The Scholarly Climate of the King James Bible
April 6, 2023 (first published March 11, 2015)
David Cloud, Way of Life Literature, P.O. Box 610368, Port Huron, MI 48061

The following is excerpted from The Glorious History of the English Bible.

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By the early seventeenth century, when the King James Bible was completed, knowledge of biblical languages was at an apex in many important ways. Realizing that this view is contrary to that held by most contemporary scholars, we invite you to consider our reasons for making this statement. 

Consider the following descriptions of that time, which has been called “a period which was remarkable both in its wealth of eruditional effort and in the significance of its concentration of deepest learning on the Bible centre.” 

The following is from The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, 1907–21:

“LARGE PORTIONS OF THE SCRIPTURES WERE KNOWN BY HEART, NOT ONLY BY MINISTERS, BUT, ALSO, BY THE LAITY, AND EVEN BY CHILDREN, who were also well drilled in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and other histories of persecutions. Whilst French Huguenot children were trained, Spartanlike, to look forward to dying for the faith, English children, from the earliest age, were disciplined in prayer, in reading books of devotion and in the close knowledge of Bible histories and Bible doctrine. ... Hence, we notice psychologically, THERE WERE DEVELOPED ENORMOUS INDUSTRY IN LEARNING, endurance in listening to preachers and teachers, tenacious memory and the power of visualising and concentrating the thoughts on Bible heroes, Bible stories, Bible language and Bible aspirations. Scripture students were indefatigable workers. Bishop Morton was at his studies before four o’clock in the morning, even after he was 80 years of age. Matthew Poole rose at three or four o’clock, ate a raw egg at eight or nine, another at twelve and continued his studies till late in the afternoon. Sir Matthew Hale, for many years, studied sixteen hours a day. For several years John Owen did not allow himself more than four hours’ sleep. FEATS OF MEMORY ARE AS REMARKABLE FOR THEIR FREQUENCY AS FOR THEIR COMPREHENSIVENESS, AND WERE PRACTISED FROM EARLY CHILDHOOD in the repeating of sermons, in the learning of Latin grammar and in almost every academic discipline. Moreover, the number of references to memory testifies to the conscious cultivation of the art. ... In short, the scholarship and learning of this period, by their direct bearing upon the Bible, permeated and transfigured the national life in a rare degree, giving it, in spite of all its excesses and deficiencies, A STRENUOUSNESS, SOBRIETY, AND, ON THE WHOLE, A SINCERITY, PROBABLY NEVER SO LARGELY SUSTAINED, BY BOOK LEARNING, IN ANY AGE, and rarely in any country” (The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Vol. VII, Cavalier and Puritan, Part XIII, “Scholars and Scholarship, 1600–60”).

