church, similar to the precepts set out by John Calvin for Geneva.  After all, James had earlier given public support to the Protestant reformer John Knox in Scotland.

            The Puritans decided to strike preemptively.  They wanted to get their agenda before the new king before the entrenched leadership of the Church of England submitted theirs.  As King James VI journeyed south toward London, a Puritan delegation met him and presented their “Millenary Petition,” so called because it was signed by more than one thousand Anglican ministers.  They demanded reforms in four broad areas.  In particular, they wanted to remove the “burden of human rites and ceremonies” from the church.  They considered practices, such as making the sign of the cross in baptism, the wearing of clerical dress, using a ring in the marriage service, and bowing at the name of Jesus, as unbiblical.  They also objected to church government by bishops.  They asked the king to give them an occasion to set out their concerns.3

            The English bishops became alarmed.  They feared that the Puritans had seized the initiative to win James to their way of thinking.  Richard Bancroft, a relentless opponent of Puritanism in England and later Archbishop of Canterbury, declared in an 1589 sermon that Puritans were “false prophets” who threatened the very fabric of church and nation.  In his view, God meant the Church of England to be governed by a monarch and bishops only.  Bancroft suspected that the new king would convert England to Presbyterianism and abolish the bishops--himself included.  The bishops' anxiety turned to panic when James, at the Puritans' urging, decided to end the practice of “impropriate tithes,” which was the traditional means of funding bishoprics from parish incomes.  Although the bishops were able to persuade the king to abandon the idea at an early meeting, they saw the near miss as a sign that James might be more sympathetic to the Puritan cause.4

            Yet James had no intention of supporting the Puritan or Presbyterian agenda in England.  His unpleasant experience with their Scottish brethren and their anti-monarchial ideology persuaded James that they posed a substantial threat to the Scottish throne.  James preferred the episcopal system of church government.  He believed intensely that his royal authority was dependent upon bishops.  “No king, no bishops” succinctly summarized his idea of the interrelationship of church and state.  The congregational system favored by Presbyterianism was linked with egalitarianism and republicanism.  After all, the city of Geneva had declared itself a republic after deposing its former rulers.5

            Despite the success of Bancroft and the English bishops in persuading the king to retract his promise of abolishing “impropriate tithes,” James's desire for religious peace and stability led him to call for a conference in which Anglican and Puritan representatives could resolve contending visions for the English church.  In October 1603, he issued a proclamation to convene a conference to meet at Hampton Court Palace in January the following year with himself, the Privy Council, and various “bishops and other learned men” to be in attendance.6

            When the conference opened the makeup of the delegates heavily favored the established church.  Bancroft, the bishop of London and leader of the church's delegation, was joined by the ailing archbishop of Canterbury and the bishops of Carlisle, Chichester, Durham, London, Peterborough, St. David's, Winchester, and Worcester and the deans of Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's Cathedral.  With the addition of the king's Privy Council, the establishment outnumbered the Puritans nineteen to four.  The Puritans were not even allowed to nominate their own representatives.  James and his advisers carefully picked compliant members of the Puritan constituency, fearing that more militant Puritans would be nominated.7

            The debates swirled around three general categories: The Book of Common Prayer and the divine service used in English churches, excommunication in ecclesiastical courts, and supplying qualified ministers for Ireland.  There was nothing about a new English translation of the Bible.8

            As the debates proceeded over the three-day conference, the Puritans soon realized they came at a disadvantage.  They had expected the king to be sympathetic to their positions, but James was not accepting any of their propositions of changing church doctrine, abolishing The Book of Common Prayer, and reforming church government to a congregational system.  The atmosphere of the debates over the divisions in the Church of England became overheated with the king fanning the flames with his quick, intellectual, jokey, combative, slightly unsocialized banter, argument and bullying.  It was in the midst of the second day of debates that a new English translation of the Bible was first mentioned.  It came at the end of a long list of suggestions submitted by John Reynolds, president of Corpus Christi College at Oxford University and leader of the Puritan delegation.  The ministers that he represented petitioned for “one only translation of ye byble to be authenticall and read in ye churche.”9

