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Part I: From Wycliffe to King James (The Period of Challenge)

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March 21, 2001

Preface: This is the third part of a four-part lecture that was delivered at Lancaster Bible College in March, 2001, for the Staley Bible Lectureship. We are hoping to get permission to post all of the lectures as an audio tape on the Biblical Studies Foundation website. Here are some audio of a Textual Criticism series Dr. Wallace has done. Dr. Wallace is available as a conference speaker on “The History of the English Bible.” 

Preface

There is an old Italian proverb about the nature of translation: “Traddutore, traditore!” This means simply, “Translators—traitors!” Of course, as you can see, something is lost in the translation of this pithy expression: there is great similarity in both the spelling and the pronunciation of the original saying, but these get diluted once they are put in English dress. Even the translation of this proverb illustrates its truth! Another Italian dictum expresses a similar sentiment: “All translation is a polite lie!”

Slightly less pessimistic about the nature of translation is this one-liner by the Jewish poet Hayyim Nachman Bialik, “He who reads the Bible in translation is like a man who kisses his bride through a veil.”1 In a sense this is true, but as MacGregor retorted in his Literary History of the Bible2, “Still, when a veil there must be, the translator’s task is to make it as gossamer-fine a veil as may be. Indeed, the face of even the most beautiful of women may be enhanced by a veil, if only the veil be worthy of her beauty.”3

You can understand, from these snippets, one of the reasons why there is sometimes great reticence to translate the Bible into other languages. For one thing, since the translator presumably already knows Greek and Hebrew, he does not need to do the translation for himself. He is doing it for others. Second, he may sense that his work is doomed from the start. His translation can never measure up to the original document. That great standard of comparison can only unmask the flaws in his own efforts. And third, because he is translating the Word of God, the spiritual burden to get it right is often a very heavy weight. Every translator knows that he is also an interpreter, for there is no translation without interpretation. And the translator of the Bible knows that as an interpreter he is, in some sense, a teacher, and that (as James says), “not many of you should become teachers, because teachers will face a more severe judgment.”4 For the translator, this ‘severe judgment’ initially comes not from God but from man—because every translation of the Bible has been condemned by someone as soon as it rolled off the press. It is preeminently an act of selfless love that the translator engages in this task at all.5

Religious people of all faiths struggle with these attitudes. We should not be surprised to learn that in the Muslim religion, for example, the only true Koran is the one in Arabic. No translation may properly be called the Koran.6

On the other hand, there are strong impulses to translate the Bible into the language that the layperson can understand. These impulses merge in one particular branch of Christianity that ‘began’ on October 31, 1517, when a young Augustinian monk named Martin Luther challenged the church hierarchy of his day by posting 95 complaints on the door of the Wittenberg Church in Germany.7 Protestantism was born.

Introduction

The history of Protestantism is intimately tied to the Bible in three ways:

  1. Protestantism teaches that the Bible is our ultimate authority, not tradition or personalities or experience—the Bible alone;
  2. Protestantism teaches the priesthood of all believers which means, among other things, that each Christian has the privilege and the responsibility to know God and his revealed will in the Scriptures;
  3. a natural outgrowth of these two principles is that every Christian needs to have access to the Scriptures in his or her own language.  Therefore, Protestants—more than any other religious group of any religion—have translated the Scriptures and are passionate that all have access to the Word of God. In short, we are people of the Book.

The Bible is indispensable to our faith. Not just theoretically, but practically. Not just through preaching and teaching, but through one’s own individual reading and study. Since the Bible is God’s revelation of himself to us, we cannot know him without knowing it. Without the Scriptures, the God you worship is the god of your imagination.

This week I will be speaking on the history of the English Bible. It’s a fascinating history and a bloody history. It is high drama—a story that is as much political as it is personal, as much literary as it is religious. “No literary work has had so much influence on the English language as the translation of the Bible. Yet, the cost for providing the English speaking people with a Bible must be counted in the blood of the men who sought to translate it.”8

This morning, we will look at the earliest period, from Wycliffe to the King James.

I. From Wycliffe to King James: the Period of Challenge

Until John Wycliffe translated the New Testament, only small portions of the Bible had been translated into English. The English language traces its roots back to approximately AD 600; within a hundred years, the Psalms and a portion of the Gospels had been translated. In 735, the Venerable Bede, on his dying day, completed his translation of John’s Gospel. 165 years later, King Alfred the Great translated a portion of the Pentateuch. A few others during this period translated the Gospels or the Psalms, and little else.

