How the Bible Came to Be: Part 7, The Sweet and Ripened Fruit

Gifts of Sacrifice and Love

The bloodshed in the late 1500s had a decidedly sobering effect on England. The outrageous spectacle of Protestants being martyred under one regime, and Catholics under another, helped prepare the way eventually for greater religious tolerance. Under James, who became king in 1603, a major move in that direction took place.

James faced a nation badly in need of religious unification. The Puritans had grown strong in numbers and also in determination to make their numbers felt, and they petitioned James for reforms.

Though he was not sympathetic to the Puritan cause, James felt it politically wise to hold a conference to consider their grievances, and did so the following year. It is surprising that the most remarkable accomplishment to come out of that three-day conference arose not from the carefully prepared petitions, which were generally rejected, but from one individual’s seemingly extemporaneous suggestion—that there be a new Bible. The suggestion was made by John Reynolds, a leading Puritan and president of Corpus Christi College, who felt the Bible used in the churches was “corrupt and not aunswerable to the truth of the Originall.” 1 Reynolds was not seeking a pro-Protestant version, however; he was seeking a correct Bible that would be satisfactory to all.

The majority of those in attendance were opposed to another translation. One participant remarked that there would never be an end to translations if everyone’s whims were humored. But the person who really counted, King James, was very taken with the idea.

It is true that part of his excitement over a new translation was due to his strong disapproval of the Geneva Bible. He was displeased not because of inaccuracies, but because of what he considered improprieties in its notes. But he also was excited at the idea of heading such a project—for King James liked books, and the Bible most of all. 2

His boyhood tutor had acquainted him with the Bible, and he had discovered for himself its worth. In fact, he considered himself somewhat of a biblical scholar. He had translated a paraphrase of the book of Revelation and some of the Psalms, and in all his communications he made frequent references to the scriptures.

One writer points out that we should feel quite thankful that Reynold’s lonely request fell upon James’s ear. Otherwise, such an idea probably would have died. 3 Indeed, when we consider the differing roads that various kings and queens have pursued to embellish and glorify their names, it is easy for us to conclude that King James undoubtedly was among those who chose most wisely. Not only did James nurture this dream of a new Bible acceptable to all, but he also cared enough about the final product to carefully ensure its excellence.

The excitement King James felt about this project is shown in the rapidity with which he acted. Within one month, he had a detailed plan drawn up outlining how the work would be accomplished. 4 The translators were then chosen with care. Initially there were fifty-four of them, selected with a representative balance in mind—Anglicans and Puritans, high churchmen and low churchmen, clergy and laity, theologians and linguists. 5 James sincerely wanted a book for all people, regardless of religious preference, one to which no one would take offense.

Furthermore, he wanted it to be of highest scholastic quality. Among the men selected was the dean of Westminster, a master of fifteen languages with an unquestioned reputation for accuracy in scholarship. Another had spent thirty years as King’s Professor of Hebrew at Trinity College, Cambridge. Others were skilled in various combinations of Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish. 6

But the committee possessed more than just linguistic acumen. Among its members were men of high character who exercised good influence on their peers in many ways. One was persistent in persuading fellow clergymen of the need to take the gospel abroad. Four were Puritan clergymen, some of whom had made enormous financial sacrifices for their faith. Another had gained wide-reaching respect for his meekness and charity, even toward his enemies. Still another labored among the Scots, preparing ground necessary for unifying the Church of England and the Church of Scotland. 7 Reynolds himself, who had suggested the work, in the end sacrificed his life for it. For though he became ill, he insisted on giving his utmost to the project, thereby contributing to his own death. 8

Though King James intended to give every support necessary to the translation, he was not wise in money matters and soon encountered an empty treasury. Undaunted, however, he appointed the Archbishop of Canterbury, Richard Bancroft, as a general manager of the project and suggested he raise funds for it from the bishops and clergy. But the appeal evidently fell on deaf ears. Finally, the universities agreed to provide, without charge, food and lodging for the translators while they worked. Some scholars also claim that a publisher promised to pay a sum for the right to print and sell the book. But it is generally felt that most of the translators did their work at considerable sacrifice to themselves and with little financial remuneration. 9

