Title page to original edition of KJV (London: Robert Barker, 1611)The Roots of the KJV: Tyndale and the "Geneva Bible"

by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

© 1997 by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

The King James Version of the Bible has been around for nearly four centuries, and, as it has been the most widely recognized standard for Bible translation for most of that period, it is perhaps not surprising that it has been assailed by writers of widely differing views from each other. If one considers it too literally accurate, another will allege that it is not accurate enough. One will attack one KJV reading; another vouches for the reading but dismisses ten more as "mistranslations." Often the statements made to question the KJV are made out of a lack of knowledge of the facts.

Here I wish to address only one of the many issues that surround the KJV with a cloud of misunderstanding. Many people are quite unaware of the KJV's translational ancestry. Some years ago I was discussing the Bible with a pastor who disparaged the accuracy of the King James Version, but who, as it turned out, was so historically ignorant that he believed the KJV to have been translated secondhand from other languages rather than from the Hebrew and Greek! And just recently, I discovered a web page where the author--who is plainly well informed as to his history of Bible translations but has perhaps only seen isolated quotes from them in secondary sources--denounces the "fallacy" of claiming "that the KJV is merely the completion of William Tyndale's translation." He then proceeds to quote a verse (Luke 22:56) which is indeed very different in Tyndale from the rendering in the KJV, but unfortunately is not a very typical example. (Click here to see the context of the verse he quotes.) For brethren such as these, I thought some remarks on English translations of the Bible from Tyndale to King James might be helpful.

Although the Bible had been translated into English by John Wycliffe and his followers in the 14th century, this version was done from the Latin Vulgate; it was a brave effort against a tyrannical church, but being a translation of a translation, its value was not lasting. William Tyndale (c. 1494-1536) was the first to render scripture into English from the original Hebrew and Greek texts. He shared his plan to translate the New Testament with the Bishop of London, hoping to receive assistance and patronage, but "understood at the last," as he put it, "not only that there was no room in my lord of London's palace to translate the New Testament, but also that there was no place to do it in all England. . . ." Tyndale therefore worked in exile on the European Continent, printing at Worms in 1526 the first English New Testament translated from the Greek. In 1530 he published his Pentateuch, in about 1531 his translation of Jonah, and in 1535 a revision of his New Testament. His further work on the Old Testament books from Joshua to 2 Chronicles appeared in "Matthew's Bible" (1537), compiled by Tyndale's associate John Rogers.

Although Tyndale might have easily held a rather high opinion of himself, considering that he was one of the few men in Europe who knew the scripture in its original languages, he speaks in the prefaces to his translations with a humility that is strikingly Christ-like. At the end of his "W.T. to the Reader" in the 1530 Pentateuch, he writes:

Notwithstanding yet I submit this book and all other that I have either made or translated, or shall in time to come (if it be God's will that I shall further labour in his harvest), unto all them that submit themselves unto the word of God, to be corrected of them, yea and moreover to be disallowed and also burnt, if it seem worthy when they have examined it with the Hebrew, so that they first put forth of their own translating another that is more correct.

Five years later, when confronted with attempts by a certain George Joye to publish his own revision of Tyndale's New Testament--a revision in which Joye altered the word "resurrection" in order to remove the idea of a bodily resurrection--, Tyndale opposed Joye's counterfeit with grief but without pride. In his 1535 New Testament, he wrote:

Moreover I take God (which alone seeth the heart) to record to my conscience, beseeching him that my part be not in the blood of Christ, if I wrote of all that I have written throughout all my book, aught of an evil purpose, of envy or malice to any man, or to stir up any false doctrine or opinion in the church of Christ, or to be author of any sect, or to draw disciples after me, or that I would be esteemed or had in price above the least child that is born, save only of pity and compassion I had and yet have on the blindness of my brethren . . . .

As quickly as Tyndale's translations were smuggled into England, the church authorities attempted to confiscate and burn them. And they sent agents to apprehend Tyndale, now in Antwerp. On October 6, 1536, he was first strangled, then burned at the stake. But at about the same time as Tyndale's martyrdom, King Henry VIII's break from the Roman Catholic Church heralded a new freedom to translate and own English Bibles. "Matthew's Bible" was the first to be officially licensed by the state, and in 1539 the "Great Bible" was produced for the pulpits of the new Church of England. Both of these drew heavily on Tyndale's work; the New Testament in the "Great Bible" is substantially that of Tyndale with minor adjustments and occasional parenthetical insertions from the Latin Vulgate (for example, at Jn. 7:29, Acts 2:43 and 14:7, James 5:3), apparently to pacify those clerics who held to the Latin Bible as authoritative. (It is worth noting that even seventy years later, judging from the translators' preface to the KJV, some churchmen still needed to be convinced that the scriptures ought to be translated!)

