What Did the King James Translators Believe About Translation?

by Luke Wayne
10/31/18
Return to King James Onlyism

The general thesis of King James Onlyism is that the KJV is the one and only perfect, unchangeable translation for all English speakers. No other translation can ever equal it nor could the English Language ever change enough to require a new translation. The translation, they seem to believe, was made once-for-all by the best translators who will ever live, possessing perfect knowledge of the Greek and Hebrew and probably even miraculous guidance from God. But is this what the men who gave us the King James Version of 1611 actually thought? Is that what they were trying to accomplish? Is that what they believed they had produced? No, not at all. Indeed, when we look at their own words, we get a totally different picture.

William Tyndale

The King James Version did not spring into existence overnight. It was the culmination of nearly a century of English translation work that flowed out of the Protestant Reformation. That process began with the bold work of a man named William Tyndale. Tyndale died a martyr before he could complete the entire Bible, but he translated the New Testament and much of the Old into English from the original languages for the first time in human history.1 Tyndale's influence on the KJV would be hard to overstate. As one scholar plainly observes, "Reading the KJB, we are for long stretches reading Tyndale."2 Sometimes little more than spelling has been changed between Tyndale's work and the wording of the 1611 King James. The translators of the King James Bible were consciously carrying on the work begun by Tyndale, work for which he gave his very life.

Tyndale's goal was to give the Bible to the common English people. He once said to one of his Roman Catholic opponents that, if God spared his life "ere many years" he would "cause a boy that driveth the plough" to know more of the Scripture than he did.3 Thus, Tyndale's goal was not to render the Bible into lofty, poetical language as work of art or high culture. He wanted it to be in words the plowboy might use. Not only the everyday man on the street, but the poor, undereducated working youth. When publishing the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) Tyndale wrote:

"I had perceived by experience, how that it was impossible to stablish the lay people in any truth, except the scripture were plainly laid before their eyes in their mother tongue, that they might see the process, order, and meaning of the text." 4

Tyndale wanted a text that was comprehensible to the masses of England. Whether or not Tyndale succeeded in this is, of course, open to healthy discussion, but this was the reason he translated. This was the point of bringing the Bible into English. This was the purpose for which Tyndale was willing to die. He himself did not think his work to be the end of the labor, but rather the start of it. He openly published that:

"I submit this book and all other that I have other made or translated, or shall in time to come (if it be God's will that I shall further labor in his harvest) unto all them that submit themselves unto the word of God, to be corrected of them — yea, and moreover, to be disallowed and also burnt, if it seem worthy when they have examined it with the Hebrew, so that they first put forth of their own translating another that is more correct."5

Thus, from the beginning, Protestant English translations were aimed at common understanding in everyday speech and were humbly submitted to future generations for revision and improvement based on the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. The KJV translators were faithfully carrying on just as Tyndale had requested men do.

Miles Coverdale

Miles Coverdale was not quite the scholar that Tyndale was, particularly lacking in knowledge of Hebrew. Still, He was a brilliant man and an able translator who was involved in not just one but many of the translations that led up to the KJV. Shortly after Tyndale's death, Coverdale published a complete Bible in English. A few years later, a Bible known as the "Matthew Bible" was published, which was largely a synthesis of Tyndale and Coverdale with some minor revisions. When the church of England decided to publish the first authorized version of the Bible, Coverdale was the man to whom they turned as the primary translator. Thus, the 1539 Great Bible was also largely Coverdale's work. Later, when the crown again turned against the Protestants, Coverdale fled with many other scholars to Geneva. There, Coverdale was a part of the team that produced the famous Geneva Bible. All of these Bibles were foundational steps toward the form and language of the KJV, and thus Coverdale's fingerprints are all over the process that gave us today's King James Version. In the prologue to the 1535 Coverdale Bible, the translator explained:

"Whereas some men think now that many translations make division in the faith and in the people of God, that is not so: for it was never better with the congregation of God, than when every church almost had the Bible of a sundry translation. Among the Greeks had not Origen a special translation? Had not Vulgarius one peculiar, and likewise Chrysostom? Beside the seventy interpreters, is there not the translation of Aquila, of Theodotion, of Symachus, and of sundry other? Again among the Latin men, thou findest that every one almost used a special and sundry translation: for in so much as every bishop had the knowledge of the tongues, he gave his diligence to have the Bible of his own translation. The doctors, as Hireneus, Cyprianus, Tertullian, S. Jerome, S. Augustine, Hilarius and S. Ambrose upon diverse places of the scripture, read not the text all alike."6

Coverdale saw a great blessing in a multitude of translations (which is probably why he was involved in so many!) He plainly explained that:

"Sure I am that there cometh more knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures by their sundry translations than by all the glosses of our sophistical doctors. For that one interpreteth something obscurely in one place, the same translateth another, or else he himself, more manifestly by a plain vocable of the same meaning in another place. Be not thou offended therefore, good readers, though one call a scribe that another calleth a lawyer."7

Thus, Coverdale displays, both in word and in action, the early understanding that English translations were not in competition but were, in fact, working together to improve understanding.

