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Scholar discovers first draft of King James Bible

23 October 2015

MARIA ANNA ROGERS/SIDNEY SUSSEX COLLEGE

Find: the Samuel Ward notebook

Find: the Samuel Ward notebook

A SMALL notebook discovered in the archives of a Cambridge college has been found to contain the earliest known draft of the King James Bible (KJB).

The significance of the 70-page, handwritten notebook at Sidney Sussex College was not immediately obvious to Professor Jeffrey Alan Miller, an assistant professor of English at Montclair State University, in the United States, who was examining the archive of the biblical scholar Samuel Ward, a former Master of Sidney Sussex, who died in office in 1643.

Professor Miller, who came to Cambridge to study Ward’s letters, took photos of the notebook’s pages and, on his return to the US, studied them in more detail. Writing in The Times Literary Supplement (16 October), he says: “As I sought to determine the biblical verses concerned, and which translation Ward seemed to be using, the manuscript’s true significance suddenly came into focus.”

The notebook, which was written between 1604 and 1608, had lain uncatalogued in the college’s archives until 1985, when it had been listed as a “verse by verse Biblical study”.

Ward was one of the original translators of the KJB, and the discovery suggests that rather than make revisions by committee, as had been thought, scholars worked on individual sections of the Bible. Ward’s notebook shows that he worked on the Apocrypha, and its pages contain an entire draft of 1 Esdras and a partial draft of the Wisdom of Solomon.

King James I commissioned a new translation of the Bible in 1604, and biblical scholars worked in six “companies” — two at the University of Oxford, two at the University of Cambridge, and two at Westminster — to revise the earlier Bishops’ Bible. The finished King James Bible or Authorised Version was published in 1611.

The only pre-existing “drafts” of the KJB are a heavily annotated Bishops’ Bible, which is held in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, a copy of revised verses from the Bishops’ Bible in Lambeth, and a set of notes from a committee meeting of the scholars.

Professor Miller says that all these copies were later than Samuel Ward’s notebook, and not in the translators’ own hand.

“No other hand besides Ward’s appears in the draft. Moreover, it clearly shows him not just recording group decisions about the translation after the fact, or even doing so in the process of group decisions being made, but rather working out the translation for himself as he went along, making mistakes and changing his mind.”

Cross-referencing with the finished translation, sometimes Ward’s revisions were accepted to the letter, and at other times they were rejected, or his suggestions confined to a note in the margin.

“The true value of Ward’s draft, though,” Professor Miller writes, “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.”

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