It’s 1631, and you’re fortunate enough to be among the 10% of English women who can read the mother tongue. A beautiful new reprinting of the King James Bible has just hit ye olde newsstands. You rush out to buy one.
A few months later, you’re flipping through Exodus (your favorite chapter) when something strange catches your eye. The seventh commandment (your favorite commandment) looks a little different than you remember learning it:
“Thou shalt commit adultery.”
You read it again to make sure. Yep. “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Can this be right? You would ask your husband for a second opinion, but you don’t want him getting any ideas.
Three centuries later, this particular version of the King James Bible is known by another name: The Wicked Bible (aka “The Sinners’ Bible” and “The Adulterous Bible”).
About 1,000 copies of the text were printed in 1631 with the word “not” missing from the seventh commandment, scandalously transforming an exhortation of faithfulness into a skeevy call to swingers. And while it may seem funny today, for royal printers Robert Barker and Martin Lucas it was anything but.
Robert Barker is probably best known for printing the original edition of the King James Bible in 1611. This landmark of publishing wasn’t without its own errors; notably, one mixed-up pronoun in the book of Ruth referred to the title character as a “he” instead of a “she,” earning the first edition of the KJB the playful nickname, “The Great He Bible.”
Barker corrected the pronoun in his next edition, but continued to let minor typos slip into the Good Book on and off for the next few decades (a good editor was hard to buy when most of the country was illiterate). Luckily, each mistake was deemed excusable… until The Wicked Bible.
While in the employ of King Charles I, Barker and his publishing partner Martin Lucas sent about 1,000 copies of the Adulterous Bible into the world. And amazingly, it took a year before anyone caught on. When the holy shoe finally dropped, Barker and Lucas were summoned to court, fined £300 (the equivalent of more than $60,000 today) and had their printing licenses removed. The King was personally outraged, and the Archbishop of Canterbury took the opportunity to rail against the media in a diatribe that may sound all too familiar to the modern ear:
“I knew the time when great care was had about printing,” the Bishop said, “but now the paper is nought, the composers boys, and the correctors unlearned.”
Nearly all 1,000 copies of the Wicked Bible were recalled or burnt, but some remain visible in private collections today (On rare occasions, you can catch a glimpse of the offending commandments at the New York Public Library or Dunham Bible Museum in Houston). Those that are unaccounted for could be extremely valuable: one copy sold at auction for $40,435 in 2015.
Would the enormous value of their typo-tainted text be any consolation to Barker and Lucas? According to Bonhams auction specialist Simon Roberts, maybe the scandal itself was its own reward. “In a sense the jury is still out on why the misprint happened,” Roberts told The Guardian. “Originally it was thought that it was just a mistake which didn’t get noticed, which to me seems slightly unlikely—if you’re going to check 10 things, then you’d think you would check that page.”
These things happen.