Without question, after the Latin Vulgate, no vernacular translation of the Bible has had more impact on Christian life and culture in general than the King James Version. What is seldom noted with the King James Version is busy being praised to the skies for its various qualities, is that it was a translation that owed an enormous amount of its diction and memorable phrasing to its English predecessor versions, especially the partial OT and the entire NT that William Tyndale finished, and at the other end of the discussion the KJV went through various revised editions. But the story must begin with Wycliffe.
It was of course one of the key principles of the Reformation that the Bible should be placed in the hands of ordinary persons, not kept in the scholar’s study or chained to a pulpit in some church. This revolution was of course made possible by the rise of the printing press which reduced enormously the laborious process of hand copying the Bible which had gone on since the first century A.D., and in fact well before then counting the various books of the OT.
Yet our discussion in this section must start with John Wycliffe (1330-84) who argued at length and in both Latin and English no less, for an English translation of the Bible. Of course there was great fear by the church hierarchy that if the Bible was placed into the hands of the laity, it might cause the breakdown of authority or even have a social leveling effect on society. It might break the cleric monopoly over the church as well. It is not surprising then when Wycliffe did his translation from the Latin Vulgate, or at least aided and abetted those who made the translation for him, he was roundly criticized. A certain Henry Knighton put it this way: “Wycliffe translated it from Latin into the English—not the angelic!—language. As a result, what was previously known only by learned clerics and those of good understanding has become common, and available to the laity—in fact, even to women who can read. As a result, the pearls of the Gospel have been scattered before swine.” The efforts of Wycliffe opened the proverbial Pandora’s box, and it is no surprise that the response was not only swift in his day but consistent there after. The Archbishop of Canterbury in 1407, Thomas Arundel, banned anyone from translating the Bible on their own initiative and authority into English! He also took the second step to ban the reading in private or public of any such English translation. Clearly enough he was worried that things were getting out hand. The issue was sensitive well into the 16th century for John Colet, then Dean of St.Paul’s cathedral was suspended in 1513 from his post for translating the Lord’s Prayer into English. Just when the clerics thought they were getting things under control, along came Martin Luther who published his German translation in 1522, and he had English admirers, notably William Tyndale (1496-1536).
Tyndale was no ordinary lay person. Indeed he studied at Magdalen College at Oxford. Tyndale was later to complain that the Oxford dons would not allow him to study the Scriptures until after he had had many years of studying the Greek and Latin pagan classics. But in fact there was a rise in both Oxford and Cambridge of interest in and scholars competent in both Greek and Hebrew during the course of the 15th and 16th centuries, a good thing too since they would be needed on the translation committee for the King James Version in the early 17th century.
This rise in the interest in Biblical languages happened in spite of the scholarly prejudice that only Latin was really worth knowing as the language of academia. Just how much and how long this Latin influence continued to be true can be seen from the fact that even in the first half of the 18th century we have the story from John Wesley that when he wanted to have conversations with the Moravian Peter Bohler, since Bohler’s spoken English was poor, and the same could be said for Wesley’s German, they spoke to each other in the other language they were both fluent in—Latin, even though the subject matter was Protestant theology! If we need further testimony to the enduring impact of Latin and the Vulgate we need only mention the fact that Catholic services were still being down mostly in Latin when I was born. Vatican’s I and II changed all that.
Tyndale was smart enough to realize that England was too volatile a place for him to translate the Bible into English, and so we must picture the poor moving to Cologne in Germany and translating the NT during the period 1524-25. After some difficulties the first edition finally came out in book form in 1526 in Worms.
The high degree of Luther’s influence on Tyndale can be seen from the Table of Contents of his NT, for, as Luther had done with his translation, he listed Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation as being of dubious authenticity, and they were placed at the end of the book and were not even numbered like the other books. It was the 1526 edition of Tyndale’s translation which was smuggled into England. It was this event which produced irreversible pressure for there to be an English Bible produced and controlled in England. Despite the fact that Tyndale’s name never appeared on a copy of his translation, he was to pay a heavy price for his efforts—he was hung, and then burned at the stake on Oct. 6th 1536, having been betrayed by those who opposed his efforts. This in turn earned him a place in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
Bishop Tunstall of London had gone on something of a personal crusade against Tyndale and his translation (both sad and ironic since Tyndale first came to Tunstall to ask if he would patronize the translation effort). One of the most amazing parts of this story is that Tunstall went all the way to Antwerp to stop the printing of the Tyndale Translation in 1529, through a merchant named Augustine Packington he was offered an opportunity to buy as many copies as he liked of the translation for a price. The bishop agreed. Unbeknownst to the Bishop, Packington went straight to Tyndale and told him about the deal. Tyndale was thrilled because suddenly he would have a lot more money to produce more copies, even if Tunstall took all the one’s he bought and burned them. And so it was that the deal was struck, and unwittingly the Bishop funded the continuing publication of Tyndale’s translation.
