(The primary source of information for this lesson is Adam Nicholson’s wonderful book, God’s Secretaries, an unbiased and purely fact-based account of the history of the King James Version of the Bible.)
With England teetering on the edge of chaos and civil war, King James I organized the Hampton Court Conference in 1604, a meeting of Anglican Church and Puritan leaders in an attempt to find a solution to the problems plaguing the nation. The decision was reached to translate a new version of the Bible, one that would bring unity to a divided people. Richard Bancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury, was against his will the first one appointed to this ambitious project. Bancroft, a powerful bishop in the Church of England and fanatical anti-Puritan, had no interest in participating in anything that would force him to work with his sworn enemies. But he miraculously set his own biases aside for the desires of his majesty. But Bancroft was not the man chosen to oversee the entire project.
Lancelot Andrewes, Bishop of Winchester and Dean of Westminster, was perhaps the greatest Biblical scholar in English history. He is the most critical figure in the entire story; were the King James Bible to bear any other name, it could fairly be called “the Lancelot Andrewes Bible.” Andrewes and this book are synonymous with one another; it is his great legacy.
Andrewes was an unusually pious man, even for 17th century standards. He was fluent in over 18 languages, including Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He was also a master linguist, with an acute gift for arranging words in ways that could stir people deeply, whether in passionate sermons or angry denouncements. But despite his high position of authority and his many credentials, he was remarkable in his humility. Andrewes is said to have spent over 6 hours every day in prayer, most of that time spent tearfully begging God’s forgiveness for his wretched sinfulness. So influential was Andrewes that to this day, the Church of England commemorates him every September 25. Some historians consider him the greatest writer of the English language, surpassing even Shakespeare himself.
Andrewes was naturally chosen as chief editor, ultimately answering only the king himself. Altogether, about 50 men were appointed as translators; it was an assembling of the greatest group of scholars, linguists, and Biblical historians possible. No expense was spared; with the future of England considered hanging in the balance, the mission was regarded with the utmost importance. As the goal was to bring unity between two divided factions, the team gathered was a perfect even mixture, roughly half Anglican Church bishops and the rest Puritan pastors.
If the miracle of Richard Bancroft setting his hatred of the Puritans aside is remarkable, the miracle of the entire team coming together is even more astounding. The Church of England bishops despised the Protestantism and some were even putting Puritans to death for their beliefs. And as the persecuted faction, the Puritans equally hated the Anglican Church. And yet a team of leaders from both sides were all assembled in one place, to work together, by the orders of the king. It is unheard of to see sworn enemies on the brink of war joining forces like this, but it is this great spirit of compromise, this great vision of a unified people that is inherently built into the framework of the King James Bible.
The translators were divided into six companies: the First Westminster Company (Genesis through II Kings), the First Cambridge Company (Chronicles to the Song of Solomon), the First Oxford Company (Isaiah through Malachi), the Second Oxford Company (the four gospels, Acts, and Revelation), the Second Westminster Company (the Epistles), and finally, The Second Cambridge Company (the Apocrypha, which ultimately does not appear in the final product).
The six companies would meet separately to work on their own assigned books. When finished, each book would be passed around, while the other companies read over and reviewed it. The process was concluded with a general meeting, where all companies would come together and discuss the book. Should there be any disagreements about the accuracy of any words or phrases, they would be brought forth, debated, and put to a vote. Then Andrewes would edit the final product for printing. The rigorous winnowing processes in place ensured that this Bible would be as perfect as possible.
The translation began in earnest in 1604, and took approximately seven years to complete. However, what actually transpired in the meeting rooms has been lost by history. The only tiny window we have is from a young scholar named John Bois. Bois was on the Second Cambridge Company but also served as a personal assistant to Andrewes. He is the only one known to have actually kept a journal. While it may not have been so contentious the entire time, we find record through Bois’s notes of the translators breaking out into arguments that could not be resolved, until they all gave up and left to get drunk at the local tavern. Bois paints a picture of himself and Andrewes staying late every night, working alone, grumbling about the fools they had been assigned to work with. Despite the rigorous rules and framework set up, the possibility at least exists that the entire translation of the King James Bible was done single-handedly by Lancelot Andrewes.
