I thank you for
this kind invitation to speak to the brethren of this Lodge
Like the rest of
the brethren of this Lodge I was reared on the staple diet of the Authorised
Version of the Bible, better known as the King James Version. The story behind
that Version is the subject of my lecture.
It is an enormous story, but I will try to keep it
brief. I add that the King James Version is the common Bible used as the Volume
of the Sacred Law in the Temple in all the Masonic Orders that I have been a member of, and the one at which
we take all our Masonic oaths. There is room in Masonic law to use different
sacred books, eg (if the majority of the brethren are Islamic) if a Brother of
the Lodge or a visitor is of the Islamic Faith, the Koran will also be open on
the pedestal, and if Jewish then the first part of the Bible or the Old
Testament. The rule is simple - the
sacred book on which we seal our oaths must be sacred to the particular
Brother, and remember no atheists can become freemasons.
Question – have you ever notice a biblical quotation
in Shakespeare, gone to look it up in the Bible and found that it is different
? Or read part of the New Testament
quoting from the Old Testament, and noticed that the quotes were
different. How does one explain that ?
The simple answer is they were using different
of the Bible – eg Shakespeare was using the Geneva Bible not the King James
Version that we know. The speech of Stephen in the Acts of the Apostles is
from a variant Old Testament tradition. So too with Jesus’ quotes from the Old
Testament All were using different Versions. So the question for this lecture
is – what is the King James Version and
why is it used in our Temples ?
I can easily
answer the first question but the second question seeks further discourse.
It is said that the two greatest influences shaping
the English language are the works of William Shakespeare and the English
translation of the Bible that was published in 1611. The King James Version is
named after the monarch who ordered a new translation in 1604. It was a book
that helped shape English literary nationalism, by asserting the supremacy of
the English language as a means of conveying religious truth.
Throughout the 16th and 17th
Centuries the Bible was seen, not as a text to inspire one to devotions, but
more as a social, economic and political text. Thirty years ago when I was
doing my Ph D research I noticed the concern in the 1615 Regal Visitations to
the Dioceses in Ireland, as to whether a biblical text was used as the start of
These doors were opened by the new technology of
printing which had a devastating effect on mankind, much the same as computers
and the Internet have had on us in the last twenty years, especially the
Internet and its mailing system the e-mail.
In 1620 the English philosopher Francis Bacon noted
how three interventions had reshaped the world – gunpowder which changed
warfare, the magnet which facilitated the ship’s compass allowing navigation
when the sun and stars were not seen; and the invention of printing.
As the end of the mediaeval period a social revolution
took place – the rise of the new middle class., so that now you need not be a
landed squire or peasant. Literacy had often been confined to the clergy and it
was they who handled all correspondence and archives – hence the term still
used today in office jobs “giving clerical assistance”.
Lay people were beginning to learn to read and write,
and the possession of books was now seen as a social virtue. But till now all
books were copied by hand – a tradition that is still carried out in the Jewish
synagogues when the VSL has been hand copied, fortunately only the first five
books of the Bible, and the expected price is about $30,000.
The more people who could read the more the demand for
books, so a new technology was needed. The breakthrough came with Johannes
Gutenberg who invented the moveable metal type. Printing the Bible was an
obvious first but not a profitable as printing indulgences, a watershed of the
England’s first printer was William Caxton (1422-91)
who had learnt his trade in Bruges and in 1476 returned to England to set up his own shop in Westminster. His
first job was printing indulgences – by buying one of these printed documents
for an exorbitant sum of money one could get the same spiritual benefits as one
got from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land without the hassle of having to travel.
Needless to say, the profits from indulgences were shared by the printer and
the Church. Though no figure exists for Caxton’s sales, it is said that
Gutenberg sold over 200,000 indulgences.
Before going on to the Bible, a few words about the
English language. One of the reasons for the slowness of an English Version of
Scripture was the merits or supposed lack of merits of the English language. French and Latin were the dominant
languages in 14th Century England, and English was the language of
peasants. But later it was the translation of the Bible that helped English to
become refined as too the works of William Shakespeare.
In 1408 the translation of the Bible into English was
made illegal by the ‘Constitutions of Oxford’. The defeat of the French at
Agincourt mirrored a cultural defeat of the French language in England.
Another formative influence in using English as
language of religion came from the performance of mystery plays in Chester and
York around the feast of Corpus Christi. While the Church fed the faithful with
the Mass Bible and Sermons all in Latin, the plays offered religious teaching in
the vernacular plain English. The ‘Englishing’ of the religion was opposed by
the church, so it became the language of the religious underground.
One of the themes of the Reformation was the
translation of the Bible into the vernacular. In addition to being a religious
movement, it embraced and encouraged massive social, political and economic
change, just as the Renaissance give rise to individualism. People started to
think of themselves as individuals and this led to a demand for a Christianity
that was relevant to their personal experience and private worlds. The laity
had come of age, and the future belonged to them.
