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Where the Word of a King is Part II

Updated: Feb 15, 2020

There have been two factors that have played important parts in giving us the bible we have today. The first factor was the unparalleled heights that 17th century linguists had achieved in their understanding of languages and translation. This was discussed in my first book Further Thoughts on the Word of God. The ability to read and write Hebrew and Greek were prerequisites to enter the Universities of Elizabeth’s and James’s day. Think of a student today who can read and write in English. Would that be enough to get them into an Ivy League English program? Only the most proficient students in high school English need apply. Once they are in the program they can really begin to learn the English language.

By now it is obvious that my readers can read standard 21st century American English. I doubt that I have many readers who could identify my usage of the ablative absolute, present and past participles, relative pronouns, accusative and infinitive clauses, future participles, gerunds, present historic tense, perfect passive tense, subjunctive clauses, or tell me much about my use of introductory verbs, extreme non-literalisms and the ablative comparative. You can read and write in English but you don’t really know the language any more than the average automobile driver could explain the operation of his engine and supporting computer under the hood.

A linguist in early 17th century England knew the languages he studied. He gained admission to the university by already being proficient in the classic languages. He was excluded from gentle conversation if he could not discourse in Italian and French. His admission to the University was to begin really studying those same languages. There is simply no equivalent to this level of mastery in the tongues of man on any wholesale level in any academic program today. The highest IQs, the hardest working students, and the most learned doctors of that time bent all their efforts to mastering the classical languages and their equivalent modern languages. A PhD in Greek today trying to add to the work of the linguists of that day is like a five-year-old boy wearing his Bob the Builder underpants, carrying a plastic hammer, and trying to criticize the construction of a modern skyscraper.

On the other hand, we live in the age of technology. We have an ability to store, copy and transmit data that is as far removed from their technical ability as their linguistic ability is separated from ours. What the translators of 1611 could not do was to accurately reproduce their work without glaring and frequent flaws. We will see that Henry VIII’s decree to the universities was the salvation of the English Bible. Had the King James Bible been left to the printers or to the Church of England we would not have the excellent bible we have today. It was direct intervention on the parts of both Cambridge and Oxford Universities in 1629, 1638, 1762, 1769, 1873, and the early twentieth century that eventually purified the King James Bible from the centuries of inaccurate printing and sloppy handling. They also guided the word of God through a necessary update of punctuation and spelling.

Every printing of the King James Bible is a printer along with an editor’s interpretation of what that printer thinks the bible should say and what it should look like. Contrary to anything you have ever heard, no living person has seen the original King James Bible. The original King James Bible was a hand-written document approved by all the living translators and presented to the king. The original probably burned in the great London fire of 1666. Every single printing since the first 1611 editions came off the press, to the modern ones we are familiar with today, have been an attempt by a printer and an editor to faithfully convey what that editor thinks the original document said or should have said.

Since such time as the King received the original handwritten document the history of the King James Bible is a history of various printers trying to either reproduce that original manuscript or trying to slyly introduce some novel twist. Some printers have excelled in accuracy and faithfulness whereas others have shamed themselves and their profession with sloppy cheap printing jobs. Some of the worst and sloppiest printing jobs ever done were done in the first decade of the KJV’s existence. In fact it can be said that the worst possible witnesses to what the KJV should be were printed in that time period. It is to these often scandalously sloppy versions that most web sites get their data for proving that the King James Bible has changed.

When we print anything today we only do so after hitting one button to do a spell check, and then another button to start printing. If we want to change the font we click a mouse. From the time of Gutenberg until our very recent past printers were people who wore aprons stained with ink. When any change was made in the font, the page layout, or the text itself, men had to physically pull little blocks of type out of a tray and replace them with something different. Those men are all gone today. Sometime in the last century the last of those men left their jobs for good. There are few left who remember them. In fact, the history of our present bible cannot be understood until we grasp the concept that the people printing our bibles today have no living link with the ink stained artisans of old.

These men were artisans of the first order, but with 791,328 words to manually typeset it was nigh near impossible for the first 250 years or so to print a perfect bible. To give the reader some idea of just how difficult a task it was to correctly print large works, I will transport the reader 160 years ahead in time from 1611 to the year 1771 and share a little of John Wesley’s grief in the impossibility of getting accurate printing done. Mr. Wesley had hoped to gather all his tracts into one volume for printing when he discovered that they needed far more help than just collating.

