Chapters, Verses, Punctuation, Spelling, and Italics in the King James Version
Kent P. Jackson, Frank F. Judd Jr., and David R. Seely, “Chapters, Verses, Punctuation, Spelling, and Italics in the King James Version,” Religious Educator 7, no. 2 (2006): 41–64.
Kent P. Jackson was a professor of ancient scripture at BYU when this was written.
Frank F. Judd was an assistant professor of ancient scripture at BYU when this was written.
David R. Seely was a professor of ancient scripture at BYU when this was written.
Title Page of the 1611 King James Version. All 1611 images courtesy of L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.
The Bible was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek in the everyday spoken languages of the ancient Israelites and the early Christians. But because few readers today know those languages, we must rely on translations and hope the translators conveyed accurately the words, thoughts, and intents of the original writers as recorded on the original manuscripts.
William Tyndale (1494–1536) is the father of the English Bible; unfortunately, however, few Latter-day Saints know of him and of his profound contributions to the scriptures. In violation of the law and in constant danger of imprisonment and death, Tyndale translated and published parts of the Bible into English and created the translation from which much of the King James Version ultimately descended. Tyndale, like Martin Luther and other Reformers of their time, believed that the Bible should be in the language of the people and available to believers individually. The medieval Christian church, in contrast, taught that access to the Bible should be controlled by the church through the priests and that the only legitimate Bible was the Latin Vulgate translation that had been in use in the church for a thousand years—though very few Christians could read it. Tyndale knew that the original Hebrew and Greek texts, in the words of the ancient prophets and Apostles themselves, were more authoritative than any man-made translation could be. And he knew that the manuscripts in those languages that were closest to the writers’ originals should be the sources from which translations should come. Using editions of the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament that only recently had appeared in print, he undertook the first English translation of the Bible from the original languages.
He succeeded wonderfully. In addition to being a courageous Reformer and advocate of religious freedom, Tyndale was also a master linguist and wordsmith. His goal was to make the Bible so accessible that every plowboy in England could own and read a copy. To that end, the New Testament and the Old Testament sections he translated and published were small, portable, and relatively inexpensive. Tyndale’s translation is characterized by what Nephi called “plainness” (2 Nephi 25:4). It is in clear and simple English, the language of middle-class people of Tyndale’s own time, and it is deliberately free of the elegant and affected literary trappings of the monarchy and the church. His choice of words has endured. Computer-based research has shown that over 75 percent of the King James Old Testament (of the sections on which Tyndale worked) comes from Tyndale as well as over 80 percent of the King James New Testament.
Tyndale translated and published the New Testament (editions of 1526, 1534, 1535), Genesis to Deuteronomy (1530, 1534), and Jonah (1531). He probably also translated Joshua to 2 Chronicles (published after his death). Before he could translate more, however, he was captured, imprisoned, strangled to death, and burned at the stake for his heresy. Other Protestant translations followed in succession, and all were built on Tyndale’s foundation, including the Coverdale Bible, Matthew’s Bible, and the Great Bible. The most important successors to Tyndale’s Bible came next—the Geneva Bible, the Bishops’ Bible, and the King James Bible.
The Geneva Bible (1560) was translated and published by exiled Reformers who had fled to Protestant Switzerland to avoid persecution in Britain when it was under a Catholic monarch. It was an excellent translation that, for the most part, was a revision of Tyndale. Its translators shared Tyndale’s vision of making the Bible accessible to ordinary people in their own tongue. To assist readers, they added explanatory marginal notes, maps, illustrations, cross references, and numerous study helps. It was what we now call a “study Bible,” and it enabled readers to drink deeply from the words of the prophets and Apostles without the mediation of priests or the church. More than any other Bible in English, the popular Geneva Bible liberated the word of God from its medieval past and placed it in the hands of hundreds of thousands of readers. It was also the Bible of Shakespeare and his contemporaries and was an important foundation of modern English.
In contrast, the Bishops’ Bible (1568) was created with a different intent, and it produced a different outcome. It was prepared by conservative Anglican bishops who were not altogether comfortable with the idea of giving ordinary people free access to the word of God. Thus, they produced a translation farther removed from the common language of the people than the Geneva Bible was. The vocabulary and sentence structure were throwbacks to earlier times, with an increase of less-familiar Latinate words and Latinate word order. It was intended primarily to be used in churches; and, to that end, its large, heavy, volumes were chained to pulpits all over England. It also lacked many of the study helps and all of the marginal notes that the bishops found offensive in the Geneva Bible. Predictably, people found the Bishops’ Bible unappealing, bought few copies of it, and continued to purchase the Geneva Bible instead. It soon became apparent to authorities of the Church of England that the Bishops’ Bible would not do, so they decided to undertake another revision, the one that is known to us as the Authorized Version or King James Version (KJV).