Not only were these translations incomplete, but there were three other problems with them: (1) they were all translations from the Latin Vulgate, rather than from the original Greek and Hebrew texts; (2) they were not very good translations; and (3) for the most part, they were not accessible to lay folks, but were “translation ponies” to help the priests understand the Latin Vulgate better.

For over 300 years, no Bible translation into English was done, as far as we know. The Norman Invasion of 1066 was the fundamental reason: for the next three centuries English was only infrequently used for any written documents. Noblemen wrote in French—the language of the elite—and official church documents were in Latin. English was for peasants.

John Wycliffe (c. 1328-1384) and his Bible (c. 1382)

Background

Picture, if you can, what it would be like to be alive in fourteenth century England. You are most likely a peasant, a farmer who toils to bring in an adequate harvest for the landowner. Like everyone else, you consider yourself a Christian, yet you struggle to understand God’s will. In the middle of this century, in 1348, the Bubonic Plague or Black Death hit England, and at least one out of four of your friends and relatives were dead within a few months. One out of four! Your grief for your loved ones is compounded by uncertainty over their eternal destiny. You doubt your own destiny, too. Your fear of purgatory drives your devotion. You find little comfort in the church; instead, your already thin pocketbook is relieved of its meager possessions by the sale of indulgences. The church only seems to be interested in your money and your confession. You long for a better life.

Meanwhile, the Papacy is in a major crisis: the Popes for nearly three-fourths of the century were exiled to Avignon, France in what was called the “Babylonian Captivity.” How could the English respect and obey a Pope who lived in France—England’s mortal enemy!

On top of all this, the Church in England was in disarray. The finest government posts were often given to clergy, but this caused resentment in the nobles who wanted the posts for themselves. Rather than Democrats and Republicans, England had the pro-clergy and anti-clergy parties. If you ever wanted to question the structure of religious authority, now was the time. So much seemed wrong! And yet, if you even dared to speak to the local priest about finding God’s will in the Bible, you would be rebuffed for asking such a question! Besides that, he simply would not know the answer. He only read the Bible in Latin, and only those portions that were important for the liturgy. He had never read the whole Bible himself—ever. And besides, his Latin skills were not very good—just enough to mutter a few prayers in church from memory. Life—physically, socially, financially, spiritually—looked pretty bleak in fourteenth-century England.

Into this climate entered the ‘morningstar of the Reformation,’ a man named John Wycliffe.

Wycliffe was born sometime between 1325 and 1330; he was educated at Oxford, earning his doctorate in theology when in his 40s, in 1372. He was the preeminent Oxford theologian of his day. Even though he was a Roman Catholic priest, he did not hesitate to speak against the excesses of the Church. Wycliffe did not consider the clergy to have any special rights—even though he belonged to their class. And his views were grounded in Scripture.

He began to chip away at unbiblical practices and beliefs in the church. Not only did he reject the doctrine of transubstantiation—the Catholic teaching that the bread and wine of Communion literally become the flesh and blood of Christ—but he also rejected all church hierarchy, including papal authority. To Wycliffe, the Bible rather than the Pope was our ultimate authority.

His views did not go unchallenged of course. He was fired from his post at Oxford in 1382. Throughout his lifetime, five papal edicts were issued for his arrest. But because England was distancing itself from Rome, he found protection in powerful, anti-clergy nobles. In 1384, he died of natural causes and was buried in the Lutterworth church cemetery where he was pastor.

Wycliffe believed that each man was directly accountable to God. But if each person was directly accountable to God, then they needed to have the Bible translated into their own language. You can catch Wycliffe’s passion and directness in these words of his:

Those Heretics who pretend that the laity need not know God’s law but that the knowledge which priests have had imparted to them by word of mouth is sufficient, do not deserve to be listened to. For Holy Scriptures is the faith of the Church, and the more widely its true meaning becomes known the better it will be. Therefore since the laity should know the faith, it should be taught in whatever language is most easily comprehended… [After all,] Christ and His apostles taught the people in the language best known to them.9

That’s called ‘in your face’ preaching! Wycliffe did not pull any punches; and he didn’t know how to be polite when heaven and hell were hanging in the balance!

John Wycliffe was the impetus behind a translation of the NT into English that was accomplished in c. 1382. He most likely did very little of the actual translation, but was the prime mover in its production. The OT was done entirely by others.