Thomas Cranmer

Though Coverdale was the primary translator behind the "Great Bible" of 1539, the man who oversaw its production and saw it through was Thomas Cranmer. He was so closely associated with the work that it was often called the "Cranmer Bible." Cranmer also wrote the preface, in which he explained in defense of a new English translation:

"if the matter should be tried by custom, we might also to allege custom for the reading of the scripture in the vulgar tongue, and prescribe the more ancient custom. For it is not much above one hundred years ago, since scripture hath not been accustomed to be read in the vulgar tongue within this realm. And many hundred years before that, it was translated and read in the Saxons' tongue, which at that time was our mother tongue, whereof there remain yet divers copies found lately in old abbeys, of such antique manner of writing and speaking, that few men now be able to read and understand them. And when this language waxed old and out of common usage, because folk should not lack the fruit of reading, it was again translated into the newer language, whereof yet also many copies remain and be daily found."8

Thus, Cranmer expressed the obvious truth that, as languages change, new translations are needed. Manuscripts of older English Bibles were known in Cramer's day (and are still known today) but they were no longer suitable for the average English Christian to read or hear with understanding. Thus, a new translation into contemporary English was needed. In fact, Cranmer goes further to explain that the books of the Bible themselves were written in the vulgar tongues of the common men on the street and not in the lofty language of scholarship or culture. There is little in the wording of scripture that was written to be especially impressive or beautiful. It is in understanding the content that we come into contact with the sacred:

"For those books were not made to vain glory, like as were the writings of the gentile philosophers and rhetoricians, to the intent the makers should be had in admiration for their high styles and obscure manner and writing, whereof nothing can be understood without a master or an expositor. But the Apostles and prophets wrote their books so that their special intent and purpose might be understood and perceived of every reader, which was nothing but the edification of amendment of the life of them that read or hear it."9

The Geneva Bible

While every translator had much help from a few close associates, the Geneva Bible was the first translation to truly be carried out by a team rather than by one primary individual. It was also the first translation where the entire Old Testament was translated from the original Hebrew and Aramaic. Tyndale had attempted this but died before completing it. The others, lacking knowledge of Hebrew, relied on secondary languages. The Geneva translators justified their work this way:

"we thought that we should bestow our labours and study in nothing which could be more acceptable to God and comfortable to his Church than in the translating of the Holy Scriptures into our native tongue; the which thing, albeit that divers heretofore have endeavored to achieve, yet considering the infancy of those times and imperfect knowledge of the tongues, in respect of this ripe age and clear light which God hath now revealed, the translations required greatly to be perused and reformed."10

Thus, the Geneva translators acknowledge a fact often overlooked. Western civilization was just rediscovering Greek and Hebrew. They had learned more about these tongues since Tyndale. The fact of the matter is, there was still much more to learn. The Geneva translators saw the clear reality that, as knowledge of the languages increase, translations can be improved. Indeed, this was their entire motivation for working together to produce a new translation! So, in summary, we see from the words of the translators who came before the KJV that they: 

  1. Believed that the purpose of translation was to make the Bible understandable to the common person on the street, even the uneducated "plough boy."
  2. Saw the value in multiple translations into a given language.
  3. Recognized the need for new translations as languages change over time.
  4. Recognized that, as knowledge of the original languages improved, so too would translations.