            Reynolds's aim was clearly to revise the Bishops' Bible, most likely favoring the Geneva Bible, which he would have used himself.  That desire was expressed in his phrase “one only translation.”  Perhaps then his proposition was a negotiating strategy.  Reynolds may have wanted to gain royal approval for the Geneva Bible as the only version to be read aloud in public worship.  He may have expected his proposal to have been rejected.  Once rejected, he could have followed up with a lesser request to simply allow the Geneva Bible to be used in addition to or instead of the Bishop's Bible in public worship.  Puritan ministers could then use the Geneva Bible in churches without risking punishment under the law that prohibited reading it.10

            The question remains.  Why was another translation of the Bible into English desired by both king and radicals when two existed already?  The answer lies in the many attempts to translate the Bible into the vernacular.  The religious reformation in Europe during the sixteenth century unleashed pent up social, economic, and political forces which, in part, believed that availability of the word of God should not be limited to an elite.  Leaders of the Protestant Reformation believed that God's word should be available and understandable to any literate person.  For centuries an elite cadre of Roman Catholics had read scripture in Latin, and scripture was read and sung to the church's congregants in Latin.  Latin was the key to knowledge, and only the educated, a small percentage of the population, understood Latin.  A logical consequence of the Reformation's challenge to the existing political order's monopoly on knowledge was its democratization.

            Three years after he nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of Wittenberg's university in 1517, Martin Luther began arguing his case for reform in German, rather than the more scholarly Latin.  He continued to use Latin when it suited his purpose, but he wanted to make his arguments accessible to the common  people.  Latin excluded the common people from participating in the political and religious discussions of the elite.  By writing in German, Luther spoke directly to his fellow Germans in their language.

            To increase pressure on the Curia to accept the reform it sought to evade, Luther sought to enlist the German laity.  He demanded that the laity should have the right to read and interpret the Bible for themselves.  The Church opposed this demand and continued to exclude ordinary Christians by treating the Bible as a fortress, insisting that the dead language of Latin be the official language.  Insisting that the Bible be available in German, Luther began the massive task of translating the scriptures from the original languages into the everyday language of his people.  After all, why were the educated laity being prevented from reading the Bible in their own languages and forming their own judgments about whether the Church teachings and practice were in accord with scripture?  What was so special, anyway, about the Pope's authority that the Church's flock had to depend on him to interpret scripture for them?


Figure 2: John Reynolds, President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, 1598-1607.  Unknown artist, 17th century.  ©Corpus Christi College, UK/The Bridgeman Art Library. 

            Luther's efforts inspired translators in all parts of Europe where the Reformation was to take hold, including England.  Luther's project threatened the Church establishment.  By empowering ordinary people to judge the Church and demand reform, the power long held by the hierarchy would pass to the people.  The Church responded promptly to suppress Luther‟s ideas.  The papal bull Exsurge Domine was issued in 1520 in which Luther's teachings were condemned.  Luther was given sixty days to retract his convictions or risk the prospect of being condemned as a heretic.  Church authorities then demonstrated that they meant business by burning Luther's books in the Piazza Navona in Rome and by demanding that authorities elsewhere destroy his books.  Of course, the Church could not enforce its measures without cooperation from the princes of Catholic countries.  Bibles in the vernacular language were suppressed using a variety of methods, i.e. seizing and destroying the offending copies, trying the translators as heretics, and murder, both legal and extra-legal, among them.11

            Efforts to translate the Bible into English began in earnest within the regime of Henry VIII.  Unlike in Germany, where the fundamental impetus for the Reformation was religious (in that it directly addressed church life) and theological (in that Luther based his reform proposals on theological presuppositions), the English Reformation was on the whole, political and pragmatic.  Religion and politics were unavoidably entwined during the sixteenth century.  Henry's agenda was to make his realm of England a significant European power, and one step toward that goal was to ensure a smooth transition of power after his death by producing a male heir to the English throne. The English Reformation begins during Henry's efforts to divorce his first queen, Catherine of Aragon.  When Pope Clement VII refused to grant his petition for divorce, Henry declared himself head of the church in England.  The pope excommunicated Henry, and Henry then took action to defend himself from internal rebellion and from invasion by his Catholic neighbors.  He pushed Parliament to enact laws that declared one, that the crown would pass to his children, two, that recognized him as “supreme head” of the English church, and three, that it was an act of treason if any Englishman denied Henry's supremacy.  To raise funds for military defenses, Henry began dissolving the monasteries and selling their extensive land holdings.

