The history of the beloved King James Bible, perhaps the best-known English-language translation of the Bible, spanned nearly one hundred years and the work of many translators and editors. This translation's legacy encompassed six "generations," or phases, of translation work, and the collaboration of a variety of scholars and writers.
These six translation phases culminated in the Hampton Court Conference of 1604, in which King James I of England formally commissioned a new translation of Scripture into English.
The translators of the King James Version Bible enumerated that they did not intend to create an entirely new translation of the English Bible, but to improve and continue work that William Tyndale and his predecessors had already completed. Tyndale's work was a crucial factor in leading to the success of the King James Bible.
According to David Norton, in The King James Bible—A Short History from Tyndale to Today, “Without Tyndale, the English Bible would have been a different and, in all likelihood, lesser thing (pg. 8).” Tyndale was a key figure in this process due to his skillfully balance of the usage of vernacular, accessible English with the preservation of the intention of the original authors.
Sadly, William Tyndale was martyred before he was able to complete his translation. However, he laid an important foundation for the continued work of translation of the Bible into English.
One translator who carried on the work of William Tyndale was Miles Coverdale, a former assistant of Tyndale. He had previously helped Tyndale prepare the translation of the Pentateuch, or the Bible's first five books. His edition, or the "Coverdale Bible," was published in 1535. Coverdale’s work with Tyndale allowed him to continue the translation work that would ultimately create the timeless King James Version.
Though not a scholar like many other translators, Coverdale was nonetheless a capable English writer and borrowed from German and Latin sources.
Coverdale’s Bible was revised two years later by John Rogers. Using the pseudonym Thomas Matthew, Rogers produced the Matthew Bible, another predecessor to the KJV. This translation contained little of Roger’s own translation work, but rather a vast amount of revisions to the Coverdale Bible.The Matthew Bible was published in 1537, just two years after the Coverdale Bible.
In 1539, Coverdale published another draft of an English Bible, later known as the "Great Bible." It was the first major revision completed under the auspices of the English Church.
The Geneva Bible, published in 1560, was the work of several of reformer John Calvin's contemporaries. Many of these men were English refugees, escaping persecution in England due to their sympathy with the Reformation movement. This publication of the Bible demonstrated a return to Tyndale's desire to translate from Hebrew and Greek texts.
The Geneva Bible was received enthusiastically and retained popularity for decades. Eventually, about 140 editions of the Geneva Bible were published.
The Bishops’ Bible, published in 1568, was the second Bible authorized by the Church of England. This Bible is so named because one of its key architects of the Bishops’ Bible was Matthew Parker, the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was a revision of the Great Bible, the official text of the Church of England. The Bishops' Bible revision, when completed, replaced the original Great Bible.
Beginning with Tyndale's manuscript, these early English-language Bibles played varying roles in the creation of the KJV.
During the reign of King James VI, the Geneva Bible became a favorite among the Puritans, the Presbyterian Church in Scotland, and the lay population in general.
However, the Bishops’ Bible was the official authorized version of the Church of England, a reality that presented a conflict between these people groups. King James' desire to resolve this tension prompted him to convene the Hampton Court Conference in 1604.
On the second day of this convention, the Puritan leader John Reynolds proposed a new translation of the Bible into English. King James agreed to this proposal and, thus, commissioned a new translation.
In his book In the Beginning, historian Alister McGrath states, “James thus directed that the ‘best-learned in both universities’—at this stage, England had only two universities, Oxford and Cambridge—should begin work on a new translation of the Bible, which would be ‘reviewed by the bishops and the chief learned of the church; from them to be presented to the Privy Council; and lastly to be ratified by royal authority,’ so that ‘the whole church would be bound to it, and none other’” (163). In other words, King James ensured that his new edition of the Bible would exhibit both academic credibility, theological faithfulness, and approval by the British royalty.
Archbishop Richard Bancroft oversaw the creation of this newly authorized version. He was the Puritans' main opponent at the Hampton Court Conference. He formed several committees to work on the translation of various sections of Scripture. In 1611, the translation of the Bible was complete and ready for print.
The KJV Bible was revised several times in the centuries to come. For example, in 1769, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge produced an updated text for punctuation and spelling standardization.
Furthermore, the five books of the Apocrypha were included in the original King James Bible. Due to their rejection from scriptural canon by most Protestant sects, the apocryphal books were removed from the KJV in 1769 in order to broaden its relevance outside the Church of England.
Despite its subsequent popularity, the KJV was largely criticized or ignored in the aftermath of its publication. However, as McGrath describes in his work In the Beginning, “If the first 150 years of [the KJV's] history were encumbered with hints of discontent, criticism, and suspicion, its next 150 years were characterized by something at times approaching uncritical adulation” (290). However, McGrath also illustrates that the KJV eventually attained elite status as a written work, both in a religious and a literary context.
The King James Version Bible remains one of humanity’s prized religious works. It is the most published book in world history and has helped to shape Western literature, history, and cultured. The number of KJV Bibles published since its inception is estimated to be one billion.