In these six companies of translators were gathered together the most learned men of the age. Often times today it is charged that the King James Version is obsolete, for we have learned so much more and have men who are much greater scholars than those of the 17th century and who, therefore, can do a much better job of translating the Bible. Indeed, we have gathered much general knowledge in the past three hundred and fifty years. It is not true, however, that the King James Version translators were inferior scholars. They were men of great learning.
Who today is skilled in fifteen languages as was Lancelot Andrewes, the head of the Westminster company which translated Genesis through II Kings? It is said of him that he might “almost have served as an interpreter general at the confusion of tongues.” He was so proficient in the languages. Others spoke of him as “that great gulf of learning.” He was so knowledgeable that “the world wanted learning to know how learned this man was.”
William Bedwell of the same company was well known as the greatest Arabic scholar of the day. To him belongs the honor of being the first who promoted and revived the study of the Arabic language and literature in Europe. He authored the Lexicon Heptaglotten, which included Hebrew, Syriac; Chaldee, and Arabic. He also worked on a Persian dictionary, an Arabic Lexicon, and an Arabic translation of the Epistles of John.
Dr. Smith, the author of the Translators’ Preface to the Reader and one of the final editors, is said to have “had Hebrew at his fingers’ ends.” He was so conversant in Chaldee, Syriac, and Arabic that they were as familiar to him as English. His knowledge of the Greek and Latin fathers was exceptional. He was so versed in history and general literature that he was characterized as “a very walking library.”
John Harmar, of the Oxford company, was a noted scholar in Greek and Latin. He translated Calvin’s sermons of the Ten Commandments, several of Beza’s sermons, and some of the Homilies of Chrysostom.
John Boys, of the Cambridge group, was one of the most distinguished scholars of all the translators. His father taught him Hebrew when he was five years old and he was admitted to St. John’s College, Cambridge when he was fourteen. He was a most exact Greek grammarian who had read no fewer than sixty grammars.
Dr. John Reynolds, the Puritan who first suggested a new translation, had a reputation as a Hebrew and Greek scholar. He had read and studied all the Greek and Latin fathers, as well as the ancient records of the church. Those who knew him held him to be the most learned man in England. It is said of him that “He alone was a well-furnished library, full of all faculties, all studies, and all learning. His memory and reading were near to a miracle.” He worked on the translation of the Prophets until his death in 1607.
Henry Savile of the New Testament Oxford company was one of the most profound, exact, and critical scholars of his age. He became famous for his Greek at an early age. He is chiefly known as the first one to edit the complete works of John Chrysostom. Some have styled him “that magazine of learning, whose memory shall be honorable among the learned and the righteous forever.”
No, these men were not ignorant. They were not even average; they were exceptional in their various areas of knowledge. The first half of the seventeenth century, when the translation was made, was the “Golden Age” of Biblical and oriental learning in England. Never before, nor since, have these studies been pursued by English scholars with such zeal and success. It is very doubtful that all the colleges of Great Britain and America could even bring together the same number of men who are equally qualified by learning and piety as the King James Version translators.
But scholarship is not everything. A translation of the Bible is always affected by the spiritual character and faith of the translators. An unbeliever does not translate the Bible as does a believer. Martin Luther wrote, “Translating is not an art that everyone can practice, as the mad saints think; it requires a right pious, faithful, diligent, God-fearing, experienced heart. Therefore, I hold that no false Christian, or sectarian can be a faithful translator.” No “false Christian,” no “sectarian”—that is, no unbeliever can be a good translator of the Bible.
What about these translators, then? Did they have this heart which Luther describes? The answer is a most emphatic, yes. These men were, indeed, pious men of God, who were committed to the Truth. Gustavus Paine in his book, “The Men Behind the King James Version,” tells us that there were among the translators no RomanCatholics, no Jews, and no women. That little statement says much. They were all Protestants who belonged to the Anglican Church. Some were high Churchmen, some were Puritans, and some were somewhere in between the two, but they were all members of a church that was Protestant and in many ways even Reformed. It was not as Reformed as Geneva, not even as Reformed as it had been in the days of Edward VI, but close enough to the Truth to be called Reformed none the less.