Mary I, who became queen in 1553, briefly reimposed Catholicism on England and ushered in an age of further persecution. English Protestants who had fled to Geneva, John Calvin's stronghold, began work on a translation which would be known as the "Geneva Bible." After Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558 and restored the religious freedoms denied by Mary, this translation became the most popular English Bible before the KJV. Since it was not an "official" version, however, a committee of Elizabeth's bishops and scholars produced a revision called the "Bishops' Bible" in 1568; this was used in churches, but the Geneva continued to be preferred by the laity.

Again, these translations were heavily indebted to Tyndale, although the Geneva takes a far more independent line (judging from the New Testament) than does the "Bishops' Bible," which often simply reprints the "Great Bible's" text with minor changes. Also, one of the distinguishing features of the Geneva Bible was its extensive marginal notes. Now such notes had been another of Tyndale's innovations, but the Geneva translators extended them, and later editions made several additions until the margins were literally filled with annotation. The marginal notes were intended to serve as a commentary on the Biblical text, and, since the Geneva translators were Calvinists, contained a distinct Calvinistic perspective. However, Queen Elizabeth and her successor James I disliked the Geneva's notes. James, with his strong view of the "divine right of kings," specifically objected to notes like that at Exodus 1:19 ("Their disobedience herein was lawfull, but their dissembling euill"), which seemed to countenance rebellion toward rulers. Thus when at the Hampton Court Conference he was petitioned to order a new translation of the Bible, he was sympathetic to the idea. Forty-seven learned men eventually gathered at the king's request, meeting at Westminster, Oxford, and Cambridge to produce what would be published in 1611 and commonly known to later ages as the "Authorized, or King James, Version."

The KJV owed a great deal to earlier versions, particularly to Tyndale and Geneva. In the preface to his Yale edition of Tyndale's New Testament, David Daniell assembles a lengthy series of beloved phrases from the KJV which were actually taken over from Tyndale: "Am I my brother's keeper?", "the salt of the earth," "the powers that be," "the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak," "with God all things are possible," and many others. There were also numerous improvements by the Geneva translators which were accepted by the KJV men. In a lengthy preface printed in the original edition of the KJV entitled "The Translators to the Reader," we read that not only were earlier English translations used, but also numerous foreign language versions and commentaries. This they did, according to this preface, not "to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one, . . . but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one, not justly to be excepted against . . . ."

It may be useful here to give a couple of tables showing "side by side" comparisons of Tyndale, Geneva, and the KJV, to show the continuity between them. The first Tyndale excerpt comes from The New Testament Octapla, and the second from Daniell's excellent Tyndale's Old Testament, which modernizes most spelling but leaves the punctuation found in Tyndale's own publications. (I have shown verse numbers in brackets, not in Tyndale's original or Daniell but editorially supplied in Octapla.) The Geneva excerpts are from facsimiles of 1599 and 1607 editions, and thus retain the old spelling as far as I can reproduce it here.

Here first is a familiar passage from the gospel of John.

John 14:[1-9]

John 14:1-9

John 14:1-9

And he sayde unto his disciples: let not youre hertes be troubled. Beleve in God, and beleve in me. [2] In my fathers housse are many mansions. If it were not so, I wolde have tolde you. I go to prepare a place for you. [3] And yf I go to prepare a place for you, I will come agayne, and receave you even unto my selfe that where I am, there maye ye be also. [4] And whither I go ye knowe, and the waye ye knowe. [5] Thomas sayde unto him: Lorde we knowe not whither thou goest. Also how is it possible for us to knowe the waye? [6] Jesus sayde unto him: I am the waye, the truthe and the lyfe. And no man commeth unto the father, but by me. [7] If ye had knowen me, ye had knowen my father also. And now ye knowe him, and have sene him. [8] Philip sayde unto him: Lorde shew us the father, and it suffiseth us. [9] Jesus sayde unto him: have I bene so longe tyme with you: and yet hast thou not knowen me? Philip, he that hath sene me, hath sene the father. And how sayest thou then: shew us the father?

