Bibles, Polyglots, and Cambridge

I posted yesterday a brief introduction to the Cambridge University Press, and noted a clutch of scholars, scientists and poets of world renown whose work has been printed by it; but I did not mention the Press’s – and more importantly, Cambridge University’s – central role in the translation and printing of perhaps the most influential book in the English language, the King James (Authorised) Version of the Bible. But I will now.


The King James’ Bible of 1611 was not the first English translation – there had been translations by followers of Wycliffe in the late 14th century, and by Tyndale and the Geneva exiles in the sixteenth, each of which served as the basis for the next. So too the King James’ version was not translated afresh, but was based on the extant official Elizabethan version, known as the Bishop’s Bible (itself based on Tyndale and the Geneva Bible); and it was translated – or put together – by committee: two in Westminster, two in Oxford, and two in Cambridge: a total of 47 scholars, all of them (bar one) churchmen.

The Cambridge committees were responsible for the Old Testament from I Chronicles to the Song of Solomon, and for the Apocrypha; their members were drawn from several colleges, notably Trinity, Jesus, Emmanuel (that noted hotbed of Puritan sentiment), John’s and Christ’s.

The Bible was first printed by the King’s printers in London in 1611, but Oxford and Cambridge soon asserted their right to print various revised versions, Cambridge’s first coming in 1629.


The translation of the Bible, that maze of ancient languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, overlain by the early Latin versions – the so-called Vulgate) is a notoriously thorny issue, one which resolved itself in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries into a variety of scholar’s bible known as the Polyglot bibles – bibles printed in multiple tongues.

I saw one such in Antwerp a few years back at the Plantin Press – it presents the whole text of both testaments in Hebrew and Greek with facing Latin translations, and underneath further translations into Aramaic, Syriac (a later London Polyglot (1657) included Persian and Ethiopic for good measure). It is in multiple, huge volumes, and they threw in a couple of dictionaries and grammars just in case.

Learning a language was not to be taken lightly in the sixteenth century.

Here is a page of the earlier, Computensian Polyglot (1552).



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