The extent of that sacrifice is captured in an account given by one of the committee members, John Bois, to an associate. Bois indicated that he as a translator was secluded in his work throughout the week until Saturday evening, that he then went home on Sunday to take care of his most urgent clergical duties, and that he returned on Monday morning to resume translation. This kind of schedule he followed for four years. 10

Although the committees had been appointed in 1604, formal work did not begin until 1607 because of the fund-raising delays. While fifty-four men supposedly were appointed, only forty-seven actually worked on the Bible, and several of them died before its completion. These forty-seven were divided into groups of six. Two of the groups worked at Oxford, two at Cambridge, and two at Westminster. Each group was assigned a different section of the scriptures to translate.

The instructions they received through Bancroft were very strict. This work was to be a revision only, not a fresh translation, and the work they were to revise was the Bishops’ Bible. They were granted permission, however, to refer to Tyndale’s, Coverdale’s, and the Geneva versions; and where any of those agreed more closely with the Hebrew and Greek texts that were available, they could use them instead. 11

There is strong evidence that the scholars worked much more independently than these instructions indicate. For example, according to their own accounts, they consulted every translation or scholarly work currently available, including versions of the Bible in Spanish, French, Italian; the Vulgate and other Latin versions; Luther’s and other German versions; as well as the best Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek manuscripts then existing. 12 They even consulted the Rheims-Douai Version, which had recently been translated by Roman Catholic scholars in a defensive move against the Protestant translations. Because the Douai Version was still so heavily laden with Latin terminology, it did not have much effect on the King James, but the King James Version came to have much effect on later Douai versions. 13

Thus, every source that might possibly give an insight into the best translation was eagerly sought. In fact, the translators sent appeals to all bishops to notify those who were skilled in ancient tongues, and who had information or observations that might be helpful to the translators, to forward that information to the appropriate college. And when there was difficulty over any obscure passage, the translators did not hesitate to make contact with outside specialists who might be able to shed some light upon its meaning. 14

The process by which the translators obtained not just a coherent but an excellent translation in spite of its being a many-handed work was apparently quite unusual for the times. Each man began by working separately on his assigned chapters. Then the committee met for review. There is some uncertainty as to how this final correlation process was actually carried out, but John Seldon, who knew some of the translators, was quoted in 1689 as saying:

“The translators in king James’s time took an excellent way. That part of the Bible was given him who was most excellent in such a tongue … and then they met together, and one read the translation, the rest holding in their hands some Bible, either of the learned tongues, or French, Spanish, Italian, etc. If they found any fault they spoke; if not, he read on.” 15

While some have questions about the full accuracy of this summary, 16 the fact that the King James Version is so beautifully lyrical—so pleasing to the ear—lends credence to this oral method of correlation.

In the March 1974 Ensign, Margaret Tuttle Sanchez illustrated the process with which one committee probably dealt with the problem of translating the Psalms. In her imaginative portrayal, one of the scholars begins by reading the Scripture as existing in the Bishops’ Bible.

“‘God is my shepherd. …’ ‘Wait!’ There is a chorus of exclamation. … All present agree that ‘shepherd’ is the correct meaning. But to begin by saying ‘God’ is too abrupt. The rhythm is awkward. There is no melody to the line. Moreover, the Hebrew word is Jehovah that here and elsewhere Coverdale has translated as the LORD, using capital letters. And besides, the Book of Common Prayer and the Geneva Bible both agree that there is a superior wording: ‘The Lord is my shepherd.’

“The reader continues: ‘Therefore I can lack nothing.’ This is better than the inversion in the Prayer Book, ‘Therefore can I lack nothing,’ but it does not equal the simplicity and power of the Geneva version, ‘I shall not want.’ This is it, a line with dignity and beauty of movement: ‘The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.’

“Again, the Bishops’ version is read: ‘He will cause me to repose my self in pasture full of grass.’ The Prayer Book (Great Bible) version states, instead, ‘He shall feed me in a green pasture.’ But why the future tense? Coverdale originally used the present tense, ‘He feedeth me.’ The Geneva text agrees on this point and contributes a valuable alternative: ‘He maketh me to rest in green pasture.’ ‘He maketh me’—how effectively the rhythm is enhanced by the alliteration. ‘To what?’ ‘Repose myself’ and ‘rest’ both suggest the same thing. But how else could it be said if the Lord were a shepherd and I were a sheep?

