PSR has rare copies of the King James Bible

February 24, 2011
Kay Schellhase

2011 marks the 400th anniversary of the first printing of the King James, or “Authorized” version of the English Bible. PSR is fortunate to have in its Howell Bible Collection two editions of that significant 1611 printing, known respectively as the “Great He Bible” and the “Great She Bible.” A typographical error or a mistaken identity in Ruth 3:15 uses the word “he” when it should have been “she,” referring to Ruth, who “went into the city.” The version with the mistake is the more valuable one, although the correction was made so quickly that both books bear the same publication date.

This was not the first translation of the Bible into English, although it was the longest-lasting, enduring 250 years before a major revision. It was preceded by and largely based on the work of William Tyndale and Miles Coverdale and also relied on the Hebrew and Greek originals available at the time. It was, however, the first translation to be officially approved to be read in Anglican churches.

The king who authorized the translation (James VI of Scotland, James I of England) was unquestionably Protestant and readily agreed when the Puritan president of Corpus Christi College at Oxford University suggested the project in 1604. So great was their success that their felicitous phrasing and rhythms still echo in the minds of all those who have memorized portions of the Bible, and their work continues to influence the English language even into the twenty-first century.

PSR came in possession of the approximately 300 Bibles and other rare books of the Howell Collection through John Howell, a rare book dealer near Union Square in San Francisco. He amassed a number of rare and interesting Bibles, gave lectures on them and displayed them at exhibitions in the Bay Area. Before his death in 1956 he looked for a suitable repository for them and sold them to PSR for a nominal fee.

The special emphasis in the collection is on the translation of the Bible into English, and the two 1611 King James editions are certainly important pieces. Other highlights include printings of the famous translations by Luther, Zwingli, Coverdale and Tyndale. Four items in the collection of utmost value are known as incunabula, or “cradle books” from the infancy of Western printing (prior to 1500). Two of these in PSR’s collection include a 1485 printing of the Latin Vulgate from Nuremberg, and a 1486 printing of the “Textus Bible” from Strassburg, the first Bible to have a title page.