Historic Bible Discovery

Photo of manuscript bible
Courtesy of Master and Fellows of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. Photo by Maria Anna Rogers 

Late last summer, while researching an essay about King James Bible translator Samuel Ward in the archives of Cambridge University’s Sidney Sussex College, Montclair State English Professor Jeffrey Alan Miller made an astonishing discovery — the earliest known draft of the King James Bible, the most widely read work of English literature in history.

Miller found the draft, which appears to date back to some time between 1604 and 1608, in a small notebook catalogued as "MS Ward B," one of Ward's notebooks that survive in Sidney Sussex's archives. "It was a discovery that occurred in stages, rather than all at once," recalls Miller. While at first glance the part of the notebook in question appeared to be a "verse-by-verse biblical commentary" as initially catalogued, Miller realized questions remained about the notebook. He took pictures of the manuscript to study more fully on his return to the United States.

"While going over the images of the manuscript in more careful detail, I realized that it wasn't a biblical commentary but was in fact a draft of the King James Bible," says Miller.

In Samuel Ward's handwriting, it is the only draft of the King James Bible ever found in a hand that can be definitively identified as belonging to one of the King James' translators. Miller announced the discovery, after it had been verified by Bible scholars, in the Times Literary Supplement, London's leading international literary and cultural weekly, in October 2015. The announcement made headlines around the world.

"It is also the only draft ever discovered of a highly controversial part of the translation, the 'Apocrypha,' and the only draft yet to be discovered in Cambridge, one of the three initial centers of the King James Bible's composition," Miller says.

While the draft reveals the complexities of individual and group translations involved in composing the King James Bible, it also sheds new light on the role that Hebrew, Greek and Latin played in shaping the Bible's masterful English translation.

As Miller suggested in the Times Literary Supplement, the draft shows that the iconic version of the Bible may be more of a "patchwork" of individual and team translations than has been acknowledged previously.

For Miller, the draft is especially valuable for what "it helps to reveal about one of the 17th century's most extraordinary cultural achievements."

Miller's discovery of the draft has opened the door to numerous scholarly questions. "The process of exploring these questions remains ongoing, and in many ways, happily, it will probably never end," he says.