His followers, known as Lollards, were poor Oxford scholars who preached the Word. They had a huge impact on the common folk, largely because they counted their own lives as nothing for the cause of Christ. In the two decades after Wycliffe’s death, many Lollards were burned at the stake, some even with their Bibles hanging from their necks to be burned with them.10

Text

The text that Wycliffe and his associates translated from was the Latin Vulgate rather than the original Greek and Hebrew. Now, a word should be said about the Latin Vulgate because this will be important as we look at the English Bible the rest of this week.

The Vulgate was the official Bible in western Europe from the late fourth century on. It was a translation that St. Jerome had made, by the order of Pope Damasus. And since Greek had begun to die out in western Europe after Constantine moved the capital to the east, Latin naturally became the language of the people in the west. By the middle ages, Greek was completely unknown in western Europe. (It would not be studied in any university until 1458, at the University of Paris.) All the clergy in the west for a thousand years had to learn Latin, but not Greek or Hebrew. In terms of longevity, the Latin Vulgate is the most influential translation of the Bible in history.

Back to Wycliffe: As I said, Wycliffe did not translate from the original Greek and Hebrew. And as good as the Latin Vulgate was, there were severe shortcomings in its translation. For one thing, Latin does not have the definite article. That is a gift that the Greeks gave to Europe. But the article occurs in the Greek NT almost 20,000 times—understanding its use is vital for hundreds of passages. And yet, Wycliffe knew none of this, since he only used the Latin text as his base.

Translation

The Wycliffe Bible went through two editions—one in 1382 and in c. 1395, the second by Wycliffe’s assistant, John Purvey.11 And although Purvey’s revision was a significant improvement, one could hardly call either version a masterpiece of English prose. But the first edition was slavishly literal—even to the point of retaining the Latin word order when it made no sense in English!12 The Wycliffe Bible illustrates on every page that a ‘word-for-word’ translation is not necessarily an accurate translation, because the meaning of the original is not communicated clearly in this kind of rendering.

Significance

What is the significance of the Wycliffe translation?

  1. It was the first complete Bible in English—in fact, the first complete Bible in any modern European language!
  2. It indirectly began to break down the power structures of the political-religious machinery of the Roman Catholic church. Lay folks did not need to rely on the priests to access God. And they could know his will and even challenge their spiritual leaders. It is no wonder that by 1408 even reading the Bible in English was outlawed.13 People owned a copy at risk of liberty and life. So powerful was Wycliffe’s influence in fact that in 1415 the Pope decreed that his bones should be dug up, burned, and the ashes scattered on the River Swift.14
  3. The translation was completed more than sixty years before the invention of the movable-type printing press. All Wycliffe Bibles were thus handwritten copies. This lessened its impact considerably. And even though one Bible could take up to a year to copy, thousands were made. 

William Tyndale (c. 1494-1536) and his New Testament (1525-1536)

Background

No new English translations occurred between Wycliffe’s and Tyndale’s. One hundred and thirty years passed without progress. A part of the reason was no doubt that the 1408 British law against any Bible in English was still in effect. It would be risky enough just to make a copy of Wycliffe’s Bible!

Meanwhile, there were encouraging signs in the rest of Europe. Italian, French, Spanish, and Dutch Bibles appeared in the 1400s, most likely inspired by Wycliffe’s pioneering efforts. The stage was becoming set for the single most influential Bible translator of all time.

Several major events took place between the time of Wycliffe and Tyndale. 

  1. For nearly forty years—1378-1417—the “Great Schism” was tearing apart the very fabric of religious authority in Europe: during this time there were two rival Popes—one in Avignon and one in Rome!15 No one knew who the vicar of Christ on earth was!
  2. Invention of the movable-type printing press (c. 1454). Gutenberg’s first full-length book: Latin Vulgate Bible.
  3. 1453: Turks invade Byzantium, where Emperor Constantine had 1100 years earlier moved his capital to. In those 1100 years, Greek learning had disappeared from western Europe. But with the invasion of Byzantium, Greek scholars took their manuscripts and fled into Europe. Five years later, Greek is offered for the first time at a European university. The Reformation and Renaissance would be born as a result of the rediscovery of classical Greek and of the Greek New Testament.
  4. The spirit of adventure took off. The new world was discovered in 1492.  Men became risk-takers like never before.
  5. The near-simultaneous events of the Turkish invasion of Byzantium and the invention of the printing press were the catalyst for the production of the first published Greek New Testament on March 1, 1516.
  6. October 31, 1517: the Reformation is born when Luther challenges the Roman Catholic Church in Wittenberg.

Thus, challenges to the religious status quo, courage of convictions, knowledge of the ancient sources, and dissemination of information to the masses joined hands at a decisive time in European history. Tyndale’s Bible would be born in this milieu.

