The Embarrassing Preface to the King James Version

When the King James Version of the Bible came off the press of Robert Barker in 1611, it contained an eleven-page preface titled “The Translators to the Reader.” This preface is primarily a defense of the new translation, but it also provides important information about the translators’ views on the subject of Bible translation. It is an embarrassment (or should be) to King James-only advocates because it contains statements from the translators that are in direct opposition to the KJV-only position. It is most unfortunate that this pref­ace is no longer included in modern copies of the KJV. This post is the beginning of a series that will examine the actual words of the preface in order to refute the erroneous ideas of KJV-only movement with the words of the translators themselves. But before beginning that examination, I will summarize the contents of the preface.

The preface begins by noting, along with examples, that all new en­deavors of whatever kind will commonly face opposition. This is also true for persons who attempt to change and improve anything, even if they are important people like kings. However, the greatest opposition and severest vilification is reserved for those who modify or change the current translation of the Bible, even if that translation is known to have defects.

Next there follows a long section praising Scripture, noting its great value and divine origin. But the perfections of Scripture can never be appreciated unless it is understood, and it cannot be understood until it is translated into the common tongue. Translation is therefore a good thing. Thus, God in his providence raised up individuals to translate the Old Testament into Greek. The Septuagint, though far from perfect, was still sufficient as the Word of God, such that the apostles quoted it in the NT. And even thought the Septuagint was the Word of God, scholars believed it could be improved, which led to the Greek versions of Aquila, Theodotion, and Symmachus, as well as the Hexapla of Origen. Both testaments were then translated into Latin, culminating in Jerome’s Vulgate. Finally, the Scriptures were translated into many tongues, in­cluding English. However, the preface observes, the Roman Catholic Church has generally not allowed the Scriptures to be rendered into the common tongues. Recently, they have produced their own translation of the Bible into English though they seem to have been forced to do it against their better judgment due to the number of Protestant English Bibles available.

The preface then returns to the problem of opposition to the new translation, and translations in general, by answering several objections. The main argument against the new translation questions the need for it, that is, since there had already been a number of English translation of the Bible, why is there need for another? If previous translations were good, there should be no need for another; if they were defective, why were they ever offered in the first place? The answer is, of course, that “nothing is begun and perfected at the same time.” While the efforts of previous English translators are to be commended, nevertheless, they themselves, if they were alive, would thank the translators of this new translation. The previous English Bibles were basically sound, but this new translation affords an opportunity to make improvements and cor­rections.

The translators argue that all previous English translations can rightly be called the Word of God, even though they may contain some “imperfections and blemishes.” Just as the King’s speech which he utters in Parliament is still the King’s speech, though it may be imperfectly trans­lated into French, Dutch, Italian, and Latin; so also in the case of the translation of the Word of God. For translations will never be infal­lible since they are not like the original manuscripts, which were pro­duced by the apostles and their associates under the influence of inspira­tion. However, even an imperfect translation like the Septuagint can surely be called the Word of God since it was approved and used by the apostles themselves. But since all translations are imperfect, the Church of Rome should not object to the continual process of correcting and improving English translations of the Bible. Even their own Vulgate has gone through many revisions since the day of Jerome.

Finally, the translators state the purpose and plan of the present translation. They have not intended to make a new translation, but to make the best possible translation by improving upon previous ones. To do so they have, of course, carefully examined the original Hebrew and Greek since translation should only be done from the original tongues. Also, they did not work hastily, as did the translators of the Septuagint, who, according to legend, finished their work in only seventy-two days. The translators also availed themselves of commentaries and translations of the Scriptures in other languages. In their work they felt it was essen­tial to include marginal notes, despite the fact that some might feel such notes tend to undermine the authority of the Scriptures. These notes are essential since the translators confess that oftentimes they were unsure how a word or phrase should be translated. This is especially true in Hebrew, where there are a number of words which only occur once in Scripture, and even the Jews themselves are uncertain about their trans­lation. And so, as Augustine notes, a “variety of translations is profitable for finding out of the sense of the Scriptures.” Lastly, the translators ob­serve that, in spite of criticism from some quarters, they decided not to always translate the same Hebrew or Greek word with the same English word and have retained, over the objections of the Puritans, the old ec­clesiastical words like “baptism” instead of “washings.”

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7 thoughts on “The Embarrassing Preface to the King James Version

  1. Kyle Van Cleave says:

    This is a very interesting article, and I am very glad to have found this website. I am married, have 2 kids and attend a Baptist church in south central Illinois. I am currently taking a college class that has assigned a research paper on just about anything. I have chosen to do mine on the history of the King James Version of the Bible. My church is very steadfast on their belief that the KJV is the only Bible that should be used. They do not accept any other Bible as the inspired Word of God. This is something that I have do not feel totally convicted about. That is why I am researching for myself the history of the KJV. I am worried about rocking the boat at my church if after my research I feel as though I should be able to use a different Bible (I’m not sure that I would use a different Bible, but it would be nice to know when talking to others about their salvation). I will be citing this article, and others that you have written in my paper. I know you are probably very busy, but if you have a chance, it would be great if could let me know any other websites or sources that I should look at. I have “Inpsiration and Interpretation” by John William Burgon and “Forever Settled” by Dr. Jack Moorman. I also have a collection of material by Rev. D. A. Waite. I thank you for your time.

