How Did We Get the Bible?: Part Two

Between Wycliffe and our next influential figure, several key historical developments took place. One was Gutenberg’s invention of the moveable type printing press in about 1450. This is considered the most important invention of the modern era, and it fueled the proliferation of literature that led to the Reformation and the Renaissance. A second development was a renewed interest in the biblical languages. Scholars began going behind the Latin to the underlying Greek and Hebrew. Erasmus produced his eclectic Greek New Testament in 1516. Now scholars could use Greek as the base for translating the NT into other languages. So instead of the English NT being a translation of Latin which was a translation of Greek, a much-preferred direct translation from Greek to English was possible. The third important development during this time was the igniting of the Protestant Reformation by Martin Luther and others. Luther produced a NT translated into German from Greek in 1522.

The most influential person in the history of the translation of the Bible into English was William Tyndale (1494-1536). Tyndale produced the first complete translation of the New Testament from Greek into English in 1526. He was able to translate much of the OT into English from Hebrew before he died, his body burned at the stake for translating the Bible. His was the first English Bible to be printed on the printing press. Tyndale’s passion was that people who spoke English could have the Bible in their own language. Prior to his execution, Tyndale offered this prayer, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” Two years later, the King of England authorized a translation into English, the Great Bible, which was done by Tyndale’s disciple, Miles Coverdale. This was the first English translation authorized to be read in the Church of England. To give you an idea of Tyndale’s influence, some estimate that around 80% of the King James Version uses Tyndale’s wording.

Another translator, who, like Miles Coverdale, was a disciple of Tyndale, was John Rogers (1500-1555). Rogers actually worked under the pseudonym “Thomas Matthew.” He produced the second full Bible in English, but his was the first to be based completely on Greek and Hebrew. Known as the Matthew-Tyndale Bible, it was published in 1537.

In 1539, The Great Bible, was published. Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, hired Miles Coverdale to produce a new English translation of the Bible to be used in the newly formed Church of England. The Great Bible was available to the public but chained to keep it in its place.

After King Edward VI died, the reign of Queen “Bloody” Mary began. She was intent to return England to the Roman Catholic Church. In 1555, John Rogers and Thomas Cranmer were both burned at the stake. Mary order reformers by the hundreds to be burned at the stake for being a Protestant. Many English Protestants fled to Geneva, Switzerland. Work on the English Bible continued there, and the Geneva NT was completed in 1557; the entire Bible was produced in 1560. This was the first Bible to add numbered verses to the chapters, and the first study Bible, having extensive notes on the text. The Geneva Bible remained the most popular English Bible until well after the Authorized Version (King James) was published. And the Geneva Bible was the first to America aboard the Mayflower. It had a nickname: it was sometimes called the “Breeches Bible.” Why? Because it’s translation of Genesis 3:7 reads: “and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves breeches.”

Breeches Bible

Now, the Anglican leadership did not particularly care for the Geneva Bible, because of its inflammatory notes (like calling the Pope the Anti-Christ). So they produced the Bishop’s Bible in 1568, which was basically a revision of the Great Bible. It did not become popular.

The Catholic Church sought to regain some ground with the English, so they produced a Catholic version of the Bible in English known as the Douay-Rheims version in 1589. Named for the cities in which the OT and NT translations were produced, this Bible was translated from the Latin Vulgate, which Erasmus had shown was based on corrupted Greek and Hebrew manuscripts.

In the year 1604, King James I authorized a translation project that produced a new Bible in 1611. The king commissioned it in order to satisfy factions within the English Church. It would be a translation in the common language, yet still dignified for worship. In England, it is known as the Authorized Version. In America, we call it the King James Version. The Authorized Version underwent significant revisions in 1629, 1638, 1729, and 1762. The 1769 revision is the one predominantly in use today.

I hope this survey of English Bible history answers some of your questions about how we got the Bible. There is much more to the history of the Bible than this. Every time I consider the brave souls who labored to translate the Scriptures into my language, I am humbled and grateful for their sacrifice. I hope you are too. May we never think too lightly of the sacrifices made to get us God’s Word.

In a future post, I hope to continue with a little more history of English versions of the Bible after the King James Version, and we will compare some newer translations of the Bible to help you know how to choose which one is right for you.

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How Did We Get the Bible?: Part One

In this post and the next, we want to answer the question, “How did we get the Bible?” To do so will require us to take a tour of the history of the Bible in English.

Let’s start with nailing down some terminology. When we use the word “translate” we are talking about the transfer of a message from one language into another language. So, a “translation” would be the resultant message in the receptor language. An “edition” means the combined prints of a work of literature struck from one plate; they will all be the same. The word “text” could be used in two ways. (1) It is simply another name for a literary work, a writing: “the text of the NT; or the text of the Illiad”; (2) “text” can also be used to refer to a particular Bible passage: “Our text today is Jn 3:16.” A “manuscript” is a handwritten copy of a work of literature. Prior to the printing press, all books and pieces of literature were handwritten, this includes the original writings of the Bible.

Now let’s consider the process it took to get the Bible into the English language. There were three stages in this process. Stage 1 was Inspiration. This refers to the act of the Divine Author using the human author to compose the text of Scripture. For example, God inspired Moses to write the majority of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament.

Stage 2 was the period of Transmission, when the original texts were copied by hand thousands of times over many centuries producing many manuscripts. In this stage we are not talking about changing languages, just copying manuscripts within the original language.

The Third Stage, then, would be Translation. Here is where manuscripts in the original languages of scripture are transferred into another language so that people can read it in their own language. The Bible has been and is still being translated into many different languages. From the earliest times, Christians wanted to produce translations for others to be able to read the Bible for themselves.

Not long after Christianity was legalized, the Latin Bible became the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church. Throughout the Middle Ages, it was virtually the only Bible available in Europe. If you could not read Latin, you had to rely on the priest to tell you what the Bible said.

And so it was in Medieval England. Educated people spoke and wrote in Latin. The Latin translation completed by Jerome around 400 A.D. is known as the Vulgate. This was the almost exclusive Bible used in the British Isles for 1000 years. During this period, a few translations of sections of the Bible into English were done, but not the entire Bible. Access to the Bible was very restricted. As you might imagine, owning a personal or even family Bible (which would have been hand copied) was not economically possible.

Enter John Wycliffe (1330-1384) and his followers, the Lollards. They were responsible for the first complete translation of the Bible into English. They worked from the Latin Vulgate, which they had access to, since Wycliffe was a professor at Oxford University. This occurred around 1382. Hand copies were made and distributed by his followers. Their first translation was word-for-word, but Wycliffe’s colleague, John Purvey, later revised it to make it more readable.

For his translation of the Bible and for his criticism of the Catholic Church, Wycliffe was later officially declared a heretic. And even though he had been dead 44 years, the Pope had Wycliffe’s remains exhumed, burned, and thrown into the River Swift.

In Part 2, we will continue our history of the Bible in English.