John Overall was born in 1559 in Hadleigh, a cloth-making village in Essex, fifty miles from London. He was the son of George Overall , but became an orphan in his first year.
Academic backgroundHe attended Hadleigh Grammar School as a poor student and survived by being in service to the master of the school. He and John Bois were pupils together at Hadleigh. Both received the patronage of John Still, Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Cambridge who enabled them to become students at St John's College Cambridge in 1575. When John Still became Master of Trinity Cambridge, Overall followed him there in 1578. He graduated in 1579 and postgraduated in 1582 (MA). Overall was appointed as Greek lecturer in 1586
Known as a serious minded and handsome man, Overall's first church post was in 1592 as Vicar at Epping, beyond Epping Forest in Essex.
Overall became Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge in 1596, receiving his doctorate the same year, aged 37. He was popular with his pupils. There was some conflict about this appointment caused by the fact that younger University men had elected him because he opposed the Calvinistic teaching of his predecessor William Whitaker. Archbishop John Whitgift had recently adopted the Calvinistic Lambeth articles, and this raised tension between the learn-ed men, complicating their relationships. Overall supported the theologian Peter Baron and attacked the Lambeth articles in the pulpit. He believed no man could presume to say he was saved, unless he lived in a spirit of repentance. Thus, in his eyes final assurance depended on a spirit of daily repentance, not on a fixed decree of God. (1)
Overall was then made Master of Catherine Hall in 1598. This was a very rapid rise for someone born into poverty, and he was reluctant to accept the appointment (McClure). Just three or four years later in 1601/2 the Queen made him Dean of St. Paul's (Lancelot Andrewes was a Prebendary there at the time); all the while he maintained his academic post at Cambridge! He was promoted to a plum position as Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield in 1614. Thereafter he became Bishop of Norwich in 1618. On the one hand he developed a good friendship with Lancelot Andrewes; on the other he was hated by George Abbot. Overall became a member of the court of High Commission.
'Unlucky' in marriageJohn Overall must be a good example of those referred to by Francis Dillingham in his sermons as "unwise luckless men [who] have gone on wooing and wiving foolish females to this day." This emerged in 1604, the same year as work on the KJV began. Overall married Anne Orwell; he was 44 years old, and dean of St Paul's. Anne was reputed by John Aubrey to be 'the greatest Beautie of her time in England.' (1). Had Overall believed in predestination he may have felt like Hosea in the Old Testament who was commanded to marry a faithless woman, then to take her back again after wooing her a second time. Anne's beauty was but skin-deep, and she committed adultery with the notorious womaniser Richard Sackville, third earl of Dorset, and later ran away with one John Selby. At Overall's behest some chased after the couple and they brought Anne back to the deanery. He received her back again, but no word survives of what became of this 'holy deadlock.'
His Translation work
Overall was placed in the Westminster group led by Lancelot Andrewes, translating Genesis to II Chronicles. Perhaps he was chosen as a translator of these early Old Testament books because he was aligned with Andrewes' theological opinions rather than for his linguistic skills. He was not noted for his knowledge of Hebrew, but was a Classical specialist, and like Andrewes opposed to Puritanism. However, his knowledge of Latin was deep, having lectured in Latin to his scholars over many years (from 1592 to 1604).
His Greek lectures were also given in Latin! Discussion between the translators preparing for publication was later immersed in Latin, which facilitates a very precise and concise word usage. The Hampton Court conference also used Latin heavily. This was not a problem for King James as he had learned Latin before he had learned Scots, and by the age of eight could translate any Bible passage chosen at random from Latin into French, then from French into English 'as well as few men could.' (2) Thomas Fuller reported that Overall had said to his father that, when being asked to preach in English before the Queen Elizabeth Overall found it difficult to "speak English in a continued oration" as he had spoken Latin for so long in public discourse.
Overall had a first-hand knowledge of the Greek and Latin 'church fathers,'
It is noted by Bishop Hacket that it was his custom to ground his sermons in the schools on two or three texts of Scripture showing what latitude of opinion or interpretation was admissible . . . . He was celebrated for the appropriateness of his quotations from the Fathers.The exactness of Overall's literary scholarship is reflected by his addiction to the scholastic writers of the middle ages. The schoolmen refined analysis of language to a fine art involving the definition of nicer shades of thought as well as cultivating precise word-definition. (McClure) Linguistic analysts of our own day are hardly treading new ground here. Overall's skills would have served the Westminster company well, whilst they would have looked more to Geoffrey King (Professor of Hebrew at Cambridge) and William Bedwell, ('father of Arabic studies in England') for their opinions on the finer points of Hebrew syntax and idiomatic usage. Nevertheless all Andrewes' group were Hebrew scholars to a greater or lesser degree.
Further guarantee of the highest standards of translation scholarship were secured by the 'rules of engagement' set by the King. Each group had to submit its work to every other group for evaluation, with review and suggestion by each member of the group. Each translator was thereby seen as responsible to check the entire Translation as best he could (given time constraints) and so work for the highest accuracy. All suggestions for improvement were submitted to a final revision committee of twelve senior men for analysis and application. The three directors of the company were all Hebraists: Edward Lively, Regius professor of Hebrew at Cambridge; John Harding, Regius professor of Hebrew at Oxford, and Lancelot Andrewes, whose knowledge of ancient languages was celebrated and well known.
Never has a translated work of literature been subjected to such a thorough and rigorous scrutiny by so many scholars at one time. "Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety. Pro. 11:14
Jerusalem chamber, Westminster Abbey
Altogether the first Westminster Company was rich in talent, sensibility and experience --well fit (as one writer put it) to' sit down in a cold stone room by the fire and discuss in capable fashion' the legendary, historical, and biographical narratives, short stories, and lyric poetry in the books of Genesis through 2 Kings entrusted to their care.(2) However, it is gratuitous to believe that any one of the translators relegated an Old Testament story to the status of mere legend."! Their minds had not yet been poisoned by the anti-supernatural scepticism of the eighteenth century 'enlightenment.' Their work is thus much more relevant to the creation of sound contemporary biblical faith than it has been for 400 years..
Within a year of beng made Bishop of Norwich, Overall died.
(1) Cranfield, Nicholas (2008) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
(2) Bobrick, Benson. (2001) The Making of the English Bible Lon: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, p. 210