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The Making of the Authorised Version

Category Articles
Date May 17, 2011

I want to focus on three influences which shaped the so-called ‘Authorised Version’: King James himself, the translators, and the printers. Such attention to the human aspect of the making of a Bible translation in no way conflicts with belief in the Bible as the infallible and inerrant Word of God (Isa. 40:8). The Bible certainly had a divine Author but this does not exclude the importance of human authorship (2 Pet. 3:15). God used the Bible’s human authors but preserved the process from error (2 Pet. 3:16) Similarly, the Holy Spirit was active and sovereign throughout the centuries-long process of preserving the Bible and translating it into our language. Some parts of the history of the 1611 translation are murky. Some of the motivations of those involved were far from pure but all this makes God’s glory shine through all the brighter. As the ‘Preface to the Reader’ in the original 1611 version put it, ‘But let us rather bless God from the ground of our heart for working this religious care in him [ie, the translator(s)] to have the translation of the Bible maturely considered’.


Humanly speaking, James was the main driver behind the translation project. In many ways, given his life and background, this was a surprise. James succeeded the very popular Queen Elizabeth I. She is still regarded as one of the greatest of English monarchs. In contrast, James was derided as pompous and weak and contemporaries lampooned his weak physical presence. James certainly had his disadvantages. His father (Lord Darnley) was murdered only a year after his birth; probably at the behest of his mother Mary (Queen of Scots). Darnley, previously, had killed Mary’s court favourite. When James was about twenty years old, the English Queen Elizabeth had the troublesome Mary executed so that she could no longer act as a focus for pro-Spanish and pro-Catholic plots against the English state. So, James was far from blessed in his murderous, unstable and (probably) adulterous parents.

He became Scottish king when only 13 months old. Scotland was then one of the most lawless and poor of European countries. It was crucial that James had left behind his mother’s Catholic faith. If he had not he would not have held either the Scottish or, later, the English thrones. Notwithstanding this, historians are divided as to precisely what James’ own religious beliefs were. One modern historian says James was a firm Calvinist.2 Most commentators, however, reckon that he leant towards a fairly high church Anglicanism. Certainly, his words and deeds suggest a hatred of Presbyterian church government. Rev Andrew Melville once said to James, ‘Sir, you are God’s silly vassal, but James’ ultimate retort was ‘No bishop, no king’. In other words, if he conceded bishops, his own position as king would be in peril.

Contemporaries were somewhat aware of and appalled by aspects of James’ behaviour. Although it appears James loved his wife Anne of Denmark, and they had three surviving children,3 he also had three male favourites. So, James was no exemplar either of Christian behaviour or Reformed theology and yet, humanly speaking, he was the force behind the Authorised Version.

As James was travelling south to London to 1603 to inherit the English crown, the Puritan party in the Church of England presented him with the ‘Millenary Petition’,4 appealing for a more complete reformation of Anglicanism. That Petition was followed by the Hampton Court Conference in 1604. At that Conference there were only four Puritan delegates. They were heavily outnumbered by the Bishops who, along with James, slapped them down in no uncertain terms. Bishop Richard Bancroft even described some aspects of Puritan belief as being those of ‘infidels’. From a Puritan point of view Hampton Court was a failure except that – and here was massive unintended consequence as well as the sovereignty of God – one of the Puritans threw into the discussion the possibility of a new translation of the Bible. James enthusiastically agreed and said that he had ‘. . . never seen a Bible well translated into English’. Thus began the seven-year work on the King James Bible.

So, James is in many ways a tragic figure. During his reigns he had many failures. His schemes to promote greater unity between the Protestant and Catholic churches proved abortive as did his design to achieve a broader peace in Europe. The administrative union between England and Scotland which he anticipated did not actually happen until 1707 and his Plantation of the four western counties of the future Northern Ireland was only half implemented. His attack on tobacco was several centuries too early. However, his name is associated with two things we still have today; the ‘Union Jacque’ (or, popularly, Union Jack) flag and, more importantly, the 1611 Bible translation.


At this distance much remains unclear about how the translators actually did their work during 1604-11. However, we do know there were six ‘companies’ of translators with, possibly, nine men in each. Each company was assigned a different stretch of biblical books6 and then, as they progressed, they exchanged their work to take differing views. We do have biographical details for some of the fifty or so translators. For sure, many of the translators were not Puritans. Indeed, some were possibly not Christians at all. Here are some of the ones we do know something about:

Dr Miles Smith: the son of a butcher, Smith played the crucial role of providing a final editorial review of the entire Bible. Intellectually brilliant but sometimes not very patient. On one occasion he walked out of a church service he was unhappy with and took refuge in a nearby tavern!

Lancelot Andrews: reputed to pray for 5 hours at a time; perhaps he needed a lot of forgiveness? Andrews turned down bishoprics twice. This was not because he was very humble but because he was holding out for a better salary. When plague struck London in the 1600s Lancelot abandoned his parish for a while.

