The Crown of English Bibles

WITHOUT THE KING JAMES VERSION of the Bible, one writer speculated, “There would be no Paradise Lost ... no Pilgrim’s Progress ... no Negro spirituals, no Address at Gettysburg.” Another imagined what would happen if the KJV were to suddenly disappear: “People would not know what the great [English and American] writers were talking about.”

But the King James Version hasn't disappeared. Even though today there are more accurate and contemporary translations of the Bible, the KJV holds sovereign place in the English-speaking world: it continues to be printed and circulated more widely than any other version.

How did this remarkable work originate? Did King James sit down and write it, as some have imagined? In fact, it was the work of fifty-some scholars following more than two hundred turbulent years of translating the Bible into English.

Wycliffe Bible Without Wycliffe

English translations of portions of the Bible go back about as far as the English language itself. King Alfred the Great (d. 901) began a translation of the Psalms, and in the tenth century, the Gospels were translated into various regional dialects.

The first attempt to translate the complete Bible into English, though, is associated with fourteenth-century theologian John Wycliffe.

Toward the end of his life, Wycliffe became critical of the established church (see “The Fiery Man behind the First English Bible,"), and as a result, in 1381 he was removed from his post at Oxford University. He withdrew to the church in Lutterworth, where he was surrounded by disciples who began to translate the Bible into English, certainly under his inspiration and probably at his bidding. There is no evidence Wycliffe took part in the actual work of translation.

The church did not approve of the translation, but not primarily because it was in English. There were already English translations of parts of the Bible, and copies of the Wycliffe translation were legally owned by nobles and clergy.

The main problem was that it was the Wycliffe Bible: it was distributed by his followers (the “heretical” Lollards) and used to attack the teachings and practices of the church. In addition, the church was concerned about the effect of Bible reading upon the uneducated laity. The Bible was best left to the eyes of educated clergy, since salvation was mediated through the teachings of the church and the clergy-led sacraments.

Copies of Wycliffe’s books and his Bible translation were burned, as were some of his followers. The pressure was so great, moreover, that some, like translators Nicholas of Hereford and John Purvey, recanted.

The desire for the Bible in English is shown by the many manuscripts of the Wycliffe Bible that survive—nearly 200—despite attempts by the church to destroy it and to harass people who read it.

Getting Back to the Greek

But the Wycliffe Bible was far from perfect; it had been translated not from the original Hebrew and Greek but from the Latin translation known as the Vulgate. In 1516, with the publication of Erasmus’s Greek New Testament, the time was ripe for an English translation from the original biblical languages.

Into this situation came William Tyndale. Tyndale had studied at both Oxford and Cambridge, and he had experienced firsthand the ignorance of some local clergy. To one cleric, he reportedly declared, “If God spare my life, ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture than thou dost.”

Tyndale hoped to receive official patronage for this task, and in 1523, he approached Bishop Tunstall of London, a scholar and a friend of Erasmus. But with the new threat of Protestantism, the church hierarchy was not disposed to allow a vernacular translation of the Bible. Tunstall let Tyndale understand, as Tyndale later put it, “not only that there was no room in my lord of London’s palace to translate the New Testament, but also that there was no place to do it in all England.”

With the sponsorship of some wealthy merchants, Tyndale left for Germany, where he completed the New Testament in two years. After only a few pages had been printed in Cologne, however, the city senate halted the printing. Tyndale hastened to the city of Worms, where 6,000 copies were printed. By April 1526, they were selling in England.

Of these 6,000 copies, only two survive. This is in part because Bishop Tunstall, through an intermediary, bought the remaining stock in order to have them burned. Ironically, this money paid off Tyndale’s debts and financed a new and corrected edition!

Tyndale reprinted his New Testament a number of times while he started on the Old Testament. In 1530 he published his translation of the Pentateuch, with a revised edition of Genesis appearing in 1534. Tyndale also translated Jonah and all of the books from Joshua to 2 Chronicles, but he did not live to see them through the press.

