Wadham’s early bibles

31st July 2018

News, Student news, Alumni news

Early bibles in Wadham’s collections, including the King James Bible (1611), are the subject of two fascinating new films made by Wadham Librarian, Tim Kirtley.


The films feature Helen Moore, Fellow in English at Corpus Christi, Oxford and Gordon Campbell, Fellow in Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester, discussing Wadham’s newly restored King James Bible along with other rare bibles in the Wadham collection.

An illustration by the Flemish engraver Cornelis Boel adorns the title page of Wadham’s King James Bible. The image has an archaeological structure and features key iconography from the Old and New Testaments. Helen Moore explains that the quickest way to identify the gospel writers is by the creatures that they are identified with; St Mark with a lion, St John with an eagle, Luke with an Ox and Matthew, a winged man. 

Interestingly we see the Trinity for the first time on the title page of this Bible says Gordon Campbell. Hebrew letters at the top of the tile page represent the word Jehovah (Yahweh), the Father. The dove represents the Holy Spirit and the lamb represents the Son. The images of Moses and Aaron on the title page were also very unusual and had never before appeared together in a bible in England. 

Other interesting differences between this title page and those of earlier bibles is that there is no monarch featured and there is nothing to say that it is an ‘authorised’ bible. When first printed, it was often referred to as the new translation. The idea of it being King James’s Bible was a Scottish invention where it was seen as the bible belonging to King James VI of Scotland. According to Gordon Campbell, the idea of a new translation arose in Scotland in 1601 when the Church of Scotland met in James’s presence.  When, two years later, James became King of England, this was the bible that emerged from a proposal at the Hampton Court conference. This new translation could be seen as being one of King James’s most astute political decisions because it is not a sectarian bible. 

The fact that this bible is in English is also interesting as, says Gordon,  it was whispered that King James couldn’t speak English, only Scottish, Latin and French, so a translation of the bible into English showed James’s credentials for being King of England and his primary intention to further the union of Scotland and England.  

This discussion looks at differences in typeface and layout, costs of the bibles, bindings, use of the words love and charity in translations from Hebrew, and the more scrupulous editorial approach to the King James Bible. This dialogue on the bibles was made into two films. The first ten minutes of discussion are in the short film (above), with the second, forty minute film, comprising the first ten minutes plus the continuing discussion.