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King James Bible: Myths and Realities


September 21, 2012 — Did King James translate the King James Bible?

No. The king did not participate in the translation of the King James Bible, which was performed over several years by a well-organized team of about four dozen scholars on a committee basis.

The popular name of the King James Bible reflects the fact that King James approved the project (as king of England, James was supreme governor of the Church of England) and that the 1611 King James Bible is dedicated to him.

One reason for this myth is that King James was, in fact, a scholarly monarch who was interested in religious topics. He wrote books and essays, and produced his own metrical (rhymed) translations of the psalms in English. However, he was not a professional scholar like the King James Bible translators, and he did not take part in the laborious process of such a major team translation.

Did Shakespeare translate the King James Bible?

No. The translation project was a large-scale effort by many of the best known clergymen and scholars of the day, whose expertise was in language and theology. The King James Bible was produced through regular, detail-intensive meetings, often dealing with one very small portion of the Bible at a time, over several years -- the very opposite of the fast-paced, commercial world of the theater.

In addition, many Puritan leaders, including some of the King James Bible translators, believed that the stage was inherently sinful, and would never have considered a playwright as a colleague. From a modern perspective, the King James Bible and Shakespeare’s works are, among other things, literary masterpieces from about the same period. At the time, however, the two enterprises that produced them -- and those concerned in each -- existed in fundamentally different professional worlds.

The styles of the King James Bible and Shakespeare’s plays also are quite far apart. The text of the King James Bible is compact, concrete and minimal in vocabulary, while Shakespeare’s plays are expansive and full of metaphors, with a very large vocabulary. This is in part because the goal of the King James Bible translators was strict word-for-word accuracy, not literary excellence in the modern sense.

Was the King James Bible the first English Bible?

No. The Bible had been translated into English many times before the King James Bible. Manuscripts from the late 1300s and early 1400s, called Wycliffite Bibles after the reformer John Wyclif, are full-length translations of the Bible into Middle English, the same form of English used by Chaucer. (The very early example shown here, however, is incomplete. It famously ends on this page, midway through the book of Baruch.)

The first major translations of the Bible into modern English were produced by William Tyndale, a priest who emigrated to Europe to pursue his translation work when he could not get permission for it in England. By doing so, he was committing the legally punishable crime of heresy. Tyndale produced translations of the New Testament and several books of the Old Testament before he was arrested and put to death near Brussels in 1536.

Other English Bibles soon followed, especially after Henry VIII separated the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church and mandated the use of English Bibles in church, instead of outlawing their existence. The King James Bible translators drew on many English Bibles, but they were especially influenced by Tyndale’s translations.

Photo:
Apollo astronauts -- On Christmas Eve, 1968, the three Apollo 8 astronauts read aloud from the creation account in Genesis, using the King James Bible text, while orbiting the moon. A global audience estimated at half a billion heard and watched their live television broadcast, making it the most-watched broadcast in history at that time. (NASA Photo)

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