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Two pages of Samuel Ward’s notebook showing his translation of part of the King James Version of the Bible

Oldest Known Draft of the King James Bible Discovered in Cambridge


The King James Version (KJV) is the best-selling version of the best-selling book in world history—the Bible. It is estimated that more than 1 billion copies of the KJV have been sold.  It was translated and rewritten by six teams of 17 th century scholars to protect bishops’ hegemony in the Anglican church and ensure the divine right of kings. No wonder they call it the “King” James Version, the oldest known draft of which has just been found by a professor in the papers of one of its 54 translators.

Hardly any working papers and drafts of the King James Version have been found since the first edition was published in 1611, so news of the discovery of this draft of a small part of the Bible has had a big impact in certain circles.

With the find of Professor Jeffrey Alan Miller of Montclair State University in New Jersey, Bible scholars will have a new look into the makings of the KJV, which has been called the most poetic English translation of the Bible and which has a rich and interesting history. Professor Miller found a working notebook with drafts of the Apocrypha of translator Samuel Ward among Ward’s papers at Cambridge University in England. Ward was a member of six teams of scholars that James I appointed to give a more king- and Anglican Church-friendly version of the Bible.

The King James Bible largely replaced the Geneva Bible of the Puritans. The Geneva Bible argued against the divine right of kings to succession. It also argued for presbyters elected by congregations instead of bishops governing the Anglican Church.

The Geneva Bible said, in effect, that God did not authorize James I to be king. James made it a felony even to own a Geneva Bible.

Frontispiece to the 1611 edition of the King James Version of the Bible

Frontispiece to the 1611 edition of the King James Version of the Bible (Wikimedia Commons)

Though the Apocryphal books are not included in today’s King James Version, early editions did include them, and the find will shed important light on how one of its translators went about translating and rendering the ancient document, the first books of which were written down beginning about 3,500 years ago in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.

Most of the notes of the Geneva Bible that James I banned were merely Calvinist theology, says the blog Religion Today. But other notes in the Puritans’ or Calvinists’ Bible counseled against some of the religions and political conventions of the time. James I strongly promoted the divine right of kings. And the Anglican hierarchy was incensed about the Puritans’ and Geneva Bible’s arguments against bishops governing the church, the blog says.

Professor Miller told The New York Times he had been hoping to find an unknown letter among Ward’s papers, which he did find. Miller thought that would be his great discovery. He soon realized that a notebook he was studying was far more important. A researcher cataloged the notebook in 1985 and described it as “verse-by-verse commentary” with Greek world studies and Hebrew notes.

A portrait of Samuel Ward by Valentine Ritz

A portrait of Samuel Ward by Valentine Ritz (Wikimedia Commons)

What Miller found was all nine chapters of the apocryphal book 1 Esdras and chapters three and four of the book of Wisdom. These books and nine other Apocryphal books are no longer considered part of the Protestant canon, though Catholics include them in their Bibles.

Miller himself describes the significance of his find in the Times Literary Supplement of October 14, 2015:

Many additional riches await to be gleaned from Ward’s draft of 1 Esdras and Wisdom 3–4. It represents not just the earliest draft of the KJB now known to survive, but one utterly unlike any previously found. Ward’s draft alone bears all the signs of having been a first draft, just as it alone can be definitively said to be in the hand of one of the King James translators themselves. It also stands as the only draft now known to survive of any part of the Apocrypha in the KJB, and the only draft yet to be discovered in Cambridge, one of the three initial centres of the Bible’s composition. The true value of Ward’s draft, though, lies less in the sheer fact of its uniqueness, and more in what the draft, in its uniqueness, helps to reveal about one of the seventeenth century’s most extraordinary cultural achievements. It points the way to a fuller, more complex understanding than ever before of the process by which the KJB, the most widely read work in English of all time, came to be.

Persecution of the Puritans by the Anglican Church under James I was so bad that some of the Puritans fled England for the New World. While the Puritans detested the Catholic Church, perhaps they can find solace and common ground with Catholics in one of the Bible books shared by the Geneva Bible and the King James Bible: The Book of Wisdom. Wisdom 3:1-6, says:

But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall no torment touch them. In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die: and their departure is taken for misery, and their going from us to be utter destruction: but they are in peace. For though they be punished in the sight of men, yet is their hope full of immortality. And having been a little chastised, they shall be greatly rewarded: for God proved them, and found them worthy for himself.—King James Version

Featured image: Two pages of Samuel Ward’s notebook showing his translation of part of the King James Version of the Bible (Photography by Maria Anna Rogers of Cambridge University)

By Mark Miller

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Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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