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    February 4, 1930

    Bible Revision in the 17th Century


    W. W. Prescott

    [Signs of the Times, February 4, 1930, The Story of Our Bible, Part 7, pp. 13, 14]

    In order that we may understand the historical background of our Authorized Version of the Holy Scriptures which appeared in 1611, we should take note of a proposal made to James I, king of England, at the Hampton Court Conference held January 16, 1604. One of the leaders of “the hated Puritan party” publicly made the suggestion that a new version of the Sacred Writings should be made with the royal sanction. The motives which led to the presentation of this proposal and those which actuated the king in acting upon it, were doubtless quite different. The Bishops’ Bible, published in 1568, while not directly under royal patronage, was yet favored by the church authorities and used officially in the churches; but it was not as satisfactory to the people as the Genevan Version, published in 1560, and savored too much of ecclesiasticism to be acceptable to the Puritans, who consequently desired a new version devoid of this alleged fault.SITI February 4, 1930, page 13.1


    The king was reared a devout Presbyterian, but on his accession to the throne, he repudiated this creed. Although I do not wish to cast any improper reflection upon the character of that sovereign, yet it does appear more than likely “that James, who exulted in what he called ‘kingcraft,’ was shrewd enough to see that by a new version of the Scriptures, royally sanctioned and patronized, he might the better control the troublesome elements opposed to his supremacy in ecclesiastical matters, and make of it an instrument to perpetuate the same.” However that may be, the king zealously embraced the project, with the probable hope that it would in some way redound to the prestige of his reign. “Sent out with a prestige of scholarship which would silence the reproachful claims of the Puritans and eclipse their favorite Presbyterian version,-the Genevan,-yet charged with conservative influences, and linked indissolubly with the church and the throne, the new version promised to become the chief agent in maintaining the established order.” -Mrs. Conant’sHistory of the English Bible,” page 426.SITI February 4, 1930, page 13.2

    As the outgrowth of the Hampton Court Conference, scholars were chosen representing both the Puritan party and the higher party in the church who were charged with the duty of providing a new version. Among the rules submitted to them for their guidance are the following:SITI February 4, 1930, page 13.3

    “The ordinary Bible read in the churches, commonly called ‘the Bishops’ Bible,’ to be followed, and as little altered as the truth of the original will permit.”SITI February 4, 1930, page 13.4

    “The old ecclesiastical words to be kept; videlicet, the word ‘church’ not to be translated ‘congregation’, etc.”SITI February 4, 1930, page 13.5

    “When a word hath divers significations, that to be kept which has been commonly used by most of the ancient fathers, being agreeable to the propriety of the place and the analogy of the faith.”SITI February 4, 1930, page 13.6

    “When any place of special obscurity is doubted of, letters to be directed by authority to be sent to any learned man in the land for his judgment of such a place.”SITI February 4, 1930, page 13.7

    “These translations to be used when they agree better with the text than the Bishops’ Bible: videlicet, Tyndale’s, Matthew’s, Coverdale’s, Whitchurch’s (the Great Bible), the Genevan.”SITI February 4, 1930, page 13.8

    The revisers were divided into six companies that worked independently of each other, with the natural result that there was a lack of uniformity in the whole product. This arrangement, with its attendant result, was possibly the best that could be done, as no one man and no one company of men could accomplish the whole work during the period allotted to one generation. As it was, two of the leading scholars died before the allotted task was completed.SITI February 4, 1930, page 13.9

    It appears that the revisers did not rigidly hold themselves to the rules cited above, as is made clear in the following extract:SITI February 4, 1930, page 13.10

