The "Puritan" Bible? Some Myths Exposed

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Apparently King James himself developed fifteen rules for the translation of the Bible that he ordered. In these rules we see a remarkable wisdom, indeed, in one so vain and so full of himself, we see the light of the Holy Spirit Himself, assuring a translation that would guide His people for a great many years and resonate throughout all of our literature for four centuries and more. Much of what we read after this translation of the Bible was deeply influenced by its cadences and its beauty.

There are two major points of these fifteen precepts I want to touch upon. One serious, and one quite humorous.

from God’s Secretaries
Adam Nicolson

4. When a word hath divers Significations, that to be kept which hath ben most commonly used by the most of the ancient Fathers being agreeable to the propertie of ye place and the analogies of fayth.

The Church of England, like the Church of Rome, but unlike the more fully reformed churches of Europe, relied for its understanding of the often complex texts of scripture on the ancient inherited traditions of Christianity, the statements and resolutions of the councils of the early church and the great body of patristic scholarship, in particular those church fathers—above all Jerome, St John Chrysostom, Augustine, and Origen—of whom sixteenth-century English scholars, including several of the Translators, had made a particular study. This instruction is part of that widespread Reformation phenomenon, the search for primitive authenticity, for avoiding all hint of dreaded ‘innovation,’ looking for true meaning in the most ancient and hence most reliable texts. This too is a mark of the moderate: a historical consciousness and a sense that the world now has fallen away from the more perfect state in which it once existed.

Whether we like the fact or not, the King James Version of the Bible was guided by very “Catholic” understandings of the meaning of Scripture. We tend to think of the times as Puritan, and because the translation was eventually embraced by the Protestant Church, we tend to regard KJV as somehow “sullied” by its Protestant provenance. However, if one were to judge objectively on the base of guiding principles, the notion of interpreting scripture by Tradition is very, very Catholic.

This, coupled with another James’s edicts (7) that there should be no marginal notes beyond those required to clarify linguistic difficulties, actually resulted in a translation that was far from partisan. To quote Nicolson, “ The words of this translation, then, could embrace both gorgeousness and ambiguity, did not have to settle into a single doctrinal mode but could embrace different meanings, either within the text itself or in the margins. This is the heart of the new Bible as an irenicon, an organism that absorbed and integrated difference, that included ambiguity and by doing so established peace. “ The resultant work could reflect both the difficulties of translation and the multiplicity of meanings inherent in written language in such a way as to create both a profound work of literature and a meaningful instance of the Word of God. What is most interesting is that the tension between the Puritan Translators and the Anglican Translators forced the Anglicans into a more “high church” mode resulting in adherence to Catholic Traditions (which, of course, they insisted were “reformed” by the true Church founded by Henry VIII). Whatever the cause, James’s edict for the translation resulted in a deep, meaningful, and fruitful translation that has yet to be equaled in beauty, if not in clarity. (I will point out though, that it was clear enough to my grandfather and his generation—my Grandfather himself having graduated only 8th grade. (This could be likened today to having graduated from a junior college at least.)

Anyway, now for the more amusing point, which was actually a side note to the main body of the text. One of James’s rules stated that the names of persons in the Bible should remain as names and not be translated into what they meant. Thus, Timothy was to remain Timothy and not be translated as “Fear of God.”

Bancroft himself had written about the absurdity of calling your children ‘The Lord-is-near, More-trial, Reformation, More-fruit, Dust and many other such-like.’ These were not invented. Puritan children at Warbleton in Sussex, the heartland of this practice laboured under the names of Eschew-evil, Lament, No-merit, Sorry-for-sin, Learn-wisdom, Faint-not, Give-thanks, and the most popular, Sin-deny, which was landed on ten children baptized between 1586 and 1596. One family, the children of the curate Thomas Hely, would have been introduced by their proud father as Much-mercy Hely, Increased Hely, Sin-deny Hely, Fear-not Hely and sweet little Constance Hely.

Now, would that I had only known this before we had Samuel. Then we could have “The-Lord-is-My-Shepherd” Riddle. Or perhaps If-Thine-Eye-Offend-Thee-Pluck-it-Out Riddle. Can you imagine bubbling THAT name in on those stupid standardized test forms? Maybe we should have a Puritan name-giving contest for our next goldfish or turtle.

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The 'Puritan' Bible is actually the Geneva Bible, with all its marginal notes and rich, musical English. The King James is basically a rip off of the Geneva, without, as you point out, those pesky marginal notes that made the Geneva all Reformed and what not. Since I have, regardless of my disagreements, a love for the Puritans and all their works, it stands to reason that I prefer the Geneva to the King James - what's more, I just don't trust the British all that much. What can I say?


Dear Tom,

Thank you. Yes, I knew the Geneva Bible was the Puritan Bible (from reading this book, if nothing else), but there are those who think of the KJV as the "puritan" Bible (you'll note the quotation marks.) More, there are those who claim that the KJV was a "rip-off" of the Tyndale Bible.

I honestly don't have a whole lot of experience with either of the latter two, but I found them wierd and disorienting with their substitution of "congregation" for "church" etc. Yes, I know it goes with reformed theology and Ecclesiology, but it doesn't sit particularly well, nor to my mind does it ring particularly true. "Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my congregation.." (I know it doesn't read exactly that way, but there is a subtle warp to the reading that disturbs me.

I too like the Puritans a great deal. I don't know that I care much for their theology in its details, but I love their writing, their devotion, and their allegiance to the Truth. Even if they missed what I have come to understand as some of the subtle but substantive truths of the faith, I think it was a product of the times not a product of falsification or deliberate misconstruction. I have great love for those dedicated to the pursuit of truth.



The "Church of Tome"? Are they People of the Book?

Dear Tom,

Thank you. It has been corrected.





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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on September 7, 2004 10:34 AM.

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