The KJV Translators

So, this being the heritage of the King James Translators, it is fair to assume that they were following in the same vein unless it can be shown that they repudiated some or all of these ideas. Thus, the burden of proof lies on the one who would claim that the KJV translators sought to overthrow all previous translations and forbid all future ones, binding men only to the English words they chose and the textual decisions they made. I have no need to prove that they didn't think that. The whole culture of Protestant translation in England was utterly opposed to that kind of idea. There is no reason to think they were doing anything of the sort unless it can be shown from their own words. Still, though no positive case need be given, it is worth noting that the King James translators themselves said many things to show that they were not King James Onlyists and that they, indeed, were of the same heart and mind as those translators who came before. On the purpose of translation, they wrote:

"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, even as Jacob rolled away the stone from the mouth of the well, by which means the flocks of Laban were watered. Indeed without translation into the vulgar tongue, the unlearned are but like children at Jacob's well (which was deep) without a bucket or something to draw with."11

Far from thinking that their translation was alone the word or God or is the only one that should be used, they wrote:

"we do not deny, nay we affirm and avow, that the very meanest translation of the Bible in English, set forth by men of our profession, (for we have seen none of theirs [i.e. the translators opponents, the Roman Catholics] of the whole Bible as yet) containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God. As the King's speech, which he uttereth in Parliament, being translated into French, Dutch, Italian, and Latin, is still the King's speech, though it be not interpreted by every Translator with the like grace, nor peradventure so fitly for phrase, nor so expressly for sense, everywhere."12

Thus, not only are other translations the true word of God and ought to be honored as such, even translations of lesser quality ought to be so regarded. And they did not think their predecessors had produced low-quality translations. Rather:

"we never thought from the beginning, that we should need to make a new Translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one, (for then the imputation of Sixtus had been true in some sort, that our people had been fed with gall of Dragons instead of wine, with whey instead of milk:) but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one."13

In their preface to the KJV, they included a lengthy discussion of the Septuagint, an ancient Greek translation of the of the Old Testament which was often cited in the New Testament and was quite highly regarded by the Ancient churches and, indeed, throughout church history. In this section they note:

"This may be supposed to be some cause, why the Translation of the Seventy was allowed to pass for current. Notwithstanding, though it was commended generally, yet it did not fully content the learned, no not of the Jews. For not long after Christ, Aquila fell in hand with a new Translation, and after him Theodotion, and after him Symmachus; yea, there was a fifth and a sixth edition, the Authors whereof were not known. These with the Seventy made up the Hexapla and were worthily and to great purpose compiled together by Origen. Howbeit the Edition of the Seventy went away with the credit, and therefore not only was placed in the midst by Origen (for the worth and excellency thereof above the rest, as Epiphanius gathered) but also was used by the Greek fathers for the ground and foundation of their Commentaries. Yea, Epiphanius above named doth attribute so much unto it, that he holdeth the Authors thereof not only for Interpreters, but also for Prophets in some respect; and Justinian the Emperor enjoining the Jews his subjects to use especially the Translation of the Seventy, rendereth this reason thereof, because they were as it were enlightened with prophetical grace. Yet for all that, as the Egyptians are said of the Prophet to be men and not God, and their horses flesh and not spirit; so it is evident, (and Saint Jerome affirmeth as much) that the Seventy were Interpreters, they were not Prophets; they did many things well, as learned men; but yet as men they stumbled and fell, one while through oversight, another while through ignorance, yea, sometimes they may be noted to add to the Original, and sometimes to take from it; which made the Apostles to leave them many times, when they left the Hebrew, and to deliver the sense thereof according to the truth of the word, as the spirit gave them utterance."14

Here, the translators affirm the validity of multiple translations and the validity of Origen's effort to bring those translations together so as to invite greater clarity. They describe and then repudiate the fact that some people had exalted a translation to the level of inspired revelation above the original language, rejecting the view of those who treated translators like prophets giving the final and unassailable word. The translation should, on the one hand, be honored as truly and fully the word of God while, on the other hand, open to correction or improvement through consulting the manuscripts in the original languages.

King James Onlyists often malign the New King James Version (NKJV) for the fact that it contains footnotes about manuscript differences or difficult translations. They claim that this sows doubt and confusion and thus undermines God's word. Ironically, the original King James Bible had similar notes and received similar criticism. The translators fire back at such critics, saying:

