The 400th anniversary of the publication of the Authorised Version of the Bible is being celebrated all over the place this year. There have already been several programmes on Radio 4, several books are being published to coincide with the anniversary, and there are manifold lectures and exhibitions, not least the major one that has just opened at Cambridge University Library.
Although the Authorised Version is hugely significant, not least for the impact that it has had on the English language, there were earlier English versions by reformers such as William Tyndale, Miles Coverdale and William Whittingham. There were earlier officially sanctioned (if not ‘authorised’) translations, including one overseen by Matthew Parker during his time as Archbishop of Canterbury, the so-called Bishops’ Bible of 1568. As the name suggests, Parker assembled a committee of bishops to produce the new version. CCCC 114, a volume of Parker correspondence, includes several letters from various bishops returning, or promising to return, their portion of the work.
Parker tried to steer a diplomatic course, improving on the accuracy of the official Great Bible (1539) while avoiding the controversial annotations which were a feature of the reformers’ Geneva Bible (1560). In practice, this meant that some books of the Bishops’ Bible closely resemble one predecessor and some the other, leaving the whole rather inconsistent and unsatisfactory.
Edwin Sandys, bishop of Worcester, who was responsible for the Books of Kings and Chronicles, betrays some anxiety concerning the enterprise in a 1565 letter to Parker preserved in CCCC MS 114A, p. 453:
In mine opinion Your Grace shall do well to make the whole Bible to be diligently surveyed by some well learned before it be put to print, and also to have skilful and diligent correctors at the printing of it, that it may be done in such perfection that the adversaries can have no occasion to quarrel with it.
A second, extensively revised edition of the Bishops’ Bible was published in 1572 and, although it never fully displaced the Geneva Bible in popularity, it did form the basis for the Authorised Version.
Strangely enough, the Parker Library doesn’t have a copy of the first edition of the Bishops’ Bible, though we do have a copy of the 1572 edition: