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The Translators to the Reader

Written by: Goodspeed, Edgar J.    Posted on: 06/13/2004

Category: Educational

Preface to the King James Version 1611

No book means so much to religion as the Bible. In all its forms it has greatly served religion, and in its modern forms its meaning comes out more clearly and more tellingly than ever. It has more to teach the modern world about religion than even its strongest advocates have realized. Few of them have fully explored the wealth and depth of its contribution to modern religious attitudes.

Of all the forms of the English Bible, the most distinguished and widely cherished is the King James Version. Its value for religion is very great, and it is on that account all the more important that its origin and place in the history of the Bible be understood, so that false ideas about it may not prevail, for in so far as they do prevail they are likely to impair and to distort its religious usefulness.

There can be no doubt, however, that widespread and serious misapprehensions as to its origin do very generally prevail, and that these seriously condition its religious value. The literary interest and the liturgical value of that version are of course universally recognized. It is a classic of 16th and 17th century English, and it is a treasure of Christian liturgy, deeply freighted with religious associations. These are values every man of culture will at once acknowledge and approve.

It is, moreover, deeply imbedded in the affection and devotion of great groups of people, not all of them religious. They find in it the final embodiment of moral, social, and literary values which they greatly prize. This is in itself a fact of great importance. Even if the version were itself less eminent as an English classic or a liturgical masterpiece the extraordinary prestige it enjoys would give it a consequence all its own.

The tremendous significance thus generally attached to it by the public makes it imperative that the facts as to its origin and ancestry be well known, or the most fantastic misconceptions about these matters will arise and prevail. But these facts are not well known, and misconceptions consequently do prevail to an amazing extent.

The King James Version is predominantly the Bible of the layman, and it will undoubtedly continue to be so for a long time to come. This fact makes it doubly important that it be presented to him as intelligently and as intelligibly as possible. This well-recognized fact has led its publishers through the generations to have it tacitly revised from time to time, so that the obsolete words and spellings might not confuse the ordinary reader. This commendable activity began immediately upon the first publication of the version in 1611 and continued intermittently until 1769 when, under the hands of Dr. Blayney of Oxford, it reached its present form. It has cleared the text of the version of innumerable antique spellings, such as Hierusalem, Marie, assoone, foorth, shalbe, fet, creeple, fift, sixt, ioy, middes, charet and the like. Comparatively few verses in the version have escaped such improvements and modernizations, and most verses contain several such changes.

It has also corrected the numerous misprints of the version, so that it is now of the most accurately printed books in the world. The one original misprint to survive is the famous "strain (straine) at the gnat" in Matthew 23:24 (for "strain out a gnat"), which has so endeared itself to users of the King James that no modern publisher has the temerity to set it right.

The omission of the Apocrypha from most modern printings of King James and the insertion of Archbishop Ussher's chronology, which first appeared in its margins in 1701, were more serious changes from the original King James; the chronology in particular has certainly outlived its usefulness and, as at best a late accretion upon the version, out not to continue.

But it is the omission of the great Preface, "The Translators to the Reader," that is most to be regretted. The makers of the version in their day felt that the work called for some explanation and defense, and entrusted the writing of a suitable preface to Myles Smith, of Brasenose College, Oxford, afterward Bishop of Gloucester. His Preface for many years stood at the beginning of the version. But for various reasons -- its length, its obscurity, its controversial and academic character -- it has gradually come to be omitted by modern publishers of the King James, which is thus made to present itself to the reader abruptly and without explanation or introduction of any kind.

The result of this upon the hosts of ignorant and untrained people who use the version is disastrous in the extreme. My own correspondence abounds in letters from well-meaning people who have been led into the strangest misconceptions by its absence. It is indeed long, controversial, and pedantic, but this very fact is significant. And with all its faults, it says some things about the version and its makers and their aims that still greatly need to be said, indeed, that must be said, if the readers of the version are to be given the protection and guidance that they deserve and that its makers provided for them.

For they will accept this guidance and protection from no one else. It is idle for any modern to attempt to correct these misapprehensions; his efforts will only be resented or ignored. But if the King James Bible itself can be shown to say to its adherents the very things they most need to know about their version, it will be possible for them to benefit by them without embarrassment or inconsistency. All the more necessary, it would seem, for restoring the great Preface, or at least the essential parts of it, to its rightful place in the "Authorized Bible."

What are some of the views held by the habitual readers of the King James Bible about it? Let me answer out of my own recent correspondence and experience, being careful not to exaggerate or distort, but to set down only what self-constituted champions of King James have actually written over or under their own signatures.

