Monday, March 10, 2014

How We Got the Bible: The English Bible to 1611

Chapter 16 of the book details the history of English translations of the Bible. Christianity reached Britain no later than the third century; however the Latin language held such dominance in the West that English translations did not begin until the seventh century. This history is detailed by Lightfoot as follows:

Earliest English Versions

The first known attempt to translate Bible accounts into Anglo-Saxon is the arrangement of narratives of the Bible in verse form done by Caedmon in the mid-seventh century. This attempt, however, was not an actual translation. The first actual translation came by Aldhelm (d. 709) and it was only of Psalms. The completion of a translation of the Gospel of John by Bede (d. 735) is recorded but was not preserved. The Psalms and other parts of Scripture were translated during the close of the ninth century as a result of a religious reform sparked by King Alfred. Abbot Aelfric translated other portions of the Old Testament during the tenth century. Overall, the Old English versions that have been preserved contain the Pentateuch, some Old Testament historical books, the Psalms, and the Gospels.

The Norman Conquest changed the English language to what is now known as Middle English. Parts of the Bible were not translated into English until the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Specifically it was the work of William of Shoreham and Richard Rolle during the first half of the fourteenth century which began the struggle to place the Bible in the hands of common people.


John Wycliffe played a great role in the spiritual revival of the fourteenth century. It was his conviction that the common man should have access to the Gospel in his language that led him to undertake and complete the first English translation of the entire Bible from Latin. It was completed in 1382 and, whether or not Wycliffe did any of the translating himself, the version bears his name for it would not have been accomplished apart from his influence. An anonymous revision of the Wycliffe version came about in 1388. It was perhaps translated by John Purvey; a Lollard or follower of Wycliffe. These two versions put in place the conditions in England for the sixteenth century Reformation.


It was William Tyndale’s chief end in life to provide the English people with a translation of the Bible based not on Latin but on the original Greek and Hebrew. With his Oxford and Cambridge training he determined to translate Erasmus’ 1516 New Testament. There was so much resistance from the Roman Church to his work that he had to complete the translation in Germany. It was completed in 1525 and he first sought to have it printed in Cologne. However, he had to flee from this city and have it printed in Worms. The first copies were smuggled into England in early 1526. The copies that were confiscated by officials of the Roman Church were burned in public ceremony and money was even set aside by them to buy copies.

Tyndale then began working on translating the Old Testament from Hebrew. He completed the Pentateuch by 1530, then Jonah (1531), a revised Genesis (1534), and two editions of his New Testament (1534-1535). He was betrayed and imprisoned in 1535 and then strangled and burned at the stake in 1536. Tyndale’s dying prayer was, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.”

Tyndale’s work established the tone  of the English Bible (that it is to be in the language of the common people) by replacing such words as “church” with “congregation”, “charity” with “love”, and “penance” with “repentance.” Words such as “Passover”, “scapegoat,” “mercy seat,” and “long-suffering” also we owe to him. Expressions long beloved by readers of the English Bible came from his work. For example, “the salt of the earth” (Matthew 11:29), “in my Father’s house are many mansions” (John 14:2), and “Behold I stand at the door and knock” (Revelation 3:20). Lightfoot writes:

Tyndale’s work was not flawless. Many of his renderings needed the corrections made in later translations, but he unquestionably achieved what he sought:  a translation that could be understood even by the boy at the plow. His dedication, his good heart, and his devotion to his task stand out over the centuries.

Other Sixteenth Century Translations

A translation based on Tyndale’s was published in 1535 by Miles Coverdale. It was the first in England not to be officially hindered. Matthew’s Bible was issued in 1537 and it was a combination of Tyndale and Coverdale done by John Rogers. The Taverner’s Bible of 1539 was done independently and revised Matthew’s Bible. It provided a number of improved renderings in the New Testament. Another revision to Matthew’s Bible was released in 1539. Known as the Great Bible, it was the first English Bible allowed to be read in the churches following the desire of Henry VIII that it be dispersed among the people and thus it was an answer to the prayer of Tyndale.

The Geneva Bible of 1560 was the most popular Bible of the century. Over the course of its 140 editions, it was used by Shakespeare and the settlement in Jamestown, Virginia and Plymouth, Massachusetts. It had accompanying commentary and illustrations, printed each verse in paragraph form, put words not represented in the original texts in italics, and became the Bible for the family. However, it was not popular with English church officials due to the commentary presenting the views of Calvin and the Reformation.  As a result, a revision to the Great Bible known as the Bishops’ Bible was completed in 1568 and another edition four years later. It was less scholarly and less popular though.

A Roman Catholic translation of the New Testament came out in 1582 at the English college of Rheims and the college at Douai produced a translation of the Old Testament in 1609-1610. These were translated from the Latin Vulgate and not the original languages.

The King James Version

The Authorized Version of 1611, better known as the King James Version, provided a translation that was able to be used in public and private while at the same time transcend all religious factions; something that no previous version was able to do. It arose out of the Hampton Court Conference of 1604, summoned by King James to discuss religious toleration, in which Dr. John Reynolds suggested a new translation. The king began the process and instituted the requirements to be followed, one of the main being no commentary beyond what was essential in translating the text was to be added. The work began in 1607 or earlier with the goal of revising the Bishops’ Bible not creating a new translation. Lightfoot writes:

About forty-eight choice Greek and Hebrew scholars were selected and divided into six working companies, two at Westminster, two at Oxford, and two at Cambridge. Each company, restricted in its labors by detailed instructions, was assigned selected books to be translated, and the work of each company was sent to and reviewed by the other companies. Appointed delegates of each company smoothed out the difficult spots. In this way the translation was the product of no individual or group but of the reviewers as a whole.

Due to the advances in Greek and Hebrew scholarship since Tyndale, the general excellence of literary scholarship and learning at the time, the insights gained from the strengths and weaknesses of the previous translations, and no single viewpoint being represented, the King James Version was superior. Lightfoot concludes the chapter by stating that eighty percent of Tyndale’s translation lives on today in the King James Version so he “is truly the father of the English Bible.”

Stand firm in Christ,

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