    “Thus King James’ revisers were well furnished with external helps for the interpretation of the Bible, and we have already seen that they were competent to deal independently with questions of Hebrew and Greek scholarship. Like earlier translators they suffered most from the corrupt form in which the Greek text was presented to them. But as a whole their work was done most carefully and honestly. It is possible to point out inconsistencies of rendering and other traces of compromise, but even in the minutest details the translation is that of a church and not of a party. It differs from the Rhemish Version [the Roman Catholic translation made in 1582-1610] in seeking to fix an intelligible sense on the words rendered: it differs from the Genevan Version in leaving the literal rendering uncolored by any expository notes. And yet it is most worthy of notice that these two versions, representing as they do the opposite extremes of opinion, contributed most largely of all to the changes which the revisers introduced. The important use which was made of the Rhemish and Genevan Versions shows that the revisers did not hold themselves to be closely bound by the instructions which were given them. The Rhemish Version was not contained in the list which they were directed to consult; and on the other hand the cases are comparatively rare in which they go back from the text of the Bishops’ Bible to an earlier English rendering. If indeed they had not interpreted liberally the license of judgment which was given them, they could not have accomplished their task. As it is, their work itself is a monument of the catholicity of their design.”-“A General View of the History of the English Bible,” Brooke Foss Westcott, D. D., pages 256, 257.SITI February 4, 1930, page 13.11

    “For nearly three Centuries”

    the King James Version “has been the Bible, not merely of public use, not merely of one sect or party, not even of a single country, but of the whole nation and of every English-speaking country on the face of the globe. It has been the literature of millions who have read little else, it has been the guide of conduct to men and women of every class in life and of every rank in learning and education.”-F. G. Kenyon.SITI February 4, 1930, page 13.12

    Some have affirmed that the translators of the Authorized Version were more or less influenced by a sectarian bias in doing their work; but if this is true, it would appear that such bias was not revealed in the exclusive interest of any one party. This has been plainly stated by Dean Plumptre in these words: “Dogmatic interests were in some cases allowed to bias the translation; and the Calvinism of one party, the prelatic views of another, were both represented at the expense of accuracy.”SITI February 4, 1930, page 13.13


    While I do not wish to give undue space to setting forth the findings of textual criticism in relation to the foundation of the Authorized Version, yet in view of the admitted importance which attaches to the employment of a correct text in translating the Scriptures into the vernacular, it seems proper to present the facts bearing upon this matter as they have been discovered and recorded by a reliable authority. I shall therefore submit the following extract which deals in a fairly brief way with the texts used by the revisers appointed under the authority of King James, and also with some estimate of the comparative influence of these texts upon the translation:SITI February 4, 1930, page 13.14

    “It is a question of some interest and importance to ascertain what editions of the Greek text were chiefly used by King James’ translators. They left us no direct information; they paid little or no attention to textual criticism, which was then in its infancy, but we know what resources were then available. As they finished their work (1611) thirteen years before the first Elzevir edition (1624) appeared, they must have used the later editions of Stephens and Beza, which had then superseded the editions of Erasmus. The third edition of Robert Stephens, called editio regia, was printed in Paris, and the fourth at Geneva, 1551; the latter, with the exception of a few passages, is a mere reprint, in inferior style, but it is the first which contains our versicular division.... It is almost certain, at the outset, that the last editions of Beza were the main basis of the A. V., not only because they were latest and best, but also because Beza, the surviving patriarch of the reformers, exerted, by his Latin version and exegetical notes, a marked influence upon our translators; even his explanatory or harmonistic interpolations in Apoc. xi:i; Matthew 1:2; John 19:13, found a place in the text, or at least in the margin of the A. V. A closer examination confirms this supposition, but there is as yet no agreement as to the precise extent to which the A. V. depends upon Beza, or sides with Stephens, or dissents from both.”-“The Revision of the English Version of the Holy Scriptures,” Philip Schaff, D. D., pp. xxvii-xxix.SITI February 4, 1930, page 13.15

    In summing up the factors that had an influence in determining the translation of the Authorized Version, I ought not to omit a brief statement by F. G. Kenyon, the librarian of the British Museum in charge of manuscripts, who has given serious study to this whole subject:SITI February 4, 1930, page 14.1

    “As a contribution to the interpretation of Scripture it [the Rheims or Roman Catholic Bible of 1582-1610] is practically valueless; but, on the other hand, its systematic use of words and technical phrases taken directly from the Latin has had a considerable influence on our Authorized Version. Many of the words derived from the Latin which occur in our Bible were incorporated into it from the Rheims New Testament.”-“Our Bible and the Ancient VersionsFrederic G. Kenyon, M. A., page 229.SITI February 4, 1930, page 14.2

