Publication of the King James Bible

King James I authorized an official translation of the Bible into English, an undertaking that involved six committees of scholars in three cities. Once the King James Bible was published, it quickly transformed the Anglican Church and more gradually influenced the history of the English language itself.

Summary of Event

Portions of the Bible were translated into English or at least paraphrased in the current vernacular beginning perhaps as early as the seventh century. Such efforts, however, were far from producing any complete English translation of the Bible. It was not until the late fourteenth century and the stirring in England of a pre-Lutheran Protestantism that a movement toward a complete translation of the Bible would begin. The founder of the movement was a priest named John Wyclif, who emphasized the Bible alone as the rule of faith for Christians. His followers, called Lollards by their enemies, were condemned by the Catholic Church, and the movement was gradually all but destroyed by persecution. Only a few remnants survived until the Reformation. [kw]Publication of the King James Bible (1611)
[kw]Bible, Publication of the King James (1611)
[kw]King James Bible, Publication of the (1611)
Religion and theology;1611: Publication of the King James Bible [0580]
Literature;1611: Publication of the King James Bible [0580]
Cultural and intellectual history;1611: Publication of the King James Bible [0580]
England;1611: Publication of the King James Bible [0580]
Bible;King James
James I
Andrewes, Lancelot
Bancroft, Richard
Rainolds, John

The Lollards successfully completed two translations of the Bible. Like previous partial English translations, however, they were based not on the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts but on the Latin Vulgate, the Bible the Catholic Church had derived from the translation by Jerome in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. For nearly 150 years, the Wyclif translations were the only English versions of the Bible. Having been produced without Church approval and before the invention of the printing press, they circulated only in handwritten copies.

For the great majority of the English, the Bible remained inaccessible and illegal in their native tongue, and relatively few could read Latin. The Church feared the vernacular Bible, because it believed the laity might misinterpret it and fall into heresy. In England, possession of even a fragment of a vernacular Bible was taken as evidence of heresy, although in other countries, such as Germany, there were a number of translations of the Bible made before Luther.

Early in the sixteenth century, William Tyndale, Tyndale, William a young English priest, made a vow to a more powerful cleric, “If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough should know more of the scriptures than thou dost.” Intending to keep his vow, Tyndale applied unsuccessfully to Cuthbert Tunstall, the bishop of London, for permission to translate the Bible in 1523. The following year, Tyndale went to Hamburg, Germany, where he completed his translation of the New Testament from Greek and attempted to print it in Cologne in 1525. Catholic authorities intervened, and Tyndale fled to Worms, where he published his New Testament in 1525 or 1526. In 1530, translating from Hebrew and starting with the Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy), he began issuing his Old Testament, which was printed at Antwerp in the Netherlands.

Copies of Tyndale’s Bible were smuggled into England and were eagerly bought, although many copies were seized and burnt by the authorities. A royal proclamation was issued reinforcing the prohibitions on reading the Scriptures in the vernacular. Tyndale himself was arrested by Catholic officials at Antwerp in May of 1535, was jailed for more than a year, and was strangled and then burned at the stake in 1536 at Vilvorde, near Brussels. Henry VIII’s break with the papacy in 1534, however, produced a huge change in English Christianity. Although Henry remained staunchly orthodox in much of his theology, he was willing to allow certain innovations, including an English Bible.

In 1535, there appeared on the Continent a vernacular Bible by the former English monk Miles Coverdale, Coverdale, Miles who had once served as Tyndale’s assistant and who relied on Tyndale’s translations, as well as on other derivative texts. The English crown permitted the use of this Bible in churches, and it was the first complete edition to be printed (rather than handwritten) in English. At Antwerp in 1537, an edition appeared that was also authorized and came to be called the Matthew Bible. It was ostensibly edited by a man named Thomas Matthew Matthew, Thomas but was actually compiled by John Rogers, Rogers, John a friend of Tyndale, from Tyndale’s and Coverdale’s versions. In 1539, the English Church produced the so-called Great Bible, a large volume edited by Coverdale and intended for reading aloud at public worship services.

The Great Bible remained essentially unrevised throughout the reigns of the Protestant King Edward VI (1547-1553) and the Catholic Queen Mary I (1553-1558), the latter of whom forbade public Bible readings but did not revert to the policies of some of her predecessors in prohibiting all vernacular Bibles.

During Mary’s reign, a number of Protestants had fled to the Continent, and a group at Geneva, headed by William Whittingham Whittingham, William and advised by Coverdale, published a Calvinist translation in 1560 generally called the Geneva Bible. When the Protestant Elizabeth I ascended the English throne in 1558, these exiles returned home, where their Bible became enormously popular, going through some 150 editions between 1560 and 1640.

In 1568, another translation, called the Bishops’ Bible, was published, largely as a result of the energy of Matthew Parker, Parker, Matthew archbishop of Canterbury. The city of publication was London, which before the middle of the sixteenth century had not had a printing industry developed enough to undertake a major project such as the Bible. The Bishops’ Bible, authorized for oral readings in church, was heard all over the realm but never achieved the popularity of the Geneva Bible.

