Oldest King James Bible draft discovered: Did translators work alone?

The earliest-known draft of the King James Bible offers clues to understanding how the volume was put together. 

Courtesy of Mark Thayer/Mary Baker Eddy Library
One of the original King James Bibles, printed in 1611. An American scholar says he discovered a working draft of the King James Bible.

An American scholar has found what he says is the earliest known draft of the King James Bible, hidden in a 400-year-old notebook in a British library.

Jeffrey Alan Miller, an assistant professor of English at Montclair State University in New Jersey, discovered the notebook last fall in the archives of Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge, UK. He had been searching for a letter related to Samuel Ward, one of the King James translators, he explained in The Times Literary Supplement.

The notebook had been cataloged in the 1980s as "verse by verse biblical commentary" with "Greek word studies, and some Hebrew notes." Inside, Professor Miller found 70 pages in Samuel Ward's handwriting. As he flipped through it, "there was a kind of thunderstruck, leap-out-of-bathtub moment," he told The New York Times. "But then comes the more laborious process of making sure you are 100 percent correct." He continued:

In addition to being earliest draft of the King James Bible now known to survive, the draft is the only one ever found in a hand that can be definitively identified as belonging to one of the King James translators themselves. It is also the only draft ever discovered of a highly controversial part of the translation, the ‘Apocrypha,’ and the only draft yet to be discovered in Cambridge, one of the three initial centers of the King James Bible’s composition.

The notebook, Miller argues, dates from 1604 to 1608. King James I  commissioned the new translation project in January of 1604, soon after he was crowned King of England.

The committee of scholars completed their work in 1611. It is often called the most widely read work in English literature, the masterpiece that gave us phrases like "the skin of my teeth," "a drop in the bucket," "a labor of love," and even "Right on!"

According to the Telegraph, scholars worked to prepare the King James version in "companies" (teams) at the University of Oxford, University of Cambridge, and Westminster. But Miller says Ward's notebook suggests he worked alone, at least in the initial stages. "It clearly shows him not just recording group decisions about the translation after the fact, or even doing so in the process of group decisions being made, but rather working out the translation for himself as he went along, making mistakes and changing his mind," Miller writes.

This opens up the possibility that the Bible "may be far more a patchwork of individual translations – the product of individual translators and individual companies working in individual ways – than has ever been properly recognized," says Miller

Last week, a pastor in Wales found a 1611 first edition of the King James Bible, and just like Miller he found it in the least likely of places: a cupboard at his church.

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