Although some of them were more or less Arminian, many of the translators were Calvinists. In fact, one authority tells us that Calvinistic doctrine was the prevailing doctrine of the day. Laurence Chaderton was one of the strong Calvinists among the translators. At his conversion from Roman Catholicism to Calvinism his father had written him, “Son Laurence, if you will renounce the new sect which you have joined, you may expect all the happiness which the care of an indulgent father can assure you; otherwise, I enclose a shilling to buy a wallet. Go and beg.” Chaderton refused to give up Calvinism and became anoutspoken anti-Arminian preacher. Thomas Holland, a thorough Calvinist, is said to have opposed Rome with more force than any other. Whenever he went on a journey his farewell to his fellows at the College was this: “I commend you to the love of God, and to the hatred of popery and superstition.”
Miles Smith, in the Translators’ Preface to the Reader, describes the spiritual character of these men. He asked, “And in what sort did these assemble? In the trust of their own knowledge, or of their sharpness of wit, or deepness of judgment, as it were in an arm of flesh? At no hand. They trusted in him that hath the key of David, opening and no man shutting; they prayed to the Lord the Father of our Lord, to the effect that St. Augustine did: “O let thy Scriptures be my pure delight, let me not be deceived in them, neither let me deceive by them.'” They were godly men who did not trust in their own strength, but sought guidance and help from God. They knew that if their work was to be a success, it had to be the work of God. They believed too that, even after the translation was completed, it would be meaningless to the people of England without the enlighting power of God’s grace. Thus they remind the reader, “It remaineth that we commend thee to God, and to the Spirit of His grace, which is able to build further than we can ask or think. He removeth the scales from our eyes, the vail from our hearts, opening our wits that we may understand His word, enlarging our hearts, yea correcting our affections, that we may love it above gold and silver, yea that we may love it to the end.”
Unlike many who translate the Bible today, they believed that they were dealing with the inspired Word of God. Concerning the Scriptures they could exclaim through Miles Smith in the Preface, “And what marvel? The original thereof being from heaven, not earth; the author being God, not man; the enditer (prompter or dictator), the Holy Spirit, not the wit of the Apostles or Prophets; the Penmen such as were sanctified from the womb, and endowed with a principal portion of God’s Spirit; the matter, verity, piety, purity, uprightness; the form, God’s word, God’s testimony, God’s oracles, the word of Truth, the word of salvation; the effect, light of understanding, stableness of persuasion, repentance from dead works, newness of life, holiness, peace, joy in the Holy Ghost; lastly, the end and reward of the study thereof, fellowship with the Saints, participation of the heavenly nature, fruition of an inheritance immortal undefiled, that never shall fade away; Happy is the man that delighteth in the Scripture, and thrice happy that meditateth in it day and night.”
Indeed, these men considered the Scriptures to be the inspired Word of God. To them, the Bible was a very special Book and they handled it accordingly. Yet, they knew too that this special Book could be properly translated and profitably read and studied only when God in His sovereign grace worked in the hearts of its translators and readers.
Besides those who were appointed to the companies, there were many others who contributed to the work. The king had instructed Bishop Bancroft to “move the bishops to inform themselves of all such learned men within their several dioceses, as, having especial skill in the Hebrew and Greek tongues, have taken pains in their private studies of the Scriptures . . . . ” This was to be no private translation, no “Bishops’ Bible,” either. It was, so to speak, public. Anyone with the proper qualifications could make suggestions as to how to translate a certain passage. There were many who were qualified too. England not only had many learned men at that time, but their learning had turned largely to theology. “Theology rules there,” said Grotius. Another declared that he found both King and people indifferent ‘to letters in the ordinary sense, but that there was a great abundance of theologians in England. The King James Version took advantage of this learning and this theological atmosphere.
How very different was this open policy of translation from the secret policy of the revision of 1881! No one knew what that revision would be like until it was done. With the King James Version, however, each bishop kept the clergy of his district notified concerning the progress of the work so that if any one felt constrained to send in his observations on a passage, he could do so.
(to be continued)