William Tyndale was trained in Greek and Hebrew. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Oxford in 1512 (at the ripe old age 16 or 17!), and his master’s degree in 1515. He later studied at Cambridge, to round out his education. In due time, he became fluent in six or seven languages. In short, Tyndale was no dummy! Further, his sense of English style was unparalleled.

As he was contemplating a fresh translation of the Bible in the 1520s, he came to the realization that it was impossible to do this work in England.16 The 1408 edict against Bible translation was still in effect. Besides, Tyndale could find no one in England who knew Hebrew. So he traveled to Germany—and there he was introduced to rabbis from whom he learned the language of the Old Testament. While on the Continent, he translated much of the Bible into English. He could not return to England for fear of his life.

He had a passion for getting the Word of God to lay folks. He wanted the boy behind the plough to know more of the Word of God than the literati of his day. His prayer would come true.17

By 1525 he had completed his first translation of the NT, but it would not get printed until 1526. Three copies of this first edition exist today, only one of which—discovered just a few years ago—is completely intact.18

Tyndale later revised the NT substantially, and the revision was a bona fide masterpiece. He even coined some new words that found their way into the English vocabulary for the next five centuries—words such as ‘Passover,’ ‘peacemaker,’ ‘scapegoat,’ and even the adjective ‘beautiful’ were coined by Tyndale.19 Altogether, he produced five editions of the NT, but the third edition of 1534 is the one most remembered.

Tyndale also did substantial work on the OT, but he did not complete the task. As far as we know, he translated through 2 Chronicles.

He was kidnapped in 1535 in Antwerp, and burned at the stake the next year for heresy.20 His charge? A corrupt translation of the Bible. The reality? A superb translation of the Bible. But the clergy were ostensibly afraid that common folk could not understand the Bible; they needed the clergy and tradition to interpret it for them.21, 22

Tyndale’s dying words were “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!” But Tyndale did not know that just a few months before his death a version of the Bible in English—based largely on his own work—had already been printed in England with King Henry VIII’s blessing. “In the sense which Tyndale intended, the King of England’s eyes were already opening when he voiced his dying prayer.”23

Text

Although Tyndale consulted Luther’s German translation and the Latin Vulgate to help him over the hard places, his translation of the NT was based on the Greek text. He used primarily Erasmus’ third edition.24

Translation

The 1534 edition was a major departure from 1526. It was wonderful English and a lucid translation for its day. Tyndale knew the biblical languages better than any Englishman at the time,25 and he knew English better than most. He turned good Greek into good English.

Significance

It is impossible to overestimate the significance of Tyndale’s translation.

  1. The first English NT after the age of printing.
  2. The first English NT translated directly from the Greek.
  3. The first translation to use italics for words that were not in the text.  (This practice has curiously continued to the present day in the NASB, in spite of the fact that italics are now universally used in other writing for emphasis, not for absence.)
  4. Heavily influenced the KJV: In 1940, Prof. J. Isaacs wrote of Tyndale’s accomplishment: “His simple directness, his magical simplicity of phrase, his modest music, have given an authority to his wording that has imposed itself on all later versions.… Nine-tenths of the Authorized New Testament is still Tindale, and the best is still his.”26 The introduction to a reprint of Tyndale’s New Testament makes the quip: “Astonishment is still voiced that the dignitaries who prepared the 1611 Authorized Version for King James spoke so often with one voice—apparently miraculously. Of course they did: the voice (never acknowledged by them) was Tyndale’s.”27

In rapid succession came three translations, all inferior to Tyndale’s, but nevertheless important landmarks in the history of the Bible in English.

The Coverdale Bible (1535)

The Coverdale Bible (1535) was the work of Myles Coverdale, Tyndale’s assistant. He did not translate directly from the Greek and Hebrew, but did use Luther’s German translation, more than one Latin text, and Tyndale’s OT portions. And he did complete the whole Bible—and thus Coverdale’s became the first complete Bible printed in English. It was Coverdale’s translation that Henry VIII had already permitted to be printed when Tyndale uttered his dying words. The most innovative thing in this Bible was that it placed the Apocrypha—those books that Roman Catholics accept as canonical but which Protestants reject—at the end of the OT rather than interspersed throughout the OT. All previous OT translations had the Apocrypha distributed throughout the OT. All Protestant Bibles that were to follow, if they included the Apocrypha at all, included them as an appendix—just like Coverdale had done.