            Henry's measures resonated with part of the Reformation agenda, and many reasoned that maybe he would be equally receptive to others, such as supporting the translation of the Bible into English.  But this was a miscalculation.  Henry was cautious, conservative, and Catholic in his general religious views.12  A crisis forced his hand, however, when William Tyndale's well-produced printed English translation of the New Testament suddenly began to circulate in England in early 1526.  Church authorities took immediate steps to block its importation and to destroy every copy that arrived in England.  They knew that if they failed to stop this translation, then they would have only one option.  They would have to produce their own English translation, and make sure that it attracted greater popularity than its rival.13

            Several features of Tyndale's translation scared Church authorities.  Tyndale's translation could be easily read by the ordinary literate Englishman.  He had a talent to use English words clearly and accurately.  He was a master at delivering the pithy phrase that was near to conversational English, but distinctive enough to sound like a proverb.

            Some of the renderings threatened the power of conservative English Catholics.  The Greek word presbyteros, used in Paul's letters to refer to an office within the Christian Church, usually translated as “priest,” was rendered as “senior,” and later as “elder,” by Tyndale.  “Priest,” Tyndale argued, should be only for translating the Greek term hiereus, which is used in the New Testament exclusively in reference to Jewish and pagan priests.  In another example, Tyndale translated the Greek term ekklesia, traditionally rendered “church,” as “congregation.”  The many New Testament references, which have been interpreted as sanctioning the Church establishment, were now to be understood as referring to local congregations of believers.  The implication, in both instances, meant that power previously held by a hierarchy of authority should be shifted to ordinary Christians.

            Despite the efforts of English authorities, Tyndale continued his work, starting on the Old Testament.  In 1530 his English translation of Genesis and Exodus began to appear, and in 1534 his revision of his New Testament was issued.  Yet English Catholics, under the leadership of Sir Thomas More, possibly, or senior English churchmen, lured Tyndale from his safe house in Antwerp, Belgium, into a trap.  He was arrested in May 1535.  The English government, especially Thomas Cromwell, protested vigorously, but was ignored.  Tyndale was strangled and then burned at the stake in October 1536.14

            Tyndale's martyrdom is a poignant reminder that biblical translation in the sixteenth century, especially in Tyndale's case, was dangerous, illegal, and fatal.  Despite his elimination from the scene, Tyndale's efforts successfully increased the pressure to produce a vernacular Bible in England.  A year after his death, John Rogers, a friend of Tyndale, published the so-called Matthew's Bible under the pseudonym Thomas Matthew in which the king licensed the printing of 1,500 copies to be sold in England.  As recently as 1530, Archbishop William Warham condemned any translation of the Bible into English, yet four years later, his successor, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, attempted to force the bishops to undertake an English translation of the New Testament.  When the Matthew Bible was published, Cranmer sent it to Thomas Cromwell with his commendation, and Cromwell embraced it.15  Like Tyndale, Rogers was burnt at Smithfield by Queen Mary, Henry's daughter, who tried to re-establish the Catholic Church in England during her four-year reign.  In 1538, Henry VIII ordered an English Bible be placed in all churches in the realm.  This required another revision.  Miles Coverdale, using both Tyndale's and Matthew's versions, produced the Great Bible.16

            There were other English translations of the Bible after the Great Bible, but the Geneva Bible and the Bishops' Bible are the
two versions that were the most immediate concerns with the Puritans and King James and the establishment of the Church of England.  The Geneva Bible, first published in 1560, during Elizabeth's reign, was the favorite of English Protestants in Geneva.  Work was started by William Whittingham, pastor of the puritan English church in exile, and other English exiles, including Anthony Gilby (a Leicestershire clergyman), Thomas Wood, Christopher Goodman (later Lady Margaret Professor of
Divinity at Oxford), William Cole (later Dean of Lincoln), Miles Coverdale, and the Scottish reformer John Knox, during the reign of Queen Mary.  The Geneva Bible was noted for its idiomatic English and its marginal notes.  Meant for private study, Whittingham's intended audience was “the simple lambs, which partly are already in the fold of Christ, and so hear willingly their shepherd's voice, and partly wandering astray by ignorance, tarry till the time the Shepherd find them and bring them unto his flock.”  He did not take it for granted, as Tyndale did, that once translated that any plowboy would be able to understand it.  He included extensive marginal comments to explain the “hard places” at critical points.17

