Very Vulgar: The KJV Preface Considered (Part 2)

The following is Part 2 of Christopher Yetzer’s treatment of certain terms found in the KJV Translator’s Preface to the Reader and the specifically the role of translations in the Church. If you are looking for Part 1 you can found it here.

Yetzer here observes that the KJV translator had several audiences they were trying to reach and recognize, so I think it fair to conclude that the KJV was in this sense eclectic in its presentation and ecumenical in its publication.

Part of the reason for the Translators’ Preface was to address certain nay-sayers, both Protestant and Catholic. Here Yetzer points out that it is rationally permissible to maintain that certain terms in the Preface were aimed at Roman Catholic critiques regarding translation and as such the term “very vulgar” used by the KJV Translators was an appeal to the non-scholar rather than the under-educated or non-literate.

Again, I appreciate Yetzer’s work on this point and again thank him for allowing me to repost his work without modification here on Blessings.


“very vulgar”

Part 2: The KJV Preface Considered.

Historically the KJV preface was the work of one translator, Miles Smith. To understand it best, one must understand the context in which it was written. That context was first and foremost a commercial product of the early 17th century. As such Smith had several important audiences and for each one different objectives to accomplish. He had to prepare the general public for the acceptance of a new translation without maligning the ones they believed to have been accurate representations of the words of God and were defended as such[A Defence of the Sincere and True Translations of the Holy Scriptures into the English Tongue, 1583]. He also had to prepare them for the criticisms which Smith knew would come as well as inform them on some particulars of the book. The most consuming portion of the preface was a defense against the Anglicans’ primary rivals whom Smith calls “Adversaries”, “Papists”, “Romanists” and not without objection “Catholics”. Smith also had to create unity among the theologians of differing positions in England whom he refers to as “brethren” and “Puritans” and twice describes them as “scrupulous”. Apart from those audiences which he was actively working to refute or convince, he also had a few which he was simply trying to honor. Possibly the most important of these was King James who had his own dedication printed separately from the general preface, but also had a place in the preface where Smith called him “Majesty”, “King” and “Sovereign”. Lastly he had to represent the other translators. The word “we” appears 143 times in the preface although a fair amount of them are simply inclusive with the general Christian reader.[Throughout this article the preface I am using for the text is found on wikisource as well as images of a 1611 KJV preface found on archive]

As mentioned, the largest portion of the preface is Smith’s attempt at responding to the papists’ arguments, and primarily the ones made by Gregory Martin in the preface to the 1582 Rheims New Testament[unpublished article by Timothy Berg] but also in a lesser manner to the material in his book against the English Translations published the same year as the New Testament. KJV translator Francis Dillingham said, “Master Martins discouery of our translations argueth either blinde ignorance or extreame malice”[A Disswasiue from Poperie, 1599] and translator William Barlow, “Indeede Gregory Martin hath, in his Pharisaicall discoverie, compassed sea and land, traversed much grounde mounted himselfe upon every molehill, ransackt all corners, to descry our translatours ignorance and malice, and when all is doone, it is but the suruay of drunken zebull, Jud. 9. A shadow of mountains, for a band of souldiers.”[A Defence of the Articles of the Protestants Religion, 1601]

In the preface to the Rheims New Testament, Martin had included a lengthy text defending the suppression of Bible reading by the general public. He introduces their excuses by saying, “due preservation of this divine worke from abuse and prophanation, and for the better bridling of the intolerable insolencie of proude, curious, & contentious wittes, the governours of the Church guided by Gods Spirit, as ever before, so also upon more experience of the maladie of this time then before, have taken more exacte order both for the readers and translatours in these later ages, then of old…” He makes it clear that “we must not imagin that in the primitive Church… the translated Bibles into the vulgar tonges, were in the hands of every husbandman, artificer, prentice, boies, girls, mistresse, maide, man: that they were sung, plaied, alleaged, of every tinker, taverner, rimer, minstrel: that they were for table talke, for alebenches, for boates and barges, and for every porphane person and companie.” Further on, after explaining that the Scriptures were maintained by the institutions of the church, he then adds, “The poore ploughman, could then in laboring the ground, sing the hymnes and psalms either in knowen or unknowen languages, as they heard them in the holy Church, though they could neither reade nor know the sense, meaning, and mysteries of the same.” and “the word of God can not be preached nor certaine mysteries uttored to all men alike, but are to be delivered according to the capacitie of the hearers: as he proveth both by S. Paules example, who gave not to every sort strong meate but milke to many, as being not spiritual, but carnal and not capable: and by our lords also, who spake to some plainely, and to others in parables, & affirmed that he had many things to utter which the hearers were not able to beare. How much more may we gather, that all things that be written, are not for the capacitie and diet of every of the simple readers, but that very many mysteries of holy writte, be very far above their reach, & may and ought to be (by as great reason) delivered them in measure & meane most meete for them?”[All quotes from Martin’s preface are from one of two sources Rhemes and Doway, 1855 or scans available on gallica]

