Purver’s Bible (1764)

Anthony Purver, A New and Literal Translation of All the Books of the Old and New Testament; with Notes, Critical and Explanatory. 2 Vols. London: W. Richardson and S. Clark, 1764.

Anthony Purver (1702-1777) was born into humble circumstances, the son of a Hampshire farmer. But he showed unusual talent at school, and, while serving as a shoemaker’s apprentice, devoted himself to study of the Bible and other bookish pursuits. He never had the opportunity to go to a university, and simply read whatever books came to his hand. It happened that one book acquired by Purver was written by the Quaker controversialist Samuel Fisher (1605-1665), who pretended to have expert knowledge of Hebrew, and who maintained that the King James Version was full of errors. 1 This book inspired Purver to take up the study of Hebrew himself. His studies soon got him a reputation for scholarship among the people of his district, and he left the shoemaker’s trade to become a tutor and schoolmaster.

After three or four years of teaching local boys in Hampshire, he closed his school and moved to London, probably with the idea of pursuing his studies more seriously at the libraries there, and perhaps with the ambition of becoming a literary man. There he published, in 1727, a book for boys called “The Youth’s Delight.” While he was in London he attended Quaker meetings, and became a preacher among them. He returned to Hampshire shortly after 1727, opened his school again, served as a preacher among the Quakers there, and, in his spare time, began to translate the Old Testament into English.

He devoted all of his spare time to this project until it was completed, around the year 1740. But when he was ready to present it to the public, he could not find a publisher who was willing to risk any money in printing the version. He tried to get it published in serial form, and found a publisher in Bristol who was willing to issue the first two installments, but these did not sell, so the publisher declined to print any more. Undaunted, Purver continued to work on his translation, and completed the entire Bible by the year 1763. But still he could find no publisher.

In the end, it was his association with the Quakers that enabled him to get the version in print. In 1764 a wealthy Quaker named John Fothergill gave him £1,000 for the copyright, and published it at his own expense.

Purver presented this work as a “Literal Translation.” It begins with an essay entitled “Introductory Remarks on Translations of the Scripture in General,” in which he criticizes the King James Version for being less than perfectly literal in some places. He appends long lists of alleged faults in the KJV, nearly all very trivial, sorted into various categories. But he then goes on to speak, rather inconsistently, of the need for a translation to be “well or grammatically expressed, in the language it is made in,” “accommodated to the present Use of speaking,” and so forth, unlike the King James Version, whose style he characterizes as unidiomatic, ungraceful, and “uncouth,” (p. v), partly because of its literal manner of rendering Hebrew idioms. Moreover, when Purver’s version itself is closely examined, it seems to have little connection with the complaints and principles put forth in the “Introductory Remarks”—for it is obviously much less literal, less accurate, and less graceful than the KJV. We find the first twelve verses of the Bible presented thus:

God created the Heaven and the Earth at the Beginning.
2. The Earth however was vacant and void, and Darkness overwhelmed the Deep; but the Spirit of God hovered atop of the Water.
3. First God said, Let there be Light; which there was accordingly.
4. And God saw that the Light was good, so he separated it from the Darkness. 5. God also called the Light Day, as he did the Darkness Night. It had then been Evening and was Morning the first Day.
6. Next he said, Let there be Air in the midst of Water, making a Separation between the two Waters:
7. Thus God made the Air, which parting the Water that was below from that which was above it self, there was so.
8. Besides he named the Air Heaven. And it having been Evening was Morning the second Day.
9. Moreover God commanded that the Water under the Heaven should flow together into one Place, and that dry Ground should appear; which was so.
10. The dry Ground too he called Earth, as he did the Water that was flowed together Seas; and God saw that it was good.
11. Who said, Let the Earth produce upon it Grass, Herbs bearing Seed, Fruit-trees yielding Fruit of each Kind, in which there is a Kernel; and it was so.
12. For the Earth brought forth Grass, Herbs that bore Seed of each Kind, and Trees that yielded Fruit, whose Kernel was in it, of each Sort; and God saw that it was good.

