Manifold Greatness: Bodleian Library Oxford recounts the Making of the King James Bible

By Kathy Mulraney | 12 April 2011
King James Bible title page, illustrations of holy figures.
Title page of 1611 edtion of the King James Bible features in the Bodleian Library's summer exhibition© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. Shelf mark Bib.Eng.1611 b.1, title page
Exhibition: Manifold Greatness: Oxford and the Making of the King James Bible, Bodleian Library, Oxford, April 22 – September 4 2011

The 2011 summer exhibition at the Bodleian tells the story of Oxford’s part in the translation of the King James Bible, setting it in a cultural and political context.

Commissioned by King James I of England and VI of Scotland 400 years ago, this Bible is still the most frequently printed book in the English language.

Committees based in Cambridge, Westminster and Oxford translated the King James version. This exhibition showcases the role of the Oxford translators, bringing together rich resources from around the University of Oxford and collections elsewhere.

Included are Wycliffe’s earliest translation of the bible into English and, for the first time, John Bois’ notes from the General Meeting of 1610 at which the work of the committees was reviewed and their translation finalised.

The notes give a unique insight into the work of the translators, revealing how words were re-ordered to make the bible more majestic.

The display includes some of the committees’ working reference books from the College Libraries, such as a 16th century Italian book used to help identify biblical insects such as locusts.

“The King James Bible famously reads as ‘one voice’ with a remarkable unity of tone and language which gives it richness and authority. In reality, however, it is a work of many voices.  In it we hear the words of earlier translators – notably William Tyndale – combined with those of the fifty or so translators who worked on it for six years”, says Dr Helen Moore, Chair of the Curatorial Committee.

“It is an enormous privilege that we are able to breathe life back into the translation process for a modern audience, by showing these books and documents in public - some of them for the first time.”

The translation process was a politically-charged act, as shown by Ann Boleyn’s 1534 velvet-bound copy of Tyndale’s English translation. She showed considerable courage in possessing this edition, which was banned by Henry VIII.

Two years later her husband executed her, and was complicit in Tyndale’s arrest and death.

The so-called Wicked Bible of 1631 also features, which omits “not” in the seventh commandment, thus reading “Thou shalt commit adultery”. This is a rare surviving edition – most Wicked Bibles were burned.

The religious and intellectual aspects of the making of the King James Bible are also explored, as well as the events and conditions which led to and shaped the translation enterprise.

  • Open 9am-5pm Monday-Friday (4.30pm Saturday, 11am-5pm Sunday). Admission free.

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