The King James translation was motivated as much as anything else by the politics of the day, including the continuing popularity of the Geneva Bible. Geneva was popular with the nonconformist Puritans, whose loyalty to the monarchy and the Church of England was under suspicion. Its abundant marginal notes, written to assist readers to study the Bible on their own, reflected independence from both the church and the crown and, in some places, reflected Calvinist ideas that the king and his advisors found bothersome. The decision was made to undertake a new translation free of undesirable influences and under the careful watch of authorities. All but one of the committee of approximately fifty translators appointed under King James’s direction were bishops or priests of the Church of England, and among them were the best Hebrew and Greek scholars in Britain. Their instructions were to make a revision of the Bishops’ Bible, and thus each member of the committee was given a fresh unbound copy (or part of a copy) to work from. They also had before them the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament, as well as earlier English translations, including Geneva and Tyndale.
The translators worked patiently through all parts of the Bible, scrutinizing every passage. The outcome was the most consistent and carefully produced of all the English Bibles to that date. In general, their work succeeded best when they followed the original languages and Geneva (and hence Tyndale); it succeeded least when they remained true to their instructions to follow the Bishops’ Bible. Awkward passages from the Bishops’ Bible survived in many instances, as in Matthew 6:34: “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” (compare with “The day hath enough with his own grief” [Geneva], and “The day present hath ever enough of his own trouble” [Tyndale]). But in other instances, the translators wisely abandoned the Bishops’ Bible and followed Geneva instead, often improving upon Geneva’s wording. On the whole, the language of the King James translation is strongest in the Gospels, where it is most firmly based on the genius of William Tyndale. It is least strong in the Old Testament prophetic books, which Tyndale never translated.
When the King James Bible was published in 1611, it included an eleven-page, small-print introduction titled “The Translators to the Reader.” That work, rarely included in Bibles now, makes the translators’ strong case for the necessity of publishing the Bible in the contemporary language of its readers. Interestingly, the introduction’s frequent quotations from scripture come not from its own translation but from the Geneva Bible instead. And sadly, it never mentions the King James translation’s debt to William Tyndale, who was still viewed with suspicion by some. The bishops who produced the King James Version were themselves less enthusiastic than Tyndale and the Geneva translators about turning the Bible over to lay readers. This attitude is reflected in interesting ways. Whereas the first Geneva title page had an illustration of Moses parting the Red Sea, inviting readers into the promised land of reading the Bible in their own language, the King James title page depicted a massive stone wall, guarded on all sides by statues of prophets and evangelists. The King James Version’s title contained the words “Appointed to be read in Churches” (after “by his Maiesties Speciall Commandment”). Thankfully, that phrase was not included in the title in the Latter-day Saint edition, first published in 1979. Although most Geneva editions were small and portable and were printed in roman type—by then the type familiar in most books and the same type in which this article is printed—the 1611 King James Bible was huge (11 by 16 inches), very expensive, and printed in archaic black-letter type. Fortunately, the people’s desire for the word of God prevailed, and the King James Version was soon printed in much more economical and reader-friendly formats.
Many of the Puritans left England to escape persecution from King James and the very bishops who had produced the new translation. Included among them were the Pilgrims who colonized New England. They brought with them the Geneva Bible, and thus it became the Bible of most of America’s earliest English-speaking settlers. The king soon outlawed the printing of the Geneva translation in England, but it was printed elsewhere in Europe for three more decades, and English readers continued to use it. Over the following decades, the King James Bible became more appreciated, both by scholars and by lay readers, and political, commercial, and cultural factors combined to bring about its eventual success. In the meantime, it underwent numerous changes, evolving in practically each new edition until it arrived at its present state in 1769.
By the time of Joseph Smith’s birth in 1805, the King James translation had become the Bible of the English-speaking world, and most people were not even aware of other translations. When English speakers said “the Bible,” they meant the King James Version. For the most part, it remained that way until midway through the twentieth century.
Whereas the Bible in modern languages is the word of God “as far as it is translated correctly” (Article of Faith 8), much of what we see in our Bibles is the work of men. The King James translators and their predecessors, like all Bible translators from ancient times to the present, had to make hundreds of thousands of decisions while choosing words and phrases to convey as best they could the intent of the ancient writers. Our interest in this article, however, is not with the word choices in the Bible but with the other things that scholars, translators, editors, and printers invented to organize and present those words on the page—the chapters, verses, punctuation, spelling, and italics.
The Bible is a huge book—containing 766,137 words in English (KJV). And yet the modern reader can instantly turn to any particular passage in this massive book by following the data given in a simple formulaic reference such as Matthew 7:7. From this reference, a reader knows to turn to the book of Matthew, chapter 7, verse 7, where the reader finds the passage, “Seek, and ye shall find.” But this system was not part of the original texts of the Bible. The book divisions occur because the Bible is a collection of many different books; the divisions into paragraphs, chapters, and verses are all artificial and were done centuries after the texts were written.
The English word Bible is derived from a Greek word biblia, meaning “books,” reflecting the fact that the Bible is a collection. Many books were written in antiquity that were considered sacred by various groups in various places and at different times. Whereas there is much scholarship that deals with the canonization of the books of the Bible, there is little if any explicit information from the earliest historical circumstances of why and how certain ancient books were preserved and considered as canonical or standard works. At some point in ancient times, a collection of those books was made that eventually became what we call the Old Testament. One of the earliest examples we have of such a collection is the plates of brass from 600 BC, which contained the books of Moses, a history of Israel, a collection of prophetic books, and genealogy (see 1 Nephi 5:10–14). Early Jews thought of the Bible as a collection of three different kinds of material, as reflected by the fact that Jesus spoke of “the law of Moses, and the prophets and the psalms” (Luke 24:44).
