What were some of the events leading up to the English Bible?


Firstly, the Bible was written in three main languages: Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Classical Hebrew was used for most of the Old Testament. Some parts of the books of Daniel and Ezra and one verse in the book of Jeremiah (chapter 10, verse 11) and one word in the book of Genesis (chapter 31, verse 47) were written in Aramaic. Hebrew and Aramaic were both Semitic languages, and if one was understood, much of the other could also be understood, due to their similarities.

Considering the Old Testament, the Hebrew that the Bible was written in was different from the modern Hebrew spoken in Israel today. For a start, there were no vowels but only consonants. Vowels were added later, which is a reason that the correct pronunciation of God’s name is uncertain today. Also, there was no punctuation and, according to “Got Questions.org”, there were no spaces between words, which can cause some difficulties in understanding.

However, as far as we are aware, the copying of the Scriptures was very meticulous. The Masoretic text used for the last thousand years is amazingly consistent with the Dead Sea scrolls and the Greek Septuagint versions. To demonstrate this meticulousness, there is an alteration in Judges 18:30 that was made in the text that has been incorporated into the Authorized Version and the New King James Bible. The term “the son of Moses” was changed to “the son of Manasseh” so as not to dishonour Moses due to him having an idolater for a grandson. The addition of one letter changed Moses to Manasseh. However, anyone reading the Hebrew text would notice that it is obviously an alteration because of the position of the added letter, a feature that has not been changed in the continual copying of the scrolls.

The Hebrew Bible was translated into a number of different languages, beginning with the Septuagint, a translation into the Greek language around 200 BC. This was a translation by 70 Jewish scholars carried out at Alexandra—hence the name Septuagint. (In Latin, septuaginta means seventy.) This translation was made so the Jews living in Egypt who may not have known Hebrew could still read the Scriptures.

Other Jewish scholars translated the Hebrew Bible into other languages, especially for the Jews in exile in the area near Babylon, well known ones being Aramaic and Arabic. One erroneous feature of the Arabic translation by Saadiah is that God does not have human features like a mouth, eyes, hands, feet, emotions of the heart or laughter. He also wrote that God does not travel, is not a warrior and is not a consuming fire. This heretical feature has become generally accepted even today by “traditional” Christianity.

The next major translation of the Hebrew Bible was into Yiddish in the 1200s. The main target of this translation was to women and children as the men could access the Hebrew Scriptures. Translations into Spanish, French and Italian followed. Surprisingly, a complete German translation of the Jewish Scriptures by and for Jews was not made until about 1830. It is interesting that the English Jews used the Authorised Version for over a hundred and fifty years before seeing the need to produce their own translation, and their English translations did not deviate much from the Authorised Version until the middle of the twentieth century. The obvious difference between the Jewish Bible and the Old Testament is the order of the books and the fact that the book of Joel has four chapters and the book of Malachi has three chapters in the Jewish versions (but there is no difference in the text itself).

Considering the New Testament, as far as we are aware, all of the New Testament books were written in Greek (with a few sentences written in Aramaic). However, it was not classical Greek, but the Greek that the ordinary people would understand.

Once God inspired the books that were to form the whole Bible, the first major translation was made into Latin by the scholar Jerome in about the year 400. This was termed the “Vulgate” because it was to be used by the common or vulgar people. This became the only translation that was allowed to be used in Western Europe according to the Roman Catholic Church.

Some portions of the Bible were translated into Anglo-Saxon; for example, the Gospels or the Psalms, but no complete translations of the whole Bible are known to have been made until the time of John Wycliffe, when he, and possibly his assistants, translated from the Latin Vulgate into an early form of English in about 1382. At that time, only the Vulgate was available and very few common people could read Latin. This was before the invention of the printing press, and all copies were made by hand, greatly limiting its circulation. At first glance, the handwriting appears impossible for us to read, but when reproduced in a modern font, the first verses are as follows (in Genesis 1:1-3): “In the bigynnyng God made of nouyt heuene and erthe. Forsothe the erthe was idel and voide, and derknessis weren on the face of depthe; and the Spiryt of the Lord was borun on the watris. And God seide, Liyt be maad, and liyt was maad.”

The limited copies were spread around England by the Lollards. In 1415, Wycliffe was declared a heretic because of enabling the common people to read the Bible for themselves. All his works were to be burned and his remains exhumed. Anyone who read the Scriptures in English “would forfeit land, cattle, life and goods from their heirs forever.” In 1428, at the command of Pope Martin V, Wycliffe’s corpse was exhumed and burned, and the ashes cast into the River Swift, which flows through Lutterworth. Fortunately, about 250 copies of his works are thought to have survived, and some are found in museums and libraries today.