The notes attached to these twelve verses contain about three thousand words of commentary, in which there is much curious and crotchety material. Concerning the Hebrew word translated “Heaven” he reports: “The Name שָׁמַיִם seems composed, like what it signifies, of אֵשׁ Fire, and מַיִם Water. נקראו שמים לפי שהם אש ומים it was called the Heaven, because it was Fire and Water, writes Behai in his Commentaries on the Law, Sect. 48.” But this rather far-fetched etymological speculation tells us nothing about the meaning of the word שָׁמַיִם. The note on “Darkness overwhelmed the Deep” in verse 2 fails to mention that “overwhelmed” is quite interpretive and not a proper literal translation of עַל־פְּנֵי at all, which means simply “upon the face of.” The same Hebrew phrase is translated “atop of” later in the same verse. In verse 3 Purver gives “which there was accordingly” as a translation for וַיְהִי־אֹור (lit. “and there was light”). This must have been prompted by some consideration of English style, in which repetition of words in the same sentence is often avoided. But it displays a very poor sense of style. In verses 6-8 we observe that רָקִיעַ (firmament or expanse) is translated “Air,” which is certainly not a literal translation of the word. In a note Purver explains that “Hebrew has no express word for Air.” Obviously he has not really aimed at giving a “literal” translation of this passage, and his lexical notes show that his manner of determining the meaning of words is highly subjective and unsound.

The eccentricities of the version are partly due to the fact that, in Purver’s day, there was a feeling abroad that some recent advances in biblical studies should be expected, or must have been made already, when in fact there had been no very solid or significant advances in biblical studies among English scholars for nearly a century. The intellectual climate that prevailed in the century following the Restoration of the monarchy was not conducive to serious biblical scholarship in England, and it seems the Hebraists of the eighteenth century were no better informed than those of the early seventeenth century. 2 Purver’s effort was premature, not only with respect to his own abilities, but also for the scholarly attainments of his whole generation. The time was restless and ambitious, but not ripe for any extensive revision of the English Bible.

The same may be said of the Greek New Testament. Here Purver is less venturesome, but there are a number of improbable and unsuitable renderings which do seem to be original. For instance, in Matt. 19:28 we find “I tell you certainly, that ye who have followed me in being born again” instead of “in the regeneration.” We cannot call this an improvement. We notice that he very often cites Daniel Whitby’s Paraphrase and Commentary on the New Testament (1703), and in his notes he even seems to think that he owes his readers some explanation for any disagreement with Whitby. But this Whitby, who seemed to be someone at the time, never deserved so much attention. The show of new scholarship offered in his commentary consisted largely of interpretive novelties designed to promote the Arminian theology, which became fashionable among Anglican churchmen after the Restoration. By the middle of the next century, Whitby’s whole manner of interpreting the biblical text was seen to be theologically contrived and illegitimate, and his work was ignored by competent scholars.

In one respect there had been a real advance in learning during the early eighteenth century. Scholars had begun to collect information about the various readings of Greek manuscripts. In 1707 John Mill had published an edition of the Greek Testament which gave much information about this, and had offered some modest and tentative suggestions for a critical revision of the Textus Receptus. And so we find in Purver’s notes many comments about these variations, based upon information he had gleaned from Mill. Unfortunately, under the stultifying influence of Whitby, 3 his usual tendency is to disagree with Mill, and defend the readings of the Textus Receptus. His judgment in this matter is nearly always contrary to the consensus that developed among informed scholars during the following century. Once again we see that the time was not ripe; and Purver, though he desired to present something new, was not able to contribute anything of lasting value.

The version and its annotations are a testimony to what a self-taught man, who never had the supervision of a competent scholar to guide him in his studies, might produce by himself at home. It contains a strange mixture of things good and bad: good enough, where he follows the opinions of sound and learned authors; but often remarkably bad, where he is deceived by the pseudo-scholarship of Whitby, repeats the lore of the Jewish Rabbis, hazards original interpretations, or ventures to criticize authors much more learned than himself—which he often does with a very inappropriate air of authority. Perhaps the most serious fault of the version is its uncommonly bad English style, which was quite out of keeping with the “Augustan Age” of great literary refinent in which Purver lived. A reading public that enjoyed the works of such excellent writers as Addison and Pope could not have seen much value in Purver’s version.

The version had little influence and was never reprinted. In August of 2011 it was republished in electronic form on Google Books.

Michael Marlowe
January 2012


1. Rusticus ad Academicos in Exercitationibus Expostulatoriis, Apologeticis Quattuor. The Rusticks Alarm to the Rabbies, or the Country correcting the University and Clergy, etc. (1660).

2. Even in 1870 Edward H. Plumptre could write: “The field of the O.T. has been far less adequately worked than that of the N.T., and Hebrew scholarship has made far less progress than Greek. Relatively, indeed, there seems good ground for believing that Hebrew was more studied in the early part of the 17th century than it is now.” (“Version, Authorized,” in Dr. William Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible, American edition vol. 4 [Boston, 1881], p. 3441). In the same article Plumptre calls Purver a man “of narrow knowledge and defective taste” (p. 3438).

3. Whitby’s wrong-headed opposition to Mill was expressed in his Additional Annotations to the New Testament; with Seven Discourses; and an Appendix entituled Examen Variantium Lectionum Johannis Millii, S.T.P. in Novum Testamentum (London: Churchill, 1710).