Let not your heart be troubled: ye beleeue in God, beleeue also in me. 2 In my Fathers house are many dwelling places: if it were not so, I would haue tolde you: I goe to prepare a place for you. 3 And if I goe to prepare a place for you, I will come againe, and receiue you vnto my selfe, that where I am, there may ye be also. 4 And whither I goe, ye knowe, and the way ye know, 5 Thomas said vnto him, Lord, we know not whither thou goest: how can wee then know the way? 6 Iesus said vnto him, I am that way, and that trueth, and that life. No man commeth vnto the Father, but by me. 7 If ye had knowen me, ye should haue knowen my Father also: and from henceforth ye know him, and haue seene him. 8 Philip said vnto him, Lord, shew vs thy Father, and it sufficeth vs. 9 Iesus said vnto him, I haue been so long time with you, and hast thou not knowen me? Philip, he that hath seene me, hath seene my Father: how then sayest thou, Shewe vs thy Father?

Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. 4 And whither I go ye know, and the way ye know. 5 Thomas saith unto him, Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way? 6 Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. 7 If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also: and from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him. 8 Philip saith unto him, Lord, shew us the Father, and it sufficeth us. 9 Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Shew us the Father?

The taking over of much of Tyndale into the KJV--which even reinstates some of Tyndale's decisions which Geneva had altered (e.g., "mansions" rather than Geneva's "dwelling places," "the way, the truth, and the life" instead of Geneva's "that way . . .")--should be fairly evident. It is extremely marked in the New Testament; in the Old Testament, given the fact that Hebrew studies advanced a great deal between Tyndale and the KJV, it is less evident, but the dependence is still plain. Consider the following Old Testament passage in these three versions:

2 Sam. 22:[1-16]

2 Sam. 22:1-16

2 Sam. 22:1-16

And David spake the words of this song unto the Lord, what time the Lord had delivered him out of the hands of all his enemies, and out of the hands of Saul. [2] And he said: The Lord is my rock, my castle, and my deliverer. [3] God is my strength, and in him will I trust: my shield and the horn that defendeth me: mine high hold and refuge: O my Saviour, save me from wrong. [4] I will praise and call on the Lord, and so shall be saved from mine enemies. [5] For the waves of death have closed me about, and the floods of Belial have feared me. [6] The cords of hell have compassed me about, and the snares of death have overtaken me. [7] In my tribulation I called to the Lord, and cried to my God. And he heard my voice out of his temple, and my cry entered into his ears. [8] And the earth trembled and quoke, and the foundations of heaven moved and shook, because he was angry. [9] Smoke went up out of his nostrils, and consuming fire out of his mouth, that coals were kindled of him. [10] And he bowed heaven and came down and darkness under his feet. [11] And he rode upon Cherub and flew: and appeared upon the wings of the wind. [12] And he made darkness a tabernacle round about him, with water gathered together in thick clouds. [13] Of the brightness, that was before him, coals were set on fire. [14] The Lord thundered from heaven, and the Most High put out his voice. [15] And he shot arrows and scattered them, and hurled lightning and turmoiled them. [16] And the bottom of the sea appeared, and the foundations of the world were seen, by the reason of the rebuking of the Lord, and through the blasting of the breath of his nostrils.

And David spake the words of this song unto the Lord, what time the Lord had delivered him out of the hands of all his enemies, and out of the hand of Saul. 2 And he said, The Lord is my rocke and my fortresse, and he that delivereth mee. 3 God is my strength, in him will I trust: my shield, and the horne of my salvation, my hie tower and my refuge: my Saviour, thou hast saved me from violence. 4 I will call on the Lord, who is worthy to be praised: so shall I be safe from mine enemies. 5 For the pangs of death have compassed me: the floods of ungodlinesse have made me afraid. 6 The sorowes of the grave compassed mee about: the snares of death overtooke mee. 7 But in my tribulation did I call upon the Lord, and cry to my God, and hee did heare my voyce out of his Temple, and my cry did enter into his eares. 8 Then the earth trembled and quaked: the foundations of the heavens mooved and shooke, because he was angry. 9 Smoke went out at his nostrels, and consuming fire out of his mouth: coales were kindled thereat. 10 Hee bowed the heavens also, and came downe, and darknesse vvas under his feete. 11 And he rode upon Cherub and did flie, and he was seene upon the wings of the winde. 12 And hee made darkenesse a Tabernacle round about him, even the gatherings of waters, and the clouds of the aire. 13 At the brightnesse of his presence the coles of fire were kindled. 14 The Lord thundered from heauen, and the most High gaue his voyce. 15 He shot arrowes also, and scattered them: to vvit, lightning, and destroyed them. 16 The channels also of the sea appeared, euen the foundations of the world were discovered by the rebuking of the Lord, and at the blast of the breath of his nostrels.