The next major event in the provision of the English Bible was the work of the Dutch philosopher and Catholic theologian Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam. He was moved to correct the Latin Vulgate, believing it to be corrupt. He had no desire to take part in the Protestant Reformation, but only to correct the Vulgate. In 1516, he published a Greek-Latin Parallel New Testament. The Latin part was his own translation that he had made from six partial old Greek New Testament manuscripts which were more accurate and reliable than the Latin Vulgate. The six manuscripts contained the whole of the New Testament except for the last six verses of Revelation  which he back translated from the Vulgate into Greek. (According to some commentaries and translations, this would explain why an alleged mistake had been made and has been retained in the Authorised Version, in verse 19, where the “Book of Life” is mentioned, even though it is claimed that the original Greek says, “Tree of Life.”)

Of interest is the fact that these manuscripts did not contain the spurious verse 1 John 5:7, so for his first and second editions, Erasmus did not include it. When Martin Luther translated his German Bible, he used Erasmus’s second edition for his New Testament and also did not include it. This, of course, was very controversial, as it was a verse used to supposedly prove the Trinity doctrine. Finally, someone did find a Greek manuscript which included this spurious verse, so Erasmus included it in his third edition of 1522. Even so, he still believed it was a spurious addition. While it is assumed that the term Textus Receptus (Received Text) was used for the work of Erasmus, it was actually not used until 1633 when it was used in a publisher’s preface to the Bible. The full text of this preface in English was: “So you hold the text, now received by all, in which is nothing corrupt.” The term was then retroactively applied to Erasmus’s editions. The full title shown above is interesting in that it claims that in this text there is nothing corrupt. In other words, it is perfect, a remarkable claim.

The Greek text provided by Erasmus and used by William Tyndale was his third edition which included the spurious verse as mentioned above. He used it to translate an English New Testament for the common or uneducated people. At the time, the only Bible available was the Latin Vulgate, and only highly educated people could read Latin. He finished his New Testament translation in 1525 and then started the translation of the Old Testament, translating from the Hebrew. He finished the first five books of Moses in 1530 and went on to translate Joshua to Chronicles and Jonah before being burnt at the stake in 1536 because of translating the Bible into English.

He had been very fluent in about six languages and then studied Hebrew in Germany to enable him to translate the Old Testament. His translation is said to have been used in over seventy-five percent of the Authorised Version and many later versions. However, he had difficulties with shortcomings of the English language. In translating the New Testament, there was no English equivalent to the Greek word “Pascha” (Passover) so he used the nearest one, it being “Easter”, about twenty-six times, not wanting to use a Greek word in his English Bible. The same problem arose in the book of Exodus, so he invented the word Passover. He also invented words like Atonement. In fact, he invented more new English words and expressions than any other author. It is said that he refined and standardised the English language like no other, including William Shakespeare.

In his translation, he preferred words like “love” rather than “charity”, “congregation” rather than “Church”—the latter because he understood that the Greek did not mean a building but a group of people. His New Testament was printed in Europe and smuggled into England often in bales of textiles. This was because the Catholic authorities had banned Tyndale’s translation and burned every copy they found. According to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, the bishop of London agreed to purchase every copy available and to burn and destroy them all. It is believed that the purchase price enabled more copies to be printed. Since at the time there was only the Catholic Church, his translation had no sectarian bias but was as accurate as he could possibly make it.

Myles Coverdale and John “Thomas Matthew” Rogers had remained loyal disciples the last six years of Tyndale’s life, and they carried the English Bible project forward and even accelerated it. Coverdale finished translating the Old Testament, and in 1535 he printed the first complete Bible in the English language, making use of Luther’s German text and the Latin as sources since he was not proficient in Greek or Hebrew. Thus, the first complete English Bible was printed on October 4, 1535, and is known as the Coverdale Bible. The king of England at the time was King Henry the Eighth, and he encouraged the Coverdale Bible to be published and available in every Church. Coverdale’s English was even more directed to the common people. He replaced “elect” with “chosen”, “descended” with “went down”, often “sons of God” with “children of God”. Because of the king’s encouragement, the Coverdale Bible would have been the first English Authorised Version. (However, some say the Great Bible of 1539 was the first Authorised Version of the Church of England.)

John Rogers went on to print the second complete English Bible in 1537 as a reference or study Bible. He printed it under the pseudonym “Thomas Matthew” (an assumed name that had actually been used by Tyndale at one time), as a considerable part of this Bible was the translation of Tyndale, whose writings had been condemned by the English authorities. It was a composite, made up of Tyndale’s Genesis to Chronicles and New Testament (1534-1535 edition) and the Coverdale Bible. John Rogers also added a few passages, translated by himself. It remains known most commonly as the Matthew-Tyndale Bible. It went through a nearly identical second-edition printing in 1549. John Rogers was executed as a heretic during the reign of Catholic Queen Mary by burning at the stake in 1555.