Lay access to the Bible was as much about power as
encouraging personal spirituality, with salvation seen as a gift not earned as
a reward. Just as Henry VIII displaced
the Pope as head of the Church in England, so Latin was replaced by the English
William Tyndale (1494-1536) is widely regarded as the
most formative prior to the King James Version. Educated at Hertford College
Oxford, the first edition of hid New Testament was published in Worms in 1526.
The work contributed to the English language such phrases as ‘the powers that be’ or ‘my brother’s
keeper’ ‘the salt of the earth’ ‘a law unto themselves’ – all were phrases that
were well shaped in terms of
alliteration, rhyme, and word repetition.
He also invented words eg ‘Jehovah’ ‘Passover’ for the
Hebrew Pesah, neologisms like ‘scapegoat’ ‘atonement’, ‘reconciliation’ etc.
Note it was for the Bible that these phrases and words were invented, a pattern
which was followed in the King James Version and also explaining why the Bible
had such a great influence on the English language.
Tyndale had two achievements – producing an excellent
New Testament, and forcing the English Church into seeking to have an
officially recognised English Bible.
Alas Tyndale was to fall from favour, being arrested
in 1535, and strangled the following October, his dead body burned at the stake
– biblical work at that time was not just a scholarly activity but illegal,
dangerous and ultimately fatal as Tyndale discovered.
The first complete English Bible was published in 1535
– that of Miles Coverdale based on the work of others including Tyndale, and it
was more an amalgam of existing works. Its uniqueness was that it was the first
English bible and so paved the way for the King James Version.
Other English Bibles were published – eg the Great
Bible of 1539, the Geneva Bible in 1560 from John Calvin, the Bishops Bible of
1558 to name just a few. Note that it was only in this stage of the history of
the Bible that chapter and verse arrangements were introduced in the Bible by
the Frenchman Robert Estienne as an aide for using the whole bible in public
worship, as opposed to a Book of Readings known as a Lectionary which contained
only the sections required to be read
If a new Bible caught on, fortunes were to be made. It
was the Geneva Bible that was most popular,
by providing explanatory notes in the margin. But it was these very
notes that caused the problems. They were disliked by the Establishment as
tending to Protestantism, if not straight out Puritanism.
Without going into the details of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign it is to be
noted that alongside the economic growth, military successes, and increasing
sense of national identity, a new confidence in the English language began to
emerge. The Geneva Bible was am import.
The lines of the latter battles were to be drawn along
the divide of Puritan versus Anglican, with the new King James 1 proclaiming
‘no bishops no king’, which summarised his view of the interrelationship
between church and state. James had come from Scotland, and was a direct
descendant of Henry VIIII’s father
Henry VII. James believed that Presbyterianism was linked with egalitarianism
and republicanism, and was anti
When James read his Bible which was often as he
regarded himself as a theologian, he began to intensely dislike the Bible that
was available – the Geneva Bible, the major problem being on the marginal notes
relating to the Divine Right of Kings, which he defended from Ps 105:15 about
the anointing of kings at coronation. The Geneva Bible undermined whatever
biblical basis there was for the divine right of kings, a position that he
regarded as pivotal as too did his son Charles I, leading to the English Civil
James now had a personal agenda – to rid England of
the Geneva Bible and its detestable marginal notes – so this turbulent Bible
had to be buried. On his way down from Scotland in 1603, James was meet by a
Puritan delegation and presented with a Millenary Petition so called as it had
been signed by over 1000 ministers of the Church of England seeking relief from
some aspects of the Catholic side of Elizabethan Anglicanism.
On 24 October 1603 James issued a proclamation that he
was convening a conference to be attended by himself, members of the Privy
Council, various bishops and other learned men, to be held at Hampton Court the
following January 1604.
It was this Conference that was the birthplace of the
King James Version, opening on 14 January 1604. Many issues were discussed that
are not directly relevant to this lecture, but most important for us is that a
new translation of the Bible was authorised.
James directed that the “best learned” in the Universities of Oxford and
Cambridge should start immediately.
James went on
to publish a treatise against smoking leaving the Bible to others. Despite
being the pillar behind the most notable English translation ever, as time
passed James came more obviously homosexual, his favourite being Robert Carr
some twenty years younger and made Earl of Somerset in 1615. I think few of
those who believe that the King James Version was the word of God, was
engineered by a homosexual.
The translators appointed for the task were not to be
paid for their work, and the “four and fifty” men selected were told that they
could expect potential preferment in their careers – Archbishop Bancroft as
Archbishop of Canterbury writing to his fellow bishops seeking appointments for
the translators, with 20 pounds a year proposed as their stipend.
Fifteen translation rules were formulated, including
one which directed them to base their new work on earlier Versions – or as was
thought in the parlance of the day “they were to stand on the shoulders of
giants” in using the work of previous biblicists in making good translations
better. After all the Renaissance approach to wisdom was that one generation is
nourished and sustained by the intellectual achievements of its predecessors.
translators were divided into six companies of scholars, and the Bible was
divided up amongst those companies.