Matthew’s Bible (1537)

In 1537, Matthew’s Bible appeared. This Bible was the work of John Rogers, whose pen name was Thomas Matthew. He combined Coverdale’s OT with Tyndale’s NT.28 But Rogers also added about 2000 notes, many of them controversial, making this the first revision of Tyndale’s NT. This Bible is sometimes called the “Wife-Beater’s Bible” because the marginal note at 1 Peter 3.7 says, “If [the wife] be not obedient and healpfull unto [her husband, he] endeavoureth to beate the feare of God into her…”!29  That the moniker ‘Wife-Beater’s Bible’ was soon given to this version at least should comfort us that many of our ancestors also thought that this little comment was inappropriate! Although not related to this note, Rogers would become, in 1555, the first martyr to be burned at the stake under Mary Tudor—or ‘Bloody Mary’—the Catholic monarch.30

The Great Bible (1539)

Matthew’s and Coverdale’s Bibles both had Henry VIII’s permission to be printed. Stimulating their popularity but also instigating their demise, in September, 1538 the king ordered an English Bible to be placed in every church. The churches began to use the Matthew Bible because it was a large folio version suitable for public reading, while Coverdale’s had come out in a significantly smaller size. The king’s edict had in fact specified that each church was to have in its possession “one book of the whole Bible of the largest volume in English”—which ruled out all but Matthew’s.

For eight months—from September 1538 to April 1539—England’s devotion to the Bible was at an all-time high. The king’s order not only was that every church should have a copy of Scripture on hand, but that “ye shall  discourage no man… from the reading or hearing of the … Bible, but shall expressly provoke, stir and exhort every person to read the same, as that which is the very lively Word of God…” This command was followed so enthusiastically that laypeople were reading the Bible aloud to their fellow parishioners while the preacher was giving his sermon! Eight months later the king issued a proclamation forbidding this disruptive behavior.

What was needed, however, was a translation as good as Matthew’s but without the notes! So Cromwell commissioned Myles Coverdale to publish a new Bible. It had to be larger than Matthew’s because of the king’s injunction. It was thus called the Great Bible—not because of its literary quality, but because of its enormous size. Although these Bibles were chained down to prevent theft, one has to wonder how necessary that really was!

Even though the Great Bible was edited by Coverdale, it was based on the Matthew Bible. Coverdale did not know Greek or Hebrew, but Rogers did. So Coverdale simply took Matthew’s Bible, revised it, and deleted the notes. It thus became the second revision of Tyndale, after Matthew’s Bible.31

But bishops, many of whom were still Roman Catholic, were offended at this Bible, because it separated the Apocrypha from the rest of the OT and because it did not conform to the Latin Vulgate.32 Not only this, but in the closing years of Henry VIII’s reign, the king swung the religious pendulum once again. In 1543 Parliament forbade any public, unauthorized exposition of Scripture—as well as all private reading of the Bible among the lower classes. Three years later, Henry outdid the Parliament by banning all copies of Tyndale and Coverdale.

“The ban on the Bibles of Tyndale and Coverdale was a monumental piece of absurdity”33 because the Great Bible was essentially Tyndale’s and was edited by Coverdale!

The Geneva Bible (1557 [NT], 1560 [whole Bible])

When Edward VI, Henry’s son, became king, the Reformation was back in swing. But his reign did not last long. In 1553 Mary Tudor, Edward’s sister, ascended the throne.34 She reversed Edward’s Protestant advances, returning the country to Catholicism. And she began to systematically burn both Bibles and Protestants. Many Protestant scholars fled from England to Geneva, where the famous Reformed theologian, John Calvin, was living. Here, they produced a magnificent Bible, though it appeared originally only in quarto size.

One of these Reformers, William Whittingham (who happened to be Calvin’s brother-in-law), completed his translation of the NT in 1557. He and other Reformers worked on the whole Bible, and three years later the OT and a revised NT appeared.

The significance of the Geneva Bible lies in the following:

