The King James Translators

by Dr. Laurence M. Vance
(Bible Editions & Versions – July/Sept. 2004)
Pick up any promotional literature about the translators of a modern version of the Bible and you will read about the many degrees they hold and their scholarly credentials. Read the preface or introduction to a new translation and you will see that the critical attitude of the translators is rather unlike that of the translators of the King James Version.
In the “Epistle Dedicatory” to their work, which is still printed at the front of some editions, the translators of the Authorized Version stated: “We are poor instruments to make God’s holy Truth to be yet more and more known unto the people.”
Several volumes have been written over the years about the translators of the Authorized Version: A Vindication of our Authorized Translation and Translators of the Bible, by John Henry Todd (1819); An Authentic Account of Our Authorized Translation of the Holy Bible, and of the Translators: with Testimonies to the Excellence of the Translation, also by John Henry Todd (1834); The Translators Revived, by Alexander McClure (1858); The Learned Men, by Gustavus Paine (1959), reissued in 1977 as The Men Behind the King James Version; The King James Bible Translators, by Olga Opfell (1982); and most recently, God’s Secretaries, by Adam Nicolson (2003).
What makes this subject of particular relevance at this point is that July 2004 is the 400th anniversary of the letter written by King James to Richard Bancroft (1544-1610), Bishop of London, and soon to be Archbishop of Canterbury, in which the king mentions that he has “appointed certain learned men, to the number of four and fifty, for the translating of the Bible.” July 1604 was also the month in which Bishop Bancroft wrote to the University of Cambridge regarding the translators: “The parties’ names, who are appointed to be employed therein, Mr. Lively [professor of Hebrew at Cambridge] can show you; of which number I desire you by him to take notice, and to write to such of them as are abroad in his Majesty’s name, (for so far my commission extendeth) that, all excuses set aside, they do presently come to Cambridge, there to address themselves forthwith to this business.”
It was on the second day of the Hampton Court Conference in January 1604 that the idea for the Authorized Version was born. The Puritan, Dr. Rainolds, proposed that a new translation of the Bible be undertaken. According to the “official” account: “After that he [Rainolds] moved his majesty that there might be a new translation of the Bible, because those which were allowed in the reign of king Henry the Eighth and Edward the Sixth were corrupt and not answerable to the truth of the original.”
The king liked the idea, and directed the bishops to form a committee regarding the new
translation he had “authorized.” He wanted it done by “the best learned in both the Universities, after them to he reviewed by the Bishops and the chief learned of the Church.” In “A Note of Such Things as Shall be Reformed in the Church,” written soon after the conference, the new translation is mentioned. Then, in a list of principal matters to be considered, which was also drawn up soon after the conference, the fourth says that “care be taken, that one uniform translation of the Bible be printed, and read in the church: and that without any notes.” A report of the bishops’ proceedings shows that by early March no arrangements for the translation had yet been made: “The fourth which toucheth the translation of the Bible hath not as yet been dealt with.”
By June, however, things changed. A list of names of potential translators had been submitted to the king, for on June 30, 1604, Bishop Bancroft wrote: “His Majesty being made acquainted with the choice of all them to be employed in the translating of the Bible, in such sort as Mr. Lively can inform you, doth greatly approve of the said choice. And for as much as his Highness is very desirous that the same so religious a work should admit of no delay, he has commanded me to signify unto you in his name that his pleasure is, you should with all possible speed meet together in your University and begin the same.”
Then on July 22, 1604, King James wrote to Bishop Bancroft: “Whereas we have appointed certain learned men, to the number of four and fifty, for the translating of the Bible,…Furthermore, we require you to move all our 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 for the clearing of any obscurities either in the Hebrew or the Greek, or touching any difficulties or mistakings in the former English translation, which we have not commanded to be thoroughly viewed and amended, and thereupon to write unto them, earnestly charging them, and signifying our pleasure therein, that they send such their observations either to Mr. Lively, our Hebrew reader in Cambridge, or to Dr. Harding, our Hebrew reader in Oxford, or to Dr. Andrewes, Dean of Westminster, to be imparted to the rest of their several companies, that so our said intended translation may have the help and furtherance of all the principal learned men within this our kingdom.”
Enough has been written about the translators of the Authorized Version that their names, positions, and abilities need not be recounted here. However, there are several discrepancies in the accounts of the translators, as well as some often-overlooked details about them, that need to be noted.
First, as to the number of translators. The July 22 letter from King James states that there were fifty-four men appointed to translate the Bible. However, most lists name only forty-seven men. This can be explained by the fifteenth instruction given to the translators (sometimes omitted in the list of “rules”): “Besides the said Directors before mentioned [in rule thirteen], three or four of the most Ancient and Grave Divines, in either of the universities, not employed in Translating, to be assigned by the Vice-Chancellor, upon Conference with the rest of the Heads, to be Overseers of the Translations as well Hebrew as Greek, for the better Observation of the 4th Rule above specified.” The difference of seven between forty-seven and fifty-four can be accounted for if one university chose four men to act as overseers and the other chose three. In addition, the eleventh and twelfth rules given to the translators, as well as the above mentioned letter from King James, state that other learned men were also to be consulted.