“GREEK, ALSO, WAS A PRESSING ACCOMPLISHMENT, for a large constituency besides the professor and scholar. Nor were Greek experts so few as is often supposed. In The Authorised Version of the Bible (1607–11), adequate scholarship in Greek was available in Thomas Ravis, George Abbot, James Montague, Thomson, Savile, Perin, Harmar, William Barlow, Hutchinson, Spencer, Fenton, Rabbett, Sanderson, Dakins. Of the other translators employed on the Old Testament Apocrypha, John Duport, Downes and Bois were of still greater renown for their knowledge of Greek. J. Bass Mullinger remarks on the low state of Greek in English universities in the latter part of the sixteenth century. He names Whitaker, Dering, Gabriel Harvey, Aylmer, as almost alone proving that Greek at Cambridge was ‘not extinct.’ It was otherwise in the period 1600–60. Andrew Downes, professor of Greek in Cambridge from 1585 to 1625, published lectures on Lysias: De Caede Eratosthenis (1593) and on Demosthenes: De Pace (1621). Francis Hicks, a gentleman of Worcestershire, made Greek his study and recreation, and published a translation into Latin, with notes, of select dialogues of Lucian, 1634. John Price, one of the greatest scholars of the period, professor of Greek at Pisa, showed great learning in his commentaries on the New Testament, illustrated by references to Greek and Latin Fathers (1646–7). In 1636, Gerard Langbaine published his notes on Longinus. In 1637, John Harmar, regius professor of Greek at Oxford, issued his etymological Greek lexicon. In 1652, Thomas Gataker produced his Marcus Antoninus, Greek text, with Latin translation and commentary. Finally, in 1661, Joseph Caryl, Thomas Cockayne, Ralph Venning, William Dell, Matthew Barker, William Adderley, Matthew Mead, Henry Jersey, all nonconformist ministers, jointly published a Greek-English dictionary of all the words in the New Testament. This list is only representative of the types of works in Greek. But we must take into account the undoubtedly deep knowledge of Greek possessed by Gataker (who had been taught by Bois), overshadowed as it is by his Hebrew and other oriental studies; by Ussher with his expert knowledge of Greek geography, astronomy and other Greek material for chronology, his treatise on the origin of the Greek Septuagint and the editing of two ancient Greek versions of the Book of Esther; by Selden, the great dictator of English learning, in his Marmora Arundeliana, 1628, in which he was helped by Patrick Young and Richard James; by John Hales and the Cambridge Platonists; by John Milton; by Philemon Holland and the other translators. BESIDES GRAMMAR TEXT-BOOKS AND ANNOTATIONS ON GREEK AUTHORS, THERE IS EVIDENCE OF READY KNOWLEDGE OF GREEK IN ALL KINDS OF WRITERS, AND INDICATIONS OF A NOT UNCOMMON ERUDITION. Jeremiah Whitaker, of Oakham free school, read all the epistles in the Greek Testament twice every fortnight. John Conant, regius professor of divinity in Oxford, often disputed publicly in Greek in the schools. In the period 1648–59, the disputations at Oxford were often in Greek. Henry Stubbe, in 1651, wrote, in Horae Subsecivae, translations into Greek from Randolph and Crashaw. But the readiest in this art was James Duport, who wrote Greek hexameters on the death of the vice-master of Trinity college, Cambridge. He rendered into Homeric verse The Book of Job (1637) and Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and The Song of Solomon (1646), and won high recognition by these feats” (The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Vol. VII, Cavalier and Puritan, Part XIII, Scholars and Scholarship, 1600–60, “Latin and Greek scholarship”).

“From the time of the new Elizabethan and Stewart foundations of grammar schools, THE THREE ‘HOLY’ LANGUAGES--LATIN, GREEK AND HEBREW--HAD BEEN THE AIM OF PROTESTANT WORKERS IN EDUCATION, not only for providing antagonists capable of meeting Catholic opponents in disputation, orally and in books, but, also, for coming ‘nearer’ to the primitive times of the Christian era. BOYS IN SCHOOL WERE TO LEARN THEIR CATECHISM IN A GREEK TEXT, READ THE NEW TESTAMENT IN GREEK, LEARN, IF MIGHT BE, TO SPEAK IN GREEK. The aim of school and university, in their Greek studies, was, in the long run, theological” (The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Vol. VII, Cavalier and Puritan, Part XIII Scholars and Scholarship, 1600–60, “Hebrew scholarship”). 

“IN THE UNIVERSITIES, THEOLOGY WAS THE CHIEF SUBJECT, and, as J. Bass Mullinger says, with few exceptions, secured the attention of all those ‘who contended for intellectual distinction, for popularity and for the prizes of high office and social influence.’ ... Accordingly, theology had full sway in the universities, and, AS STUDENTS LEFT THE UNIVERSITY, THEIR KNOWLEDGE OF GREEK AND HEBREW BECAME CONTRIBUTORY TO THE GREAT DIVINITY STREAM. Venn has shown that, in 1630, one out of 3600 of the male population of England and Wales proceeded to Oxford or Cambridge as against one in 9000 today ... Grammar schools (public and private) were particularly numerous in this period, and managed to cast a Scriptural and theological colour around ordinary instruction. NEVER WAS THERE IN THE ANNALS OF THE ENGLISH CHURCH A MORE ELOQUENT, PIOUS AND ERUDITE BAND OF ANGLICAN THEOLOGIANS THAN AT THIS TIME. In fact, Selden tells us of his own time: ‘All confess there never was a more learned Clergy’” (The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Vol. VII Cavalier and Puritan, Part XIII Scholars and Scholarship, 1600–60, “University studies”).

