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Authorized Version

Name given to the English translation of the Bible produced by the Commission appointed by James I

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Authorized Version, the, name given to the English translation of the Bible produced by the Commission appointed by James I, and in consequence often spoken of as “King James’s Bible“. It is in general use among English-speaking non-Catholics. In order to understand its origin and history, a brief survey is necessary of the earlier English translations of the Scriptures. From very early times portions of the Bible have been translated into English. It is well known that Venerable Bede was finishing a translation of St. John’s Gospel on his deathbed. But the history of the English Bible as a whole does not go back nearly so far; it dates from the so-called Wyclif Version, believed to have been completed about the year 1380. The translation was made from the Vulgate as it then existed, that is before the Sixtine and Clementine revisions, and was well and accurately done. Abbot Gasquet contends confidently (The Old English Bible, 102 sqq.) that it was in reality of Catholic origin, and not due to Wyclif at all; at any rate it seems fairly certain that he had no share in any part of it except the Gospels, even if he had in these; and there is evidence that copies of the whole were in the hands of good Catholics, and were read by them. The version, however, undoubtedly derived its chief importance from the use made of it by Wyclif and the Lollards, and it is in this connection that it is chiefly remembered. During the progress of the Reformation a number of English versions appeared, translated for the most part not from the Vulgate, but from the original Hebrew and Greek. Of these the most famous were Tyndale’s Bible (1525); Coverdale’s Bible (1535); Matthews’ Bible (1537); Cromwell’s, or the “Great Bible” (1539), the second and subsequent editions of which were known as Cranmer’s Bible; the Geneva Bible (1557-60); and the Bishops’ Bible (1568). The art of printing being by this time known, copies of all these circulated freely among the people. That there was much good and patient work in them, none will deny; but they were marred by the perversion of many passages, due to the theological bias of the translators; and they were used on all sides to serve the cause of Protestantism.

In order to counteract the evil effects of these versions, the Catholics determined to produce one of their own. Many of them were then living at various centers on the Continent, having been forced to leave England on account of the Penal Laws, and the work was undertaken by the members of Allen’s College, at Douai, in Flanders, which was for a time transferred to Reims. The result was the Reims New Testament (1582) and the Douay Bible (1609-10). The translation was made from the Vulgate, and although accurate, was sadly deficient in literary form, and so full of Latinisms as to be in places hardly intelligible. Indeed, a few years later, Dr. William Fulke, a well-known Puritan controversialist, brought out a book in which thr, cext of the Bishops’ Bible and the Reims Testament were printed in parallel columns, with the sole purpose of discrediting the latter. In this he did not altogether succeed, and it is now generally conceded that the Douay Bible contained much excellent and scholarly work, its very faults being due to over-anxiety not to sacrifice accuracy. In the meantime the Protestants were becoming dissatisfied with their own versions, and soon after his accession King James I appointed a commission of revision—the only practical outcome of the celebrated Hampton Court Conference. The commissioners, who numbered forty-seven, were divided into six companies, two of which sat at Oxford, Cambridge, and Westminster, respectively; each company undertook a definite portion of the Bible, and its work was afterwards revised by a select committee chosen from the whole body. The instructions for their procedure were, to take the Bishops’ Bible, which was in use in the churches, as their basis, correcting it by a comparison with the Hebrew and Greek texts. They were also given a list of other English versions which they were to consult. The commissioners set to work in 1607, and completed their labors in the short period of two years and nine months, the result being what is now known as the “Authorized Version”. Although at first somewhat slow in gaining general acceptance, the Authorized Version has since become famous as a masterpiece of English literature. The first edition appeared in 1611, soon after the Douay Bible, and nearly thirty years after the Reims Testament; and although this latter was not one of the versions named in the instructions to the revisers, it is understood that it had considerable influence on them (see Preface to Revised Version, i, 2. Also, J. G. Caleton, “Rheims and the English Bible“).

The Authorized Version was printed in the usual form of chapters and verses, and before each chapter a summary of its contents was prefixed. No other extraneous matter was permitted, except some marginal explanations of the meaning of certain Greek or Hebrew words, and a number of cross-references to other parts of the Scripture. At the beginning was placed a dedication to King James and a short “Address to the Reader”. Books such as Ecciesiasticus, and Machabees, and Tobias, which are considered by Protestants to be apocryphal, were of course omitted. Although it was stated on the title-page that the Authorized Version was “appointed to be read in the Churches”, in fact it came into use only gradually. For the Epistles and Gospels, it did not displace the Bishops’ Version until the revision of the Liturgy in 1661; and for the Psalms, that version has been retained to the present day; for it was found that the people were so accustomed to singing it that any change was inadvisable, if not impossible. Considerable changes were made, from time to time, in the successive editions of the Authorized Version, in the notes and references, and some even in the text. A system of chronology based chiefly on the calculations of Archbishop Ussher was first inserted in 1701; but in many later editions both the dates and many, or even all, of the references or verbal notes have been omitted.

It is generally admitted that the Authorized Version was in almost every respect a great improvement on any of its predecessors. So much was this the case that when Bishop Challoner made his revision of the Douay Bible (1749-52), which is now commonly in use among English-speaking Catholics, he did not scruple to borrow largely from it. Indeed, Cardinal Newman gives it as his opinion (Tracts Theol. and Eccles., 373) that Challoner’s revision was even nearer to the Authorized Version than to the original Douay, “not in grammatical structure, but in phraseology and diction”. Nevertheless, there remained in the Authorized Version here and there traces of controversial prejudice, as for example, in the angel’s salutation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the words “highly favored” being a very imperfect rendering of the original. In such cases, needless to say, Challoner adhered to the Douay. Moreover, while in the Authorized Version the names of persons and places were usually given in an anglicized form already in use, derived from the Hebrew spelling, Challoner nearly always kept the Vulgate names, which come originally from the Septuagint. It is partly due to this that the Authorized Version has an unfamiliar sound to Catholic ears. The Authorized Version remained in undisputed possession for the greater part of three centuries, and became part of the life of the people. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, however, it began to be considered that the progress of science called for a new version which should embrace the results of modern research. The work was set on foot by Convocation in 1870, and a Committee was formed, in which the Americans cooperated, resulting in the issue of the Revised Version (1881-84). The Revised Version has never received any definite ecclesiastical sanction, nor has it been officially introduced into church use. It has made its way simply on its merits. But although at the present day it is much used by students, for the general public (non-Catholic) the Authorized Version still holds its ground, and shows no sign of losing its popularity.


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