A translation for Catholics of the Latin Vulgate was made by English refugees in France in two parts: They published the New Testament at Reims in 1582 and the Old Testament at Douay in 1609-1610. This Douay-Reims Bible;Douay-Reims version, revised in the eighteenth century by Richard Challoner, Challoner, Richard became an important Catholic Bible.

At the Hampton Court Conference, a meeting between James I James I (king of England)[James 01 (king of England)];King James Bible and the leaders of the English clergy in January of 1604, the Puritan John Rainolds, Rainolds, John president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, suggested to the king that a new translation of the Bible be prepared. James readily agreed, stating that all existing English versions were unsatisfactory and the highly popular Geneva was the worst.

Richard Bancroft, Bancroft, Richard the bishop of London and initially an opponent of Rainolds’s proposal, was appointed to help find suitable translators, and by June 30, James had approved a list of fifty-four scholars, of whom forty-seven are actually known to have participated in the work. They were divided into six committees, two of which met at Westminster, two at Oxford, and two at Cambridge. Each committee was assigned to translate a specific part of the Bible (with the Apocrypha included). One of the most notable scholars involved with the project was Lancelot Andrewes, Andrewes, Lancelot then dean of Westminster, who headed one of the Westminster committees. Rainolds himself worked on an Oxford committee, but he died before the completion of the project.

Through Bancroft, James issued a set of rules that the translators were to follow. He pointedly forbade tendentious marginal notes in the finished Bible on the grounds that the Calvinistic notes in the Geneva Bible were “erroneous and treasonable.” In general, the Bishops’ Bible was to be taken as the guide, but most of the translators were apparently casual about that rule, and the influence of Tyndale and Coverdale, whether direct or indirect, is evident in the final product. Familiar proper names and familiar ecclesiastical titles such as “Church” were not to be changed even for the sake of greater accuracy.

The translators generally followed a procedure by which each of the scholars in a given committee would prepare a translation of the same passage, and the translations would then be compared. When an entire book of the Bible was considered satisfactory to one committee, it was sent to other committees. Disagreements among different committees were settled by meetings of the principal scholars from the various committees. In the final editing, two translators from each of the three translation centers met in London, where they followed a systematic procedure. Miles Smith Smith, Miles and Thomas Bilson Bilson, Thomas were the scholars who supervised the printing.

The work was completed by 1611, and the King James Bible was published in that year by Robert Barker, Barker, Robert the king’s printer. The title page bore the phrase “appointed to be read in the churches,” and thus this translation came to be commonly known as the Authorized Version. In the United States, this edition has generally been known as the King James Version.

Acceptance of the Authorized Version took some time, since editions of the Geneva Bible continued to appear after 1611, and even Lancelot Andrewes continued to use it. With the defeat of Puritanism and the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, however, the Authorized Version replaced the Geneva Bible as the most popular English Bible. Until well into the twentieth century, the Authorized Version was almost the only Protestant Bible used in English-speaking lands. It went through small revisions from 1611 to 1616, including some that corrected printer’s mistakes, and other revisions in 1629, 1638, 1762, and 1769.

In 1982, a New King James Version was published as the work of devout scholars, who wished to replace archaic wording with modern but who still wished not only to preserve the grandeur and reverence characterizing the old King James Version but also to translate faithfully what they considered the most reliable texts in the original languages.


As the appearance of the New King James Version suggests, the influence of the old version has been immeasurable, not only in religion but also in literature Literature;Bible and in the development of the English language, since its fine literary qualities, as well as its familiarity, have accounted for much of its popularity. The simple availability of a standard, authorized version of the Bible in English has had profound consequences for the history of Christianity, as it has made an achievable reality for the Anglophone world of the Protestant ideal of a “priesthood of all believers.” Moreover, the diction, rhythm, and imagery of the King James Bible, even divorced from its content, have significantly influenced Western civilization. It is among the most quoted texts in the English language, and as such, it has shaped every native speaker’s idea of the poetic, regardless of his or her religion.

Further Reading

  • Bobrick, Benson. Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired. New York: Penguin, 2002. Comprehensive history of the English Bible, focusing on translators John Wyclif and William Tyndale and on other contributors to what eventually became the King James Bible. Bobrick argues that the Bible’s concepts of liberty and free will guided the English revolutionaries who overthrew Charles I.
  • “The History of the King James Bible.” In Holy Bible: The New King James Version Containing the Old and New Testaments. Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 1982. A detailed account that includes all revisions to date of the King James Version of the Bible.
  • Lawton, David. Faith, Text, and History: The Bible in English. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990. Chapter 3 contains a historical account, ending with the King James Version, and a discussion of “style and transparency in English Bible translation.”
  • McGrath, Alister E. In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture. New York: Doubleday, 2001. Recounts the history of the King James Bible from Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press to its publication. McGrath focuses on the politics of translation and the various biblical texts and describes how the King James Bible has influenced the English language, literature, art, and music.
  • Partridge, A. C. English Biblical Translation. London: Andre Deutsch, 1973. A scholarly account of most biblical translations into English from the early Middle Ages to 1970, with numerous comparisons of translated passages.
  • Robertson, Edwin. Makers of the English Bible. Cambridge, England: Lutterworth, 1990. An account of persons who played important roles in various translations of the Bible into English.

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Restoration of Charles II

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Lancelot Andrewes; James I. Bible;King James