The Earliest-Known Version of the King James Bible Was Found in a Cambridge Library

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In 1603, King James I ascended the English throne. As the country’s reigning monarch, he also became head of the Church of England. But King James wasn’t too happy with the Puritan overtones in the Geneva Bible, which challenged a king's divine right to rule.

To solve this problem, King James commissioned a brand-new version of the holy text. For seven years, 47 scholars and theologians worked on the King James Bible—a translation that was elegant, easily readable, and accessible to the common person.

Published in 1611, the King James Bible became one of the most widely read and influential books in the English language. Now, scholars have announced that its earliest known draft has been found at the Sidney Sussex College at the University of Cambridge—written in the penmanship of one of its original translators, no less.

Jeffrey Alan Miller, an assistant professor of English at Montclair State University in New Jersey, discovered the work last summer. Miller had been asked to write an essay on King James Bible translator Samuel Ward, and was searching Cambridge’s archives for Ward’s manuscripts.

Miller came across the Biblical draft in one of Ward's notebooks, which had been categorized by the library as “verse-by-verse biblical commentary.” Miller soon realized, though, that the messy book of handwriting was actually a draft of parts from the King James Version of the Apocrypha—writings that aren’t accepted as a formal part of the Biblical canon. The rare manuscript allows historians to better understand how the King James Bible’s original translators deciphered and arranged text into the work we know today.

The King James Bible has long been revered as a collaborative effort by six teams of translators from London, Oxford, and Cambridge. But Miller says that his finding indicates that individual men translated some sections of the Bible on their own. The draft also allows readers to follow the thought processes behind Ward’s own translation choices as he composed each line.

"There's a strong desire to see the King James Bible as a uniform object, and a belief that it's great because of its collaborative nature," Miller told the New York Times. "It was incredibly collaborative, but it was done in a much more complicated, nuanced, and at times individualistic way than we've ever really had good evidence to believe."

[h/t The New York Times]