A Brief Summary
At the Hampton Court Conference, convened by King James I in 1603, John Reynolds, the head of the Puritan Church in England, proposed a new English translation of the Scriptures that would unite the churches and the people of England. Reynold’s goal was one universal authority or standard for all English-speaking Christians. There was division and strife between the churches and the people over the two primary English translations of the time the Bishops’ Bible and the Geneva translation. The Bishops’ Bible, published in 1568 by leaders in the Church of England by the authority of Queen Elizabeth, was the official Bible for usage in the churches. The Geneva Bible, produced in 1560 by exiled Protestant leaders in Geneva, Switzerland, had been adopted and embraced as the beloved Bible of the common people. Although both translations were made from the same textual foundation the Textus Receptus Greek and the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew in many places the English renderings differed, resulting in strife and confusion between pulpit and pew. King James received Reynold’s proposal gladly, and was anxious for work on a new English Bible translation to begin.
A list of the names of fifty-four men was forwarded to the king, who approved the proposed list of translators submitted by the Dean of Westminster and the Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford and Cambridge Universities.
The next three years were set aside by the select group of translators for time in private research, prayer, fasting and preparation for the task that lay ahead. The King James translation team was comprised of fifty-four godly men, and arguably the most scholarly men ever assembled for any similar endeavor.
The company met together in 1607 to commence work on the translation and divided themselves into six committees: two met at Oxford, two at Cambridge, and two at Westminster Abbey. The whole of the Bible was distributed in six portions among the various committees: John Reynolds and Miles Smith chaired the committee responsible for the Books of Isaiah through Malachi; Bishop George Abbott oversaw the committee working on the Gospels, Acts and the Book of Revelation; Edward Lively headed the committee which translated I Chronicles through the Song of Solomon;
John Bois’ company worked on the translation of the Apocryphal books; Genesis through II Kings were assigned to Lancelot Andrewes and his group; and the New Testament Epistles were translated by a committee led by Dr. William Bedwell.
The conditions for translation work for a project of the magnitude of the entire English Bible were ideal in the early seventeenth century in England. The translators operated with the blessing and the financial aid of the king himself. All of the scholarship and resources of Cambridge University, Oxford University and Westminster Abbey were at the translators’ disposal. An invitation was extended to “all principal learned men of the kingdom” to participate as consultants or advisors. Historians concur that during this era the English language had “ripened to its full perfection” (from Alexander McClure’s The Translators Revived). McClure also stated that “the study of Greek, and of the oriental languages, and of rabbinical lore, had been carried to a greater extent in England than ever before or since.” The character and credentials of the translators were impeccable. Lancelot Andrewes, while a young student at Cambridge, learned a new language each year during Easter break. After several years, he had mastered most of the languages of Europe. Andrewes spoke Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Chaldee, Syriac, Arabic and at least fifteen other languages. It was said of him that he could have been “interpreter general” at the Tower of Babel! He was also reputed to have spent an average of five hours each day in prayer. Among the Christians of his day he was known as “the star of preachers.” It was said that “those who stole his sermons could never steal his preaching.” Andrewes had the privilege of being selected, from among all the preachers in the land, to deliver the annual Christmas Day sermon for the royal family, beginning with Queen Elizabeth and continuing for many years during the reign of King James.
William Bedwell produced translations of the Scriptures into Hebrew, Syriac, Chaldee and Arabic. He produced a Persian dictionary and a three-volume Arabic lexicon. He was a master of the Semitic languages, which shed much light on Hebrew words and phrases, most importantly those Hebrew words and phrases that found their way into the Greek language of the New Testament.
John Bois read through the Hebrew Bible by age five, and by age six was writing Hebrew legibly. He was often found studying Greek at the Cambridge library from four a.m. until 8 p.m. (sixteen hours a day!). Bois tutored many of his fellow students at the University in Greek, and his class was also attended by many of his Greek professors! John Bois served as pastor of St. John’s Church before, during, and after his work as Bible translator. He preached without notes, but not without much prayer and study. He had the entire Greek New Testament committed to memory. He practiced fasting twice a week, and often gave to help the poor until he had no more to give himself. Among Bois’ writings was a commentary in Latin on the Gospels and Acts. Even after his retirement, he spent eight hours a day in study, mostly reading and correcting the ancient authors.