Consider also the testimony of J.W. Whittaker, who wrote two centuries after the completion of the KJV. In 1820 Whittaker, Fellow of St. John’s, Cambridge, published An Historical and Critical Enquiry into the Interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures, with Remarks on Mr. Bellamy’s New Translation. It was a brilliant defense of the Authorized Version against John Bellamy’s criticisms thereof. Bellamy had launched a vicious attack on the King James Bible and had made the accusation that the translators of the KJV and its predecessors were not skilled in Hebrew. Whittaker, a Hebrew scholar, carefully described the linguistic excellencies of Tyndale, Miles Coverdale, John Rogers, and the translators of the Great Bible, the Geneva, the Bishops, and the Authorized 1611. Whittaker gave examples from these translations, demonstrating that the versions conformed to the Hebrew rather than to the Greek Septuagint or the Latin Vulgate. He made the following statement about the early 17th century: 

“Had this gentleman [Bellamy] consulted any historical authority, or in the slightest degree investigated the characters of our translators, he would have found that many of them were celebrated Hebrew scholars, and could not have failed to perceive that THE SACRED LANGUAGE WAS AT THAT TIME CULTIVATED TO A FAR GREATER EXTENT IN ENGLAND THAN IT HAS EVER BEEN SINCE. We have already seen that twelve editions of the Hebrew Bible were printed before the year 1527, four of which were published in one year. Ever since the first dawn of literature in Europe, the study of the Scriptures in the original languages had been an object of the warmest enthusiasm. The turn which religious controversy took at the birth of the Reformation compelled all learned men to take their authorities from the inspired text, and not from a Romish version. In the year 1540, King Henry the Eighth appointed regular Hebrew Professors, and the consequences of this measure were instantaneous. In Queen Elizabeth’s reign no person who pretended to eminence as a learned man was ignorant of this language, and so very common did it become, that the ladies of noble families frequently made it one of their accomplishments. ... Under Queen Elisabeth and King James, who were not only the patrons of learning by their institutions, but examples of it in their own persons, Hebrew literature prospered to a very great extent, and under the last of these monarchs attained its greatest splendour. The Universities, and all public bodies for the promotion of learning, flourished in an extraordinary degree, and AT THIS HAPPY JUNCTURE OUR TRANSLATION WAS MADE. Every circumstance had been conspiring during the whole of the preceding century to extend the study of Hebrew. The attempts of the Papists to check the circulation of the translations, the zeal of the Protestants to expose the Vulgate errors, the novelty of theological speculations to society at large, and even the disputes of the Reformed Churches, GAVE AN ANIMATED VIGOUR TO THE STUDY OF THE ORIGINAL SCRIPTURES WHICH HAS NEVER SINCE BEEN WITNESSED (Whittaker, pp. 99-104).

Consider the testimony of Alexander McClure, author of The Translators Revived (1855): 

“As to the capability of those men, we may say again, that, by the good providence of God, their work was undertaken in a fortunate time. Not only had the English language, that singular compound, then ripened to its full perfection, but THE STUDY OF GREEK, AND OF THE ORIENTAL TONGUES, AND OF RABBINICAL LORE, HAD THEN BEEN CARRIED TO A GREATER EXTENT IN ENGLAND THAN EVER BEFORE OR SINCE” (The Translators Revived, pp. 59, 61). 

Consider the testimony of James Lister in 1820: 

“The time when our translation was completed, though two hundred years ago, WAS REMARKABLE FOR CLASSICAL AND BIBLICAL LEARNING. The classics from the capture of Constantinople, had been revised, and had been studied with enthusiastic ardour in all the countries of Europe. In the century immediately preceding our version, schools and colleges had been multiplied over all the western world. Manuscripts were explored, compared and edited, and correct copies of the ANCIENT AUTHORS, BOTH PROFANE AND SACRED WERE PUBLISHED WITH A ZEAL AND PATIENCE FAR EXCEEDING ANY THING OBSERVABLE IN OUR TIMES. Oriental literature, Hebrew, Chaldee, Syriac and Greek was deeply studied; and dictionaries, concordances, polyglots, such as the world had never seen before for depth and variety of erudition remain to this day as monuments of the talents, learning and research of our ancestors. Exalted on these monuments, some of our puny scholars, in THESE LATTER DAYS OF GREAT PRETENSION, have taken their lofty stand, and affected to despise the very men by whom these monuments were reared” (Lister, The Excellence of the Authorized Version of the Sacred Scriptures Defended against the Socinian, 1820, p. 14). 