But a far more necessary work than that of methodizing was the correcting of them. The correcting barely the errors of the press is [sic] of much more consequence than I had conceived, till I began to read them over with much more attention than I had done before. These in many places were of such as not only obscured, but wholly destroyed, the sense; and frequently to such a degree that it would have been impossible for any but me to have restored it. Neither could I do it myself, in several places, without long consideration: the word inserted having little or no resemblance to that which I had used.[1]

Wesley discovered that the printing work done on his manuscripts was terrible. Even when Wesley began to oversee the entire process he could not get a perfect copy done in his lifetime. He left a table of errata (list of errors) in his journal in which he stated, “By the inexcusable negligence of the printer and corrector, several paragraphs are here left out.”[2] If during Mr. Wesley’s lifetime, and with his constant scrutiny, he could not get a good printing job done 160 years after the first printing of the King James Bible, imagine how deficient those early printings of the King James Bible must have been.

There was a bible printed in 1613 that mistakenly substituted the name Judas for Jesus in Matt 26:36. Almost every printed version of the bible for the next 20 years is distinguished as much for its mistakes as it is for any other peculiarities. Robert Barker the king’s official printer lived in chronic debt. It was testified of Barker in a court of law that Barker, “very unadvisedly used (for present money) to sell his books … before they were half printed, at half the price he might have otherwise have sold the same.”[3] Barker died in debtor prison. This was brought on partly by at least one tremendous fine he was forced to pay when he was held responsible for printing The Wicked Bible in 1631. By printing the Wicked Bible His sloppiness finally brought him universal condemnation because he left out the word “not” in the commandment, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Ex. 20:14. Barker’s slovenly work produced a bible that said, “Thou shalt commit adultery.”

If the stakes involved weren’t so high, it would be funny that modern commentators use Mr. Barker’s work to prove that our bibles are different than the original King James Bible. If you find a table in a book or on the internet that purports to show differences in the King James Bible over the years you can be sure it starts with Mr. Barker’s flawed work.

The first notion that needs to be discarded is the notion that older is better. When are your child’s hands the cleanest, when he first comes out from the washroom, or after the third time you send him back to do it right? Is there anyone reading this book who honestly believes that should they find a Latin or Gothic Bible from the 12th century that it would be more accurate than their King James Bible is today? Why is that?

Without intelligent intervention, all of nature and all of man’s work would decrease in quality. Leave a group of workers doing the same job day after day without any meaningful quality control and the result will be a steady decrease in quality. A farmer can import the finest beef cattle ever bred, but if he leaves them to forage for themselves for a couple of generations he will find a lesser breed than what he had. This is self evident to all observers of nature and the habits of men. We saw how that the first printing of the King James Bible was flawed to the extent that it bordered on criminal and eventually Barker’s sloth became criminal. Added to the flaws created by Barker was the chaos of foreign printers smuggling illegally printed copies of the King James Bible into England. English shops became like the flea markets of today filled with fake designer goods. The drop in quality was dramatic. As printers abounded both legally and illegally, they tended to copy each other’s work. They copied the errors of the edition they sought to copy and added their own.

There is no person living today who has seen the original King James Bible. This is an issue that must be settled before the history of the King James Bible can be fully understood. The two printings done by Robert Barker of London are not the original King James Bible. In fact, those two bibles, a complete bible with only five surviving copies in the major libraries of the world[4], and a New Testament with only one surviving copy in the New York Public Library4, do not even agree with each other. From 1611 until about 1666 all printings of the King James Bible are either a printer’s rendition of his eyewitness account of having seen the handwritten original, or it is a copy of another printer’s work.

[1] Wesley, John. The Works of John Wesley Third Edition Vol. I Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1984 Reprint of 1872 edition issued by Wesleyan Methodist Book room, London : iii

[2] Ibid, iv

[3] AS Herbert, Historical Catalogue of Printed Editions of the English Bible 1525-1961 (London, Eng: The British and Foreign Bible Society and New York, NY: The American Bible Society, 1968), 160

[4] This is not to say that there are no copies in private collections. The reader should be aware that many bibles printed in 1613 bear the label 1611. There are undoubtedly many such bibles in private collections.

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