The earliest list of the thirty-nine specific books of the Old Testament is from the end of the first century AD and records that those books were originally found on twenty-four scrolls—because several of the smaller books could fit onto a single scroll (see 4 Esdras 14:44–46). Because the texts were written on separate scrolls, there was little need to organize them in any particular order. But there was a sense that the Bible contained three types of books and that, just as on the plates of brass, the Law or Torah (the five books of Moses) had preeminence. The rabbis and Jesus often referred to the Old Testament collection of books as “the Law and the Prophets.” The Jewish canon established a tradition that organized the books according to the three categories: Torah, Prophets, and Writings. The Christian canon, preserved in all Christian Bibles to the present, followed a slightly different order, with historical books (Genesis through Esther), poetic books (Job to Song of Solomon), and prophetic books divided between the Major Prophets (longer books: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel), and the twelve Minor Prophets from Hosea through Malachi.
Just as in the case of the Old Testament, we know very little about the process by which twenty-seven of the many ancient Christian books came to be considered as scripture. The earliest canonical list is the Muratorian Canon, perhaps from the third century AD, which lists most of the books that make up the New Testament today—and in a similar order. It appears that the New Testament came about as a compilation of three different collections: a collection of four Gospels, a collection of fourteen epistles of Paul, and a collection of seven epistles from other church leaders, completed with the addition of two texts: the Acts and Revelation.
From the various Gospels that circulated anciently, the church by the middle of the second century had accepted four: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The book of Acts was inserted between the Gospels and the letters to provide a link between the life of Jesus and the ministries of the Apostles and the history of the early church. The fourteen Pauline epistles were eventually organized more or less by length from the longest to the shortest—from Romans to Philemon—followed by Hebrews because early Christians were uncertain about its authorship. The seven surviving epistles from other church leaders were added, followed by the book of Revelation.
Divisions of the texts in the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament have their own history and can be treated separately. It was only when the Christian Bible combined the two Testaments, and especially as the Bible was translated into various languages, that the texts were treated similarly, and a uniform system of numbered chapters and verses was superimposed upon the text that presently survives. Because the earliest surviving texts of the Bible date from centuries after the original authors, no one knows the nature of the original divisions. From what is known about the history of the divisions of the texts in the various manuscript traditions, three simple necessities can be identified that motivated the gradual creation of various units and later the systems of numbering those units. First, there was a need to identify and isolate specific units that could be read in worship services in the synagogue or the church. Second, the need occurred to provide a simple way of referring to a specific passage in the Bible to facilitate preaching, teaching, study, discussion, and debate. Finally, both Jewish and Christian scholars created concordances of the language of the Bible—and small numbered divisions of the text were almost a necessity for such concordances.
The oldest surviving Hebrew Old Testament texts are among the Dead Sea Scrolls, found beginning in 1947 in the caves at Qumran—the earliest dating to about 250 BC. These scrolls were written with pen and ink on pieces of leather that were sewn together to form scrolls. The Hebrew text was written in horizontal lines reading from right to left, in columns that were also read from right to left, and the scribes usually left slight spaces between the words. Interestingly enough, the system of division attested in these earliest biblical texts is neither chapters nor verses but paragraphs according to thematic or sense units.
The system of division into paragraphs was preserved in the Jewish tradition and eventually became part of the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible (see below). The logic of paragraph divisions can be illustrated by several examples. In the Hebrew text of the Creation story in Genesis 1:1–2:3, the text is divided into seven paragraphs coinciding with the seven days of creation. Within historical narrative, the paragraphs divide a story into episodes. Thus, 1 Samuel 1 is divided into five episodes that trace the life of Hannah and the birth of Samuel, and Isaiah 1 is divided into six paragraphs of varying lengths that indicate different topics. Paragraph divisions dramatically illustrate the episodic nature of biblical narrative and help the reader see the basic sense units of the text.
In addition to the division of the text into small paragraph units, the Jewish tradition also developed a system of dividing the Torah into fifty-four larger units, each consisting of many paragraphs called parashoth. Those divisions provided suitable units to be read in the synagogue each Sabbath with the intent that the whole of the Torah could be read in a calendar year. Each of those sections received a title based on the first word or words of the passage, but they were never numbered. The titles provided a label as a point of reference for teachers and students in the discussion of a text. The whole of the Hebrew Bible, except for the Psalms, is divided into paragraphs, but only the Torah is divided into parashoth.
The division into verses preceded the division into chapters. Within the paragraph divisions, Jewish scribes in the Mishnaic period (AD 70–200) developed a system of dividing the biblical text into verse units that roughly coincided with sentences. In addition to ordering the text for easier study, the verse divisions had a function in the reading of the Torah in the synagogue. Because it was customary to read a section of the Bible in the original Hebrew and then stop and translate the passage into Aramaic, verses provided convenient places for the reader to stop and allow the interpreter to speak. Just as with the paragraphs and parashoth, the scribes never numbered those verses.