First of all must come the widespread belief that the King James Bible is "the original." This is probably the prevailing impression of those who use it, but it has been most definitely and repeatedly expressed by a distinguished journalist in his paper, the North China Daily News. In an article published in the News in 1926 the editor steadily refers to the King James Version as "the original." We cannot doubt that this cultivated Englishmen actually believes the King James Version to be the original English Bible. For him the illustrious services of Bible translators and revisers from William Tyndale to Matthew Parker simply do not exist. That these men produced 19/20ths of what now stands in the King James Version has no force for him. Indeed, he definitely denies them and all their words when he steadily and publicly, in print, in an editorial article in his own newspaper, describes the King James Version over and over again as the "original."

It is no matter that you and I know that this is far from true. For these people will not give up so cherished a view for any say-so of ours. On the contrary, it would only serve to set them more rigidly in it. To whom then would they look with some willingness to learn? To the King James Bible itself. If its original Preface were once more offered to them, as it was offered to the first readers of that version, and as its makers intended it to be offered to all its readers, they could hardly refuse to listen.

And, indeed, the people who hold these fantastic ideas are not so much to blame for them as the publishers and printers who have so steadily deprived them of the protection from such egregious mistakes which the King James Preface so amply and ably provided. They could not have gone so absurdly wrong if they had found in the Preface of their King James these words which the makers of that version meant to have them find there:

"Truly (good Christian Reader) 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, not justly to be excepted against."

Not only do most readers of the King James Version suppose it to be the original English Bible; they are actually unconscious that there is any more ultimate form of the Bible to translate or consult. A leading layman, in one of our most intellectual communions, has told me that he always supposed the modern translations of the Bible were made from the King James Version, and not long ago a newspaper paragraph, with the commanding endorsement of the Associated Press, explicitly made that assertion. The same idea appeared in the New Republic as recently as April of last year. What can save these untrained, well-meaning people from the idea that the King James Bible is the "original"? Nothing but the statements of its own Preface.

"If you ask what they [the Translators] had before them," says the Preface, "truly it was the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, the Greek of the New ... If truth be to be tried by these tongues, then whence should a Translation be made but out of them? These tongues therefore, the Scriptures we say in those tongues, we set before us to translate, being the tongues wherein God was pleased to speak to his Church by his Prophets and Apostles ... Neither, to be short, were we the first that fell in hand with translating the Scripture into English, and consequently destitute of former helps, ..."

These are just the things that the modern reader of King James needs to know, and that the Translators intended him to know. Why should they be kept from him? A few months ago the New York Times and the Literary Digest united in offering the strange intelligence that "the King James Version was compiled from the only six original papyri extant in 1611." What more can possibly be said?

Another widespread impression as to the King James is that it is the "Authorized" Bible. The dean of a well-known New England divinity school recently insisted upon that designation for it, and strongly resented the application of it of any other name. We need not go into the old vexed question of whether or not it was ever actually authorized. For practically it certainly was so, and so regarded, being in fact the third Authorized Bible of the English Church. The first was the Great Bible of 1539, which was intended for church use. The second was the Bishops' Bible of 1568, and the third was the King James of 1611. "Authorized" meant, of course, officially recognized for us in public worship, as the phrase "Appointed to be read in Churches" shows.

But when the Convocation of Canterbury in 1870 inaugurated the revision of the English Bible, it was definitely with a view to providing a more suitable Bible for purposes of public worship, and as a matter of fact the English Revised Bible of 1881-85 has, we are told, actually displaced the King James in the use of Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey.

In the Protestant Episcopal Church in America, Canon 45 provides that the lessons at the morning and evening shall be read in the King James Bible ("which is the standard Bible of this church"), or in the Revised Version, or in the American Standard Version.

The Roman Catholic Church in this country uses in public worship the Douay Bible. It will be seen that the King James is far from being the Authorized Bible today.

But the tragic part of it all is that the people who still call it the "Authorized Bible" understand by that term something very different from this. They understand it to mean DIVINELY AUTHORIZED. I have today received a letter from a very zealous young minister in Atlantic City, definitely declaring his belief in the verbal inspiration of the King James Version. This extraordinary view is very widely held.

Of course the Translators made no such claim; indeed, their account of their method of work fits very poorly with such an idea:

"Neither did we think much to consult the Translators or Commentators, Chaldee, Hebrew, Syrian, Greek, or Latin, no nor the Spanish, French, Italian, or Dutch; neither did we disdain to revise that which we had done, and to bring back to the anvil that which we had hammered; but having and using as great helps as were needful, and fearing no reproach for slowness, nor coveting praise for expedition, we have at length, through the good hand of the Lord upon us, brought the work to that pass that you see."