Miles Smith handled the above claims mostly in paragraphs 5 titled Translation necessarie, 8 The translating of the Scripture into the vulgar tongues and 9 The unwillingnes of our chiefe Adversaries, that the Scriptures should be divulged in the mother tongue, &c. of the KJV preface. However the phrase under consideration is found at the end of paragraph 16 Reasons inducing us not to stand curiously upon an identitie of phrasing. Here Smith returned to his adversaries once more and assailed them because they “of purpose darken the sense” by using terms such as Holocaust or Pasche. [One might wonder if he would not say the same thing about modern translators and their use of Sheol.] Then Smith adds the subsequent point, “But we desire that the Scripture may speak like itself, as in the language of Canaan, that it may be understood even of the very vulgar.” By including this at the end of paragraph 16 directly after his point concerning the clarity of terms, was not Smith referencing the vocabulary used more than the overall intelligibility of the Scriptures? Was he responding more clearly to this portion from the Rheims preface, “most shamefully in all their versions Latin, English, and other tonges, corrupting both the letter and sense by false translation, adding, detracting, altering, transposing, pointing, and all other guileful meanes…To say nothing of their intolerable liberty and licence to change the accustomed callings of God, Angel, men, places, & things used by the Apostles and all antiquitie, in Greeke, Latin , and all other langauges of Christian Nations, into new names, sometimes falsely, and always ridiculously and for ostentation taken of the Hebrues: to frame and fine the phrases of holy Scriptures after the forme of prophane writers, sticking not, for the same to supply, adde, alter or dimish as freely as if they translated Livie, Virgil, or Terence. Having no religious respect to keepe either the maiestie or sincere simplicity of that venerable style of Christes spirit, as S. Augustine speaketh, which kind the holy Ghost did choose of infinite wisedom to have the divine mysteries rather uttered in, then any other more delicate, much lesse in that meretricious maner of writing that sundrie of these new translators doe use… that we have used no partialitie for the disadvantage of our adversaries, nor no more licence then is suffereable in translating of holy Scriptures: continually keeping our selves as neere as is possible, to our text & to the very words and phrases which by long use are made venerable, though to some prophane or delicate eares they may seeme more hard or barbarous, as the whole style of Scripture doth lightly to such at the beginning.”?

By using burnt offering in place of the Rheims holocaustpassover in place of pascherobe in place of tunicunleavened bread in place of azymesbreastplate in place of rational, and uncircumsized in place of prepuces, the language of the KJV was more on the level of the common man, but that does not necessarily mean that the phrasing or sense was entirely intelligible or that that was their goal. The Puritan William Sclater just 8 years later would argue that the translators didn’t go far enough and words in the KJV were still unintelligible to the people, “But how apparent is it, even where the meanes of knowledge have beene most plentifull, wee are many, such as need to be instructed; shall I say in the rudiments of Christian faith? yea, surely in the very language of Scripture. Insomuch that to this day, the termes of Redemption, Vocation, Justification, are strange to our people; and wee seeme Barbarians, when we mention these things in their eares.”[An Exposition with Notes upon the Frist Epistle to the Thessalonians.] All three words he used as examples were found in the text of the KJV.

One might still argue that word choices and grammar leads to intelligibility, which is not always incorrect, but sometimes the one does not bear fruit by means of the other. Here are two examples from the text of the KJV which demonstrate this:

  • At Deuteronomy 32:14, the Bishops’ Bible had “the fat of the most plenteous wheate”, the Geneva, “the fat of the graines of wheat”. Here the KJV changed what was the Bishops’ reading closer to something similar to the Geneva but literal to the Hebrew, “the fat of the kidneys of wheat”. While every one of the words chosen by the KJV translators was most likely clear and understandable to the very vulgar, the combination of them was certainly less clear than was the Bishops’ or the Geneva.
  • At 1 Samuel 24:3 both the Bishops’ Bible and Geneva had “to do his easement”. “Easement”, like “plenteous”, is a more complex word. The KJV translators changed this to, “to cover his feet”. Again, while the individual pieces are simpler, the whole is more complex. In other words the words were more vulgar, but the sense less intelligible.


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