And second, as to the identification of the translators. We know that they were assigned to six companies: two to meet at Oxford, two at Cambridge, and two at Westminster. Of the companies at Westminster, which translated Genesis to 2 Kings and Romans to Revelation, there are no discrepancies in any of the lists of translators. Likewise, of the companies at Cambridge, which translated I Chronicles to Ecclesiastes and the Apocrypha, there are no discrepancies. But in the lists of translators that served on the Oxford companies, and especially the second one, which translated the Gospels, Acts, and Revelation, there are some lingering discrepancies which will probably never be completely solved.
In every roster of translators, there is always listed for the first Oxford company, which translated Isaiah through Malachi, the same seven men: John Harding, John Rainolds, Thomas Holland, Richard Kilby, Miles Smith, Richard Brett, and Richard Fairclough. Sometimes there are some spelling variations in the names, but this is to he expected. But in a petition signed in 1606 by fourteen bishops, two of whom we know were translators, in behalf of one William Thorne, a noted Hebraist and Rcgius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford, it is stated that Thorne is “now likewise very necessarily employed in the translation of that part of the Old Testament which is remitted to that university.” Yet, not even the oldest extant lists of translators mention Thorne.
The names of the men who served on the second Oxford company have been in dispute from the beginning. Of the eight men on the company, two are in dispute. This has been compounded because the original list apparently listed four of the men by office instead of by name. These four men are the deans of Christchurch, Winchester. Worcester, and Windsor. The dean of Worcester at the time of the Hampton Court Conference was Richard Edes. He died in November of 1604 and was apparently replaced on the second Oxford committee by John Aglionby. This is why some lists of the King James translators give the name of Aglionby in place of (or in addition to) that of Edes. The name of James Montague is sometimes given instead of (or in addition to) Edes because he succeeded Edes in the office of dean. But this does not necessarily mean that he took his place as a translator. The other name in question is that of Ralph Ravens. Some lists give the name of Leonard Hutten in place of (or in addition to) Ravens. But because Ravens did not die until 1616, it is a mystery as to why he was apparently replaced by Hutten.
Thomas Fuller (1608- 1661), in his Church History of Britain, lists both Edes and Ravens as the original translators. Bishop Burnet (1643-1715), in his History of the Reformation of the Church of England, lists the “Dean of Worcester” and “Dr. Ravens.” Burnet supposedly copied his list from the papers of Bishop Ravis, one of the original translators. Contrary to Fuller and Burnet, John Lewis, in his History of the English Bible, the first edition of which was published in 1731, says the “Dean of Worcester,” but identifies him as Montague, and “Dr. Ravens.”
The earliest known list of translators appears in a letter of some kind, apparently written before 1650, that contains information about the translators. The author of the document, who claims that the dean of Worcester is “not in my Copy at all,” goes on to mention Dr. Edes as being succeeded by Dr. Henry Parry and then Dr. Montague and then by a Dr. Anthony Lake (or Lakes). But since the one he is writing to has the dean of Worcester in his list (“but in yours it is as it seems”), the author posits that Parry was the dean in question, not Edes. But then he acknowledges that the one he is writing to has Dr. Lake as the dean of Worcester, which was true, but not at the time that the translators were selected. However, regarding Dr. Lake, an official document from May 1605 mentions him as “engaged on the translation of the New Testament at London.”
Then there is the case of George Ryves. In a letter written by Bishop Bilson in 1605, Dr. Ryves is referred to as “one of the overseers of that part of the New Testament that is being translated out of Greek.” It is therefore possible that the reason why the names of Thorne, Lake, and Ryves do not appear in any of the lists of translators is that they were all part of the group of seven men assigned “to he Overseers of the Translations as well Hebrew as Greek.”
Although other translators besides Edes had died before the Bible was published in 1611 (Edward Lively in 1605, Ralph Hutchinson and William Dakins in 1606, John Rainolds in 1607, Thomas Ravis and John Aglionhy in 1609), it appears that once the work of translation was in progress, translators who died were not replaced.
The other thing about the translators that should he noted is that some had been at the Hampton Court Conference in 1604: William Barlow (d. 1613), Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), John Overall (1560-1619), George Abbot (1562-1633), Thomas Ravis (1560-1609), Richard Edes (1555-1604), Cues Thomson (1553-1612), and James Montague (1568-1618), if indeed he was one of the translators.
No man who served as a translator of the Authorized Version could ever have imagined that he would he the subject of such intense historical scrutiny. But four hundred years after the fact, the role of these “learned men” in the history of the English Bible still captivates layman and scholar alike. But as interesting and intriguing a subject as the translators of the Authorized Version is, we should remember that it is their product that is the important thing.