Dr. Miles Smith was known as “a walking library.” He was called by his contemporaries “an incomparable theologist.” He had studied all of the writings of the Latin and Greek church fathers, and was as well versed in Arabic, Chaldee and Syriac as he was in English. It was said of Smith that he “had Hebrew at his fingers’ ends.” He was chosen by the other translators to write the Preface to the King James Bible, The Translators to the Reader. Concerning his fellow translators, he wrote: “There were many chosen who were greater in other men’s eyes than their own, and who sought the truth rather than their own praise.” Miles Smith served as the final editor on the King James translation, perusing the entire text of the Bible before it went to press in 1611.
At age 23, John Reynolds was made a Greek lecturer at Corpus Christi College. He gave himself to the study of the Scriptures in the original languages, and was an “able and successful preacher of God’s Word.” He had read all the Greek and Latin fathers, and all the records of the ancient church. He was known as “a living library” and “a third university” (Oxford, Cambridge, and John Reynolds!). These are a few observations of Reynolds contemporaries: “As to virtue, integrity, piety, and sanctity of life, he was so eminent and conspicuous, that to name Reynolds is to commend virtue itself.” “He alone was a well-furnished library, full of all faculties, all studies, and all learning. The memory and reading of that man were near to a miracle.” “He was most excellent in all tongues useful or ornamental to a divine. He was so well skilled in all arts and sciences, as if he had spent his whole life in each of them.”
Of the fifty-four translators, four were college presidents, six were bishops, five were deans, thirty held PhD’s, thirty-nine held Masters degrees, there were forty-one university professors, thirteen were masters of the Hebrew language, and ten had mastered Greek. Every man involved in the King James Bible translation believed in the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures, all believed in the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and all were men of prayer. Many were not only Biblical scholars and master linguists, but also God-called, Spirit-filled preachers. Yet the translators considered themselves “poor instruments to make God s holy truth to be yet more and more known unto the people.”
A look at some of the statements of the translators themselves reveals the depth of their convictions concerning the eternal Word of God. They spoke of the Scriptures as “that inestimable treasure which excelleth all the riches of the earth.” They acknowledged the Bible as being “so full and so perfect,” “a fountain of most pure water, springing up into everlasting life.” They believed “the original (Scriptures were) from heaven, not earth; the author being God, not men; the penmen, such as were sanctified from the womb and endued with a principal portion of God’s Spirit.” They referred to the Bible as “God’s Word,” “God s Truth,” “God’s testimony,” “the Word of salvation.” Study of the Scriptures brought “light of understanding, stableness of persuasion, repentance from dead works, newness of life, holiness, peace, joy in the Holy Ghost, fellowship with the saints, participation of the heavenly nature, fruition of an inheritance immortal, undefiled, and that shall never fade away.” From the translators Epistle Dedicatory, the dedication letter of their Bible translation to King James I:
“Among all our joys, there was not one that more filled our hearts, than the blessed continuance of the preaching of God s sacred Word among us.”
Some closing comments from The Translators to the Reader: Gentle Reader, we commend thee to God, and to the Spirit of His grace. He removeth the scales from our eyes, the veil from our hearts, opening our wits that we may understand His Word, enlarging our hearts, yea correcting our affections, that we may love it above gold and silver, yea that we may love it to the end. Ye are brought unto fountains of living water which ye digged not. Others have labored, and you may enter into their labors; O receive not so great things in vain, O despise not so great salvation! It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God; but a blessed thing it is, and will bring us to everlasting blsessedness in the end, when God speaketh unto us, to hearken; when He setteth His Word before us, to read it; when He stretcheth out His hand and calleth, to answer, Here am I, here we are to do thy will O God.”
In the final analysis, the translators of the King James Bible believed that what they had spent nearly seven years of their lives producing was an “exact translation of the holy Scriptures into the English tongue.”
By Bill Bradley, Professor of Bible and History,
Landmark Baptist College,
The Land Mark Anchor, May 2003