Up until this time, the Bible was divided into chapters, but not verses; the chapters having different sections, labelled A, B, C, D, etc., each consisting of a number of what we now know as verses. However, in 1551, Robert Estienne added verse divisions to his Greek New Testament. This enabled the Geneva Bible of 1557 (New Testament) and 1560 (whole Bible) to contain both chapters and verses as we know them today.

The Geneva Bible, printed in Switzerland, was a very popular English Bible, containing cross references and copious notes to help in studying the Bible. The last edition of the Geneva Bible was published probably in 1644, thirty-three years after the Authorised Version was published. Copies of the Geneva Bible were even taken to America on the Mayflower in 1620. Its English was suitable for the common people, and it was printed in an easy-to-read Roman style text, unlike previous Bibles which were often printed in a Gothic text style.

Unfortunately, the copious notes, and some of the Scriptural variations in the Geneva Bible, were influenced by Calvinist and Puritan teachings which were, among other ideas, against the rule by kings. Several of the notes spoke fiercely about the right of subjects to resist their king. This was one reason why King James commissioned the Authorised Version. It’s also one of the reasons why the Catholic English version Rheims-Doual was produced from 1582 (NT) to 1610 (OT).

After the Authorised Version was commissioned, King James banned the printing of the Geneva Bible in England because of its notes which emphasised Calvinist teachings. He had had enough of Calvinist teaching in Scotland where he had been King James VI before coming to the throne in England. However, one printer in England continued to print the Geneva Bible for some time but he gave every copy a date of 1599. Other printers put the Geneva Bible within the covers of the Authorised Version.

This brings us up to the Authorised Version commissioned by King James I and produced in 1611. It used much of both the Tyndale translation and the Geneva Bible but originally and most often without the notes and commentary of the Geneva Bible. The scholars, in order to show the majesty of the Bible, reverted to some more archaic English. Among other things, they changed “congregation” back to “Church” and “love” back to “charity”.

During the period between 1611 and 1769, numerous modifications, errors and corrections had been made to the Authorised Version; so much so that the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford sought to produce an updated standard text. This has remained almost unchanged from 1769 until today. There were many typographical errors; for example, in one printing the word “not” was left out of the seventh commandment which caused that version to be named the “Wicked Bible”. Another well-known misprint gave two printings the unofficial titles the “He Bible” and the “She Bible”, depending on whether he (Boaz) or she (Ruth) went into the city (compare Ruth 3:15).

In the Authorised Version, the word Easter was replaced with Passover in all cases except one in Acts 12:4. This is interesting in that the Geneva Bible had always replaced “Easter” with “Passover”. Some have speculated that there was a logical reason for this, but it is difficult to know what the translators had in mind over four hundred years ago.

There is another section printed in some versions of the Bible, this being the Apocrypha. (For details, see the Q&A, “Why don’t many editions of the Bible contain the Apocrypha?”) It is not included in the Hebrew Scriptures as it was uninspired, but was included in the Septuagint. After that, it was included in the Latin Vulgate and hence in all versions based on the Vulgate. This included the Wycliffe version, William Tyndale’s version, Martin Luther’s version, the Geneva Bible and the Authorised Version up until 1885 when it was removed. When King James commissioned the Authorised Version, anyone who dared to print the Bible without the Apocrypha he threatened with a heavy fine and a year in jail.

Considering the Authorised Version, it is still on the top-selling list of Bibles, earlier this year being in the number four position with the New King James Bible being in the number six position in popularity. Previously, the Authorised Version was in the number two position for many years, and prior to that, it was the top selling version, which would probably make it the highest number of Bibles, or possibly even books, ever produced.

After 1611, when the Authorised Version was printed, a few minor revised versions were made, but it was not until 1881 that an official Revised Version was authorised to be used in England. It was to adapt the King James Version to an updated English Language but retain the form of the Authorised Version. In the USA, the American Standard Version was produced from 1900 to 1901 as a revision by American scholars of the Revised Version. From this time forward, another three major translations were made, and from 1979 to 1982, the New King James Bible was produced. Its aim was to update the vocabulary and grammar of the King James Version or Authorised Version. A broader number of ancient manuscripts were used in its preparation, and, with good reason, it has become one of the most popular English translations.

And, as time goes on, more and more versions have been produced of varying qualities. As Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 12:12, “of making many books there is no end”.

(For more information, please read chapter 2 of our free booklet, The Authority of the Bible.”)

Lead Writer: Paul Niehoff (Australia)

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