            It was the Geneva Bible's polemical and controversial marginal notes, however, that threatened James' political authority and the nascent Church of England's powers.  At first endorsed by the Scottish king when it was initially published in Scotland in 1579, James VI opposed it after he realized that some of its annotations threatened royal authority.  The notes were based on strong Calvinistic Protestant theological positions.  They challenged the king's passionate belief in the doctrine of the “divine right of kings.” James VI had written passionately about the divine validation of authority, within limitations, of course.  He developed these ideas in his True Law of Free Monarchies in 1598.  Anglicans embraced their king's theory for it meant stability of the monarchy, and secured the position of the established church within England. King and church were locked together in a circle of mutual support.

            The Puritans saw the theory as unbiblical and used the notes of the Geneva Bible to refute it.  The political commentary in the notes reflected a growing trend within Calvinist circles to support resistance to tyrants, whether by force or by deception.  A radical faction of Puritans started viewing James as their oppressor.  The suggestion that it was lawful to disobey their new king became increasingly attractive to Puritans and worrisome to James.18

            The Elizabethan authorities' first response to the appearance of the Geneva Bible was to ignore it.  When Archbishop Matthew Parker realized that the popularity of the

Geneva version was not going to abate, his next stratagem was to produce a translation based on the Great Bible.  It is known as the Bishops' Bible because most of the seventeen translators were bishops.  When it appeared in 1568, a copy was placed in every Anglican church, and from it the lessons were read every Sunday.  The Bishops' Bible never achieved Geneva's popularity because of its ponderous style and the absence of interpretive notes.19

            So when James agreed to the Puritans' request for a new translation, he seized an opportunity to achieve three objectives.  First, he could appease the frustrations of the Puritan delegation, who had not gained any accessions from the king thus far.  Second, he could possibly displace the popular Geneva Bible with a translation suited to his purposes.  Third, he could eliminate religious tensions and unify his realm.  The king directed that the new translation would be “reviewed by the bishops and the chief learned of the church; from them to be presented to the Privy Council; and lastly to be ratified by royal authority,” so that “the whole church would be bound to it, and none other.”20

            In drawing up rules to direct the committees that would translate the Bible, Bancroft and James instructed that the Bishops' Bible was to be followed closely, but previous translations could also be consulted when the Bishops' proved less reliable, that “Old Ecclesiastical Words,” such as the word “Church” not to be translated “Congregation,” and that “No Marginal Notes at all to be affixed, but only for the explanation of the Hebrew or Greek Words, which cannot without some circumlocution, so briefly and fitly be expressed in the Text.”21

            The forty-seven to fifty men who composed the companies were scholar-churchmen and all virtually supported the religious and political establishment.  For this was to be an authentic translation as well as an accessible and politically safe one.  The work of translation was divided among six companies, which met in London's Westminster Abbey and Stationer's Hall, in Oxford University's Corpus Christi and Merton Colleges, and in Cambridge University's St. John's and Jesus Colleges.  Each company was assigned a section of the Bible. Clearly the king did not trust every company to do the work as he would like.  He and Bancroft trusted the members of the two Westminster companies, but not the other two.  Cambridge had been the seed-bed of the English Presbyterian movement in the 1580s and '90s, and Oxford, under the influence of John Reynolds, was sympathetic to the Puritan movement.  This rule was perhaps meant to keep the members of the Oxford and Cambridge companies, even if they were moderates, within bounds.22

            The king used another stratagem to keep translators under constraints.  Each company had to supervise the work of every other.  After each member in every company translated or amended all the chapters of the books assigned, the company met to discuss the text and decide what would be their final submission.  This put into practice the Jacobean ideal of tying individual contributions to a common purpose.  It was a balance between top-down supervision and the risks of error ridden work that would have been produced by unsupervised, individual energies.  Each company's final version was to be circulated among the five other companies for examination. Finally, all the work of the companies was to be submitted to a general meeting to examine and approve the absolute final text.23

            James 1 achieved his political objectives with the final result in the intermediate period before the English Civil War erupted in the 1640s.  Language that supported royal authority and the existing governing structure of the English church were kept.  There were no interpretive marginal notes, only notes clarifying Hebrew and Greek words and cross-references to related scripture.  In the long term, it successfully standardized much of the English language, which gave English-speaking people a common identity. Ironically, however, a translation that was intended to provide the moral underpinning for monarchial government and a hierarchical church, eventually was the basis for social change and political revolutions in the coming centuries.