  1. The Geneva Bible was the first English Bible translated entirely from the Greek and Hebrew. And it was the first translation done by a committee. Still, it relied heavily on Tyndale’s work as a base, and can properly be regarded as the third revision of Tyndale.35
  2. It was Calvinistic in its notes (and the notes were rather plentiful), exalting the Lord and his glory.36
  3. It was the first English Bible with verse divisions.  This was due, for the NT at least, to Stephanus’ fourth edition of the Greek NT (1551), the first Greek NT (or NT of any kind) with verse divisions.37 As a sidenote, the effect of this was not altogether healthy, for with the addition of verse numbers came the deletion of paragraphing. This certainly had an effect on prooftexting or quoting a single verse here or there out of context. Not until the Revised Version of 1881 was paragraphing used in an English Bible again (with verse numbers put in the margins). (Anachronistically, the NASB has continued the former policy, noting the new paragraph only with a bold number.)
  4. This was also the first Bible to use italics extensively for words that were not in the original text.
  5. This was the Bible the Pilgrims took with them when they came to America and landed at Plymouth. It was also the Bible that Shakespeare used.
  6. The Geneva was produced originally only in quarto size, most likely because it was produced in Europe and shipped back to England. Thus, although its text and notes are exquisite, the print is small and the volume inelegant. Nevertheless, while the Great Bible was used in churches, the Geneva was used in homes.
  7. The influence of this Bible on the KJV was enormous. The KJV translators employed this as much as Tyndale’s (of course, much of Tyndale was incorporated into the Geneva). And although King James despised the Geneva Bible, in the original preface to the KJV the Bible is quoted several times—and every time it is the Geneva version that is quoted, not the King James! This was an implicit and perhaps unwitting admission of the Geneva Bible’s superiority.
  8. This is also known as the “‘Breeches’ Bible.” This is because at Genesis 3:7, Adam and Eve sewed fig leaves together and made them into “breeches.”38
  9. Finally, the Geneva Bible had a long and stellar history. During the 45-year reign of Queen Elizabeth nearly 100 editions of the Geneva Bible were published! Even fifty years after the KJV appeared, the Geneva Bible was the most popular Bible in England. Ultimately, it would not survive because of politics: a new king would come along who wanted his own translation—one that was not so Calvinistic.

The Bishops’ Bible (1568)

“The instant success of the Geneva Bible made it impossible to go on using the Great Bible for reading in church; its deficiencies became all too obvious in the light of the new version.”39 But the Geneva Bible clearly could not be used in ecclesiastical settings: it was too Calvinistic for the English clergy and was so popular among the lower classes that it was politically incorrect to use from the pulpit!40

The Bishops’ Bible thus came on the scene in 1568. This was a pulpit Bible, based on the Great Bible. It is thus properly considered the fourth revision of Tyndale. It was called the Bishops’ Bible because it was produced by bishops. But it was too wooden, too pedestrian a translation. Even Elizabeth never officially recognized this translation. It could not compete with the Geneva which had appeared eight years earlier and was a much better translation. The Bishops’ Bible never caught on and its last printing occurred in 1606. Ironically, this inferior translation became the official base that the King James translators were directed to use in making their version.

The Rheims-Douai Bible (1582 [NT], 1609-1610 [whole Bible])

After Bloody Mary’s short reign, Elizabeth came on the scene as the new queen. And she was a Protestant. This time the Catholic scholars fled to Europe!  It must be remembered that the Protestants were not the only ones to get persecuted. Blood flowed both ways.

The Catholics wanted their own English Bible. This was not because they had now agreed that lay people should have a Bible in their own tongues. Rather, since they really could not stop laypeople from reading the Bible, they at least wanted them to read a “correct” version of it. Nevertheless, in the preface to this version, the readership was intended to be priests and other dignitaries. The masses were discouraged from reading the Bible, but if they were going to read one, this had better be it.

The Rheims-Douai Bible also had some influence on the wording of the KJV.41  This Bible was—as is the case with all Catholic Bibles until the mid-twentieth century—based on the Latin Vulgate, rather than directly from the Greek or Hebrew texts. This was because the Council of Trent (1544) had decreed that Bibles should be translated from the Latin. It was not until Vatican II before this was rescinded.

This brings us to the dawn of a new era, which began with the KJV. The first era of English Bible translation thus lasted from 1382—1610, or nearly 230 years. It was a period marked by two things: on the one hand, by a profound concern that every Christian have access to God’s revealed will in the Bible. On the other hand, the church hierarchy suppressed this effort—first by killing the translators and burning their Bibles. And when that failed, an ‘authorized’ translation was made that tried to stem the tide of the Protestant heresy.42


1 As quoted by C. C. Ryrie in Formatting the Word of God (Dallas: Bridwell Library, 1998) 11.

2 Geddes MacGregor, A Literary History of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1968) 190.

3 As quoted by Ryrie, Formatting, 11.

4 A paraphrase of Jas 3.1, though catching the spirit of his statement.

5 After I wrote this point, I read Bruce Metzger’s treatment of the Vulgate in his Early Versions of the New Testament. To my astonishment and delight, I read again Jerome’s sentiment addressed to Pope Damasus in the preface to his revision of the Four Gospels (p. 333 in Versions), that echoes the same points.

