King James Bible, London, England, published by Robert Barker, 1611. Gospel of St John 1

The King James, or Authorised, Version of the Bible remains the most widely published text in the English language. It was the work of around 50 scholars, who were appointed in 1604 by King James (r. 1603–25), and it is dedicated to him.

The English translation of the New Testament by William Tyndale published in 1525 was the first to be circulated in print, but as a result of its suppression only three copies are known to survive. Tyndale was eventually executed.

But by Shakespeare’s time, England had split with Rome, and the political scenery had changed markedly. Bibles in English were now available, such as Henry VIII’s authorised ‘Great Bible’; the ‘Geneva Bible’, copiously furnished with Protestant footnotes; and even the Church’s ‘Bishop’s Bible’, published as a failed response to the popularity of the Geneva.

King James I (r. 1603-25; he was also James VI of Scotland) abolished the death penalty attached to English Bible translation, and commissioned a new version that would use the best available translations and sources, and importantly, be free of biased footnotes and commentaries.

The translation committee of 50 scholars drew on many sources, especially Tyndale’s New Testament (as much as 80% of Tyndale’s translation is reused in the King James version). They commented- “Truly, 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, or out of many good ones, one principal good one.”

The result was first printed in 1611, and was ‘appointed to be read in churches’. For this purpose, it was published in a large format, suitable for public use, and without illustrations. The use of the antiquated ‘black letter’ font was intended to add status and authority to the new version.

The King James Bible remains the most widely-published text in the English language.

British Library- King James Bible

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