Tyndale in fact had a very great and rare gift of being able not only to translate the Bible but to translate it into beautiful and memorable English prose. It is to him we owe phrases like ‘my brother’s keeper’ (Gen. 4), ‘the salt of the earth’ (Mt. 5), ‘a law unto themselves’ (Rom. 2), ‘the powers that be’ (Rom. 13). It was Tyndale who came up with the hybrid term Jehovah which combines two different Hebrew names for God. He invented the English word Passover for the Hebrew pesah. It is also to Tyndale that we owe the use of terms like scapegoat and atonement to translate Hebrew terms that had no good direct English equivalents.
Tyndale unfortunately had not finished his translation of the OT. Only the Pentateuch had been really completed, and so it was left to a far less skilled translator Miles Coverdale (1488-1569), who almost entirely took over Tyndale’s work and incorporated it into his own, adding a fresh translation of the rest of the OT depending most on Luther’s German translation it would appear. It first went to print in 1535, shortly before Tyndale was executed in England. One could in fact call Coverdale really a compilation of earlier translations, mostly Tyndale’s.
With the help of Oliver Cromwell, an entrepreneur named Richard Grafton got printed another English Bible shortly there after called Matthew’s Bible. The text was in fact edited by John Rogers who had been a close associate of Tyndale. It not only followed the Tyndale translation very closely, but it had the additional benefit of being printed in Antwerp where additional pages of Tyndale’s OT translation had turned up which had never made it into Tyndale’s own book.
In 1539 the Great Bible came out, and really became the first authorized English translation a good sixty plus years before the KJV. It actually was simply a revision of the Matthew’s Bible done by none other than Miles Coverdale himself, but with a table of contents that did not reflect Luther’s biases against various books including Hebrews and James. The reason it was called the Great Bible was due to its size, because in addition to the OT and NT it included the apocryphal intertestmental books as well. This translation is mostly a retred of Tyndale, with some Coverdale blended in, especially where there was no Tyndale text to follow.
The next translation of note and influence was the famous Geneva Bible which was largely the work of William Whittingham (1524-79). His NT version was printed first in 1557, and once more it was heavily indebted to Tyndale the real progenitor of all these later English versions. Whittingham’s one real innovation is that he changed the nomenclature of those books Luther was largely unhappy with from the Catholic Epistle to the General Epistle, which made Protestants of course feel much better. The Geneva Bible was widely read and accepted in the latter part of the 16th century, but when James of Scotland came to the throne of England upon Elizabeth’s death in 1603, there still had not been a decision taken on what Bible might become the official Bible of the English realm. As it turned out, James had a passionate dislike of the Geneva Bible because its marginal notes did not support the notion that the Bible upholds the divine right of kings, a doctrine James was passionate about..
In 1604 there was a conference held at Hampton Court Palace convened by James in which he proposed to listen to the laments and complaints of both Puritans and Anglicans about church life in that period. Some of the complaints had to do with the Prayer Book, which the Puritans wanted abolished, something James was not prepared to do. Could he make a concession on another matter, which he saw as less crucial, that would placate the Puritans? The answer turned out to be yes and it led to the KJV.
John Reynolds, the leader of the Puritan delegation proposed a new Bible translation. James saw this as the concession that would ease the religious tensions and so the decree was made that “a translation be made of the whole Bible, as consonant as can be to the original Hebrew and Greek; and this to be set out and printed without any marginal notes, and only to be used in all churches in England in time of divine service.” It is not clear whether after the translation was finished there was an official authorization by the King of it as the records of the period 1600-1613 were lost in a fire. The translation was to be done by scholars from both Oxford and Cambridge (the only two English universities at the time) and the team of fifty four scholars was to be led by Lancelot Andrewes, Regius Professor of Greek and Hebrew of Oxford, however it is perfectly clear that James’ close ally Bishop Richard Bancroft is the person who laid down the translation rules for this English Bible.