6 So Dr. Abdullah Ibn Saleh Al-‘Ubaid in the Introduction to Interpretation of the meanings of the Noble Qu’rân in the English Language, Summarized in One Volume (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: Dar-us-Salam Publications, 1995) 11: “Lastly, I would like to confirm that this translation is only the translation of the interpretation of the meanings of the Noble Qu’rân and it should neither be considered as the Qu’rân nor should it be termed as the Qu’rân but it is only the interpretation of its meanings, in order to bring it near to the minds of non-Arabs, with the hope that Allah may embrace them into His Mercy by opening their hearts, and that they may enter in Allah’s religion in crowds.”

7 There is some dispute whether Luther actually nailed his 95 theses to the church door, though it is evident that his theses were soon printed off and disseminated throughout Europe.

8 Introduction [by Donald Brake] to The Wycliffe New Testament (an Exact Facsimile of Rawlinson 259 in the Bodleian Library of Oxford University; John Purvey’s revision; Portland, OR: International Bible Publications, 1986) v.

9 John Wycliffe, Speculum Secularium Dominorum, Opera Minora, ed. John Loserth (London: Wycliff Society, 1913) 74; cited in the Introduction to the Wycliffe New Testament, vii.

10 Ron Minton, The Making and Preservation of the Bible (n.p.; November, 2000) 216.

11 Oxford MS in the Bodleian Library, 959 E, is probably the original first edition of the Wycliffe Bible. The style is extremely wooden.

12 Bruce, History, has a nice comparison of both editions in Heb 1.1-4, with discussion (15-16).

13 Known as the Constitutions of Oxford. See Bruce, History, 20-23.

14 This decree was not carried out until 1428, 43 years after Wycliffe’s death.

15 F. F. Bruce, History of the Bible in English, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978) 12, notes that “The prestige of the papacy had fallen very low, partly by reason of the ‘Babylonian Captivity’ of the Popes at Avignon, where they maintained their residence from 1309 to 1378, under the control of the French kings, England’s hereditary enemies; and partly by reason of the ‘Great Schism’ which followed it, when for nearly forty years (1378-1417) there were two rival Popes, one at Rome and the other at Avignon, one recognized by some European powers and the other recognized by others.”

16 Further, in 1523, the bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, refused to allow his work to be done.

17 “If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more Scripture than thou dost” he said to a religious man in 1523.

18 This lone copy was discovered in 1996. Cf. Minton, Making, 226.

19 Cf. Minton, Making, 223.

20 A letter was discovered last century that was from Tyndale himself while he was in prison awaiting execution.  He had asked his captor for warmer clothes since he was quite cold, especially his head. As well, he asked if he could have a Hebrew Bible and a Hebrew dictionary to pass the time profitably. Like Paul (2 Tim 4:13), we do not know whether the request was ever granted.

21 In reality, they were afraid of the potential loss of control. Once the people had the Bible, the religious leaders could no longer interpret God’s will for their lives without dispute. 

22 Tyndale did change some things that clearly bothered the Catholic clergy: “congregation” for “church”; “elder” for “priest.” Although ἐκκλησία usually took on a technical nuance in the NT, Tyndale, with some justification, translated it as “congregation.” This is because “church” had by this time become so strongly associated with Roman Catholic structures that one could hardly read the text and think otherwise. Only later in the Reformation period, when the Protestant Church was able to get firmly planted, could readers see “church” and not think of Catholicism.

His translation of πρεσβύτερος as “elder” is quite accurate (cf. Titus 1:5) and much better than “priest” (sacerdos). 

23 Bruce, History, 52.

24 Unfortunately, Tyndale’s 1534 edition retained the Comma Johanneum of Erasmus’ third edition without comment, thus probably affecting the KJV at this point as well.