Tyndale translated directly from the Greek and Hebrew (with the help of grammars and Latin and German translations). He is truly the father of the English Bible: some 90 percent of his words passed into the King James Version and about 75 percent into the Revised Standard Version.

Tyndale’s translation was also unpopular with church authorities. It was unauthorized and had not been made from the Vulgate, the official version. Furthermore, Tyndale had abandoned traditional terms, substituting “repent” for “do penance,” “congregation” for “church,” and “elder” for “priest.”

In addition, Tyndale had included strongly Lutheran prefaces to various books (some being translations of Luther himself) and strongly Protestant marginal notes, some of which sharply criticized the Catholic church. In the margin of Exodus 32:57, for example, where the people are told not to bring any more offerings for the building of the tabernacle because they have contributed enough, the note reads, “When will the Pope say 'Hoo! [Hold!]’ and forbid an offering for the building of St. Peter’s Church?”

Tyndale lived with English merchants in Antwerp, a position of comparative safety. In 1535, however, he was betrayed by a fellow Englishman and arrested. After a year and a half of imprisonment, he was strangled and burned at the stake in Brussels, on October 6, 1536. It is reported that his last words were “Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes.”

The Great and Not So Great

Tyndale’s final prayer had, in a manner of speaking, already been answered. In 1534 the Church of England had broken free from Rome, and that December the Canterbury Convocation petitioned the king for an English Bible. Miles Coverdale, who had once worked with Tyndale, published it in 1535.

Coverdale’s Bible was more acceptable than Tyndale’s because it contained no contentious prefaces or notes, and there was an obsequious dedication to the king. As with all Bibles at the time, the Apocrypha was included, but Coverdale was the first to place these books together, separated from the Old Testament, a practice followed in all subsequent Protestant English Bibles.

Parts of Coverdale’s Bible were revisions of Tyndale and parts were new translations from German and Latin translations. Though far from perfect, it was the first complete edition of the Bible in English.

Still, before the King James Version would come into being, a number of other Bible translations would appear.

The next English Bible was even closer to Tyndale's: the Matthew Bible. In 1537, 1,500 copies were printed at Antwerp as the work of “Thomas Matthew.” It was in fact the work of John Rogers, a friend of Tyndale who was to become the first Protestant martyr during Mary’s reign. This translation included around 2,000 marginal notes, some of which were controversial (though less sharp in tone than Tyndale's).

In 1538 Henry VIII required clergy to set up in each parish church “one book of the whole Bible of the largest volume in English.” Henry was probably referring to the Great Bible, but as that edition had been delayed, the Matthew Bible was the first used in the churches.

The Great Bible was the first officially commissioned English Bible. It was planned by Thomas Cromwell with the approval of Archbishop Cranmer. Miles Coverdale, the editor, was to produce a Bible based upon the Hebrew and Greek, which meant that he revised not his own translation but the Matthew Bible.

The few notes included were solely for clarification, but this Bible had a controversial beginning. When the first edition was being printed in Paris, the Inquisitor General confiscated the copies. After negotiations, it was agreed that the manuscripts, the paper, and the type could go to London, but the confiscated sheets were not returned. Thus the appearance of the Great Bible in England was delayed until 1539, and copies were sold unbound.

A “Hotter” Translation

When the Roman Catholic Mary came to the throne (1553), many Protestants fled to the Continent. The more militantly Protestant went to Geneva, where they produced a new translation, the Geneva Bible.

The 1560 Geneva Bible was a considerable improvement on earlier translations. The translators were able linguists who made their revision in the light of the original languages and many of the best scholarly aids available. The marginal notes, while mild compared with Tyndale's, were firmly, some said hotly, Protestant. Later versions were decidedly anti-Catholic: A 1595 edition added notes that the beast coming out of the bottomless pit in Revelation 11:7 is “the Pope which hath his power out of hell and cometh thence.”

The Geneva Bible, sometimes called the “hotter” Protestant version, was reprinted in no fewer than 140 complete or partial editions. It was the first Bible to be printed in Scotland (1579) and became the version appointed to be read in the Scottish churches.

