For two years and nine months, beginning in 1607, selected Hebrew and Greek scholars worked to revise the Bishop's Bible. Instead of translating directly from the original manuscripts, this earlier translation was used as the base for the KJV. The scholars, who numbered forty-eight in all, worked in six groups. Two groups each were located at one of three institutions: Westminster, Oxford, and Cambridge. Books were assigned to each group. When they were completed, each section was sent to the other groups for review and the differences were worked out by chosen members of each group. This methodology prevented any one group or person from having too much influence on any one part of the new translation.
Only two years passed (1613) before the first revision was printed. This edition contained 400 some changes. Since, there have been hundreds of editions printed, most of which have changed and corrected portions of the text. The original 1611 is rare today and very much has changed in the version since its first appearance.
Source: Lightfoot, Neil R. How We Got the Bible, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1963.
The Biblical Source
The Bible was written over the course of about 1600 years1 by about 46 authors2. It was written in three languages. The majority of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew since it was authored by individuals in the Israelite nation during the course of ancient Jewish history. Portions of some Old Testament books3 were written in Aramaic, which Hebrews learned during the Assyrian/Babylonian/Persian captivities (late 8th century to 6th century BC). It remained a common language for the Hebrews. So much so that Jesus spoke a Galilean dialect of Aramaic. The New Testament was written in Koine Greek (common Greek).
Of all the Biblical material authored, no originals (called auotgraphs) survive. Through the years they were lost, destroyed, or simply decayed. The source on which the current Bible was based is composed of literally thousands of copies of these original documents. These copies were made by hand (since the printing press was not invented until the 15th century). Scribes spent countless hours copying page after page of the Biblical text. Eventually, copies of copies were all that was made, since the originals were lost.
Occasionally, errors occurred as scribes misread or miswrote the text. Simple mistakes like not completely forming a letter or accidentally copying words from a line above or below were common. In some cases, scribes would make notes in the margins about the source manuscript, translation problems, or interpretations. A few such notes were copied into the Biblical and treated as if they were part of the scripture.
Even in light of the human errors made in hand copies, the Biblical text remained well preserved and accurate. Due to these errors, however, the science of Textual Criticism developed. In this discipline, scholars compared the copies from different regions and schools of scribes to determine where changes and errors were made. Using a set of logical principles, the manuscripts were analyzed and the original reading was determined. This process has continued as new manuscripts are found in both Greek and Hebrew. Although much of the manuscript evidence we have today was not found until after the time of the King James Version and other early Bibles, such Bibles have now been proven to be remarkably accurate. Many modern translations have taken this new evidence into account, however, and are more accurate in some places.
The Old Testament Source
The Hebrew Bible, which has become the Christian Bible's Old Testament, was assembled by the time of Ezra (400 BC). The Jewish historian Josephus, who lived in the First Century AD, confirms that the present Old Testament was complete by about 400 BC, when the book Malachi4 was added.
The original Hebrew Bible manuscripts were composed of ancient Hebrew characters. There were no spaces between the words, no vowels, and no punctuation. Sentence breaks, individual words, and pronunciation was determined largely by context. Later, manuscripts were written in the curent script5. The Dead Sea Scrolls contain the oldest fragments including almost the entire book of Isaiah. The Isaiah Scroll dates to about 150 BC while the rest of the fragments fall between 200-100 BC. The next oldest Hebrew manuscripts date in the 10th century AD, including the oldest codex from Babylon dating to AD 916. Vowel points6 were added to the letters by the Massoretic scholars (600-800 AD) who carefully transcribed the Hebrew Bible with these marks in order to preserve the pronunciation and, therefore, the meaning of the original writers. There are approximately 2000 Hebrew manuscripts, most of which are just fragments of books, upon which modern translations are based.
The Hebrew Bible was translated in ancient times into several languages. Some of these translations are actually older than the Hebrew manuscripts existing today. The Hebrew Bible, which was translated into Greek in the 3rd century BC, is called the Septuagint. This was the Bible in common use among the Jews of Jesus' day. The Old Syriac was a translation made in the 2nd century AD, however, no complete copies have survived. In the 4th century AD, the Peshito Syriac was translated from the Syriac and replaced it in use. The Old Latin was made in the 2nd century from the Septuagint. Form it the Latin Vulgate was revised in 382-404 AD by Jerome by going back to the original Hebrew. The Coptic was a codex translated into Coptic, the common language of Egypt, in the 2nd century.
The Hebrew Bible is grouped differently than English versions. Since the grouping was different, so was the order of the books within each group. All the writings of the Bible were grouped in three main catergories: Law (Pentateuch), Prophets, and Writings.7 The Christian Bible and English versions generally use five divisions: Law, History, Poetry, Major Prophets, and Minor Prophets.8
The New Testament Source
There are at least 2770 Greek manuscripts9 and fragments of the Greek New Testament surviving today. In fact, there is more evidence for the New Testament than another writing of that time period. One of the strongest defenses for the athenticity of the New Testament is the volume of source material for it and the general agreement of all that material. There are three main groups of manuscripts: Unicals, Papyri, and Minuscules.
UNICALS: The Unicals are manuscripts made on Vellum, a type of parchment made from cured animal skins. They are usually bound in book, or codex, form. They are composed of all capital Greek letters with no spaces or punctuation. These manuscripts date back to the 4th to 10th centuries AD. They are perhaps the closest to the original Greek text and are considered very valuable. There were complete codex, or complete Bibles, at one time, but portions have since been lost of destroyed. The three best codex belong to this group: Sinaiticus, Alexandricus, and Vaticanus.
CURSIVES: Also on Vellum are the Cursive manuscripts. These are composed of small letters running together in a similar fashion was English cursive writing or what is sometimes called script in English. They were created between the 10th and 15th century and are less important because they are less old.
PAPYRI: These manuscripts are named for the paper made from pressed papyrus reeds, upon which they are written. A great deal of the oldest copies of the New Testament were written on papyrus. However, when it dried out it became brittle. If it was made damp, it would rot. Because of these factors no papyri survived except those in Egypt where the dry climate preserved them. These were not discovered until the 19th and 20th centuries. These Egyptian papyri date around 200 AD, making them the oldest New Testament evidence. However, very few manuscripts are complete, so the value of the papyri is to confirm the Unical evidence.
In 1611, when the King James was written, very few ancient copies of the Bible existed. Therefore, even the first English Versions were based on ancient versions like the Latin Vulgate. Over the years, as more manuscripts have been found, modern versions have taken them into account. One amazing thing has become apparent, however. In spite of this new evidence, even the Oldest English Versions were remarkably accurate. Somehow, God has managed for the saving message of His Word to reach people regardless of their resources or archeological advancement. This is one of the greatest modern day evidences of God's work among humankind.
Halley, Henry H. Halley's Bible Handbook: An Abbreviated Bible Commentary, 24th ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1965.
Lightfoot, Neil R. How We Got the Bible, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1963.
Mounce, William D. Basics of Biblical Greek: Grammar, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993.
The Holy Bible: New International Version, (chapter notes) Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1989.
Unger, Merrill F. Unger's Bible Dictionary, Chicago: Moody Press, 1966.