Various - King James Bible: Authorised Version (1611)

  • 1 January 2005
King James Bible: Authorised Version - Various (1611)

100 Best Scottish Books of all Time

It was the only memorable and enduring thing that came out of the Hampton Court Conference of 1604, which was called to consider the demands of the Puritans for the reform of the Church of England. King James I or VI, depending on which side of the Border you’re on, presided. The Puritans wanted the English bishops brought to heel: James was having none of it. Having gratefully escaped from the religious strife of Scotland, he didn’t want a re-run in England: ‘Nae bishop, nae king’ was his curt dismissal of that move. It was different when one of the Puritans present at the conference, John Rainolds, president of Corpus Christi College Cambridge, suggested that there should be a new translation of the Bible. James ordered that the work should start immediately. He established a group of 50 translators who sat in six groups, two at Oxford, two at Cambridge, and two at Westminster. The work started in 1607 and took two years and nine months to complete. Each man got 30 shillings a week for undertaking the noble work.

Strictly speaking it is not a new translation. The preface of the translators states that it’s a revision that tries to steer a course between earlier Puritan and Roman Catholic versions. It is also incorrect to call it the ‘Authorised Version’, for authorised it never was. Rather it was ‘appointed to be read in churches’, as the title page still states. All that aside, it remains one of the enduring triumphs of the English language, up there with the great tragedies of Shakespeare, which were written at exactly the same time. We are used to identifying and celebrating the genius of an individual like Shakespeare: how can we account for the genius of a committee of 50, albeit one that contained a number of supremely gifted men?

Adam Nicolson, in his book on the subject, claims that Shakespeare’s great tragedies and the King James Bible are each other’s mirror-twin, with both emerging from the ambitions and terrors of the Jacobean world. However we explain the achievement, The King James Bible is one of the glories of the world, unique because its beauty and power appeal to believer and unbeliever alike. In the words of the Epistle to the Hebrews: ‘It is quick and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.’

Further reading: James VI & I is also the author of Daemonologie (1597); The True Lawe of Free Monarchies (1598); and Basilikon Doron (1599).

100 Best Scottish Books of all Time

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