Bodleian Libraries Summer Exhibition 2011 opens: Manifold Greatness: Oxford and the Making of the King James Bible

Manifold Greatness exhibition posterThe Bodleian Libraries Summer 2011 Exhibition opens on Friday 22 April 2011. It celebrates the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible and sheds new light on its creation by examining the working process of the two translation committees based in Oxford at Merton and Corpus Christi Colleges. Dr Helen Moore, Chair of the Curatorial Committee, says, ‘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.  The exhibition reunites some of the books and manuscripts actually used by translators and we hope that it will give a unique insight into the aims and methods of the countless committee meetings that were held in Oxford and elsewhere as the translation took shape. 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.’

Included in the exhibition are the three key surviving working materials that reveal the making of the King James Bible, and these are brought together for the first time from the Bodleian, Corpus Christi College, Oxford and Lambeth Palace Library:

  • The only surviving copy of the 1602 Bishops’ Bibles used by the translators (owned by the Bodleian Libraries). Copies of the Bishops’ Bible, the main Bible in use in the Elizabethan period, were given to the translators for their work. This copy is made up of different sheets of paper, marked with scribal handwriting recording changes, additions and deletions. It was bound after the translation committees had been disbanded and is comprised of sheets from four of the six translating committees.
  • Lambeth Palace Library MS. 98, a unique document containing an interim translation of the New Testament epistles,written between 1604 and 1608 (loaned from Lambeth Palace Library). This translation of the New Testament epistles is a half-way house between earlier versions of the Bible and the King James Bible. As such it provides a window into the translators’ working methods, especially the way in which they consulted earlier English translations of the Bible and combined or altered them.
  • On display for the first time ever, John Bois’ notes from the General Meeting of 1610 at which the work of the committees was reviewed and the translation finalised. These notes, written in Latin and Greek, are a fly-on-the-wall record of discussions at the meeting, revealing in one instance how words were reordered to sound more majestic – thus fashioningthe book’s magisterial voice and tone that still elicit strong emotions today and helping to explain how the Bible’s unity of tone was achieved. (These notes are owned by Corpus Christi College and were re-discovered in the 1950s during biographical research on the translators, having been long-thought lost.)

Manifold Greatness: Oxford and the Making of the King James Bible reveals Oxford’s role in the history of the Bible in English and unites rich manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries with items from Oxford college libraries and other lending institutions. These include the works of, or those associated with, two earlier Oxford men, John Wyclif (1324-1384) and William Tyndale (c1494-1536), whose interests in religious reform and Biblical translation were also provocative political acts. The exhibition includes one of the earliest surviving Wycliffite Bibles (the first full translation of the Bible into English) and Anne Boleyn’s velvet-bound 1534 copy of William Tyndale’s English Translation of the New Testament. Anne showed considerable courage in receiving this politically-charged edition which had been banned by Henry Viii but which resonated with her own protestant sympathies. Two years later, her husband executed her and was complicit in Tyndale’s arrest and death.

The idea of a new, definitive English-language Bible was in itself an Oxford idea – proposed to King James I (and VI of Scotland) in 1604 at the Hampton Court Conference by John Rainolds, Oxford scholar and President of Corpus Christi College, following the King’s rejection of the Puritans’ demands for church reforms. Dr Moore comments: ‘Rainolds proposed it almost as a last-ditch effort to secure a concession from James following his refusal to meet the Puritans’ demands. Some historians believe James agreed to it as a means of distracting some of his most vociferous churchmen – while they were busy with the translation they would not have the time to pursue the cause of Puritan reform.’ Two of the six translating committees, comprising six and eleven scholars respectively, met in Oxford at Corpus Christi and Merton Colleges with two committees in Cambridge and a further two in Westminster. The committees were given a long list of ‘do’s and don’ts’ regarding their translation which explains the unified style of the final Bible. (One of the few surviving manuscript copies of these rules is exhibited, on loan from the British Library (MS. Harley 750)). The committees each worked on different books of the Bible. The first Oxford committee was given responsibility for the books of Isaiah to Malachi, while the second Oxford committee translated the Gospels, Acts and Revelation. Scholars at Oxford University in the early 1600s would have joined their College in their early teens, or even younger, in preparation for taking holy orders, and would have spent several years before that learning Latin and Greek and perfecting their translation skills. Corpus Christi College had been established in 1517 to encourage learning in the ancient languages and also specialised in Hebrew. The Bodleian Library, which had been re-established in 1602 by Sir Thomas Bodley, a mere two years before the translators began work, held manuscripts that were consulted by the committees and it is known that five of the Oxford translators were readers in the Library. Dr Moore comments, ‘It is fascinating to think of these translators working together on the committees – they would have known each other from their youth onwards, via academic and religious circles. We can only imagine the meetings that took place as they considered each word and debated each sentence – just as they were used to doing in their study of Latin and Greek literature –and then perhaps the discussion continuing in the quadrangles and through the streets of Oxford.’

The exhibition includes some of the committees’ working reference books from the College Libraries, for example a sixteenth century Italian book (De animalibus insectis) which they would have used to help them identify Biblical insects such as locusts. Also included is the so-called Wicked Bible of 1631, which omits ‘not’ in the seventh commandment, thus reading ‘Thou shalt commit adultery’. This is a rare surviving edition since most Wicked Bibles were burned as a result of this typographical error and the unfortunate printer was put out of business and subsequently died in a debtors’ prison. The exhibition also includes Handel’s conducting copy of the Messiah (1741-2). Charles Jennens, a former student of Balliol College Oxford, and Handel’s librettist, took words from the King James Bible and set them to Handel’s music producing this most famous oratorio.

The exhibition is a collaboration between the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. After the exhibition closes in Oxford in September the exhibition will travel to the Folger. A panel exhibition will then travel to 40 libraries across America in 2012.

Together the Bodleian and the Folger have produced a website to support the exhibition and illustrate the influence of the King James Bible far and wide. Visit: http://www.manifoldgreatness.org to hear Handel’s Messiah and the Apollo 8 crew reading from the Book of Genesis in the King James translation on Christmas Eve, 1968. The website also features specially-commissioned new material, such as video interviews with the curators of the Bodleian and Folger exhibitions, and interactive learning opportunities.


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