January 8, 2012


All They That Labored: Scholars piece together the monumental job of creating the King James Bible--and reinterpret its legacy (Jennifer Howard, Chronicle Review)

Every member of the translation companies was given a loose-leaf copy of the Bishops' Bible, an English translation first published in 1568, to use as a base text. David Norton, a professor of English at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, is author of The King James Bible: A Short History From Tyndale to Today (Cambridge U. Press, 2011), probably the most detailed account of how the translators did their job. In it, he makes the case for the Bishops' Bible as "of very particular importance as a draft of the King James Bible."

The translators were also intimately familiar with a translation called the Great Bible of 1539 and with the Geneva Bible (1560), compiled by Protestant exiles in Europe. Small and printed in roman type, the Geneva Bible was much more of a pocket edition than the Great Bible. Moore describes the Geneva Bible as "the reading Bible of the Elizabethan public," the Bible that Shakespeare used.

Running through those Bibles is the work of William Tyndale, an English theologian born about 1494, who was the first to work from the original languages. Before England finally broke with the Roman Catholic Church, it was heresy to translate the Bible into English. Tyndale dared to do it, often working more or less on the run during self-exile in Europe. In 1536, he was captured and executed, in part because of that work. Miles Coverdale, his assistant, published some of Tyndale's translations posthumously. Within four years of his death, sanctioned English translations began to appear. Later English Bibles, including the King James, preserve large portions of Tyndale's language. It's only in recent decades, thanks to the work of scholars such as the biographer David Daniell, that Tyndale's contribution has been more fully appreciated.

"The way I see it is that it's reasonable to think of Tyndale as the first draft of the King James," Norton says. He points specifically to Tyndale's work on the New Testament and the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament. "That's foundational for all that comes later. It's also particularly good work."

For instance, Tyndale threw a distinctive liveliness into his translations. Norton cites an example from Genesis in which the serpent reassures Eve that there's no danger in taking a bite of the forbidden fruit. "Tush! Ye shall not die," the tempter tells them. Norton says, "It gives you a sense of the kind of talent for language he had, and his very strong sensitivity to what's being said in the original languages."

The King James translators came up with many of their own phrasings, of course, and sometimes improved upon Tyndale's. As an example, Norton cites a passage from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:28-9. The King James version has "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they toil not, neither do they spin. And yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." Compare that to Tyndale's rendering of those lines: "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They labour not, neither spin. And yet for all that I say unto you that even Solomon in all his royalty was not arrayed like unto one of these."

Norton says, "Quite a lot could be made of this famous saying, including the improvement of rhythm--'neither do they spin,' etc.--and the removal of wordiness. Tyndale's 'for all that' has no equivalent in the Greek."

By the time the King James translators set about their work, humanism and Protestantism had encouraged several generations to acquire the language skills necessary to undertake fresh translations of Scripture. "One of the most significant things that was possible by 1611 was the understanding of Rabbinic commentaries," Moore says. "They were able to read not just the first layer of Hebrew but the commentaries as well. But of course they leaned heavily on English translations as well."

Posted by at January 8, 2012 7:51 AM

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