Biblical scholars of the early seventh century grew up with Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and were as at home in these languages as in their mother tongue. One of the KJV translators, as we will see, could read the Hebrew Bible at age five. In our day, scholars don’t ordinarily even begin to learn the biblical tongues until adulthood, during their college days. 

Consider the situation at Oxford and Cambridge in those days:

In the 1500s and early 1600s all of the printed texts at these universities were in Latin. All of the compositions, lectures, and disputations were in Latin. 

In 1605, of the 6,000 volumes in the library at Oxford, only 60 were in English (David Daniell, Tyndale’s New Testament, p. 45)

Though Erasmus made five visits to England between 1499 and 1517 and taught at Cambridge for two years, he “neither wrote (nor it seems, spoke) a word of English” (Daniell, The Bible in English, p. 130). He was able to communicate and teach in Latin. 

A similar situation existed throughout the educational field:

“Latin-speaking was well preserved. Brinsley, in his Ludus Literarius, 1612, expects school lessons in grammar to be conducted by questions and answers in the Latin language. Disputations and orations were in this language, not only in universities but, also, in grammar schools. ... In fact, Latin occupied very much the position that mathematics now assumes on the modern side of a public school, in relation to physical science studies. It provided the necessary equipment for other studies, and the school curriculum was framed with a view to relieving the university from its teaching. The curriculum consisted of Pueriles Confabulatiunculae (children’s Latin talk), colloquies, catechisms in Latin and Greek, systematic grammar, translation and re-translation, and the whole round of vocabularies, the making of Latins, letter-writing (on the model of Cicero’s Epistulae, proceeding to those of modern writers—Politian, Erasmus, Ascham, Manutius, Lipsius—and the composition, concurrently, of original epistles), themes, with full equipment of adages, apophthegmata, flores, phrase-books; then making verses, and, finally, the glory of sixth form work, producing and declaiming original orations. Thus, THE SCHOOL DISCIPLINE IN LATIN WAS NEVER MORE COMPLETE THAN IN THE FIRST HALF OF THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY” (The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, 1907–21, Vol. VII, “Cavalier and Puritan,” Part XIII, “Scholars and Scholarship,” 1600–60, “Latin and Greek scholarship”).

There were a severely limited number of Fellow positions in a college and the competition was fierce. It was a much more prestigious and sought after position than it is today. Alexander McClure describes that as “A TIME WHEN THE STUDY OF SACRED LITERATURE WAS PURSUED BY THOUSANDS WITH A ZEAL AMOUNTING TO A PASSION.” It attracted some of the nation’s brightest men. Such an atmosphere in the field of theology exists nowhere in the world today. It could be compared today only to something like the field of sports, in which thousands of athletes compete earnestly from their youth with the objective of winning a place on a professional team. [* A Fellow was a teacher and usually had a company of five or six students and was also involved in college administration -- Opfell, The King James Bible Translators, p. 45.]

The educational climate at Oxford and Cambridge in that day was serious in the extreme. At Emmanuel College, for example, “The recreational schedule consisted only of one hour after dinner at 11 a.m. and one hour after supper at 5 p.m. Undergraduates were expected to be at work ‘in the college’ at all other times” (Opfell, p. 48). 

For those familiar with conditions in colleges and seminaries today, it is obvious that the level of scholarship has deteriorated significantly; recreation and leisure take up a much larger portion of the average student’s time today.

The fierce religious debates of that time resulted in zeal for biblical scholarship and caution about the details of biblical translation that has no comparison in our day. 

“The time when our authorized version was completed was a time of awful contention between catholics and protestants; a contest in which whole nations were embarked to a man, arranged under their respective civil authorities. EVERY NERVE WAS STRAINED ON BOTH SIDES TO OBTAIN THE ASCENDENCY. Learning, talents, piety and zeal rushed forth to the conflict. AND THE MIGHTY FIELD ON WHICH THEY MET WAS, ‘THE TRANSLATION OF THE SACRED SCRIPTURES INTO THE VULGAR TONGUES.’ In this fearful combat England stood at the head of the Protestant union; and both sides were fully aware of the incalculable consequences connected with an authorized version of the sacred scriptures into the English tongue. THE CATHOLICS WATCHED ... PUT EVERY VERSE OF OUR TRANSLATION TO THE SEVEREST SCRUTINY. The Catholics had already sanctioned the Vulgate, and were prepared to impugn every sentence wherein our version should differ from their authorized text. THE MASS OF PROTESTANT LEARNING WAS ENGAGED ON THE ONE SIDE TO MAKE OUR VERSION AS FAIR A COPY AS POSSIBLE OF THE MATCHLESS ORIGINALS; AND THE MASS OF POPISH ERUDITION, ON THE OTHER SIDE, STOOD FULLY PREPARED TO DETECT EVERY MISTAKE, and to expose without mercy every error of our public version” (James Lister, The Excellence of the Authorized Version of the Sacred Scriptures Defended against the Socinian, 1820, pp. 14, 15).

