The typical books published by KJVO apologists may have an extended section, or perhaps an entire chapter, devoted to heaping gushing praise upon the translators of the KJV with syrupy language that inflates these men into mythical characters way beyond the reality of who they really were.
Basically, according to KJVO advocates, the men who translated the King James were the absolute best translators ever assembled for translating the Bible. Their capabilities are claimed to have extended into a vast knowledge of all the ancient languages in which the Bible was translated over the years, as well as a sound command of the English language itself.
Additionally, they were the men of the most utmost, stellar, and impeccable character. In a word: the godliest men ever called together to do such a marvelous work as translating the Scriptures. They were not just your cold, heartless academics looking to earn a big paycheck when their work was complete, but men desirous to proclaim the gospel and to establish a standard with their translation work.
We want to give credit to the KJV translators and the fine work they accomplished in producing one of the world’s most popular translations. The King James Bible is probably one of the greatest works of English prose ever produced. It would be foolish to be dismissive of the translators as a body of scholars just because we may happen to disagree with the polemics published by modern KJVO advocates. However, we need to put them as human beings and their overall work into proper perspective.
In order to do that, it may be helpful to provide a brief historical sketch of the political climate leading up to the commissioning of the KJV translation and the work by the translators.
When Queen Elizabeth died in 1603 she did not leave an heir to the throne. The next successor, Lady Anne Stanley, was seen as too politically weak to defend her claim to the throne. An accession counsel met and proclaimed the next nearest living relative to Elizabeth, James the VI of Scotland, the king in her place and he became James I of England.
When James arrived from Scotland to take the throne, one of the first major orders of business he had to deal with was the Anglican in-fighting between the High Churchmen and the Puritans. The Puritans believed the Anglican Church was too Roman Catholic and they wanted further reform. In fact, even before James arrived in London, the Puritans had delivered to him the Millenary Petition, a document that claimed to carry 1000 signatures of Puritans who were dissatisfied with the current state of the Anglican Church. The petition called for the new king to meet with the Puritans to discuss their points of reform.
Now, James was not a big fan of the Puritans. He believed in conformity to all Anglican belief, and as the new “Protector of the Church,” he viewed the Puritans as disruptive non-conformists who needed to be put in their place. Yet, in spite of his dislike for the Puritans, he agreed to meet with them and convened a two-day conference at Hampton Court to discuss the tensions between them and the main body of Anglicans.
The Puritans were only allowed four representative to attend. John Rainolds, the president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, was the primary spokesman for the Puritans. He and his group were given a hearing on the second day of the conference before it closed and everyone went home. The conversations Dr. Rainolds had with the king was for the most part unproductive. However, James was really warm to the suggestion made by Rainolds to commission a new translation of the Bible that all the parties could agree upon. The reason he was so warm to the idea was his extreme dislike of the Geneva translation which was the main translation of use among the Puritans. James didn’t care for the Calvinistic study notes contained in the popular Geneva Bible and he, being a “divine right of kings” kind of guy, certainly hated the anti-monarchistic comments advocated by the Geneva translation.
So, James agreed to commission a new English translation, but with some specific stipulations he outlined in his rules for the translators. For example, the new translation could not have any study notes, except for alternative translations of difficult words and other textual related marginal notes deemed helpful for the reader, and the translators were to retain all the ecclesiastical language, like “baptism” and “Church” and “Bishop.”
By 1604, the king had selected 54 translators (some list only 47 or 48) divided into 6 companies, working at Oxford, Cambridge and Westminster. The OT, the NT, and the Apocrypha were divided up between the various companies. The work was slow at first, but eventually the Bible was completed, revised, edited, revised again and then published in 1611 with an affixed sugary introductory dedication to King James. In 1612, the work was revised again to correct all the first edition printing mistakes.
With this brief historical outline, let us examine four important factors that will help rescue the translators from the exaggerations made by KJVO advocates.
1) Their work was political
The primary purpose of the KJV translation was to appease the two factions within the Anglican Church at the time. The new Bible was in a sense a back scratch to the Puritans and their call to reform, and it was believed they would quiet down after all parties came to a consensus as to a translation accepted by everyone. The unity King James was seeking didn’t fully take place. Many of the Puritans continued their use of the Geneva Bible and when King James became more harsh toward non-conformists, several of the Puritans fled England to Europe and America.
Additionally, King James saw the publication of a new translation as a means to displace the popular Geneva Bible the Puritans so loved but he so despised. In this instance, the KJV translation can easily be considered a counter Reformation work that had begun with William Tyndale 80 years before and continued in Geneva under Calvin’s leadership.
2) Their work was a revision
The translators were not providing a truly “fresh” translation. They depended heavily upon the work of men before them. They utilized Tyndale’s work in the New Testament, as well as the Bishop’s Bible which was the most recent commissioned translation by the royal crown. That fact alone cuts against those groups of KJVO advocates who attribute some divine inspiration to the translators and their work. Divine inspiration would imply a new revelation of sorts, but reliance upon previous material contradicts that notion. That leads us to a third factor,
3) There isn’t any unique, divine quality to their work
Many KJVO advocates attempt to make the claim that the translators used only the Ben-Chayyim edition of the Masoretic Hebrew text as well as the Received Text edition of the Greek text. Because they used these two editions of the Hebrew and Greek, God preserved His Word perfectly in the translational work of the King James translators.
The problem with that claim, however, is that the translators did not exclusively use those two textual editions. They used a variety of sources in their work including the Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate. And let us not forget that they included the non-inspired Apocrypha in their work. If including the Apocrypha is corrupting the Bible as far as Roman Catholics are concerned, then so is it to with the KJV translators when they include it in their Bible.
Moreover, the King James translators recognized their work was not the one time completion of all translations. They anticipated future revision and improvement of their own translation. This is made abundantly clear in their preface called, The Translators to the Readers, that used to be printed in full with in various KJV editions. In that preface, the translators wrote about the necessity for translations which are true to the original languages, that capture the native tongue in which the Bible is being translated, and the revision of good translations in order to make them better. Anyone who would take the time to read through this preface will see that the translators would not agree with the claims made by current day KJVO advocates concerning their persons and their translation. In a manner of speaking, the KJV translators are the KJVO advocates worse critics.
Also, the KJV translation is not without its textual errors. I have personally written on a handful of notorious ones. For instance, 1 Samuel 6:19, Luke 3:36 and Acts 12:4. Those translational errors don’t detract from the overall excellence of the King James as a translation, but they demonstrate that the translators were fallible and were not empowered by any particular divine inspiration or guided by some unique providence.
4) They were not any more spiritual than any other men who have translated
KJVO advocates heap all sorts of flattering praise upon the character of the men who comprised the translating committees. In a warped way, KJVO propaganda almost elevates the translators to divine like status. They are given the appearance of having some intrinsic infallibility or that the Holy Spirit has blessed them with this infallibility, so that they have original language skills beyond any mortal man. Some KJVO apologists will suggest that those men were proto-independent fundamental Baptists who were merely victims of their socio-political age.
Yet this is hardly the case. Though they were good men of character, they weren’t any more virtuous as any other translators who went before or came after, and they certainly had their theological peccadilloes most modern day fundamentalist KJV onlyists would have issue with.
All of them were Anglican and believed in infant baptism. They adhered to titles like bishops and arch-bishops, titles most KJV onlyists find odious in any other contexts. And most disturbing, two of the KJV translators, Lancelot Andrewes and George Abbot, oversaw the execution by burning at the stake of two dissenters, Bartholomew Legate and Edward Wightman, who happened to be a Baptist.