The Bible in English

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Many of us are spoiled. We likely live in proximity to a bookstore, or if not, then we are just a mouse click away from an online source of books that would put at our disposal any number of English Bible translations in any type of bindings and in all shapes, sizes, and colors. This embarrassment of riches, however, hasn’t always been the case. For centuries, written copies of the Bible in English, Old English that is, simply didn’t exist. Copies were extremely expensive and not so commonly distributed. The expansive English Bible selection we enjoy today is the end product of a long and winding history, a history marked by sacrifice and blood, intrigue and politics. It is the history of the English Bible.

Arguably, the King James Version stands as the grandest of the English Bible translations. It has been dubbed a monument of literary translation, considered a sublime text. To be sure, for contemporary audiences the sublime prose can be confusing at times, more obscuring than helpful. Considering that it is nearly four hundred years old, however, it clearly has staying power. The King James Version also provides a good anchor for the history of the English Bible. It’s the result of nearly four centuries of work that led up to it, and has, for another four centuries, continued to cast its shadow. We can frame our history of the English Bible around it, looking to the era that led up to it, the era of its birth, and the era since.

The English Bible before the King James Version 

Christianity came to the Anglo Saxons in the sixth century by St. Augustine (not the Augustine of The Confessions). He brought with him a Latin Bible. Thus the Bible, unread and unable to be understood, was not at the center of church life in England in those early centuries. That place would be given to the rituals of the church instead. Bede, the historian of this early English Christianity, however, notes how that began to change when Caedmon, originally a farmer from Whitby, composed songs to tell the Bible’s story. These were the first attempts at having the Bible in the Saxon language. Caedmon’s contemporary, Aldhelm, the abbot at Malmsbury and then bishop, also composed songs with generous quotations from Scripture. By 706, Aldhelm had gone so far as to translate the Psalter into Saxon. Visitors to the Royal Library of Paris could see a copy for themselves. The work of English translations had begun. It would be centuries, though, until the full Bible would be made available. Latin was the official language of the church. The common people, the religious establishment argued, were better off without direct access to the Word of God. It would take the Council of Toulouse in 1229 to forbid any Scripture in “the vulgar tongue,” but that sentiment reigned long before the official decree.

Despite that decree, translation efforts persisted. By the mid-1300s, John Wycliffe, the Oxford scholar and priest, would spearhead the attempt at a translation of the entire Bible. Wycliffe railed against the “priestcraft” and abuse that he saw in the church in his book On Divine Dominion, saying a thing or two about the abuses of power on the political side of the Holy Roman Empire in his other book, On Civil Dominion. Neither of these works, though, would secure his place in history. That would come from his other work, which was largely the work of his students but gets attributed to him nevertheless, the Wycliffe Bible. For these efforts, Wycliffe would be exiled and then eventually be found a heretic. But, alas, the verdict came down long after he had died. Undeterred, the church exhumed his body and burned his bones. Wycliffe’s translation was both a manuscript, which had to be painstakingly hand-copied, and a translation. Wycliffe and his team of students and colleagues were working from the Vulgate. Three subsequent developments would forever change the English Bible.

The Era of the King James Bible

These developments consisted of the printing press in the 1450s, the publication of the Greek text of the New Testament in 1516, and the Protestant Reformation started the next year by Martin Luther. These three developments set the stage for William Tyndale. Convinced that the Gospel lay obscured because common people did not have access to the Bible, Tyndale plied his efforts at producing a Bible. Luther had done the same for the Germans. Now it was time for the English. People who like statistics report that nearly ninety percent of the King James Version is Tyndale. Considering the place the kjv retains among English Bibles, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that the thumbprint of Tyndale is on every page of every English Bible. For his part in it all, Tyndale was considered an outlaw of the church. Chased across Europe, Tyndale was eventually martyred in 1536. He had completed the translation of the New Testament, first published in 1525, and laid the groundwork for most of the translation of the Old Testament, published in 1537. When King Henry published his Great Bible in 1539, it was largely Tyndale’s work, a providential irony indeed. This decade of the 1530s also saw the publication of the Coverdale Bible in 1535 and the Matthews Bible in 1537, both of which heavily relied on Tyndale’s work.

The next landmark in the history of the English Bible came in 1560 with the publication of the Geneva Bible. Under Bloody Mary, a number of English Protestants fled to the safe havens of Geneva to study under Calvin. While there they produced not only a new translation, but also the first Bible with extensive study notes. William Whittington, a relative of John Calvin’s, is credited with leading this team of scholars. By 1568, and the regime change from Mary to Elizabeth I, the Geneva Bible was slightly modified and produced as the Bishop’s Bible, the official version of the church of England. But it wouldn’t be the official version for long.

In 1604, King James I convened a conference at Hampton Court, commissioning, among other things, a new translation of the Bible. Seven years later, a team of approximately fifty scholars sent off their work to the printer, resulting in the 1611 King James Version. The Bible was published as a folio Bible, with rather large leafs, and contained the Apocrypha for a total of eighty books. It tended to be bound in two volumes. Pocket-size it certainly wasn’t. Eventually, digest-sized (called “octavo”) editions would roll off the press. At first, the kjv couldn’t overtake its rival the Geneva Bible. The Geneva Bible remained the favorite of the Puritans. They took the Geneva Bible with them when they set sail for the New World. As for the rest of England, soon the kjv won out and would for centuries reign as the supreme English Bible.

Of course, there were some glitches from time to time in the printing of the kjv. There was the “He Bible,” mistakenly having “he” instead of “she” at Ruth 3:15. And there is the Bible collector’s prized possession, the so-called “Wicked Bible.” This 1631 printing has omitted the “not” in Exodus 20:14, resulting in “Thou shalt commit adultery.” In addition to these obvious printing errors, real errors in translation were continually refined throughout the printing of the King James Version. Centuries later, it continues to hold strong.

The Era since the KJV

Today, English speakers have many choices for a Bible due to the proliferation of translations and paraphrases in the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries. Language changes from generation to generation. Idioms and even grammar rules and grammatical structures change. In addition, the field of biblical scholarship continually expands its understanding of particular Hebrew and Greek words and grammatical constructs, not to mention the discovery of more manuscripts of the biblical books in the last century. All combined, these factors have resulted in the production of many English translations and paraphrases, an almost dizzying array.

One of the milestones of this activity is the English Revised Version of 1881, most commonly referred to as simply the Revised Version, a product of a large team of scholars from a variety of denominations. This version was slightly modified in 1901 as the American Standard Version. After further revisions, the rv was supplanted in 1952 and again in 1971 as the Revised Standard Version. The rsv has undergone yet another transformation under the hands of another team of scholars and has been published in 2001 as the English Standard Version. These versions hold to an “essentially literal” approach to translating the text, retaining both a readable and an eloquent English text. Another milestone is the New International Version, first appearing in 1973. This version’s philosophy stresses readability and advocates a “dynamic equivalence” approach that is more of a thought-for-thought rather than an essentially literal translation. 

The history of the English Bible is a long and circuitous one that has resulted in a treasure of riches for us living downstream. Thanks to the sacrifices of people like John Wycliffe and William Tyndale, as well as the energies of countless scholars whose names have been lost to us, we not only have the Word of God in English, we have the Word of God in English many times over.

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