    It may not be but of place for me to state that I have personally made some examination of the Rheims New Testament, a copy of which is in the Library of Congress, Washington, D. C, and I found that in very many places it was practically the same as both our Authorized and our Revised Version. This is only natural in view of the fact that the same manuscripts were available to them as to King James’ translators, although the Rhemish Version is based more directly upon the Vulgate, and so is largely a translation of a translation.SITI February 4, 1930, page 14.3


    An interesting feature of the history of the Authorized Version is the record of the number of times it was itself revised within a comparatively short time after its appearance, and how quickly it was followed by a demand for another revision. The facts are briefly stated in this extract:SITI February 4, 1930, page 14.4

    “The first edition of the ‘Authorized Version’ appeared in 1611. In 1614 another edition was printed which contained more than 400 variations from the first. But the sharp criticisms that were hurled at the new version, largely by Hugh Broughton, whose irascible disposition had deprived him of a place, as his scholarship deserved, on the translation committee, forced a revision in 1629. The so-called final revision of the Authorized Version was printed in 1638. Within less than fifty years after the appearance of the King James Version, agitation was begun for a new revision of the Bible. 1653 the Long Parliament submitted a bill calling for such revision. The reasons that lay back of the bill were in part errors, mainly printers’, and some in translation, and also the use of the so-called prelatical [ecclesiastical] language of the version. The matter went so far as to be put into the hands of a committee appointed especially to take charge of the scheme. Some preliminary work was begun, but the dissolution of Parliament put an end to the proposed concerted action.”-“The Ancestry of the English Bible,” Ira Maurice Price, page 280.SITI February 4, 1930, page 14.5


    Scholars who appreciate the simple and yet stately English of the Authorized Version, refer approvingly to “the poetry, the genius, the glow and inspiration” of the men who provided this version. In this connection the testimony of F. W. Faber, who abandoned the Church of England for the Church of Rome, is of special interest:SITI February 4, 1930, page 14.6

    “Who will not say that the uncommon beauty and marvelous English of the Protestant Bible is one of the great strongholds of heresy in this country? It lives on the ear like a music that can never be forgotten, like the sounds of church bells which the convert hardly knows how he can forgo. Its felicities often seem to be almost things rather than mere words. It is a part of the national mind and the anchor of national seriousness.... The memory of the dead passes into it. The potent traditions of childhood are stereotyped in its verses. The power of all the griefs and trials of a man is hidden beneath its words. It is the representative of his best moments, and all that there has been about him of soft, gentle, and pure, and penitent, and good, speaks to him forever out of his English Bible. It is his sacred thing, which doubt has never dimmed and controversy never spoiled.... In the length and breadth of the land there is not a Protestant with one spark of religiousness about him whose spiritual biography is not in his Saxon Bible.”-Cited inHistoric Origin of the Bible,” Edwin Cone Bissell, M. A., pages 87, 88.SITI February 4, 1930, page 14.7

    But the value of the Authorized Version is by no means limited to the beauty of its English, as great as that is. Another phase of it is well set forth in the following words:SITI February 4, 1930, page 14.8

    “But great as has been the literary value of the Authorized Version, its religious significance has been greater still. For nearly three centuries it has been the Bible, not merely of public use, not merely of one sect or party, not even of a single country, but of the whole nation and of every English-speaking country on the face of the globe. It has been the literature of millions who have read little else, it has been the guide of conduct to men and women of every class in life and of every rank in learning and education.”-“Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts,” F. G. Kenyon, page 234.SITI February 4, 1930, page 14.9

    All this praise of the general character of the Authorized Version was freely conceded by such English scholars as Kenyon, and Westcott, and Hort, and by such American scholars as Schaff, and Day, and Green, all of whom took a prominent part in the last revision, and yet in view of the new and very valuable material available in the last century, of the highly prized results of textual criticism of a conservative character, of the testimony furnished by recent archaeological discoveries in the East, and of the marked advance in critical Hebrew and Greek scholarship, these same scholars and many associated with them were fully convinced that another critical revision of the Scriptures was fully warranted. This deep conviction led to aggressive action on both sides of the Atlantic, to which I shall next direct attention.SITI February 4, 1930, page 14.10

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