Four hundred years ago Bible translation was controversial. Five hundred years ago William Tyndale was executed for it. The English Bible you possess, no matter what translation you read, is the descendant of five hundred plus years of previous translation work.
The most popular Bible in English since 1611 has been the “King James Version.” It is so named because King James himself commissioned its translation as a way of appeasing both Puritans and Anglicans. The story of the KJV is a long story, and one I won’t tell here.
Today the KJV is beloved by many, and borderline worshiped by some. More and more English speakers struggle to understand it; long sentence structures, rare vocabulary, and odd pronouns stand as road blocks to comprehension.
Yet when it was translated, it stood as the culmination of previous translators who risked their lives to render the Word of God into English, including John Wycliffe. The team of men (over 50) who translated for King James did so without fear of losing their lives. Even so, they faced critics on every side; some suggested their work was unnecessary, others that it was ungodly.
Therefore, the translators of the King James Bible wrote two original prefaces to the King James Version. First, they addressed King James himself. Second, they addressed the common reader. In these works, they defended the need for their translation and some of their philosophy. Here are a few highlights from their preface, words frozen in time yet that still urge us to treasure our Bibles:
- The Word of God is a priceless treasure. The KJV translators were overjoyed that James was now king, particularly so that they would be able to continue “the preaching of God’s sacred Word among us; which is that inestimable treasure, which excelleth all the riches of the earth…” Recall that many had died in England’s religious civil war, and some of those dead were executed for translating the Bible into English.
- The goal of Bible translation is understanding. They saw the translation issue as crucial to the spiritual health of the people of England. “But how shall men meditate in that, which they cannot understand? How shall they understand that which is kept close in an unknown tongue?”
- Bible translation stands on the shoulders of past scholars. The KJV translators made no claim to superiority. They said, “we are so far off from condemning any of their labors that travailed before us in this kind…” Rather, they understood that the work of previous translators paved the way for their own work, “Yet for all that, as nothing is begun and perfected at the same time… so, if we building upon their foundation that went before us, and being helped by their labors, do endeavor to make that better which they left so good; no man, we are sure, hath cause to mislike us; they, we persuade ourselves, if they were alive, would thank us.”
- Bible translation should be continuously improved. This is implicit in their view of their own improvement of previous English translations. They said, “Truly (good Christian Reader) 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, but to make a good one better…”
- The Bible, when translated with accuracy, is the Word of God. They said that “the very meanest translation of the Bible in English, set forth by men of our profession containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God.”
- Translation is slow, hard, work that requires access to many scholarly resources. “Neither did we think much to consult the Translators or Commentators, Chaldee, Hebrew, Syrian, Greek or Latin, no nor the Spanish, French, Italian, or Dutch.” This means they didn’t think they were above needing help, so they consulted the resources they had at their disposal.
- Translations often need notation when the best choice for how to render a word or phrase isn’t clear. The original KJV contained around 8,000 marginal notes. The use of marginal notes was controversial to some because people felt it conveyed uncertainty as to God’s Word. After acknowledging that sometimes the meanings of particular words are in doubt, the translators argue, “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?”
- Translations need revision. “…neither did we disdain to revise that which we had done, and to bring back to the anvil that which we had hammered…”
There is no doubt, based on their own words, that if the translators of the King James Version were alive today, they would be on the cutting edge of biblical exegesis, textual criticism, and Bible translation. They would relish the opportunity to study manuscripts in depth, revise their previous work, and improve the clarity and quality of their translation.
At the bare minimum, we can learn from them to treasure the word of God in translation, and to be thankful for the embarrassing riches we have in access to biblical manuscripts, knowledge of the world of the Bible, and possession of many translations and study aides—all of which help us to know God through his Word.
(The featured image shows part of a page from a first edition, 1611 King James Bible. Notice the presence of the marginal notes. The image shows Isaiah 42:20-25).