Updated: Feb 14
When The Cambridge University Press finally overcame the stiff resistance that it had encountered from the London printers and printed its excellent 1629 Bible, it was well received by the public. Lea Wilson, a 19th century private collector of bibles and one of the first people to attempt a catalogue of the same, said of this bible that it was a beautiful edition and that the text appeared to have undergone a complete revision for which he could find no authority. He also commented that great care appeared to have been shown by the printers in the use of italics and in punctuation.
Wilson speaking 200 years later was one of many people and certainly one of the first who wondered by what authority a printer changed the bible. One of the purposes of this blog is to settle that question. There have been printers who of their own authority have made changes. In fact the stream of King James Bibles today is quite polluted. Some of that pollution has come from carelessness and some of it has come from hands guided by printers who thought that they had done a good deed.
As was said before, two of the original translators worked on this edition. At no time ever did they claim the right to revise the text and there was no one at the time who accused them of such at a time when such an accusation would have given the London printers greater fire power in their running feud with Cambridge. We can be like Sherlock Holmes here. We can be convinced by the dog that did not bark. The London printers were so incensed against Cambridge that they sold hundreds of bibles below cost to put economic pressure on Cambridge, and yet they did not mention the obvious fact that the Cambridge text had been revised.
Why would any rational men lose money in the market place when it would be easier to expose their rivals as frauds and usurpers? The most simple and logical answer is that to have highlighted the differences in the 1629 Cambridge Bible and their own would be to highlight their own incompetence. Cambridge did something that the London printers had shown themselves unwilling or unable to do, they took meticulous care to do it right. They used their own notes and manuscripts of what the handwritten original had looked like.
That did not produce a perfect bible. To understand that statement it is necessary to consider what had to be done to print a bible in the 17th century. Each page of the bible was printed using a tray with individually carved letters that could be placed in the tray. Think of a child's toy ink set which might have 26 different letters that could be pressed onto a little ink pad and then pressed on a piece of paper. Now think of a tray of these letters arranged to print a particular page of the bible.
Great care had to be taken to print each page so that every word, comma, italicization, verse marking and the spaces in between were exactly right. It is commonly estimated that every bible needed to have over 5,000,000 individual pieces of letters, numbers or punctuation put in place to produce one bible. As pages were finished, each tray had to be torn down and then reassembled to print the next page. If you examine your own bible you will see that every page is actually printed on a piece of paper that contains four pages. Two are on the front and two are on the back. If you were to disassemble your bible you would see that it took great care to print each page so that at assembly time when each piece of paper was folded and then stitched or glued into place, and when that was done a coherent bible was produced.
There are extant law suits where the London printers were sued for that process not being done right and as a result the bible was not in order. Every time a printing house changed the size of the bible that they were printing, every letter in every tray and every combination of pages had to be rethought out. Errors were bound to happen. One of the great things that Cambridge brought to the table was an excellence in the very craftsmanship of the printing process. There were far less errors. Cambridge worked under an economic disadvantage caused by the fact that the London printers were allowed to have multiple presses working at one time, whereas Cambridge was restricted by patent to using just one. It appears with the hindsight of history that this was in fact an advantage for Cambridge in that much greater care was taken.
The 1629 Cambridge Bible is the first purification of the King James Bible on the 300 year long road to seven purifications. It was not perfect and in fact it appears to be Cambridge University Press's attempt to get its foot in the door of the bible printing world. It was a good first attempt. It set the stage for Cambridge's next offering, the 1638 Cambridge.