“‘He maketh me to lie down’—here the committee has had inspiration. The words are not in any of the English texts before them, but they agree to adopt them. ‘He maketh me to lie down in green pasture.’ ‘Why not green pastures?’ a new voice asks. Perhaps one of the group has glanced at an English paraphrase … [by] Gilby published in 1580. …

“‘Green pastures’ suddenly sounds universal. Coupled with the use of the present tense, the line takes on immediacy and significance for each follower of the Good Shepherd. It is accepted.

“‘And he will lead me unto calm waters.’ The future tense has already been vetoed. Geneva, Coverdale, and Gilby all say, ‘And leadeth me.’ Someone makes an astute observation: there is more balance and dignity if the ‘he’ of the Bishops’ Version is retained but all the ‘ands’ are dropped. ‘He leadeth me’—it is a good beginning. There is a choice of prepositions: ‘to’? ‘unto’? ‘by’? ‘forth’? ‘beside’? ‘Beside’ is chosen. Shall it be ‘calm waters,’ ‘the pleasant rivers of waters,’ ‘a fresh waters,’ ‘the waters of comfort’? The Geneva Version triumphs again with the quiet beauty and appropriateness of ‘the still waters.’ ‘Green pastures’ and ‘still waters’ now balance perfectly.

“‘He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.’

“The line surpasses those of all earlier texts; it bears the stamp of excellence so characteristic of the King James Version.” 17

Because records are available of the other translations the committee used, we can tell from which of these the King James Version ultimately drew. What is important here is that although the translators were seeking accuracy, they were seeking far more than just that. To have sought accuracy alone would have been much easier, but they were also seeking that which would be spiritually satisfying. They recognized that the true purpose of scripture is to move—to motivate. Ideas placed in their best frame are far more stimulating. They are more memorable. Because the committee members were often willing to expend the energies necessary to find the best word, the most pleasing phrase, they were able to conserve “all that was gracious and dignified and beautiful from the cherished versions of the past,” 18 and to blend them with inspiration into a glorious new whole. The result of that toil, that love, is a Bible that has had immense impact on every generation since its publication.

Actually, accuracy and beauty of phrasing were not left to just one committee. As one of the translators explained, “Neither did we disdain to revise that which we had done, and to bring back to the anvil that which we had [already] hammered.” 19 Although there is some question as to whether it was fully carried out, the original plan was that each group’s work be reviewed by every other group. If this plan was followed, the manuscript went through at least six or more revisions before it was actually published. We know for certain that there was at least one review—this by a committee of twelve, two from each of the six major groups, who met after the other committees had disbanded, at least for nine more months and perhaps longer, reviewing and revising the work as a whole. 20 The original plan had also called for final review and approval by the bishops, the Privy Council, and King James. In view of James’s strong personal interest in the results, it would be surprising if at least some of these steps were not taken.

And so, in 1611, King James’s Bible was completed. It is said he felt more pride in seeing this work accomplished than in a recent military victory over Spain. And he had every right to feel proud. The Bible was handsome—both inside and out. Of special satisfaction to him, no doubt, was its flattering dedication. But it was impressive for many other reasons as well, particularly for its beautiful new illustrations. In addition, it boasted a table of contents, various other tables of information, an almanac, a genealogical chart, and a map of Canaan. Each chapter had an introductory summation of contents and briefer summations at the top of each column. The chapters and verses were numbered. 21 While these kinds of features are common in our Bibles of today, in earlier times they were remarkably new.