Geneva’s Failed Competitor

When Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558, she required every parish church to have an English Bible. The Geneva Bible was not acceptable because of its controversial marginal notes.

In 1561, Archbishop Parker of Canterbury proposed a new translation. Completed in 1566, it came to be known as the Bishops’ Bible, since all the translators either were or became bishops. This was basically a revision of the Great Bible, with some guidance coming from the Geneva Bible. Though an improvement on the former, it fell short of the latter. Thus while it received official sanction, it failed to displace the Geneva Bible in popularity.

Catholic Response

During the reign of Protestant Elizabeth, English Roman Catholics wanted to fight the Protestants on their own ground and not be forced to read Protestant translations.

So a translation was begun at a college for exiled English priests, at Douai, France, in 1568. The work, which later was done in Rheims, and later still again in Douai, was done by Gregory Martin, who translated two chapters daily, starting with the Old Testament. His work was then revised by two other scholars.

The New Testament was the first to appear in print, in 1582 at Rheims. Its lengthy doctrinal notes attacked the “intolerable ignorance and importunity of the heretics of this time.” Due to lack of funds, the Old Testament did not appear for another twenty years, too late to influence the KJV.

Though it made use of much modern scholarship, the Douai-Rheims translation was made from the Latin Vulgate which, in the view of the editors, was “truer than the vulgar Greek text.” Also, the translation was literal, in opposition to the Protestants’ “presumptuous boldness and liberty in translating.” In places, then, it was unintelligible to those unfamiliar with Latin.

The Crown of Translations

Queen Elizabeth was succeeded in 1603 by James I (who was already King James VI of Scotland). Within a year, the Puritan party in the English Church, who wished to see it become more Reformed, met with the bishops and the new king at the Hampton Court Conference. One of their requests was for a new translation of the Bible “because those which were allowed in the reign of Henry VIII and Edward VI [and used in the Book of Common Prayer] are not answerable to the truth of the original” [i.e., they were not accurate].

The bishops were not at first in favor, but the king was. The bishop of London, Richard Bancroft, urged that if there was to be a new translation, it should have no marginal notes. To this the king agreed; he objected to the Geneva Bible because of its seditious notes, such as the comment on 2 Chronicles 15:16 that King Asa’s mother should have been executed.

The King James Version was a collaborative work in a way that was not true of its predecessors. Around fifty scholars took part, divided into six groups. The text (including the Apocrypha) was divided among the groups, and each group member was required to work on the whole of its portion. The scholars’ were instructed to revise the Bishops’ Bible, changing it only where required by the original Hebrew or Greek, using earlier translations where these were closer to the original. In practice, the translators made extensive use of the Tyndale and Geneva Bibles and the Rheims New Testament.

When individuals had prepared their translations, they came together and agreed upon a common translation. Then a panel consisting of two members from each group met together to review the whole Bible. This thorough approach, together with the recent advances in scholarship, made the King James Bible the most accurate to that time.

It was not without its weaknesses, however. The texts chosen for translation were relatively poor, there being no discipline of textual criticism. The translators’ knowledge of Hebrew was still far from perfect, and while their knowledge of classical Greek was good, they did not know much about the everyday Greek of New Testament times.

On the positive side, the marginal notes maintained a steady neutrality, doing no more than explaining difficult words. And great care was taken over the English style, so that the translation reads superbly.

Though known as the “Authorized Version,” the King James Bible did not immediately supersede the Geneva Bible, which continued to be printed for more than thirty years. Even opponents of Puritanism continued for some time to use and preach from the “hotter” Geneva Bible.

Eventually, though, the King James Version became the standard version of English-speaking Protestantism, at least until the 1880s with the publication of the Revised Version. Together with Shakespeare, the King James Version is one of the great formative influences upon the English language.

By Tony Lane

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #43 in 1994]

Tony Lane is senior lecturer in Christian doctrine at London Bible College. He is author of the Lion Book of Christian Thought (1992) and an editorial adviser for Christian History.
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