"Some peradventure would have no variety of senses to be set in the margin, lest the authority of the Scriptures for deciding controversies by that show of uncertainty, should somewhat be shaken. But we hold their judgment not to be so sound in this point. ... Yet for all that it cannot be dissembled, that partly to exercise and whet our wits, ... and lastly, that we might be forward to seek aid of our brethren by conference, and never scorn those that be not in all respects so complete as they should be, being to seek in many things ourselves, it hath pleased God in his divine providence, here and there to scatter words and sentences of that difficulty and doubtfulness, ... that fearfulness would better beseem us than confidence, and if we will resolve upon modesty with S. Augustine, .... There be many words in the Scriptures, which be never found there but once, ... so that we cannot be helped by conference of places. Again, there be many rare names of certain birds, beasts and precious stones, etc. ... Now in such a case, doth not a margin do well to admonish the Reader to seek further, and not to conclude or dogmatize upon this or that peremptorily? ... Therefore as S. Augustine saith, that variety of Translations is profitable for the finding out of the sense of the Scriptures: so diversity of signification and sense in the margin, where the text is not so clear, must need do good, yea, is necessary, as we are persuaded."

These candid, scholarly words of the Translators are not the words of inspired men, oracularly confident of every word they use; they are the unmistakable words of careful, sincere scholars, well aware of the inevitable limitations of their knowledge. The doctrine of the inspiration of the Translators was not held by them, and it is difficult to see how it can be held by anyone who will read even this much of their Preface.

Another prevalent notion about the King James Bible is that it is poetry. On this point Thomas Hardy wrote in his journal, in 1918:

"By the will of God some men are born poetical. Of these some make themselves practical poets, others are made poets by lapse of time who were hardly recognized as such. Particularly has this been the case with the translators of the Bible. They translated into the language of their age; then the years began to corrupt that language as spoken, and to add gray lichen to the translation; until the moderns who use the corrupted tongue marvel at the poetry of the old words. When new they were not more than half so poetical. So that Coverdale, Tyndale and the rest of them are as ghosts what they never were in the flesh."

It must be clear that the men who, by making innumerable small changes in the text of the Bishops' Bible, produced the King James Version were poets, if at all, only in the most attenuated sense of the word. It is not thus that poems are made.

But if anyone had any doubt remaining as to the justice of Thomas Hardy's judgment, it must unquestionably evaporate in the presence of the Preface. The Translators who there emerge are much closer to pedants than to poets. "They came or were thought to come to the work, not exercendi causa (as one saith) but exercitati, that is, learned, not to learn; ... Therefore such were thought upon as could say modestly with Saint Jerome, .... Both we have learned the Hebrew tongue in part, and in the Latin we have been exercised almost from our very cradle."

Their aim was not poetry but clearness: "But we desire that the Scripture may speak like itself, ... that it may be understood even by the very vulgar."

But of course the greatest illusion about the King James Bible is that it is the sole, unique, divine Bible, untouched by human hands. This doctrine, grotesque as it is, is actually held as a matter of course by the vast majority of people. The publication of any preface from the Translators to the Reader would, by its very presence, whatever its contents, do much to remedy this. The superstitious veneration with which some very pious people regard it would be corrected by the reprinting of the Preface.

But not the pious alone. Many editors, novelists, and professors cherish views about the version that are simply slightly rationalized forms of the same notion. Sentimental statements about it in current books and papers that its translators "went about their work in the spirit of little children," or that "it is a finer and nobler literature than the Scriptures in their original tongues," are but survivals of the old dogma of uniqueness, so explicitly disclaimed in the Preface:

"... we are so far off from condemning any of their labors that travelled before us in this kind, either in this land or beyond sea, ... that we acknowledge them to have been raised up by God, ... and that they deserve to be had of us and of posterity, in everlasting remembrance. ... Yet for all that, as nothing is begun and perfected at the same time, and the later thoughts are thought to be the wiser; so, if we building upon their foundation that went before us, and being helped by their labors, do endeavor to make that better which they left so good; no man, we are sure, hath cause to mislike us; they, we persuade ourselves, if they were alive, would thank us."

These great sentences, are well worth reproducing today. I have ventured to lay before the leading publishers of the King James Bible the duty of restoring the great Preface to its rightful place, at the beginning of it. They have courteously replied, giving various reasons for continuing to omit it. Let us examine these one by one.