One thing the Bible did not contain was controversial notes. James had been emphatic about this. The only notes allowed were those which explained Hebrew and Greek words or which gave alternative translations or referred the reader from one scriptural passage to another. “The text ought to speak for itself” was the policy adhered to. 22

One feature which the original version possessed but which has been left out of subsequent editions was a lengthy preface titled “The Translators to the Readers.” Believed to have been written by Dr. Miles Smith, but obviously approved by all, it reveals much insight into the hearts of the men who translated the Bible for us. Still mindful of the great struggles that had been waged in behalf of the Bible prior to this time, and of the still lingering negative opinions toward this new translation, the spokesman for the translators referred sadly to their “zeal to promote the common good” which “deserveth certainly much respect and esteem, but yet findeth cold entertainment in the world.” 23

The translators insisted that their only object was to make out of several good translations one final one that was better. And they reaffirmed once more the great need for translation itself, stating that such work “openeth the window, to let in the light; … breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; … 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.” 24

Not only had the stone been rolled away, but every effort had been made to ensure that the water which came forth was in its purest, most refreshing form. In the King James Version, that water was a river, its fountainhead truth, but fed by many streams and tributaries.

From the pens of the Hebrew prophets and Greek translators who had given physical shape to that truth, there had come homely but highly effective imagery—truth wrapped in images of wells and wildernesses; of shepherds and sheep; of sowing, cultivating, and harvesting; of oil and lamps, arks and threshing floors. The Hebrews had influenced the rhythmic poetry of the books, providing parallelism to its structures, giving it balance and contrast.

From the New Testament writers, who were influenced by Greek, there had come a more flexible sentence structure and Greek customs and names. Even the English form of the name Jesus Christ was inherited from the Greek.

From the Latin influence had come melody and deeply imbedded Latin terminology such as justification, sanctification, dispensation.

From the Anglo-Saxon had come brevity in the form of one-syllable words. Over eighty percent of the Sermon on the Mount consists of one-syllable words, attesting to their Saxon origin. 25

Of this inheritance from strong multiple sources one writer has observed of the Bible, “It must suffice here to point out that the perennial glory of the King James Bible is that it succeeded so wonderfully in combining these diversified elements—some from Hebrew, some from Greek, some from Latin, some from Anglo-Saxon—and in fusing them into a unified and harmonious kind of speech.” 26

As the Bible’s original shape came from several different cultures, so its final English form was the handiwork of many men. One writer explains that “the development of the English text was … a gradual unfolding. Each translation entered into the making of the one that came after it and was incorporated with it, thus transmitting its own influence down the whole line of descent.” 27

The English translation had begun with Wycliffe, and his influence remains upon it. The Geneva Bible translators had used the Wycliffe translation and so had passed on some of his work. Also, his precedent of simple structure and plainness of speech was a route which was consistently followed.

Tyndale, however, exercised the greatest influence. The entire line of Bibles which followed him were basically revisions of his first work. While it had been refined again and again by other hands, the work remained basically Tyndale’s.

Coverdale had been the laborer behind the Great Bible and other versions. To him is attributed the Bible’s final smoothness, an even-flowing tempo, and a special sweetness, contributions consistent with Coverdale’s own basically gentle nature.

The Geneva Bible also had much influence. Because its writers had so diligently sought the Bible’s pristine intent, searching newly discovered manuscripts previously unavailable to Tyndale, it added clarity in areas which had been obscure. It also added a vitality which had been part of the original; because of its fidelity to original tongues, its renderings often were highly poetic. 28

The high-church origins of the Bishops’ Bible are seen in the elegance and high propriety found in some verses of the scriptures. And it helped tone down some renderings of the Geneva that were felt to be too sharp. 29

Finally, there is the touch of those forty-seven translators who produced the King James Bible. Charles Butterworth describes the impact of their sensitive and polished work:

“Compared with its predecessors, the King James version shows a superb faculty of selection and combination, a sure instinct for betterment. … No doubt, the men of the six revising companies were aided by the era wherein they worked; it was an age in which there was a lively appreciation of literary skill. …

“[But] much was also required of the King James workmen to know what they should preserve untouched in such a rich inheritance.” 30

Perhaps the most precious gift bequeathed by every translator who labored on the Bible—from Wycliffe to the forty-seven—was their earnest care for it, an unselfish love void of personal ambition and personal pride. Precisely how true this is may be best illustrated by the following outline of sources from one section of the Sermon on the Mount. (See Matt. 6:28–33.) It should be realized, however, that in many cases, a phrase attributed to one source may be distinctly different from Tyndale’s version only by the change of one or two words.