About AD 500, a group of rabbinic Jewish scribes and scholars, called the Masoretes, saw that the text of the Bible as it was being transmitted began to show signs of changing through the years. The Masoretes standardized the Hebrew text by developing a system to write vowels. They also formalized word divisions; developed a set of accents to indicate ancient traditions of reciting the text; created concordances; counted all of the paragraphs, words, and letters; and inserted notes of explanations, references, and statistics in the margins and at the end of the texts to help future scribes. Their work is called the Masoretic Text. It became the model for all future scribal copying and the standard Bible for most Jews in the world to the present day.
Elements of the paragraph and verse divisions that were preserved in the Masoretic Text were later superimposed in various ways on the texts of the Greek and Latin translations of the Bible that were used by Christians. The King James translators had access to the Masoretic Text and implemented in their translation the original Jewish system of verse divisions together with the system of numbering that they had inherited from other Christian Bible editions and translations. Following the model of the Hebrew paragraph divisions, the KJV translators or editors also created a system of paragraph markers throughout the Old Testament ( ¶ ) that most often parallels the divisions found in the Hebrew Bible.
As with the Old Testament, we do not have any original New Testament texts. But we do have very early textual evidence of the New Testament from the beginning of the second century, and those earliest manuscripts were written in the tradition of Greek texts of their day, in all capital letters, with no division between the words or sections. Although the modern reader may be bewildered by a text that has no apparent breaks, the ancient Greek has a set of rhetorical particles that indicate natural pauses and breaks in the text. Most New Testament texts were written on parchment or papyrus, and by the second century, they began to be written in codices (books with leaves bound together—singular, codex) rather than on scrolls.
Just as in the Hebrew tradition, the first system of division in the New Testament text was the paragraph, which naturally followed the rhetorical and grammatical particles in the text. One of the earliest systems of division in the New Testament is attested in the Greek Bible manuscript Vaticanus, dating from the fifth century AD. In Vaticanus, the scribes used a system of unknown origin in which the text was divided into sections corresponding to the break in sense. Those divisions were called in Greek kephalaia, which means “heads” or “principals.” They were named and numbered in the margins and are the first attested form of a sort of chapter division in the New Testament. In Vaticanus, for example, the Gospel of Matthew was divided into 170 such units—62 in Mark, 152 in Luke, and 50 in John. The kephalaia were much smaller in length than the present-day chapters and are much closer to the paragraphs. In other Greek manuscripts, Acts, the epistles, and Revelation were similarly divided into chapters and smaller sections.
As they did with the Old Testament, the King James translators indicated paragraph divisions in the New Testament with paragraph markers ( ¶ ). Often, but not always, their paragraph divisions coincide with ancient chapter divisions known from early manuscripts, but for some reason that mystifies scholars to the present day, they end at Acts 20:36.
At the same time the kephalaia divisions in the New Testament were being made, rudimentary smaller divisions, indicated by simple forms of punctuation (sixth–eighth centuries), were beginning to be marked in the Greek texts; these divisions would eventually be reflected in the chapter and verse divisions after the thirteenth century.
Eventually, the Christians developed a need for a more precise way of citing scriptural passages for the Old and New Testaments, especially in the creation of concordances. The Christians incorporated in their biblical texts the Jewish paragraph and verse divisions of the Old Testament and the medieval chapter system of the New Testament.
The creator of the system of chapters that is used to the present time is Stephen Langton (1150–1228), a professor of theology in Paris and later the archbishop of Canterbury. Langton introduced his chapter numbers into the Latin Bible—the Vulgate—in 1205, from which they were transferred in the ensuing centuries to Hebrew manuscripts and printed editions of the Old Testament as well as to Greek manuscripts and printed editions of the New Testament.
The system of verse divisions that has prevailed to the present was the work of a Parisian book printer, Robert Estienne (Latinized as Stephanus; 1503–59). In the printing of his fourth edition of the Greek New Testament in 1551, he added his complete system of numbered verses for the first time. For the Old Testament, Stephanus adopted the verse divisions already present in the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible, and within Langton’s chapters, he assigned numbers to the verses. Following his own sense of logic as to the sense of the text, Stephanus took it upon himself, also within the framework of Langton’s chapters, to divide and number the verses in the New Testament. His son reported that he did this work as he regularly traveled between Paris and Lyon. Whereas he probably did much of the work in his overnight stays at inns, his detractors spread the story that he did it while riding on his horse, and they attributed what they thought to be unfortunate verse divisions to slips of the pen when the horse stumbled. In 1555, Stephanus published the Latin Vulgate—the first whole Bible divided into numbered chapters and verses. Soon, those divisions became standard in the printed editions of the scriptures in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and eventually in all of the modern languages. The first English Bible to have the numbered chapters and verses of Langton and Stephanus was the Geneva Bible in 1560.
Some scholars have criticized Stephanus’s verse divisions as seemingly arbitrary, citing the fact that although they often coincide with a single sentence in English, sometimes they include several sentences, sometimes they divide a single sentence, and sometimes they separate direct quotations from the situation of the speaker. But clearly the advantages of organizing the text for reading and finding passages far outweigh any disadvantages. In the King James Bible, the translators typographically created a new, separate paragraph in each verse by indenting the verse number and first word and captitalizing the first letter of the first word, even if it was in the middle of a sentence. For the casual reader, this procedure can provide a rather serious obstacle, giving the false impression that the Bible is composed of a collection of disconnected sentences and phrases and making it difficult to see and understand any particular verse in its larger context. Consequently, a conscientious reader of the King James Version should always make a concentrated effort to see the bigger context of any particular verse of scripture, being aware that the chapter and verse divisions are artificial and subjective additions to the text that should not constrain us in the interpretation of the Bible.
