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Translation Necessarie: The King James Bible at 400

From Heresy to Heterodoxy
The New Testament, Dylygently Corrected and Compared with the Greke by Willyam Tindale...Antwerp: Marten Emperowr, 1534.

William Tyndale's last prayer before being strangled and burnt for heresy in 1536"Lord, ope[n] the King of England's eyes!"was fulfilled in only three years. Henry VIII, the same king who had Tyndale executed, commissioned production of the first English Bible, the so-called "Great Bible" of 1539 that relied almost entirely on Tyndale's work.

Tyndale was the first scholar to produce English translations from Hebrew in addition to Greek and Latin. His editions of the Pentateuch and the New Testament, produced from 1525 until his arrest in 1535, were also consulted by those commissioned to compile the King James Bible.

The Dissident Bible
The Bible, that is, the Holy Scriptures conteined in the Olde and Newe Testament...London: Christopher Barker, 1599.

The Geneva Bible (1560) was printed and imported during the reign of Queen Mary (the Catholic monarch known to Protestants as "Bloody Mary") by English Protestants who had fled England to Geneva. It was an instant hit: accompanying a clear and understated translation were illustrations, maps, and reference aids for readers. But because of the translation's Calvinist and thus anti-monarchical tendenciesfound in word choices and marginal commentaryJames sought to replace this popular version with his own.

Nevertheless, the Geneva Bible remained the preferred Bible of dissidents, from Puritans who took it with them to America, to John Milton, Oliver Cromwell, and many others. This edition was printed in 1599 by Christopher Barker, the first English printer to obtain a patent on the Geneva translation in 1575. By 1577, Barker had purchased the patent to print all English Bibles, although by the time the King James Version was undertaken, Barker's son and heir Robert would have to pay once again for the office to print it.

The King James Bible
The Holy Bible, conteyning the Old Testament, and the New/newly translated out of the original tongues, & with the former translations diligently compared and reuised, by his Maiesties special commandment; appointed to be read in churches. London: Robert Barker, 1611.

The Hampton Court Conference was convened in January 1604, bringing together representatives from the Church of England as well as from Puritan sects. King James sought to subdue potential threats to his sovereignty by overzealous Protestants on the one hand and Papists on the other: commissioning a new translation of the Bible satisfied Puritan demands for an updated scriptural translation while putting such an endeavor entirely under James's control. The 1602 edition of the Bishop's Bible was chosen by the King as the copy text his translators would work with, and new rules of editing were formulated to correct perceived inadequacies in Scriptural translations that had issued from Rome.

The initial patent for the King James Version was a gift from the King to the Archbishops of Canterbury, and according to depositions found in Chancery Court archives, Robert Barker paid £4,000 for it; a sum which, combined with immense up-front production costs, nearly bankrupted Barker and allowed for his rivals John Bill and Bonham Norton, to eventually buy him out of his office as Printer to the King.

[Fragment of the Psalms]

After its initial publication in folio format, the Bible appeared in smaller formatsquarto, octavo, and duodecimoto appeal to as many buyers as possible. Parts of the Bible were also sold separately: the New Testament, or the Old Testament, or the "Third Part of the Bible," which included the Book of Job, the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon. In 1629, the University Press at Cambridge acquired the license to print the King James Version and issued a new edition, later called the New Cambridge Paragraph Bible, which corrected many errors that had crept into earlier editions. No major revisions to the text would occur until over a century later, in 1769.

The King James Bible in America
The Holy Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments, newly translated out of the original tongues... Philadelphia: Robert Aitken, 1782.

Although the King James Version was taken to America by the earliest English settlers, the history of its influence is neither easy to pinpoint nor consistent across the colonies. The first Bible printed in America was John Eliot's Algonquin translation of 1663, which was an integral part of his missionary work among the Native Americans in New England. While Eliot drew from original Greek and Hebrew, he relied heavily on the King James Version, using it wherever he could not convey a word or concept in Algonquin.

Outside of New England, the Geneva Bible was preferred among Quakers, as attempts to produce a "plain speech" version in the 19th century failed. English Bibles were imported into America until an embargo was passed on British goods during the Revolution. In 1782, Philadelphia-based printer Robert Aitken printed the first English Bible in America, a King James Version. By the 19th century, the King James Version was the standard text in American public schools.

However, Catholic immigrant populations questioned its pervasiveness. In Philadelphia the so-called "Bible Riots" erupted in 1844, pitting Irish Catholic immigrants against anti-Catholic "nativists" who denied them the right to use their own translation. Several were killed in the riots, and the use of the Bible in public schools became a major campaign issue for the Democratic Party in that year's presidential election: Democrats condemned its use in schools as a violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution. Nevertheless, at the celebration of its third centennial in 1911, President Woodrow Wilson hailed the King James Bible as "America's National Book."

The King James Version in the 20th Century
The Holy Bible : containing all the books of the Old and New Testaments : King James Version
Designed & illustrated by Barry Moser, 1999.

As a work of literature, the King James Bible has also been an important source of inspiration for writers and artists across its four-hundred year lifespan. The language of the King James Version has influenced the style of many different types of writing extending to the modern day: from Abraham Lincoln's speeches, Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," the novels of Herman Melville, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy, among others, and even Allen Ginsberg's "Howl."

Scenes of the King James Bible have been brought to the life in paintings and sketches, William Blake's most famously, and Barry Moser featured here. "[D]oes 'God' work through reprobates like me...?" Moser asks when interviewed about the project. Even when seemingly estranged from its religious context, the book's influence over the style of the pen or stroke of the brush does not fail to convey a sense of spirituality.

The largest number of new translations and editions of both the Old and New Testaments were produced during the late 19th and 20th centuries. By the time of its tercentenary, the use of the Textus Receptus or "received text" in Greek that served as the basis of the New Testament in the King James Bible was called into question. Alternative, and possibly older, versions of Scripture were rediscovered at the Vatican Library, giving rise to the "Wescott and Hort" or "English Revised Edition" of the New Testament in 1881. With the publication of the American Revised Edition in 1901, new translations of either the Old or New Testaments were issued each year until 1913. These translations have provoked debates between denominations advocating for and against the King James Version. In the 1980s, "King James Onlyism" was the term applied to groups such as the Trinitarian Bible Society. Even today you can find bumper stickers that read "If It Ain't King James / It Ain't Bible."

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