Comparing it to other writings and sermons of Andrewes certainly supports this. With his profound mastery of the English language, his style is very recognizable. Andrewes’ version of Genesis 1, for example, is considered by some to be the definitive opening of the Bible.
Transforming Ancient Hebrew into English is very problematic, as the two languages are dramatically different. If we read Genesis in exact, literal modern English, the results would be almost unreadable. The challenge facing any translator of the Bible is to stay accurate to the original text while making it understandable to the reader, and each version has tackled this in a different way.
Here’s how the Tyndale Bible presents Genesis 1:1-2:
“In the beginnyng God created heauen and erth. The erth was voyde and emptye, and darckness was vpon the depe, &the spirite of God moued upon the water.”
William Tyndale translated his version as a fugitive, and while it is readable, the language is rushed and broken. One can almost feel Tyndale’s urgency in the text, hurriedly getting through stories while trying to avoid capture.
The Puritans’ Geneva Bible takes Tyndale’s accomplishment, and builds on it slightly:
“In the beginning God created the heauen and the earth. And the earth was without form and void, and darknesse was upon the deep, and the Spirit of God moved upon the waters.”
It is an improvement over Tyndale’s rough hurriedness, and is certainly not inaccurate. But it is still very factual and unceremonious.
Andrewes, on the other hand, translated Genesis in a way that is profound beyond what any other translator had accomplished. He wasn’t just concerned with making the text accurate, but he focused on another aspect no one else did: poetry.
“In the beginning God created the Heauen, and the Earth. And the Earth was without forme, and voyd, and darkenesse was vpon the face of the deepe: and the Spirit of God mooued vpon the face of the waters.”
Andrewes makes slight yet powerful changes, creating a narrative that captures not just the story, but essence of creation. The insertion of the commas and a colon asks the reader to pause and take in each dramatic detail. The word “surface,” a technical and scientific term, is changed to “face,” which is more personal and intimate. The subtlety suggests the reader to imagine God’s face reflected in the waters; as He looked upon His creation, He saw Himself, and this almost foreshadows the long story to come, with its inevitable conclusion of His love for us triumphing all.
Meanwhile, the World English Bible, published in 1901, reads like this:
“Now the earth was formless and empty. Darkness was on the surface of the deep. God’s Spirit was hovering over the surface of the waters.”
One could argue that this translation is more accurate to the Hebrew scriptures, but it isn’t hard to see why it has been largely forgotten over the years, while the King James Version continues to resonate with people.
But poetry isn’t the only thing that sets it apart; it is the version intended to unify a divided nation, and its narrative is overcast with a beautiful shadow of compromise. If the Church of England bishops and Puritans were sworn enemies, this Bible is their strange offspring. It is both Anglican and Puritan. It is both Catholic and Protestant. It is both ceremonious and intimate, and manages to strike a chord of royal majesty and regal statesmanship, while at the same time representing the downtrodden and persecuted.
We need look no further than Mark 14’s story of the woman with the alabaster box for a perfect example of this.
“There came a woman, hauing an Alabaster boxe of oyntment of spikenard very precious, and shee brake the boxe, and powred it on his head. And there were some that had indignation within themselues, and said, Why was this waste of oyntment made? For it might haue bene solde for more then three hundred pence, and haue bene giuen to the poore: and they murmured against her.”
Under the ominous shadow of Christ’s looming death, a woman came to anoint His body, pouring oil on His head and washing His feet with her tears. The Bishops Bible presents the story almost as a Catholic Mass, suggesting she ceremoniously entered and did rites before the act. The Geneva Bible, on the other hand, is flat and informal, depicting the woman casually strolling in. But one can see the perfect note the King James Version strikes, both a combination of formality and intimacy, as the woman enters to pay loving tribute to her Savior before He is to be crucified.
This compromise, from beginning to end, is in the very DNA of the King James Bible. God is depicted majestically, His throne room not unlike the king of England’s magnificent courts. But at the same time, we see the Puritan fingerprints all over it. God is surrounded in glory and splendor, but we are not separate from Him. The Protestant influence is in the translation of the very scripture that is said to have inspired Martin Luther to begin his great Reformation: Romans 1:17: For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith. The lofty goal of uniting England is in every page.
But would it work?