The preference of Joseph Smith and the early Latter-day Saints seems to have been for longer content-based paragraphs rather than short verses. On the original manuscripts of the Joseph Smith Translation, the Prophet’s assistants, presumably working under his direction, created verses that are much larger than those in traditional Bibles, corresponding more with paragraphs. For example, Genesis 1 contains nine verses in the JST but thirty-one in the King James translation. Similarly, in the first printing of the Book of Abraham, Joseph Smith or his assistants divided the text into nine large paragraph-length verses, as opposed to the thirty-one verses in the same chapter in the Pearl of Great Price today. And the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants (1835) had numbered verses much longer than those we use now. Most modern Bible translations preserve Stephanus’s verses but do not create separate paragraphs for each verse, dividing the chapters instead into paragraphs based on the internal content of the scriptural text.
The 1611 King James Bible was published by the firm of Robert Barker of London. Barker’s family had been in the printing business for decades, and he had the distinction of being “Printer to the Kings most Excellent Maiestie,” as is noted on the Bible’s title page. With that designation, his company held the new Bible’s franchise (sometimes with partners) into the 1630s, when the concession went to other printers, most often university presses. The origin of the punctuation in the 1611 KJV is not well understood. In large part, it was determined by the translators, based on the Hebrew and Greek texts, earlier English versions, and the current usage of the time. But it likely also contains influence from editors in Barker’s shop. The punctuation in the 1611 edition was not done very consistently. Readers today are often surprised to learn that the punctuation in our current KJV differs in thousands of places from that of the 1611 first edition. Note the following example from Matthew 26:47–48, with the 1611 text (left) compared with the text of the 1979 Latter-day Saint edition (right):
47 And while he yet spake, loe, Judas one of the twelve came, and with him a great multitude with swords and staves from the chiefe Priests and Elders of the people.
48 Now he that betrayed him, gave them a signe, saying, Whomsoever I shall kisse, that same is he, hold him fast.
47 And while he yet spake, lo, Judas, one of the twelve, came, and with him a great multitude with swords and staves, from the chief priests and elders of the people.
48 Now he that betrayed him gave them a sign, saying, Whomsoever I shall kiss, that same is he: hold him fast.
Usually, punctuation differences are inconsequential, but sometimes they affect meaning. Note Acts 27:18, which also has a word difference, a spelling difference, and an italic difference:
18 And being exceedingly tossed with a tempest the next day, they lightened the ship:
18 And we being exceedingly tossed with a tempest, the next day they lightened the ship;
The edition of 1612 made punctuation changes, and every printing thereafter for a century and a half made more. Each printing house that published the Bible modified the punctuation in some way in virtually every edition, and thus of the numerous editions between 1611 and the late eighteenth century, none were identical. Mathew Carey, an American printer of the early 1800s, noted that the punctuation differences between various Bibles were “innumerable.” He gave as an example Genesis 26:8, which had “eight commas in the Edinburgh, six in the Oxford, and only three in the Cambridge and London editions.”
In 1762, Professor F. S. Parris produced an important revised edition for the Cambridge University Press, continuing the process of revision and modernization that had been underway since 1611—not only in punctuation but in all areas of the text. In 1769, the Oxford University Press, under the direction of Professor Benjamin Blayney, revised the Parris edition further. Blayney made numerous punctuation changes, adding much punctuation to the text. He also made many other changes, such as strictly applying to the text archaic grammatical rules that neither were part of the language in 1611 nor were intended by the translators. (For example, in the current KJV, the pronoun ye is always used for the second-person plural when the subject of the sentence, and you is used for the second-person plural in all other cases. This is an artificial consistency imposed on the text by Blayney. In the 1611 KJV, the two forms were used more interchangeably; and even long before 1611, both forms were in common usage in the singular as well as in the plural. The fluid use of the pronouns in the Book of Mormon reflects these developments in the language.
Blayney’s new edition soon came to be viewed as the standard for British publishing houses and eventually for American publishers as well. It remains so today, and most King James printings now, including the Latter-day Saint edition, are virtually identical to Blayney’s Oxford edition of 1769.
But punctuation usage in modern English has continued to evolve since 1769, and thus Bible readers today see commas, colons, and semicolons used in ways that are different from how we use them now.
As we discussed earlier, the verses in the Hebrew Bible are most often self-contained grammatical units, although there are many exceptions. But the earliest manuscripts of the Old Testament contained no punctuation. The Masoretes, working about a millennium after most of the original writers, formalized a system of punctuation that included sentence-ending marks and various marks within sentences to show major and minor breaks. The evidence suggests that in some cases, the Masoretes may have made mistakes in sentence division; but, on the whole, they did an extraordinarily good job, and their work was a profound accomplishment. When the translators and editors of the King James Bible and its predecessors applied European punctuation, in most cases they honored the Masoretic sentence endings because they kept the verse divisions of Stephanus from the previous century. Thus, sentences in the King James Old Testament almost always end where sentences end in the Masoretic Text. But within sentences, the English translators frequently subdivided the text differently.