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Endnotes

1 Alister McGrath, In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed A Nation, A Language, and A Culture (New York, et al: Doubleday, 2001), 149-150.

2 Ibid., 125-26, 132.

3 Adam Nicolson, God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2003), 34-35; McGrath, In the Beginning, 132-34, 149-50; Gordon Campbell, Bible: The Story of the King James Version, 1611-2011 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 32.

4 McGrath, In the Beginning, 151-53, 155-56.

5 Ibid., 139-40.

6 Ibid., 155; Nicolson, God's Secretaries, 40-41.

7 McGrath, 156; Nicolson, God's Secretaries, 44-48; Helen Moore and Julian Reid, eds., Manifold Greatness: The Making of the King James Bible (Oxford, UK: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, 2011), 48-49.

8 McGrath, In the Beginning, 158.

9 Nicolson, God's Secretaries, 57-58; McGrath, In the Beginning, 160-61; Moore and Reid, Manifold Greatness, 50.

10 Nicolson, God's Secretaries, 58; McGrath, In the Beginning, 161.

11 McGrath, In the Beginning, 50-52.

12 “The King's Proclamation, June 1530,” in Arthur W. Pollard, ed., Records of the English Bible: Documents Relating to the Translation and Publication of the English Bible, 1525-1611 (London: Oxford University Press, 1911), 163-169.

13 “The Bishop of London Buys New Testaments” and following documents in Ibid., 150-161. McGrath, In the Beginning, 80- 86.

14 For a more detailed discussion of William Tyndale's life, his translation of the Bible from the original languages into English, and the effort to suppress him and his work, see Ibid., 68-89; Campbell, Bible, 10-15.

15 Thomas Cranmer to Thomas Cromwell, August 4, 1537, in Pollard, ed., Records of the English Bible, 214-215.

16 McGrath, In the Beginning, 88; Nicolson, God's Secretaries, 249; Campbell, Bible, 20.

17 Ibid., 114-23; Campbell, Bible, 25.

18 McGrath, 141-45.

19 Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, to William Cecil, September 22, 1568, Pollard, ed., Records of the English Bible, 291-292; “Archbishop Parker to Queen Elizabeth,” Ibid., 294-295; “Parker's Note as to the Translators,” Ibid., 295-298; McGrath, In the Beginning, 124; Nicolson, God's Secretaries, 249-50.

20 Nicolson, God's Secretaries, 58-59.

21 “Rules for the Translators,” British Library MS. Harley 750 fols. 1v-2r, (London: British Library Board MS. Harley 750), in Moore and Reid, Manifold Greatness, 88-89. To assure the apprehensions of lower level church officials and the clergy about the reliability, politically and theologically, of the new version, reports were sent to synods throughout the country summarizing the translation process, “Report to the Synod of Dort on the Version of 1611,” Pollard, ed., Records of the English Bible, 338-339.  Nicolson, God's Secretaries, 73, 81, 75, 77-78 for extensive explanations of Rules of the Translators 1, 14, 3, and 6; McGrath, In the Beginning, 173-75.

22 “An Order agreed upon for translation of the Bible,” British Library MS. Harley 750, fol. 1r. (London: British Library Board MS.
Harley 750), in Moore and Reid, Manifold Greatness, 90. This document names the members of each company, the places where they will work, and the assigned books of the Bible on which they will work. Nicolson, God's Secretaries, 251-59, 80; McGrath, In the Beginning, 178-82.

23 “Report to the Synod of Dort on the Version of 1611,” Pollard, ed., Records of the English Bible, 338-339.  Nicolson, God's Secretaries, 79-80.