  • Tyndale: Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow;

  • King James: They toil not,

  • Coverdale: neither do they spin:

  • Great: And yet I say unto you,

  • Geneva: That even Solomon in all his glory

  • Coverdale: was not arrayed like one of these,

  • Great: Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field,

  • Rheims Douai: Which today is,

  • Geneva: and tomorrow is cast into the oven,

  • King James: shall he not much more clothe you,

  • Tyndale: O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying,

  • Wycliffe: What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink?

  • Coverdale: or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?

  • Bishops’: (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:)

  • Tyndale: for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.

  • Geneva: But seek ye first the Kingdom of God,

  • Wycliffe: and his righteousness;

  • Bishops’: and all these things shall be added unto you. 31

Out of a full understanding of its history, and in deep appreciation of its artistry, readers have called the King James Version of the Bible a “miracle,” a “masterpiece,” a “literary wonder of the world.” 32

But while it was destined for greatness, when it first appeared, it received cold welcome—even vicious attacks. Some with axes to grind called it theologically incorrect, even blasphemous. 33 And many of the common people, their ears prejudiced to the Geneva, were uncomfortable with its unfamiliar sounds.

But, in time, with greater acquaintance, came greater appreciation. King James’s Bible crept its way into the hearts of its readers and won the admiration of individuals of numerous religious faiths. It would become the chief religious influence in the lives of many men for centuries.

Nevertheless, there have been additional efforts to revise it. Two revisions of minor consequence were made in the 1600s. In 1769 a revision was made to modernize the spelling. It is this specific revision that is the King James Version of today. 34

In even later times, as other old manuscripts have been discovered, as more is learned about ancient tongues, and as language usage has changed, there have come more versions of the Bible. Among the first of the major versions were the Revised Version (1881, 1885), the American Standard Version (1901), and the Revised Standard Version (1946). However, the original manuscripts which have most heavily influenced these translations are manuscripts which lack material found in other ancient copies. The result, in some revisions, is insufficiently supported substitutions for or deletions of precious original truths. Among the most serious losses are phrases which verify Christ’s divinity. President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., writing in 1956, documented the changes made in some of the earlier revisions and explained why many of the substitutions and deletions in these works are of such concern to Latter-day Saints. 35

This is not to say that the translations President Clark mentions, and the others available to us today, are not helpful in their own ways. Some of the newer versions since President Clark wrote are easier to read and incorporate translations of documents (some dating to the second century A.D.) unavailable to the King James revisers. However, the Church continues to hold to use of the King James Version because of its general soundness in doctrine, its relative accuracy in telling the life and mission of the Savior, and its wide popularity. 36

In fact, the King James Version most likely can never be completely replaced because it is such a vital part of the heritage of English-speaking nations. Its language that has become “part and parcel of our common tongue—bone of its bone and flesh of its flesh.” 37 In one fifty-year period alone, this Bible was the source of more than eleven hundred titles of published books, a credit to its “terse and telling imagery.” 38 And everywhere in our language are its unforgettable phrases: “the apple of his eye” (Deut. 32:10; see Ps. 17:8; Prov. 7:2), “the signs of the times” (Matt. 16:3), “a pearl of great price” (Matt. 13:46), “a labor of love” (1 Thes. 1:3), “straining at a gnat” (Matt. 23:24), “a thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7).

The heritage of the King James Bible has been in far more than expressive language, however. One writer says of it:

“It has been in life and death the guide of a billion hearts and minds. It has taught, consoled, enlightened, civilized and disciplined millions who have read little else. It has … astonished the learned, and formed the characters of those who have led.” 39

When the common man first began to desire the Bible during that long period when it was denied him, one of the great arguments against his receiving it was that he would cheapen and debase it. Yet, the reverse has proven true. Man has not debased the Bible. The Bible has lifted man. It has enriched his language and lifted his hopes, his achievements, and his eternal perspective.