In New Testament manuscripts, rudimentary punctuation marks began to appear gradually in the sixth and seventh centuries, usually indicating breaks in sentences. It was not until the seventh century that marks for breathing and accents began to appear, and it was not until the ninth century that the continuous writing in the texts began to be broken into individual words.
The texts of the manuscripts Sinaiticus and Vaticanus contain a system of punctuation as indicated by a single point of ink on the level of the tops of the letters, or occasionally by a small break in the continuous letters or by a slightly larger letter, to indicate a pause in the sense of the text—a break that usually corresponds with a sentence. Later New Testament manuscripts from the sixth and seventh centuries developed a more complex system of marks, usually made by dots indicating a pause, a half-stop, and a full stop, and later a mark of interrogation, corresponding to the English usage of a comma, semicolon, period, and question mark. Occasionally, there were slight spaces between words to indicate a break in the sense. Ninth-century manuscripts show that the scribes began to insert breaks between the words in their texts, and punctuation marks were more frequently put at the end of words rather than above the letters as before. It should be noted that any markings or spaces added to the original continuous writing of the earliest New Testament manuscripts involved a subjective act of interpretation by the scribe. There is evidence of ancient scribal disagreement in terms of punctuation and even word divisions. In addition, later scribes often went back and inserted marks of punctuation above the lines of earlier manuscripts (as in the case of Vaticanus) to reflect their own interpretations.
Therefore, the Greek texts used by the translators of the Bible into English, including Tyndale and the King James translators, already contained systems of word division, punctuation, breathings, and accents that certainly influenced the way the texts were interpreted and translated. The translators of each different English version had the ancient markings and divisions before them, but they variously punctuated their translations according to their understanding and interpretation of the text.
Absent in the King James translation are quotation marks, which did not appear commonly until long after 1611. Capital letters are used to show where a quotation begins, but the end of a quotation can be determined only from the context. That is not always easy, as is seen in Genesis 18:13–14: “And the LORD said unto Abraham, Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying, Shall I of a surety bear a child, which am old? Is anything too hard for the LORD?”
The punctuation in today’s KJV, dating to Blayney’s edition of 1769, is generally systematic and quite consistently done. It uses periods to end sentences, colons and semicolons for major breaks within sentences, and commas for smaller breaks. On the whole, the colons, semicolons, and commas seem to have been applied according to the objectives of the translators and later editors—not necessarily with the intent of reflecting the punctuation in the Hebrew and Greek texts.
By today’s standards—and even by the standards of 1611 and 1769—the King James Version often feels overpunctuated, and readers sometimes find themselves tripping over its many tiny clauses that interrupt the flow of the text and occasionally make the meaning less clear. But this is neither unexpected nor accidental; it was intended to be that way. We should recall that when the translation was originally conceived and published, it was “Appointed to be read in Churches.” Its creators filled it with punctuation, believing that the congregational reading for which it was primarily intended would be enhanced by the short clauses, each set apart by a pause. Had they known that the Bible’s greatest use would eventually be with families in private homes, perhaps they would have done otherwise.
The printing of the Bible in English contributed greatly to the standardization of English spelling. In Tyndale’s day, there was much variety in spelling, and indeed Tyndale’s own publications showed considerable inconsistency while at the same time contributing to the establishment of spelling norms. Early in the next century, when the King James translation appeared, English spelling was still in flux, and it differed in many instances from the spelling in use today, as can be seen in the comparison of the 1611 KJV of Isaiah 7:13–14 (left) and the current LDS edition (right).
13 And he sayd; heare yee now, O house of David; Is it a small thing for you to wearie men, but will yee wearie my God also?
14 Therefore the Lord himselfe shal give you a signe: Behold, a Virgine shall conceive and beare a Sonne, and shall call his name Immanuel.
13 And he said, Hear ye now, O house of David; Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will ye weary my God also?
14 Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
Spelling conventions evolved rapidly in the seventeenth century, as is reflected in early printings of the KJV. Barker’s 1611 first edition has the spellings “publique” (Matthew 1:19), “musicke” (Luke 15:25), and “heretike” (Titus 3:10), with three separate spellings for the same grammatical ending. Within a few decades, all of those were standardized to “-ick.” At 1 Timothy 4:16, the 1611 edition reads, “Take heed unto thy selfe.” Barker’s 1630 edition uses “heede,” and his edition of only four years later uses “heed” again. His edition of 1639 changes “selfe” to “self,” but the spelling “thyself” (one word) was not standardized until the mid-eighteenth century. Spelling in the KJV began changing as early as in the second impression of 1611. It continued to evolve in later printings—but inconsistently in the hands of various publishers, who clearly had the intent to keep its spelling current with the times. It was not until Blayney’s edition of 1769 that publishers considered the spelling standard and finalized (although not entirely consistent), when today’s King James spelling was set in place. Thus, our current Bible has words and grammar from before 1611 but spelling from 1769.