25 An interesting example of this is found in 1 Tim 2:12.  He translates as follows: “I suffer not a woman to teach, neither to have authority over a man: but for [her] to be in silence.”  The KJV here has “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”  The key difference is in the translation of aujqentei'n.  Tyndale renders it “have authority,” while the KJV renders it “usurp authority.”  From what I can gather, the verb did not bear the force of “usurp” until Chrysostom gave it that spin in his comments on this text (cf. Moulton-Milligan, Liddell-Scott-Jones, Knight’s article in NTS [c. 1984], etc.).  Further, “usurp” was not the predominant meaning of aujqentevw until the ninth century A.D.  But since the word occurs less than 125 times in all of Greek literature (according to a search of the TLG database of 64 million words from Homer to A.D. 1453), the KJV translators were at a loss.  Hence, they relied on Erasmus’ Latin (which he put forth as a correction of Jerome’s) of usurpare (Oxford Latin Dictionary gives as the first definition of this term, “To take possession of (property) on one’s own initiative (and without strict legal claim)”).”  Jerome’s translation, incidentally, was dominare (OLD gives as its first definition of this verb, “To exercise sovereignty, act as a despot, rule”).  Thus, Tyndale’s translation was more accurate to the Greek than either Jerome’s or Erasmus’ (though Jerome’s was fairly literal, since there is no verb in Latin that is a cognate to either potestas or auctoris.  Thus, if a verb has to be used, dominare is the most neutral term available and therefore the most accurate.)

It is a remarkable thing that many today read this text as though the KJV was the accurate rendering.  Many women teachers preface their remarks by saying, “I am not usurping anyone’s authority; this authority has been given me by the elders.”  But that is apparently not the point of 1 Tim 2:12.  Most modern translations render the term neutrally (cf., e.g., RSV, NKJV, NIV [“have authority”], RV, ASV [“have dominion”], NASB [“exercise authority”], etc.  Remarkably, even the NRSV, with its strong bent toward inclusive language and egalitarianism [as in 1 Tim 3:2: “married only once” for “husband of one wife”] here reads “have authority”).  Fee, in his brief little commentary, says the verb means “to domineer” without further justification.  This certainly looks like petitio principii.

26 Quoted in Bruce, 44.

27 Tyndale’s New Testament: Translated from the Greek by William Tyndale in 1534.  In a modern-spelling edition and with an introduction by David Daniell. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.

28 “It was licensed before the Coverdale Bible (both in 1537) and, thus, by the providence of God, Tyndale’s revised Bible was the first ever to be licensed by the king” (Minton, Making, 235).

29 So Minton, Making, 235. Bruce, History, however, attributes this to the Bible by Bishop Becke (83-84).

30 Now if Rogers had been beheaded, then perhaps a case could be made that this note on 1 Pet 3.7 was the cause of his demise, for the full note said “If [the wife] be not obedient and healpfull unto –her husband, he] endeavoureth to beate the feare of God into her heade, that thereby she maye be compelled to learne her dutie, and to do it.” Bruce comments, though attributing this note to Becke, “One wonders if the editor penned the second part of this note with his tongue in his cheek; even if he did, it is better not to indulge one’s sense of humour in Bible annotations, for readers are predisposed to treat all Bible annotations seriously!” (History, 84).

31 The Great Bible went through seven editions between 1539 and 1541. The second edition of 1540 made a considerable advance over the first printing, especially in OT poetical books (Bruce, History, 70).

32 In 1542, the Upper House of Convocation of Canterbury demanded a revision of the Great Bible, in conformity to the Latin Vulgate.

33 Bruce, History, 79.

34 “No Bible translation was made while Edward VI was king (1547-1553). Edward was the son of Henry VIII. An attempt was made to crown Lady Jane Gray as Edward’s successor, but Mary Tudor, one of Henry’s daughters (by Catherine of Aragon) was chosen. Mary died in 1558 and Elizabeth (her half sister) began her long reign.”

35 Matthew and Great Bible are the first two.

36 Nevertheless, the explicit notes of a Calvinistic interpretation were very few.

37 Stephanus put in the verse numbers while traveling from Paris to Lyons.  It is sometimes suggested that this explains why the verses are broken at such strange places: Stephanus must have been riding in the carriage, marking down the verse numbers, when the carriage hit a bump in the road!  But his cryptic reference to when he wrote in the verse numbers is more probably taken to mean that he wrote them while resting at the inns along the way.

38 Other names have been given to several Bibles throughout history.  For example, one of the early editions of the King James is called the “Wicked Bible” because it left out the “not” in the seventh commandment (Exod 20:14): “Thou shalt commit adultery”!

39 Bruce, History, 92-93.

40 So Minton, Making, 243.

41 A preliminary draft of an essay in a Catholic Biblical Encyclopedia, produced by an international team of scholars, overstated the influence that the Rheims-Douai had on the KJV, while neglecting to mention that Tyndale had any influence on the KJV! I noted this in my review of the preliminary draft that was sent to me by the senior editor; it remains to be seen whether the correction will be made.

42 This could be nuanced more: it was also the Anglican bishops who were uncomfortable with the Protestant translations.

Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word)