It has been nicknamed the “wicked Bible,” “sinners Bible” and “adulterer’s Bible” — a centuries-old backlash from a blasphemous typographical error that made its way into print. The misprint appeared in the 17th century holy text’s Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not covet.
And: “Thou shalt commit adultery.” That’s right, go ahead and cheat.
Indeed, the king’s printer, Robert Barker, had quite a nerve-racking task — printing the King James Bible. And his work, it seems, wasn’t free from mistakes. The first version, which was released in 1611, had several oops-a-daisies such as “he went” instead of “she went,” according to Brigham Young University’s Harold B. Lee Library. The text was reprinted two years later.
It was Barker’s scandalous 1631 version that created trouble for him and his colleague — but intrigue among historians, researchers and collectors of sacred texts. This Bible, now a seemingly unassuming book, its frayed pages filled with words surrounded by red ruling, is set to be sold for an estimated $15,000 to $23,000 next month at Bonhams auction house in London.
“It’s such a crucial misprint, but it makes it extremely collectible,” Simon Roberts, an expert from Bonhams’ books and manuscript department, told The Washington Post.
In 1631, Barker released 1,000 copies, but it wasn’t until the next year that someone spotted the gaffe, according to Bonhams.
“It was just the latest in a line of regular Bibles printed by the king’s printer,” Roberts said. “It’s surprising it took so long for them to find it. It’s surprising it was missed in the first place.”
When the error was discovered, King Charles I summoned Barker and his colleague, Martin Lucas — a man Roberts said was in the “wrong place at the wrong time.” Barker’s co-printer, John Bill, had died. And Roberts said some historians believe Lucas, an executor, just happened to be there helping out while he was getting Bill’s affairs in order.
Still, both Barker and Lucas were called to the king’s court. The pair’s printing licenses were revoked, and the men were fined 300 pounds — now an estimated $56,500. The flawed copies were recalled and burned.
Over the centuries, many have speculated what went wrong. Traditionally, it was accepted that the mishap was a mere typographical error. But later, some suggested it may have been sabotage from Barker’s rival, Bonhom Norton, according to author Gordon Campbell, who wrote “Bible: The Story of the King James Version 1611-2011.” The result was Barker’s eventual demise.
“It was a very great embarrassment,” Roberts said. “This scandal meant that he ran out into financial difficulty and never managed to recover.”
In 1632 Barker had a tainted reputation and no printing license. No doubt it became difficult for him to find work. By 1635, he started slipping in and out of debtors’ prison, Roberts said. He died behind bars in 1645.
“It’s a very sad story,” Roberts said. “I don’t suppose we’ll ever learn the absolute truth about it.”
Roberts said about nine copies of the 1631 King James Bible are known to have survived. Many are now stored in institutions and libraries, he said.
“We see a lot of rare books, but it’s not too often that we come across something so genuinely rare,” he said. “It’s a great pleasure to handle something like that.”
It will be put up for auction Nov. 11 at Bonhams.