The first reason is that it is too academic. But this does not justify them in omitting it. If they will let their readers know even this about the origin of the version, it will save them from grievous error. The King James revisers were university professors and scholars. They were an academic group. Why withhold this fact from their readers, especially if silence on this point is leading to such dire consequences?

One of the most unfortunate things about the adherents of the King James Version is their antipathy to scholars. They regard them with grave suspicion. Yet their own version is the masterpiece of biblical scholarship in Jacobean England. If the Preface reveals no more to them than this, it would be worth printing, for it is precisely this rift between piety and learning that is most dangerous to the church. As a matter of fact, we owe the English Bible to university men, from the sixteenth century to the twentieth. It could hardly be otherwise. But today, not one reader of King James in ten thousand even dreams that any biblical scholar had anything to do with his English Bible.

The argument of the publishers that the Preface is controversial is also nugatory. The version sprang out of controversy; the Preface reflects the fact; why conceal it? The hushing of the controversy in the history of Christianity does not make for intelligence. The New Testament itself sprang, much of it, out of controversy; I and II Corinthians, for instance. It is precisely this muting that has produced the impression that the version originated in some other, better world than ours. If the Preface shows its human background, let us have it, since it is a part of the truth.

The Translators were well aware that their work would have to encounter strong opposition:

"Zeal to promote the common good, whether it be by devising any thing ourselves, or revising that which hath been labored by others, deserves certainly much respect and esteem, but yet finding but cold entertainment in the world. ... For he that meddles with men's Religion in any part, meddles with their customs, nay, with their freehold, and though they find no content in that which they have, yet they cannot abide to hear of altering [it]. ... Many men's mouths have been open a good while (and yet are not stopped) with speeches about the Translation so long in hand, or rather perusals of Translations made before: and ask what may be the reason, what the necessity of the employment: Hath the Church been deceived, say they, all this while? ... Was their Translation good before? Why do they now mend it? Was it not good? Why then was it obtruded to the people? ..."

Without these trenchant sentences, people are left with the impression that the King James translation descended like the gentle dew from heaven, amidst universal acclaim. The silencing of the controversial note of the Preface puts a false face upon the version, for which its original makers are not to blame.

A third objection raised by the publishers to restoring the Preface is its obscurity, and the confusion it would create, in the mind of the ordinary reader. If this confusion means that the reader would be made aware that there had been and might be other versions of the Bible, it might better be called clarification. Confusion is the ordinary reader's present condition of mind, as I have tried to show. Left without the translator's guidance, he now believes the King James to be the "original" divinely inspired, unique, not made with hands, final, and definitive. To break in upon this false assurance with the clear statements of the Preface may produce a temporary confusion, but the confusion will be due to the disastrous practice of omitting the Preface, not to the healthful one of including it.

As for obscurity, is the Preface any more obscure than the version it introduced? This is the strangest of all reasons for the King James printers to adduce, yet I have it before me in writing from one of the greatest of them.

"The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd." - Ecclesiastes 12:11

So reads the King James Version. Is there anything in the Preface that approaches this in obscurity? Yet publishers justify the omission of the Preface on the ground that it is "obscure." There is not a sentence in it as obscure as this one, or as hosts of others in the King James Version. No, if obscurity is the criterion, the publishers might have omitted the version and printed the Preface, but hardly the other way. It must be that the publishers are quite unaware of the marked obscurity of great areas of their own version.

A recent advocate of the King James Version says of the English Bible: "Much of the writing is inferior. .... Whole sections of the historical narratives are written in an immature and inferior manner. ... Some of the prophets have only a single verse that arrests attention. Only occasionally did Paul reveal his tremendous capacity to express thought in a memorable manner?" What does this mean, but that the writer does not understand his version? The simple truth is, the obscurity of the King James Version is its outstanding trait. When a man says things like this about Paul and the prophets, he is indicating, not the Bible at all, but his version of it. He reveals the fact that he is using a version he cannot understand.

It may require some patience for the modern reader to peruse the King James Preface. But think of the patience he is called upon to exhibit in reading long obscure areas of Paul and the prophets! He is by no means unaccustomed to reading his Bible in the midst of obscurity. And it is an admirable idea to have a genuine piece of first class Jacobean prose before him, side by side with the Jacobean revision, to show him how these revisers actually wrote when not translating but expressing their own thoughts. Here their real literary standards appear, in an authentic sample. If to their modern publishers their style appears obscure, it may in part explain the greater obscurity of their version. And at all events, it shows how they thought one should write. This affords their readers an example of what they considered clear and forceful English, and the value of this to any serious reader of King James, as a measuring rod, a standard of style, is unmistakable. Anyone who can understand the Preface can understand the version.