Rule One read: “The ordinary Bible read in the Church, commonly called the Bishop’s Bible, to be followed and as little altered as the Truth of the original will permit.” Now the Bishop’s Bible of 1568 was simply a smaller version of the Great Bible , meant to compete with the Geneva Bible, though it never eclipsed the latter. Notice that this rule makes clear that the scholars on the translation team were to do there best to follow an earlier English translation, and they are further instructed to stick with the most commonly used renderings in this and other earlier English versions. There process was to compare these earlier translations to the Hebrew and Greek text, and do there best to follow the lead of the earlier English versions. Rule 14 adds that they should consult Tyndale’s, Matthew’s, Coverdale’s Geneva’s translations and follow them where they agree better with the original language text. The King James translators did not attempt, nor did they see it as their duty to, produce an entirely fresh translation based just on the Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible. As McGrath makes abundantly clear, they saw themselves as standing on the shoulders of giants like Tyndale. They were not trying to be innovators, but nor were they mere copiers of earlier versions, particularly in spots where there had been advances in original language study. And they were only as good as the original language manuscripts they had would allow them to be.
Erasmus’ Greek NT was based on five or six Greek manuscripts, none of which were any earlier than the tenth century A.D. Nevertheless, this allowed Erasmus to make some corrections of errors found in the Vulgate. The next edition of the Greek NT, the so called Bezan text (compiled by Theodore Beza in Geneva), has the same liabilities of not having any really early Greek manuscripts to follow. The Bezan text of the Greek NT came to be called the Textus Receptus, but this was not because it was any church ever officially pronounced it to be the best Greek NT text. It was simple the best available to scholars at that time, and the KJV team used it in their translation work. One other more technical point needs to be made. The textus receptus is not simply identical with the so-called Byzantine text that became so important in the eastern part of the Roman Empire from the 4th century onward. It is however close to it at many points. The vast majority of scholars today do not think that Greek text reflects our earliest and best text of the Greek NT.
Not surprisingly, considering where the universities were in England, and taking into account Tyndale’s own Oxford pedigree, the English that we find in the King James is basically the English of southeastern England, not the English of the northern part of the country (much less the King’s English, as he was a Scot!). it took from 1604 to 1610 for the six different teams of scholars to finish their work. From the start strong consideration was given to the aural dimension to the text, as it was primarily a translation to be used in public services. The teams undoubtedly read their translations aloud and tried them out on each other, something we could use more of with modern translations. In the original Preface to the KJV the Translators state plainly “Truly (Good Christian Reader) we never thought from the beginning, that we should need to make a new Translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one,… but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one…that hath been our endeavor”
It is interesting at this remove to also hear what Miles Smith, one of the translators of the KJV says about the authority and inspiration of the Bible. “The original thereof being from God, not man; the inditer, the holy spirit, not the wit of Apostles or Prophets; the Penmen such as were sanctified from the womb, and endued with a principle portion of God’s spirit; the matter, verity, piety, purity, uprightness; the form, God’s word, God’s testimony, God’s oracle, the word of truth, the word of salvation”. Notice that he is not referring to his and his colleague’s translation work, he is referring to ‘the original thereof’.
There is no evidence that the KJV translators ever saw themselves as uniquely inspired to do what they did. Instead, they saw themselves as those who followed in the human footsteps of their predecessors wherever possible, making changes cautiously. They were under no delusions that they had created a perfect translation but they thought it to be the best yet available in English, and so it was. They also freely admitted that there were many words, especially in the Hebrew text, for instances names of birds, that they were very unsure how to render into English. The Preface is commendably modest about the difficulties and imperfections of all translations including this one. The translators realized of course that there is great difficulty in managing a balance between faithfulness and elegance.
Smith was both passionate and eloquent about how important it was for the translators to do their best to render the Bible into good common English, and he adds in that first preface “Translation it is that openeth the window to let the light it; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain, that we might look into the Most Holy place, that removeth the cover of the well, that we might come by the water…Indeed without translation into the vulgar tongue, the unlearned are but like children at Jacob’s well (which is deep)..without a bucket or something to draw with. ”
Unfortunately, there were many printer’s errors in the first edition of 1611, which led to a second edition only shortly thereafter in 1613 where most of the errors were corrected. It was the decision of Bishop Bancroft that the original editions of the KJV would include the translation of the Apocrypha to the chagrin of some, and not surprisingly, in due course the Puritans lobbied to have it removed in later editions. Not surprisingly as well, various Puritans when they moved to America, did not bring a KJV with them. Their Bible of choice was the Geneva Bible.
We have in a short span here gone on a long odyssey taking us from the process that led up to the canonization of the NT, to the historical process that led to its translations into many languages, most importantly of all into English. There are many twists and turns to this story but at every step of the way two things are clear. Those involved in these many labors believed the written down Bible was itself one expression of the Word of God. They also believed that foreign language translations that were careful and faithful also could reasonably approximate the original language texts and so deserve to be called the Word of God in a secondary or derivative sense. But as Miles Smith pointed out—only the original thereof deserves that title in the full and complete sense.