The English spellings of biblical names evolved over the centuries until the 1611 King James translation, when the spellings of most names were fixed. The 1611 printing had some inconsistencies (including the spelling of Mary as Marie in several places in Luke 1), but most variants were standardized by the 1629 Cambridge edition. The spelling of names in the KJV is heavily influenced by the Latin Vulgate; and, in many cases, the spellings are far removed from how the ancient people actually pronounced their own names. Some examples include Isaac, pronounced anciently “Yitz-haq” (Geneva, Izhák; Bishops’, Isahac); Isaiah, “Ye-sha-ya-hu”; John, “Yo-ha-nan”; James, “Ya-a-qov”; and Jesus, “Ye-shu-a.”
The spelling of the Lord’s name in the KJV Old Testament is a special case. The divine name that is written “the Lord” in the King James translation is spelled with four letters in Hebrew—y h w h. It probably was pronounced Yahweh in ancient times. The form of the name that is familiar to us is Jehovah, with spelling and pronunciation brought into English by Tyndale in the early 1500s. After the end of the Old Testament period, the Jews adopted a custom, based perhaps on an exaggerated reading of Exodus 20:7, that it was blasphemous to pronounce God’s name, so in the place of Yahweh, they used substitute words. As they read their Hebrew texts, when they came upon God’s name, they would not pronounce it but substituted in its place the word ‘?d?n?y, which means “my Lord(s).” Greek-speaking Jewish translators in the third century BC replaced the divine name with the common Greek noun kyrios, “lord.” Most modern translations have continued the custom. In the King James translation, whenever God’s name Yahweh appears in the Hebrew text, the translators have rendered it as “the Lord.” Capital and small capital letters are used to set the divine name apart from the common English noun lord.
The use of italics in today’s King James Bible has an interesting but complex history. The practice of using different type within a text for various reasons seems to have begun in the early part of the sixteenth century. During the years 1534–35, Sebastian Münster and Pierre Robert Olivetan—who printed Latin and French translations of the Bible, respectively—were two of the earliest individuals to indicate, by means of a different type, words in the translation not represented precisely in the exemplar. The first English Bible to follow this practice was the Great Bible, which was printed in 1539 under the editorship of Miles Coverdale, who made use of both Münster’s Latin and Olivetan’s French translations. In this English translation, which was printed in black-letter type, Coverdale employed both brackets and a smaller font to indicate variant readings from the Latin Vulgate that were not in the Hebrew or Greek manuscripts.
William Whittingham’s 1557 edition of the New Testament was printed in roman type and was the first English translation to use italic type for words not in the manuscripts. In his preface, he noted that he inserted those words “in such letters as may easily be discerned from the common text.” Three years later, Whittingham and other Protestant scholars at Geneva published the entire Bible in English—the Geneva Bible. Geneva’s preface stated the following: “[When] the necessity of the sentence required anything to be added (for such is the grace and propriety of the Hebrew and Greek tongues, that it cannot but either by circumlocution, or by adding the verb or some word be understand of them that are not well practiced therein) we have put it in the text with another kind of letter, that it may easily be discerned from the common letter.” The 1560 Geneva Bible, printed in roman type, was the first edition of the entire Bible in English that used italics. In 1568, the Bishops’ Bible followed the Geneva Bible in this practice, but because it was printed in a black-letter type, the added words were printed in roman type.
Like the Bishops’ Bible, the 1611 King James Bible was printed in black-letter type and used a smaller roman font for words not represented in the original languages, as in this example from Genesis 1:12 in the 1611 KJV (left) and the current text (right).
12 And the earth brought foorth grasse, and herbe yielding seed after his kinde, and the tree yeelding fruit, whose seed was in it self, after his kinde : and God saw that it was good.
12 And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
In 1618, the Synod of Dort explained some of the rules used for translating the KJV: “That words which it was anywhere necessary to insert into the text to complete the meaning were to be distinguished by another type, small roman.” Later editions of the KJV printed in roman type, including the LDS edition, have followed the lead of the Geneva Bible in using italics for those words not represented in the Hebrew or Greek manuscripts.
Some important observations should be made concerning italics in the King James translation. First, the primary use of italics is to identify words not explicitly found in the Hebrew or Greek manuscripts that are necessary in English to make the translation understandable. There are a number of examples of these elliptical constructions. Most instances of italics in the Bible are for the verb “to be” (for example, “I am the Lord thy God,” Isaiah 51:15). Italics were often used to supply unexpressed but implied nouns (for example, “the dry land,” Genesis 1:9, 10), possessive adjectives (for example, “his hand,” Matthew 8:3), and other verbs (for example, “his tongue loosed,” Luke 1:64). Sometimes in Greek conditional sentences, the subordinate clause (or protasis) is expressed, whereas the main clause (or apodosis) is implied. A noteworthy example is found in 2 Thessalonians 2:3: “Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first.” In this case, the subordinate clause of the condition is “except there come a falling away first,” and the implied main clause, added in italics, is “for that day shall not come.”
Second, a closer look at italics in the KJV reveals other uses, besides supplying unexpressed but implied words. Some italics indicate that the words are poorly attested among the ancient manuscripts. An example of this is at John 8:7: “Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.” The phrase “as though he heard them not” was not in a different type in the 1611 edition, but it was placed in italics in later editions, including the LDS edition. In this case, the Greek phrase is not in the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament, and subsequent editors of the KJV indicated their uncertainty about its authenticity by placing the words in italics.
