The King James Bible began life at a conference convened by James I at Hampton Court Palace in 1604. There it was ordered that a new translation of the Bible be produced, as the King strove to forge unity between Scotland and England. It was the culmination of over two centuries of struggle to create a Bible in English, going back to John Wycliffe in the 1380s.
The gestation of the King James Bible itself began with William Tyndale. He was the first to translate the New Testament into English from the original Greek, but in 1536 he was burned at the stake in Flanders for his efforts. In 1538 Henry VIII ordered that a Bible be placed in every church in England and Myles Coverdale was commissioned to produce what became known as the Great Bible. This was largely based on Tyndale’s work.
Translation of the Bible remained controversial. In 1560 English Calvinist exiles in Geneva produced the Geneva Bible, beautifully produced but with tendentious translations and notes that James abominated. Partly in response, in 1568 the English Church commissioned the Bishops’ Bible. This was used every Sunday in Elizabethan churches but was ponderous and never popular. And English Catholics in exile produced a New Testament in Rheims in 1582 and an Old Testament in Douai in 1609–10.
The King James Bible was produced in the light of each of these versions. It was the work of fifty-four scholars working in six translation committees – or Companies – based in Oxford, Cambridge, and Westminster, two in each centre.
The crucial final editing took place here at Westminster Abbey, in the Jerusalem Chamber, where the translators read their new version of the Bible aloud from start to finish. They ended up using a relatively limited vocabulary compared – for example – to their contemporary Shakespeare, but they coined many phrases we still use today: ‘the powers that be’; ‘the apple of his eye’; ‘signs of the times’, ‘a law unto themselves’, ‘from strength to strength’, ‘the writing on the wall’.
‘The scholars who produced this masterpiece are mostly unknown and unremembered. But they forged an enduring link, literary and religious, between the English-speaking people of the world.’
(from Winston Churchill, The New World, 1956)