  2. Bill Combs says:

    Kyle,
    It sounds like you are talking about two different but related topics: History of the King James Version and the KJV-Only Controversy. If you are in a secular school I would advise you choose the first topic as the second would probably be too esoteric for a teacher who is not a Christian. Let me know which way you want to go, and I can send you some bibliographic sources. Email me at wcombs@dbts.edu.

  3. Kyle Van Cleave says:

    I am in a secular college. The class is a Humanties 200 level class. My paper is about the history of the KJV. The paper is 7-10 pages and I plan on covering the reason for the KJV to be created, the process by which the translation took place, and whether or not the translators intended the KJV to be both the last and best translation needed. And I’m hoping from learning about the history of the KJV, that I will be able to come to my own conclusion as to whether it is the only version of the Bible I should be reading. Even after writing my paper, I will still want to continue researching the argument for and against the KJV-Only. I know I would have to research the other versions of the Bible to determine if any of them are more accurately translated than the KJV, which will take lots of time. Because if the translators intended for the KJV to be sort of a stepping stone until an even more accurate translation could be created, the question still remains if any of the English Bibles since 1611 are more accurate than the KJV.

    So that being said, information about the history of the KJV is what I need. Doing any comparing to other Bibles would be too large a topic for my small paper. After my paper is done, I will then look into the KJV-Only discussion more closely.

    However, I am a fairly new Christian, only a few years, and I have lots of questions that I want answered. So spending the time reading, researching and praying about the topic will be worth it, even if it takes a long time to come to a convicted conclusion. Thanks again.

  4. Dr. Combs,

    Do you know of any KJO on record or even otherwise as saying that they are embarrassed by the preface to the AV? I don’t know of anyone for whom this has actually provided embarrassment and yet it is brought up again and again and again as making some significant point or that it is a surprise. They also translated the Apocrypha. The translation was also itself updated several times. Most KJO don’t carry or use the original 1611.

    Do you read anything in the preface that says corrections or alterations should be made to the Hebrew and Greek text behind the KJV? They argue for an update in translation, but do you see anywhere in their preface an argument for an update of the actual text from which the translation is derived? Do you think that changing the text and changing the translation are the same?

    When the AV translators wrote “original” did they believe that an LXX was translated directly from the original manuscripts of the Old Testament (like you wrote above) or from the original language of the Old Testament, that is, Hebrew?

    Did you know that John Owen and others like him did not believe that Jesus and the Apostles were quoting a LXX in the New Testament? Not everyone held to the position of the translators on that point.

    The translators were translators. I’m not embarrassed for whatever wrong theology they held. I’m not judging them for their theology, but for their translation. Are you embarrassed about the theology of the ESV or NASV translators? I would think that you take it into consideration, but that you’re mainly concerned about how they did in translating.

  5. Jon Gleason says:

    I don’t think even Ruckman would find it embarrassing, any more than we find the actions of Jonah, or Peter at Antioch, or Balaam, or for that matter Balaam’s donkey, embarrassing. I’ve never heard of anyone at all who thought the translators were personally infallible, so even Ruckman would say, “So what? They were wrong on that point. I never said that the preface was inspired.”

  6. Matt Postiff says:

    Jon, I want to be sure I understand what you (or Ruckman) is saying. Is this it:

    1. The KJV translators say the KJV is imperfect.
    2. The KJV translators are fallible.
    3. The KJV translators were thus wrong in their statement about KJV imperfection.

    Thanks–Matt

  7. Jon Gleason says:

    Hello, Matt. Sorry for the delay in answering. First, I’m NOT Ruckman nor am I remotely on his side. :)

    Second, I think you’ve got it pretty straight as to what Ruckman (not I) would say:

    1. The translation happened perfectly by a miracle of God (second act of inspiration).
    2. God used fallible people (as He did in prophecy and other ways) in the translation work.
    3. Their fallibility doesn’t impact their work any more than a prophet’s fallibility impacted his prophecy.
    4. Who cares what those fallible people said (in the preface or elsewhere) when they weren’t being used in God’s miraculous work?

    Ultimately, he views the translation work as an act of God, not man — so the views of the fallible instruments are irrelevant.

    Using the preface as a point of attack with a Ruckmanite is a waste of time. It only convinces those who believe that the translation was a human work of the translators rather than a miraculous act of God.