The Embarrassing Preface to the King James Version

Bill Combs, at Dallas Baptist Theological Seminary, writes:

When the King James Version of the Bible came off the press of Robert Barker in 1611, it contained an eleven-page preface titled “The Translators to the Reader.” This preface is primarily a defense of the new translation, but it also provides important information about the translators’ views on the subject of Bible translation. It is an embarrassment (or should be) to King James-only advocates because it contains statements from the translators that are in direct opposition to the KJV-only position…

The preface begins by noting, along with examples, that all new en­deavors of whatever kind will commonly face opposition. This is also true for persons who attempt to change and improve anything, even if they are important people like kings. However, the greatest opposition and severest vilification is reserved for those who modify or change the current translation of the Bible, even if that translation is known to have defects.

Next there follows a long section praising Scripture, noting its great value and divine origin. But the perfections of Scripture can never be appreciated unless it is understood, and it cannot be understood until it is translated into the common tongue. Translation is therefore a good thing. Thus, God in his providence raised up individuals to translate the Old Testament into Greek. The Septuagint, though far from perfect, was still sufficient as the Word of God, such that the apostles quoted it in the NT. And even thought the Septuagint was the Word of God, scholars believed it could be improved, which led to the Greek versions of Aquila, Theodotion, and Symmachus, as well as the Hexapla of Origen. Both testaments were then translated into Latin, culminating in Jerome’s Vulgate. Finally, the Scriptures were translated into many tongues, in­cluding English. However, the preface observes, the Roman Catholic Church has generally not allowed the Scriptures to be rendered into the common tongues. Recently, they have produced their own translation of the Bible into English though they seem to have been forced to do it against their better judgment due to the number of Protestant English Bibles available.

The preface then returns to the problem of opposition to the new translation, and translations in general, by answering several objections. The main argument against the new translation questions the need for it, that is, since there had already been a number of English translation of the Bible, why is there need for another? If previous translations were good, there should be no need for another; if they were defective, why were they ever offered in the first place? The answer is, of course, that “nothing is begun and perfected at the same time.” While the efforts of previous English translators are to be commended, nevertheless, they themselves, if they were alive, would thank the translators of this new translation. The previous English Bibles were basically sound, but this new translation affords an opportunity to make improvements and cor­rections.

The translators argue that all previous English translations can rightly be called the Word of God, even though they may contain some “imperfections and blemishes.” Just as the King’s speech which he utters in Parliament is still the King’s speech, though it may be imperfectly trans­lated into French, Dutch, Italian, and Latin; so also in the case of the translation of the Word of God. For translations will never be infal­lible since they are not like the original manuscripts, which were pro­duced by the apostles and their associates under the influence of inspira­tion. However, even an imperfect translation like the Septuagint can surely be called the Word of God since it was approved and used by the apostles themselves. But since all translations are imperfect, the Church of Rome should not object to the continual process of correcting and improving English translations of the Bible. Even their own Vulgate has gone through many revisions since the day of Jerome.

This post is the beginning of a series in which Combs examines the KJV translators’ own beliefs and approach to translating what they certainly never suggested was an inspired or infallible translation. Read on…