There is very little documentary evidence to give us a picture of the
working life of a translator, except for the biographical sketch from John
Boys, working in his parish on Sundays and returning to Cambridge for the
remainder of the week to be engaged on his translation duties. The most
remarkable thing about Boys’ biographical details is that a corrected copy was
discovered in the library of Corpus Christi College Oxford – in 1966 !
The translators then got together at the Stationers’
Hall in London. Careful consideration was given by them on how the translation
could be understood by those to whom it was read rather than those who read
There were difficulties in understanding what rare
Hebrew words meant, so marginal notes were inserted giving alternative
translations, but they did use the standard orthography of the period.
Eventually the whole lot was delivered to the King’s Printer Robert Baker.
printing of the King James Version was a massive undertaking, not only because
of the length of the Bible, but also because of the number of copies required –
one for every Church in England.
It is noted that it was a work of private enterprise –
the King might well have authorised it but certainly not pay for it, and
instead it was done by venture capitalism estimated to be about three and half
The customary title of “Authorised Version” when talking about the King James Version
has always attracted interest. It was thought that the phrase “appointed to be
read in churches” implied that it was authorised for that purpose. But the
words simply mean that the work was laid out in such a way suitable for public
reading. Strangely there is no evidence
that this version of the Bible ever received final authorization from the
bishops, the Privy Council, or the King.
As it turned out, the new Bible did not need authority
to command respect. It included a substantial amount of material useful for
public worship, eg An Almanac for the years 1603-1641 for the dates of major
church festivals, and an explanation of how to work out the date of Easter in
perpetuity. Then there was a lectionary setting out which portions of Scripture
were to be used for Morning and Evening Prayer – a lectionary which I used
nearly 450 years later, only then it was included in the 1662 Book of Common
The King James Version was primarily book for use in
public worship and not private study. It was also very large and heavy, and
could be read easily at a distance.
The translators of the King James Version faced the same problems as other translators
do – how to render a text written in one language and then place it in another.
This difficulty is best phrased in the Italian expression “the translator is a
traitor”. In particular, the original language of the Old Testament is Hebrew
which is a complex language – only 22 letters and vowels spoken not written.
Too often we come to the Hebrew text (known as the Massoretic Text, ie the
received text) already knowing the meaning by familiarity of an English
Version. Also a few portions are in another language – Aramaic which was the
international language of diplomacy in the Ancient Near East.
Regardless, Biblical Hebrew is full of idioms, and has
many shortcomings in modern terms. As an eg it is to be noted that Hebrew has
very few adjectives, eg to say ‘my golden cup’ in Hebrew is ‘my cup of gold’.
When this comes to theology there arises absurd results, eg the favourite in
the King James Version of ‘the children of Israel’ is literally ‘the sons of
Israel’, ie Israelites, just a Mac means ‘son of ‘ so ‘Mac Israelites”.
Unfortunately knowledge of Hebrew in 1611 was
rudimentary, with little or no knowledge of cognate languages like Akkadian and
The King James Version retained some of Hebrew idioms
as basically it did not know any other way. And once those idioms were
translated into the English biblical text, the idioms remained. A few examples
of such idioms passing into our language will illustrate
To lick the dust
The land of the
The skin of my
Like a lamb to the
Rise and shine
To see the writing
on the wall
I would note that while the English of the King James Version was probably
already archaic in 1611, the Bible had the unintended effect of turning their
antiquated English into perpetuity.
Eg the use of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ and different verb
endings like ‘sayeth’ were already passing from speech in 1611. The translators
use of somewhat archaic language is to be traced back to their instructions to
use previous Versions where possible eg the Bishops’ Bible of 1588. This
created the impression that religious language was necessarily archaic.
Similarly the use of ‘his’ and ‘its’- Middle English
did not know ‘its’ as meaning ‘belonging to it’, and in its place was ‘his’, as
Middle English used it. The translators retained the older use of ‘his’ as the
neuter possessive pronoun. Contrary to all the modern objections to exclusive
language, the problem did not relate to gender, just as our every day usage.
The King James Version sought to solve the problem where possible, and came up
with a solution – the use of the cleverly crafted word ‘thereof’, eg “its width
was five feet’ became ‘the width thereof was five feet’. For those who say that
the language of the King James Version was exclusive, implies a
misunderstanding of 1611 English.
The English Civil War included the battle of the two
great bibles – the Geneva Bible and the King James Version. When the monarchy
was restored in 1660, a new Prayer Book was evolved and the King James Version
was placed alongside it, both implying religious conformity and security. No
wanted to return to the chaos of Puritan England – just as Germany disowned its
Nazi past after World War II.
Its origins were to take out the controversy of
certain religious thinking, and it probably lasted till the beginning of the
Twentieth Century. In 1979-82 a New King James Version was produced, based on
the traditional texts including “its quality of translation and majesty of
Let me conclude by stating that linguistic development
is simply a sign of life into a language is being used and adapted to new situations.
Whatever, the King James Version still retains its place as a land mark for
popular Christianity, and still speaks
to us today in our Lodge.
Worshipful Master, and I would happy to attempt to answer any questions.