"Some peradventure would have no variety of senses to be set in the margin, lest the authority of the Scriptures for deciding of controversies by that show of uncertainty, should somewhat be shaken. But we hold their judgment not to be so sound in this point. For though, whatsoever things are necessary are manifest, as S. Chrysostom saith, and as S. Augustine, In those things that are plainly set down in the Scriptures, all such matters are found that concern Faith, Hope, and Charity. Yet for all that it cannot be dissembled, that partly to exercise and whet our wits, partly to wean the curious from loathing of them for their every-where plainness, partly also to stir up our devotion to crave the assistance of God's spirit by prayer, and lastly, that we might be forward to seek aid of our brethren by conference, and never scorn those that be not in all respects so complete as they should be, being to seek in many things ourselves, it hath pleased God in his divine providence, here and there to scatter words and sentences of that difficulty and doubtfulness, not in doctrinal points that concern salvation, (for in such it hath been vouched that the Scriptures are plain) but in matters of less moment, that fearfulness would better beseem us than confidence, and if we will resolve, to resolve upon modesty with S. Augustine, (though not in this same case altogether, yet upon the same ground) Melius est dubitare de occultis, quam litigare de incertis, it is better to make doubt of those things which are secret, than to strive about those things that are uncertain. There be many words in the Scriptures, which be never found there but once, (having neither brother nor neighbor, as the Hebrews speak) so that we cannot be holpen by conference of places. Again, there be many rare names of certain birds, beasts and precious stones, etc. concerning which the Hebrews themselves are so divided among themselves for judgment, that they may seem to have defined this or that, rather because they would say something, than because they were sure of that which they said, as S. Jerome somewhere saith of the Septuagint. Now in such a case, doth not a margin do well to admonish the Reader to seek further, and not to conclude or dogmatize upon this or that peremptorily? For as it is a fault of incredulity, to doubt of those things that are evident: so to determine of such things as the Spirit of God hath left (even in the judgment of the judicious) questionable, can be no less than presumption."15

They admit their own ignorance of the language in places, leaving room for improvement in translation as scholarship advanced. They defend marginal notes that inform the reader of these difficulties and urge trust in and dependence on the Holy Spirit. Likewise, they address criticism that they are not always consistent in how they translate a particular word or phrase, rendering it one way in one place and another way in another place. They answer back that more than one translation of the same word or phrase is equally legitimate, stating things like:

"But, that we should express the same notion in the same particular word; as for example, if we translate the Hebrew or Greek word once by Purpose, never to call it Intent; if one where Journeying, never Traveling; if one where Think, never Suppose; if one where Pain, never Ache; if one where Joy, never Gladness, etc. Thus to mince the matter, we thought to savour more of curiosity than wisdom, and that rather it would breed scorn in the Atheist, than bring profit to the godly Reader. For is the kingdom of God become words or syllables? why should we be in bondage to them if we may be free."16

Thus, according to those who produced the KJV, translators ought to be free to express the same idea in different words. This is precisely what later translators have done and precisely what King James Onlyists will not allow. Yet, if it is not okay to use different words to express the same original Greek or Hebrew phrase, if it is wrong for modern translations to differ in wording from the KJV, then why is it okay for the KJV itself to contain different translations of the same words in its own pages? The KJV translators did not think this was a problem at all. They did not have the same view of other translations that King James Onlyists have today. The King James Version is not a King James Only document.

 

 

 

  • 1. Other English translations before Tyndale were translations from the Latin Vulgate rather than from the Greek or Hebrew texts
  • 2. David Norton, The King James Bible: A Short History from Tyndale to Today (Cambridge University Press, 2011) 8
  • 3. John Foxe, The Acts and Monuments: Volume 5 (R. B. Seeley and W. Burnside, 1837) 117  https://archive.org/stream/actsandmonument03towngoog#page/n142 (accessed 9/14/18)
  • 4. William Tyndale, "To the Reader," from his 1530 Pentateuch, http://www.bible-researcher.com/tyndale2.html (accessed 9/14/18)
  • 5. William Tyndale, "To the Reader," from his 1530 Pentateuch  http://www.bible-researcher.com/tyndale2.html (accessed 9/14/18)
  • 6. Miles Coverdale, "Unto The Christian Reader," Prologue to the 1535 Coverdale Bible)  http://www.bible-researcher.com/coverdale1.html (accessed 9/14/18)
  • 7. David Norton, The King James Bible: A Short History from Tyndale to Today (Cambridge University Press, 2011) 15
  • 8. Thomas Cranmer, Preface to the 1539 Great Bible,  http://www.bible-researcher.com/cranmer.html (accessed 9/14/18)
  • 9. Thomas Cranmer, Preface to the 1539 Great Bible,  http://www.bible-researcher.com/cranmer.html (accessed 9/14/18)
  • 10. Preface to the Geneva Bible http://www.bible-researcher.com/geneva1.html (accessed 9/17/18)
  • 11. "The Translators to the Reader," 1611 KJV
  • 12. ibid.
  • 13. ibid.
  • 14. ibid.
  • 15. ibid.
  • 16. ibid.