And David spake unto the LORD the words of this song in the day that the LORD had delivered him out of the hand of all his enemies, and out of the hand of Saul: 2 And he said, The LORD is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; 3 The God of my rock; in him will I trust: he is my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my high tower, and my refuge, my saviour; thou savest me from violence. 4 I will call on the LORD, who is worthy to be praised: so shall I be saved from mine enemies. 5 When the waves of death compassed me, the floods of ungodly men made me afraid; 6 The sorrows of hell compassed me about; the snares of death prevented me; 7 In my distress I called upon the LORD, and cried to my God: and he did hear my voice out of his temple, and my cry did enter into his ears. 8 Then the earth shook and trembled; the foundations of heaven moved and shook, because he was wroth. 9 There went up a smoke out of his nostrils, and fire out of his mouth devoured: coals were kindled by it. 10 He bowed the heavens also, and came down; and darkness was under his feet. 11 And he rode upon a cherub, and did fly: and he was seen upon the wings of the wind. 12 And he made darkness pavilions round about him, dark waters, and thick clouds of the skies. 13 Through the brightness before him were coals of fire kindled. 14 The LORD thundered from heaven, and the most High uttered his voice. 15 And he sent out arrows, and scattered them; lightning, and discomfited them. 16 And the channels of the sea appeared, the foundations of the world were discovered, at the rebuking of the LORD, at the blast of the breath of his nostrils.

Here Geneva and the KJV mainly introduce revisions that improve on the literal accuracy, but much of the poetry of Tyndale is carried over into the 1611 version word for word ("the waves of death," "the snares of death," "the foundations of heaven moved and shook,""the wings of the wind") or with minor changes. In other words, what we have in the KJV is largely indebted to the labors of a man who paid with his blood to provide the scriptures to his countrymen in their native tongue.

Of course, the KJV translators frankly acknowledged their debt to men like Tyndale, and in their preface were very careful not to come across as disparaging the sacrifices of their predecessors:

And to the same effect say we, that we are so far off from condemning any of their labors that travailed before us in this kind, either in this land or beyond sea, either in King Henry's time or King Edward's (if there were any translation or correction of a translation in his time), or Queen Elizabeth's of ever renowned memory, that we acknowledge them to have been raised up of God, for the building and furnishing of his church, and that they deserve to be had of us and of posterity in everlasting remembrance. . . . Therefore blessed be they, and most honoured be their name, that break the ice, and give the onset [i.e., beginning] upon that which helpeth forward to the saving of souls. Now what can be more available [beneficial] thereto, than to deliver God's book unto God's people in a tongue which they understand? . . . . if we building upon their foundation that went before us, and being holpen [helped] by their labours, do endeavor to make that better which they left so good, no man, we are sure, hath cause to mislike us; they, we persuade ourselves, if they were alive, would thank us. [Emphasis added.]

We can be sure that the KJV men were correct in making that last statement. Given Tyndale's attitude of humility regarding his translations (since, as we have seen, he submitted them not only to be "corrected," but "moreover to be disallowed and also burnt" if they were found wanting), it is likely that he would be pleased in his own modest way that so much of his work withstood successive revisions and made it into the KJV. If "every man's work shall be made manifest" at the judgment seat of Christ (1 Cor. 3:11-13), the work of William Tyndale, sealed with the blood of martyrdom, will surely be revealed as the finest gold. And the fact that God honored it by making it the foundation of a Bible loved by generations of Christians seems a foreshadowing of the kind of glory Tyndale will receive at the last day.

And I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me: Write, Blessed are the dead, which hereafter die in the Lord. Even so, saith the spirit, that they may rest from their labours, but their works shall follow them.

(Rev. 14:13 in Tyndale's translation.)

The information in this article comes from the following sources:

"Bible," in Microsoft Encarta '96 Encyclopedia, copyright 1993-95 by Microsoft Corporation.

Brown, Terrence H., "The Learned Men," in David Otis Fuller, ed., Which Bible? 5th ed.. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1975.

Daniell, David, ed., Tyndale's Old Testament. New Haven: Yale, 1992; and the same editor's Tyndale's New Testament. New Haven: Yale, 1989.

Geneva Bible, Buena Park, CA: Geneva Publishing Co., 1991. (Facsimile of 1599 edition by the Deputies of Christopher Barker.)

Shepherd, Gerald T., ed., The Geneva Bible: The Annotated New Testament, 1602 Edition. NY: Pilgrim Press, 1989. (Facsimile of 1607 NT [a reprint of a 1602 Geneva NT] by Robert Barker.)

"Translators to the Reader," in the first edition of the King James Bible of 1611. Reprint of this edition in roman type: Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 1982. Or for a modern-spelling text of this lengthy preface, click here.

Weigle, Luther A., ed., The New Testament Octapla: Eight English Versions of the New Testament in the Tyndale-King James Tradition. NY: Thomas Nelson, [1962].