The King James Bible is the most widely read work in English literature, a masterpiece of translation whose stately cadences and transcendent phrases have long been seen, even by secular readers, as having emerged from a kind of collective divine inspiration.
“The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever.” Psalm 12:6,7 (KJV)
In an unassuming notebook held in an archive at the University of Cambridge, an American scholar has found what he says is an important new clue to the earthly processes behind that masterpiece: the earliest known draft, and the only one definitively written in the hand of one of the roughly four dozen translators who worked on it.
The notebook, which dates from 1604 to 1608, was discovered by Jeffrey Alan Miller, an assistant professor of English at Montclair State University in New Jersey, who announced his research on Wednesday in an article in The Times Literary Supplement.
While the notebook has yet to be examined by other scholars, experts who have reviewed Professor Miller’s research called it perhaps the most significant archival find relating to the King James Bible in decades.
David Norton, an emeritus professor at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand and the author of several books about the King James Bible, called it “a major discovery” — if not quite equal to finding a draft of one of Shakespeare’s plays, “getting on up there.”
Gordon Campbell, a fellow in Renaissance studies at the University of Leicester and a consultant for the planned Museum of the Bible in Washington, said the new manuscript shed fresh light on how the King James translators actually did their work, as opposed to how they had been told to do it.
Studying the creation of the King James Bible “is like working with a jigsaw puzzle where 90 percent of the pieces are missing,” Mr. Campbell said. “You can arrange the surviving pieces as you wish, but then you find something new and you realize you put it together the wrong way.”
The King James Bible, published in 1611, was produced by six teams of translators, known as “companies,” in London, Oxford and Cambridge, who were charged with creating an authorized version that would support the Church of England against the Puritan influence seen in some earlier translations. Along with Shakespeare’s First Folio of 1623, it is one of the most influential books in the history of English and the wellspring of common phrases like “salt of the earth,” “drop in the bucket” and “fight the good fight,” to name only a few.
While some records of the committee that supervised the overall translation survive, only three manuscripts of the text itself have been known to exist until now. The Bodleian Library at Oxford owns nearly complete drafts of the Old Testament and the Gospels, in the form of corrected pages of the Bishops’ Bible, a 16th-century translation that the King James teams used as a base text. Lambeth Palace Library in London has a partial draft of the New Testament epistles.
Professor Miller discovered the manuscript last fall, when he was in the archives at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge, researching an essay about Samuel Ward, one of the King James translators and, later, the college’s master. He was hoping to find an unknown letter, which he did.
“I thought that would be my great discovery,” he recalled.
But he also came across an unassuming notebook about the size of a modern paperback, wrapped in a stained piece of waste vellum and filled with some 70 pages of Ward’s nearly indecipherable handwriting.
The notebook had been cataloged in the 1980s as a “verse-by-verse biblical commentary” with “Greek word studies, and some Hebrew notes.” But as Professor Miller tried to puzzle out which passages of the Bible it concerned, he realized what it was: a draft of parts of the King James Version of the Apocrypha, a disputed section of the Bible that is left out of many editions, particularly in the United States.
“There was a kind of thunderstruck, leap-out-of-bathtub moment,” Professor Miller said. “But then comes the more laborious process of making sure you are 100 percent correct.”
The draft, Professor Miller argues, dates from between 1604, when the King James Bible was commissioned, and 1608, when the six teams were asked to send their work to the general committee for review. Unlike the other surviving drafts, which scholars date to later parts of the process, it shows an individual translator’s initial puzzling over aspects of the Greek text of the Apocrypha, indicating the reasoning behind his translation choices, with reference to Hebrew and Latin as well.
“You can actually see the way Greek, Latin and Hebrew are all feeding into what will become the most widely read work of English literature of all time,” Professor Miller said. “It gets you so close to the thought process, it’s incredible.”
The draft, he argues, also complicates one long-cherished aspect of the “mythos,” as he put it, surrounding the King James: that it was a collaborative project through and through.
The companies were charged with doing their work as a group, rather than subdividing it by assigning individual books to individual translators, as was the case with the Bishops’ Bible. But the Ward notebook, Professor Miller said, suggests “beyond a reasonable doubt” that at least some of the companies ignored the instructions and divided up the work among individuals, at least initially.
Further, he said, the notebook contains a complete draft for the book of the Apocrypha known as 1 Esdras, but then, after a run of blank pages, only a partial manuscript for the book known as the Wisdom of Solomon, suggesting that Ward picked up the slack for another translator.
“Some of them, being typical academics, either fell down on the job or just decided not to do it,” Professor Miller said, with a laugh. “It really testifies to the human element of this kind of great undertaking.”
In recent years, scholars have chipped away at the idea of Shakespeare’s plays as the product of an isolated genius, emphasizing instead the intensely collaborative nature of Elizabethan theater. Professor Miller said that the origins of the other great monument of 17th-century English literature is due for a similar reconsideration.
“There’s a strong desire to see the King James Bible as a uniform object, and a belief that it’s great because of its collaborative nature,” Professor Miller said. “It was incredibly collaborative,” he continued. “But it was done in a much more complicated, nuanced, and at times individualistic way than we’ve ever really had good evidence to believe.”