Another interesting example of this usage is at 1 John 2:23: “Whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father: [but] he that acknowledgeth the Son hath the Father also.” Since the 1611 edition, the KJV has set apart the clause “but he that acknowledgeth the Son hath the Father also” in special type. The Greek clause is in the earliest manuscripts but is absent from many important later manuscripts. Because the words “hath the Father” precede and end the clause, it seems that a scribe’s eye inadvertently skipped from one instance of “hath the Father” to the other and accidentally omitted the clause. Thus, even though the clause is not in many later manuscripts, it does seem to be original. Because the KJV translators did not have access to the early manuscripts that have this reading, the italics in 1 John 2:23 may be indicating that the clause comes from the Latin Vulgate, similar to the practice of the Great Bible.
Third, there are many inconsistencies in the use of italics in the King James translation. The original KJV translators seem to have been fairly conservative in their use of italics, but their 1611 edition contained numerous inconsistencies, many of which continue today. For example, Hebrews 3:3 states “this man,” whereas the same construction in Hebrews 8:3 is rendered “this man.” Over the years, editors greatly expanded the practice of using italics, a process that continued until Blayney in 1769, who added many to the text. For instance, John 11 in the 1611 edition contains no italicized words, but in a 1638 edition, it has fifteen italicized words, and in a 1756 edition, it has sixteen. The same chapter in the 1979 LDS edition has nineteen italicized words. Note the example from John 11:41, in 1611 (left) and the current text (right):
41 Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead was laid. And Jesus lifted up his eyes, and said, Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me.
41 Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead was laid. And Jesus lifted up his eyes, and said, Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me.
Concerning this increased use of italics in later editions, F. H. A. Scrivener concluded, “The effect was rather to add to than to diminish the manifest inconsistencies.” In today’s edition, types of words that are italicized in one location are not necessarily italicized in another. For example, Acts 13:6 has “whose name was Bar-jesus,” whereas the same construction in Luke 24:18 is rendered “whose name was Cleopas.” There is sometimes inconsistency within the same verse. Luke 1:27 contains both “a man whose name was Joseph” and “the virgin’s name was Mary.”
Although the translators and editors were not consistent in their use of italics, “it appears that generally, though not always, their judgment was justified in their choice of italicized words.” The question remains, however, whether italicized words in the Bible are really necessary at all. One scholar has proposed that “it is impossible to make any message in one language say exactly what a corresponding message says in any other,” and because the words rendered in italics are necessary to make the English understandable, “they are not extraneous additions but are a legitimate part of the translation and need not be singled out for special notice.” That is the case because the primary goal of any translator is “to transmit the meaning of the message, not to reproduce the form of the words.” With that in mind, publishers of the Bible in modern languages have abandoned the custom of using italics, and the King James Version is now unique in employing them. For the same reason, when the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price are translated from English into other languages, no attempt is made to identify in italics the words in the translations that do not come from the original English.
In recent years, despite a general decrease in Bible reading in the Western world, there has been an increased interest in the fascinating history of the English Bible and the King James Version. Although it is no longer the most widely used or the most influential Bible translation in English, the KJV is still in print and still sells well.
In 2005, the venerable Cambridge University Press published a new edition of the KJV that may eventually become the most important edition since Benjamin Blayney’s of 1769. Cambridge University Press, the oldest printing establishment in the world, has been publishing the English Bible since 1591 and the King James Version since 1629. It is the press that prepared the text and set the type for the English Latter-day Saint edition that is still in use today. In the same spirit that led to the recent restorations of Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel and Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, Cambridge’s editor cautiously removed most of the well-meaning but often misguided “repairs” of earlier editors (including Parris and Blayney) to restore the KJV more fully to the text and intent of its 1611 creators. Where justifiable, the grammatical changes and word choices of the post-1611 editors were peeled back to reveal the grammar and words of the original. The original intent of keeping the KJV’s spelling contemporary was applied, so the new edition is now standardized to modern spelling. The punctuation was taken back to the system of 1611 but simplified and made consistent, and quotation marks were added. All the italics were removed. Poetic sections were reformatted to reflect the poetic intent of the ancient prophets and psalmists, instead of prose, and the separate paragraphs for each verse were replaced with paragraphs based on the Bible’s content. Thus, despite the fact that the King James Bible is now four hundred years old, it is still very much alive.
Like the Prophet Joseph Smith, we Latter-day Saints “believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers.” Modern languages, like English, were not part of the Bible “as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers,” nor were the chapters, verses, punctuation, spelling, and italics that we see in printings of the Bible today. But because very few Latter-day Saints can read the languages in which the Bible was first written or have access to the earliest manuscripts, we need those medieval and modern tools that translators, scholars, editors, and printers have provided over the centuries that deliver the word of God to us on the printed page. Together, they were all designed to help us better read and understand the scriptures—to help us seek, that we may find (see Matthew 7:7).
 Modern quotation marks would render the passage as follows:
And the Lord said unto Abraham, “Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I of a surety bear a child, which am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord?”