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The King James Bible

Published 07 October 2011

Celebratory cake in the form of title pages of the King James Bible

On 6 October the University Chancellor, Lord Melvyn Bragg, shared his 72nd birthday with the University in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Brotherton Library.

Lord Bragg gave a lecture on the King James Bible, the subject of his latest book, The Book of Books. The King James Bible also reaches a landmark this year, being 400 years old.

So, the first of our features is actually edible! Lord Bragg was presented with a birthday cake depicting this most significant translation. Novelty aside, Special Collections holds a number of rare Bibles illustrating stages in the development of the King James Bible. The Authorized Version was completed in 1611 and has greatly influenced literature, language and culture.

The first major period of Bible translation into English began with the work of William Tyndale (c1494-1536). Tyndale was the first scholar to translate considerable parts from the original Hebrew and Greek into English. His translations were seen as a direct challenge to the Roman Catholic Church, as well as the English Church and State. In 1535, Tyndale was arrested and later tried for heresy, being executed in 1536. Coincidently, this brings another anniversary in line with our celebration: his martyrdom is commemorated on 6 October.

Over the next 80 years there were a number of significant developments and several new editions of the Bible were produced.

After the accession of James I, a conference was held in January 1604 to consider a number of disputes between the bishops and the Puritan wing of the Church of England. James agreed to a request by the Puritan scholar John Reynolds for a new English Bible, "to be done by the best learned in both the Universities, after them to be reviewed by the Bishops...lastly to be ratified by his royal authority".

The work that became the King James Bible was authored by 54 scholars divided into six companies; two each at Westminster, Oxford and Cambridge, with each allocated a different portion of the Bible. The official aim was to improve the Bishop's Bible (a 1568 translation) and to use it as the basis, but the new Bible also drew on Tyndale and Coverdale, Matthew's Bible, the Great Bible, and the Geneva Bible.

We hold examples of all of these at Leeds University Library Special Collections, and anyone can make a request to consult them.