Especially for students, the Preface, with its wealth of contemporary materials and attitudes, is indispensable. In a humanities survey course for college Freshmen, a western university recently purchased 43 copies of the King James Bible without the Preface. In no other field of study would such a course have been dreamed of. To approach that version historically, and as any student should, without the Preface, is simply impossible. What has been said of the importance of the Preface to the general reader is even more true of the student, and it is high time our teachers of the English Bible in colleges awoke to the fact. But how can they be expected to awaken to it, when very few of them have ever seen a Bible containing the Preface? For the past hundred years, from the point of view of everyone -- ministers, professors, students, general readers, pious readers -- the Preface has been virtually suppressed.

The chief edition of the Bible containing it since 1821 is the English royal quarto, published by the Oxford University Press. This is an expensive pulpit Bible, seldom seen in America, which we cannot expect colleges to place in quantities in their reading rooms. On the other hand, the British and Foreign Bible Society and the American Bible Society seem never to have included the Preface in their Bibles at all. It has been included in only two other printings of the Bible, so far as I can learn, in the past hundred years.

It is true, it has more than once been published in books about the Bible. J.R. Dore, at the special request of Christopher Wordsworth, Bishop of Lincoln, introduced the Preface as an appendix into the second edition of his OLD BIBLES; and A.W. Pollard, in his RECORDS OF THE ENGLISH BIBLE, reprinted it in full. "This preface," said Richard Lovett (The Printed English Bible), "most unhappily long ago ceased to form a part of the ordinary editions." "It is to be regretted," wrote John Stoughton (Our English Bible), "that while the dedication appears in all the editions, the address to the readers is inserted in very few. It would be good alteration to cancel the former and universally introduce the latter."

This is no idle demand of a few savants and specialists, in the interests of mere erudition, but a crying need of present-day religion, of which the King James Bible is undeniably still the chief stay. That that edition should continue to sink into greater and greater misconception and misrepresentation, when much of it might be prevented by the simple and obvious device of restoring the Preface, is intolerable. That version is too deeply freighted with religious values to be left at the mercy of every charlatan to exploit. Its Preface is a great monument of sound biblical learning and method. Its readers need it as they have never needed it before. It lies ready to our hands, enfolding in itself the very correctives modern vagaries about the King James Bible so sadly need.

It is not enough that it is somewhere available in public libraries, in books about the Bible. Who knows about these books? I have had letters and inquiries from intelligent, educated ministers, asking where the Preface can be found. They had never heard of it. What chance, then, has the ordinary reader to know of it or find his way to it? The King James Version is a tremendous force in the modern world, very potent for good if it be intelligently used, but for evil if it be left unexplained. What most of its readers chiefly need is education about it, and that is precisely what its Preface provides.

For my part, I know of no greater service that can be done to biblical study today than to put back the King James Preface into its rightful place, in every copy of that great version, to the understanding of which it is so indispensable.

The English university presses, which have been since the days of Charles I among the great printers of the King James Version, used to carry a separate printing of the Preface for free distribution to those who asked for it. But this supply is now exhausted. The Preface is practically out of print. The great version, in its day a monument of enlightened learning, is left defenseless, to the inevitable confusion of all its readers.

Sound learning and common sense alike demand the reprinting of the Preface. It is essential to any real understanding of the King James Version. This has at length been made possible through the liberality of Charles Forrest Cutter, Esq., a generous friend of the Bible in all its forms. The Oxford and Cambridge presses have given their consent to the reprinting, and the Huntington Library has permitted us to publish the text in facsimile from the Bridgewater copy of the first printing of 1611 in its collection. We are particularly happy to do this (with the spellings somewhat modernized) in 1935, the 400th anniversary of the first printed English Bible (by Myles Coverdale) of which the King James Bible is the most illustrious descendant.

To me, of course, the religious values of the Bible far outweigh any mere literary considerations. It has great messages which the modern world greatly needs. To obscure these messages in phraseology which may once have conveyed them but is now so quaint and antique as to belong to the museums of literature, seems to me a very shocking and tragic business. It is like denying a very sick man the medical aid of today and giving him instead the treatment of the 16th century, because it is so picturesque! It is like insisting upon cupping him and bleeding him, at the risk of his health and even his life.

But even to those who take the Bible less seriously -- to the dogmatist and the dilettante -- it must be clear that the King James Preface belongs at the beginning of the King James Bible, where its makers put it and meant it to remain; and that the reasons advanced by its publishers for omitting it are really very cogent reasons for restoring it to its rightful place.

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