Through all the centuries of its being written, compiled, and translated, this collection of sacred records has indeed proved to be a truly sweet and ripened fruit.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Robert Barrett

[photo] A photograph of an original King James Bible opened to the book of Isaiah. (Courtesy of Harold B. Lee Library, Special Collections, Brigham Young University).

Lenet Hadley Read, mother of five, is a Sunday School teacher in her Gainesville, Florida ward.

Show References


  1.   1.

    Charles C. Butterworth, The Literary Lineage of the King James Bible (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1941), p. 206.

  2.   2.

    F. F. Bruce, History of the Bible in English (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 96.

  3.   3.

    H. W. Hoare, The Evolution of the King James Bible (London: John Murray, 1902), p. 244.

  4.   4.

    Frederick C. Grant, Translating the Bible (Greenwich, Conn.: The Seabury Press, 1961), p. 70.

  5.   5.

    Fred Gladstone Bratton, A History of the Bible (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959), p. 261–62.

  6.   6.

    Geddes MacGregor, The Bible in the Making (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1959), pp. 164–78.

  7.   7.

    MacGregor, pp. 164–78.

  8.   8.

    MacGregor, pp. 169–70.

  9.   9.

    MacGregor, pp. 148–49; Bruce, p. 98.

  10.   10.

    Anthony Walker, Life of John Bois: Translating for King James; Notes Made by a Translator of King James, trans. and ed. by Ward Allen (Vanderbilt University Press, 1969), p. 139.

  11.   11.

    MacGregor, p. 163.

  12.   12.

    Butterworth, pp. 216–17; MacGregor, p. 163.

  13.   13.

    Edgar J. Goodspeed, The Making of the New Testament (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1925), p. 36; Butterworth, pp. 195, 203–4.

  14.   14.

    MacGregor, pp. 162–63.

  15.   15.

    Butterworth, p. 214.

  16.   16.

    Butterworth, p. 214.

  17.   17.

    Margaret Sanchez, Ensign, Mar. 1974, p. 39.

  18.   18.

    Sanchez, p. 40.

  19.   19.

    See J. Reuben Clark, Jr., Why The King James Version (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1979), p. ii.

  20.   20.

    S. L. Greenslade, “English Versions of the Bible,” Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. 3, The West From the Reformation to the Present Day (Cambridge University Press, 1963), p. 166. Also see Butterworth, pp. 213–14.

  21.   21.

    The original scriptures were not written with chapters and verses. While some divisions into chapters occurred earlier, the first known usage of chapters and verses occurred in the 13th century by Stephen Langton for his own use as teacher. (See Beryl Smalley, The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages, Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1941, pp. 180–83.) Some scholars point out that these insertions can actually hinder a correct understanding of the scriptures because they give an artificial break to the message and encourage readers to take passages out of context. However, they continue to be used because they provide a convenient form of reference.

  22.   22.

    MacGregor, p. 160; Butterworth, pp. 215–16.

  23.   23.

    Clark, p. 32.

  24.   24.

    Clark, p. 34.

  25.   25.

    Millicent J. Taylor, Treasure of Free Men (New York: Harper and Bros., 1953), p. 23; Butterworth, pp. 224, 312.

  26.   26.

    Butterworth, p. 21.

  27.   27.

    Butterworth, p. 228. For elaboration see all of chapter 12.

  28.   28.

    Butterworth, pp. 236–37.

  29.   29.

    Butterworth, p. 237.

  30.   30.

    Butterworth, p. 242.

  31.   31.

    Butterworth, pp. 320–26.

  32.   32.

    MacGregor, p. 192; Butterworth, p. 240; H. G. G. Herklots, How Our Bible Came to Us (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954), p. 12.

  33.   33.

    Bruce, p. 107.

  34.   34.

    Ira Maurice Price, The Ancestry of Our English Bible, third revised edition by William A. Irwin and Allen P. Wikgren (New York: Harper and Row, 1956), pp. 275–76.

  35.   35.

    See Clark, especially notes (chapters) 26–34.

  36.   36.

    See Clark, pp. 3–7, 60–61.

  37.   37.

    John Livingston Lowes as quoted in Butterworth, p. 5.

  38.   38.

    Bratton, pp. 263–64.

  39.   39.

    MacGregor, p. 192.