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THE English Version of the New Testament here presented to the reader is a Revision of the Translation published in the year of Our Lord 1611, and commonly known by the name of the Authorised Version.
That Translation was the work of many hands and of several generations. The foundation was laid by William Tyndale. His translation of the New Testament was the true primary Version. The Versions that followed were either substantially reproductions of Tyndale's translation in its final shape, or revisions of Versions that had been themselves almost entirely based on it. Three successive stages may be recognised in this continuous work of authoritative revision: first, the publication of the Great Bible of 1539-41 in the reign of Henry VIII; next, the publication of the Bishops' Bible of 1568 and 1572 in the rei of Elizabeth; and lastly, the publication of the King's Bible of 1611 in the reign of James I. Besides these, the Genevan Version of 1560, itself founded on Tyndale's translation, must here be named; which, though not put forth by authority, was widely circulated in this country, and largely used by King James' Translators. Thus the form in which the English New Testament has now been read for 270 years was the result of various revisions made between 1525 and 1611; and the present Revision is an attempt, after a long interval, to follow the example set by a succession of honoured predecessors.
I. Of the many points of interest connected with the Translation of 1611, two require special notice: first, the Greek Text which
it appears to have represented; and secondly, the character of the Translation itself.
1. With regard the Greek Text, it would appear that, if to some extent the Translators exercised an independent judgement, it was mainly in choosing amongst readings contained in the principal editions of the Greek Text that had appeared in the sixteenth century. Wherever they seem to have followed a reading which is not found in any of those editions, their rendering may probably be traced to the Latin Vulgate. Their chief guides appear to have been the later editions of Stephanus and of Beza, and also, to a certain extent, the Complutensian Polyglott. All these were founded for the most part on manuscripts of late date, few in number, and used with little critical skill. But in those days it could hardly have been otherwise. Nearly all the more ancient of the documentary authorities have become known only within the last two centuries; some of the most important of them, indeed, within the last few years. Their publication has called forth not only improved editions of the Greek Text, but a succession of instructive discussions on the variations which have been brought to light, and on the best modes of distinguishing original readings from changes introduced in the course of transcription. While therefore it has long been the opinion of all scholars that the commonly received text needed thorough revision, it is but recently that materials have been acquired for executing such a work with even approximate completeness.
2. The character of the Translation itself will be best estimated by considering the leading rules under which it was made, and the extent to which these rules appear to have been observed.
The primary and fundamental rule was expressed in the following terms:—'The ordinary Bible read in the Church, commonly called the Bishops' Bible, to be followed, and as little altered as the truth of the Original will permit.' There was, however, this subsequent provision:- These translations to be used, when they agree better with the text than the Bishops' Bible: Tindale's, Matthew's, Coverdale's, Whitchurch's, Geneva.' The first of these rules, which was substantially the same as that laid down at the revision of the Great Bible in the reign of Elizabeth, was strictly observed. The other rule was but partially followed. The Translators made much use of the Genevan Version. They do not however appear to have frequently returned to the renderings of the
other Versions named in the rule, where those Versions differed from the Bishops' Bible. On the other hand, their work shews evident traces of the influence of a Version not specified in the rules, the Rhemish, made from the Latin Vulgate, but by scholars conversant with the Greek Original.
Another rule, on which it is stated that those in authority laid great stress, related to the rendering of words that admitted of different interpretations. It was as follows:- When a word hath divers significations, that to be kept which hath been most commonly used by the most of the ancient fathers, being agreeable to the propriety of the place and the analogy of the faith. With this rule was associated the following, on which equal stress appears to have been laid:– “The old ecclesiastical words to be kept, viz. the word Church not to be translated Congregation, &c.' This latter rule was for the most part carefully observed; but it may be doubted whether, in the case of words that admitted of different meanings, the instructions were at all closely followed. In dealing with the more difficult words of this class, the Translators appear to have paid much regard to traditional interpretations, and especially to the authority of the Vulgate; but, as to the large residue of words which might properly fall under the rule, they used considerable freedom. Moreover they profess in their Preface to have studiously adopted a variety of expression which would now be deemed hardly consistent with the requirements of faithful translation. They seem to have been guided by the feeling that their Version would secure for the words they used a lasting place in the language; and they express a fear lest they should be charged (by scoffers) with some unequal dealing towards a great number of good English words,' which, without this liberty on their part, would not have a place in the pages of the English Bible. Still it cannot be doubted that they carried this liberty too far, and that the studied avoidance of uniformity in the rendering of the same words, even when occurring in the same context, is one of the blemishes in their work.
A third leading rule was of a negative character, but was rendered necessary by the experience derived from former Versions. The words of the rule are as follows:— 'No marginal notes at all to be affixed, but only for the explanation of the Hebrew or Greek words which cannot without some circumlocution so briefly and fitly be expressed in the text.' Here again the Translators used some liberty in their application of the rule. Out of more than 760 marginal notes originally appended to the Authorised Version of the New Testament, only a seventh part consists of explanations or literal renderings; the great majority of the notes being devoted to the useful and indeed necessary purpose of placing before the reader alternative renderings which it was judged that the passage or the words would fairly admit. The notes referring to variations in the Greek Text amount to about thirty-five.
Of the remaining rules it may be sufficient to notice one, which was for the most part consistently followed: - The names of the prophets and the holy writers, with the other names of the text, to be retained, as nigh as may be, accordingly as they were vulgarly used.' The Translators had also the liberty, in 'any place of special obscurity,' to consult those who might be qualified to give an opinion.
Passing from these fundamental rules, which should be borne in mind by any one who would rightly understand the nature and character of the Authorised Version, we must call attention to the manner in which the actual work of the translation was carried on. The New Testament was assigned to two separate Companies, the one consisting of eight members, sitting at Oxford, the other consisting of seven members, sitting at Westminster. There is no reason to believe that these Companies ever sat together. They communicated to each other, and likewise to the four Companies to which the Old Testament and the Apocrypha had been committed, the results of their labours; and perhaps afterwards reconsidered them: but the fact that the New Testament was divided between two separate bodies of men involved a grave inconvenience, and was beyond all doubt the cause of many inconsistencies. These probably would have been much more serious, had it not been provided that there should be a final supervision of the whole Bible, by selected members from Oxford, Cambridge, and Westminster, the three centres at which the work had been carried on. These supervisors are said by one authority to have been six in number, and by another twelve. When it is remembered that this supervision was completed in nine months, we may wonder that the incongruities which remain are not more
The Companies appear to have been occupied in the actual business of revision about two years and three quarters.