Further, it is necessary to understand that biblical scholarship has taken a dramatically rationalistic turn since the 19th century. 

Most of the great names in this field have been affected by the spirit of unbelief, including the authors of many of the important lexicons and study aids, such as Joseph Thayer, Samuel Driver, Eberhard Nestle, Hermann von Soden, Gerhard Kittel, Eugene Nida, Kurt and Barbara Aland, and Bruce Metzger. We have documented this sad story in our book The Modern Bible Version Hall of Shame.

In the mid-1800s Charles Philpot, leader of the Gospel Standard Baptists and Fellow of Worcester College, Oxford, took up the question of “Who would undertake a revision of the Authorized Version today?” He said: 

“Of course they must be learned men, great critics, scholars, and divines. BUT THESE ARE NOTORIOUSLY EITHER TAINTED WITH POPERY OR INFIDELITY. Where are the men, learned, yet sound in Truth, not to say alive unto God, who possess the necessary qualifications for so important work? And can erroneous men, dead in trespasses and sins, carnal, worldly, ungodly persons, spiritually translate a Book written by the blessed Spirit? We have not the slightest ground for hope that they would be godly men, such as we have reason to believe translated the Scriptures into our present version.”

In the 20th century, even the “evangelical” scholars became infected with rationalistic views of the Bible, as has been documented in many books, such as Harold Lindsell’s The Battle for the Bible (1976) and The Bible in the Balance (1979), Richard Quebedeaux’s The Worldly Evangelicals (1978), Francis Schaeffer’s The Great Evangelical Disaster (1983), David Wells’s No Place for Truth (1993), and Iain Murray’s Evangelicalism Divided: A Record of Crucial Change in the Years 1950 to 2000. We have also documented this sad business in Faith vs. the Modern Bible Versions, Part VII, “We Hold to the King James Bible Because Evangelical Scholarship Is Unreliable.”

The dramatic change that occurred between the 17th century and the 21st is even recognized by men who are not fundamentalists. 

“The churches and biblical scholarship have, by and large, abandoned the frame of mind which created this translation [the KJV]. The social structures which gave rise to it -- rigid hierarchies; a love of majesty; subservience; an association of power with glory -- have all gone. The belief in the historical and authentic truth of the scriptures, particularly the Gospels, has been largely abandoned, even by the religious. The ferocious intolerances of the pre-liberal world have been left behind ... and perhaps as a result of that change, perhaps as a symptom, religion, or at least the conventional religion of ordinary people, has been drained of its passion. There is no modern language that can encompass the realities which the Jacobeans accepted as normal. Modern religious rhetoric is dilute and ineffectual, and where it isn’t, it seems mad and aberrational. ... These men, and their Bible, exist on the other side of a gulf, which can be labelled liberal, secular, democratic modernity. WE DO NOT LIVE IN THE SAME WORLD” (Adam Nicholson, God’s Secretaries, 2003, p. 239). Indeed.


The previous is excerpted from The Glorious History of the English Bible. ISBN 1-58318-096-6. The King James Bible is not merely another translation. Its history is one of the most fascinating chapters of church history and reads almost like a novel. This book covers the Wycliffe Bible (1380), the Tyndale New Testament (1526), the Coverdale Bible (1535), the Matthew’s Bible (1537), the Great Bible (1539), the Geneva Bible (1557), the Bishops Bible (1568), and the King James Bible (1611). Under the section on the KJV we look at the spiritual, literary, and scholarly climate of that day, the amazing translation process itself, the peerless translators, the nature of the translation, the role of the Tyndale Bible, and the KJV’s worldwide influence. The author has studied this history diligently for many decades, having collected a large private library of materials on this subject dating back to the 17th century and having researched the subject in many parts of the world, including England, Wales, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. Illustrated, available in print and eBook editions, 245 pages. 

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