It took seven years, from its commissioning in 1604 to it publication in 1611, for a group of about 50 men to translate Greek and Hebrew texts into what we now know as the King James Bible. The New York Times recently wrote about the significance of this translation on its 400th birthday:
“It’s barely possible to overstate the significance of this Bible. Hundreds of millions have been sold. In 1611, it found a critical balance in a world of theological conflict, and it has been beloved since of Protestant churches and congregations of every stripe. By the end of the 17th century it was, simply, the Bible. It has been superseded by translations in more modern English, translations based on sources the King James translators couldn’t have known. But to Christians all around the world, it is still the ancestral language of faith.”
For detailed background about the culture, the people and process, Adam Nicolson’s God’s Secretaries – The Making of the King James Bible is a fascinating read. Nicolson explains that the translating committee was divided into six sub-committees, each with a director, and how each member of the sub-committees was to translate his assigned chapters alone and without discussion. The sub-committee would then meet together, discuss the texts, and submit a final version to the others. When finished, the KJ Bible “would have gone through at least four winnowing processes.”
The letter of instruction emphasized care and attention to detail. Interestingly, there was no instruction about prayerfulness, or the “right frame of mind.” The 16 instructions focus on continuity (words with diverse meanings were to rely on inherited traditions, and division of chapters to be change little or not at all), commentary and cohesiveness. The translators “chose a word not for its clarified straightforwardness (which had been Tyndale’s focus in the 1520s and ’30s…) but for its richness, its suggestiveness, its harmonic resonances.” Specifically, they were to use “language in which meaning was to be ‘sett forth gorgeously’.” I love that.
Nicolson’s book provides great background and explanation of how this significant text came to be. 400 years later we argue our “interpretations” of the Bible, often forgetting the labor and history behind the newer translations we favor. But the Preface to the Bible explained its true purpose:
“Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most Holy place; that removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water.”