George Abbot: a devout man. He once said, ‘Scripture does directly or by consequence contain in it sufficient matter to decide all controversies’. He had previously shot dead his gamekeeper during a hunting accident (his theological opponents did not let him forget this mistake).

Laurence Chadderton: once preached for two hours and the congregations appealed that he should not stop so he went on for another hour.

John Bois: so bookish that he could read whilst riding his horse.

Henry Saville: seems to have been deeply corrupt and yet also a gifted translator (e.g. of Chrysostom).

Samuel Ward: one of the Puritan diarists.

If those were some of the translators, how did they actually do their job (subject always to remembering that divine sovereignty was working through them)? We know a little because of Bois’ diaries. Bois describes the end of the process whereby draft translations were read in front of a small committee and then translators would speak up and argue differing points of view. In fact several copies of the Bibles have survived on which the translators wrote their proposed amendments. A sort of pre-word processor/pre-Microsoft equivalent of ‘tracked changes’.

The translators were instructed by fifteen ‘Rules for Translation’. These had been written by Archbishop Bancroft7 but it is likely James influenced these Rules. Crucially, Rules 1 and 14 said that they should work from the Bishops’ Bible as the ‘default’ position, but also take the best of other previous English-language Bibles (such as Tyndale, Coverdale, Matthew and Geneva) and very importantly strive for the ‘truth of the original’ (ie, what was said in the Greek or Hebrew).8

Did they succeed? Yes, largely, although a few verses point to the complications of the translation process. For example, Acts 1:20: ‘. . . and his bishopric let another take’ (emphasis added). It seems the Archbishop over-ruled the objections of other translators and chose the word to favour his own (and his royal master’s) views on church government. In 1 Corinthians 13 possibly ‘love’ would have been more understandable than ‘charity’. In general, however, the translators achieved their stated aim which was not to make a bad translation good but a good translation better (in fact somewhere between 76% and 94% of the Authorised’s New Testament reflects Tyndale).


One modern writer points to the contrast between stunning scholarship and drunken misprints.9 In truth, the translators were not well served in their first publisher. The King’s Printer, Robert Blake was, at best, somewhat disorganised. He had invested a lot of money in producing the Authorised Version but he probably made a loss on this business venture. There was much variability in the type setting in 1611 and for decades to come. Some of the Bibles printed in 1611 were called ‘He Bibles’ and some ‘She’ ones. This was because of a contrasting rendering of the final part of Ruth 3:15 (‘he’ or ‘she’). Almost amusingly, in the 1630s one version of Psalm 119:161 had ‘Printers have persecuted me without a cause’; one suspects sabotage by a disgruntled print shop worker!

By the 1760s a standardised version of the Authorised Version had finally been arrived at. Part of that standardisation was not just weeding out printers’ errors but also fixing on an agreed system of English spelling. Closer to our own time we have the New King James Version which has made some relatively small modernisations of the text. Very importantly, by a comparison of texts we can be certain that at least 99.99% of the text in front of us today represents a ‘recovery’ of the original Greek/Hebrew.10

James, Bancroft and most of the Anglican translators had hoped the 1611 Bible would knock out the Genevan translation. The latter, given its republican-leaning footnotes,11 was felt to be politically dangerous. This did happen but it took decades. One Scottish parish was reported to be holding out for the Geneva Bible as late as 1674. For the next couple of centuries the Authorised Version would remain the one essential book in many households, not just in Britain and Ireland but also in the United States. It was said that in the house where Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809 there were just two books and one of these was the King James Bible. For all the mixed motives involved, the translators of 1611 had been right to declare that the true and proper end of their work was ‘. . . that we may love it [i.e, God’s Word] to the end’. The best way we could remember the work of 1611 is by renewing our own love for God’s Word.


  1. Strictly, James VI of Scotland (1567-1625) and James I of England (1603-25).
  2. Because, apparently, he believed in predestination; B. Coward, The Stuart Age: England 1603-1714 (London: Longmans, 1994 or 2003).
  3. All of whom had unfortunate lives. The first son died young, the second (Charles I) was beheaded in 1649 and the daughter Elizabeth married the would-be king of Bohemia, but spent most of her life as a refugee wandering across a Europe torn apart by the Thirty Years War.
  4. Despite the name, it was not signed by one thousand petitioners but simply a large number.
  6. The Apocrypha was included.
  7. He had become Archbishop of Canterbury in 1604 and lived until 1610.
  8. Ironically, in the light of later versions of the King James Bible, another Rule excluded any explanatory notes.
  9. G. Campbell, The Story of the King James Version (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
  10. This point is made, for example, by John MacArthur in the Preface to his Study Bible and, similarly, by Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Leicester:IVP, 1994).
  11. For example, regarding the Hebrew midwives disobeying Pharaoh (Exod. 1:17) and a criticism of King Asa in 2 Chronicles 15:16-17.

The substance of a Bible Class address by Esmond Birnie, Stranmillis Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Reprinted with permission from The Evangelical Presbyterian magazine, May-June 2011.

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