Throughout the Middle Ages literacy rates were extremely low in Europe, and hand copied manuscripts were expensive.
The Bible and many legal documents were written in Latin or Greek, which were becoming increasingly dead languages used
only by the church. Moreover, the statute of Valencia and other statutes had made it illegal for anyone not authorized
by the Church to have even the Latin and Greek versions of the of the Bible.|
The laity therefore had to rely on the
Church, government and powers that be for understanding and
interpreting these documents. With the invention of the printing press, one of the first books to be printed was the
bible, which was soon translated into several languages, often badly. The errors were due in part to ignorance and in
part by attempts to use the Bible to further sectarian political or theological goals.
A few small parts of the Bible had been translated into vernacular at different times. King Alfred translated the ten
commandments, and Bede had translated the gospel of St John into Saxon language, but the translation was lost. In the
Wyclif had translated parts of the Bible and this work was completed after his death. Many copies of this "Lollard" bible in
middle English were distributed before the invention of printing. The Genesis narrative opened:
“In the firste made God of nougt heuene and erthe. The erthe forsothe was veyn with ynne and void, and derknessis
weren vpon the face of the see; and the Spiryt of God was born vpon the watrys. And God seide, Be maad ligt; and maad is
The Wyclif (or Wycliffe) bible was completed in 1388, four years after Wycliffe's death. Wycliffe himself had
translated the New Testament
, relegating the Old Testament translations to assistants with the necessary language skills. These Wycliffe bibles were laboriously copied out and distributed at great risk. The Catholic Church was horrified at the possibility that everyone
would be able to read the Bible.
In 1399, alarmed at the spread of Lollardy, the convocation of Oxford passed the statute De Heretico Comburendum,
"Of the burning of heretics." This law was passed in Parliament by King Henry IV in 1401. It provided for burning of all
those who held Lollard opinions, or possessed illegal books, including the translated Bible apparently, though it is a
common misconception that it was directed only against the Bible.
The De Heretico Comburendo statute stated:
...that none...presume to preach openly or privily, without the license of the diocesan of the same place first
required and obtained, curates in their own churches and persons hitherto privileged, and other of the Canon Law
granted, only except; nor that none from henceforth anything preach, hold, teach, or instruct openly or privily, or make
or write any book contrary to the catholic faith or determination of the Holy Church, nor of such sect and wicked
doctrines and opinions shall make any conventicles, or in any wise hold or exercise schools; and also that none from
henceforth in any wise favor such preacher or maker of any such and like conventicles, or persons holding or exercising
schools, or making or writing such books, or so teaching, informing, or exciting the people, nor any of them maintain or
in any wise sustain, and that all and singular having such books or any writings of such wicked doctrine and opinions,
shall really with effect deliver or cause to be delivered all such books and writings to the diocesan of the same place
within forty days from the time of the proclamation of this ordinance and statute.
The Lollards did not believe that the wine and wafer of the communion were transsubstantiated into the blood and body
of Jesus, they refused to worship the cross as an object, and held many other such "dangerous" doctrines in addition to
translating the Bible.
The first person to be executed under the law was Sir William Sautre, who refused to abjure,
among other heresies, the following:
1. he will not worship the cross on which Christ suffered, but only Christ that suffered upon the cross.
2. he would sooner worship a temporal king, than the aforesaid wooden cross.
3. he would rather worship the bodies of the saints, than the very cross of Christ on which he hung, if it were
4. he would rather worship a man truly contrite, than the cross of Christ.
5. he is bound rather to worship a man that is predestinate, than an angel of God.
6. if any man would visit the monuments of Peter and Paul, or go on pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Thomas, or any
whither else, to obtain any temporal benefit; he is not bound to keep his vow, but he may distribute the expenses of his
vow upon the alms of the poor.
7. every priest and deacon is more bound to preach the word of God, than to say the canonical hours.
Wyclif himself had been executed in 1388. The Catholic authorities later desecrated his grave.
While the new statute was not exclusively aimed at translated bibles, it was used to suppress them. Quite a few of these bibles, used by Lollard preachers, nevertheless remained.
In the 1490’s the personal physician to King Henry the VII and VIII, Thomas Linacre, an Oxford professor, studied
Greek. After reading the Gospels in the original Greek, and comparing it to the Latin Vulgate, he wrote in his diary,
“Either this (the original Greek) is not the Gospel… or we are not Christians.” In the same period, John Colet,
another Oxford professor, translated the New Testament into English for his students, and later it was read for
the public at Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. He escaped prosecution owing to his friends in high places. Presently, the vernacular Bible became a political weapon against temporal rulers too, because it could be used to show
that the claims of kings to "divine right" were a fiction. William Tyndale was the main translator of the English Bible, in the early sixteenth century. He did
not use Wyclif's version, but started anew. Wyclif had written in Middle English, which was rapidly being transformed. Printing
was standardizing and altering spelling. Wyclif had translated the Latin Vulgate. Tyndale knew Hebrew and Greek, and
translated from the original. The Tyndale bibles were printed in Europe and smuggled into Britain. There, they were
bought up eagerly by the Lord Bishop of London, to prevent their distribution. In this way, the church subsidized the
work of Tyndale and it prospered. Tyndale boasted to learned Catholics:
"I wyl cause a boy that driveth ye plough
shall know more of scripture than thou doest."
This idea was surely terrifying both for churchmen and for the crown, for the notes in many editions of these bibles,
published by Calvinists, repudiated the divine right of kings.
The work was continued after his
death. Based on these translations, Miles Coverdale printed the first complete Bible in English in 1535. John Rogers
published a revision called Matthew's Bible in 1537. A revision of the Matthew's Bible, printed in 1539, was known as The
Great Bible. A later revision reflected the participation of eight Anglican Bishops and was called The Bishop's Bible.
It was printed in 1568. The frontispiece of this bible is shown at right.
An elegant and well written Bible, correcting Tyndale and incorporating a translation of the Old Testament, had been
produced in Geneva by expatriate Protestants fleeing the reign of Catholic Queen Mary. This came to be known as the
Geneva Bible. It was not satisfactory to the English monarchy because it included extensive marginal notes that,
among other things, challenged the divine right of kings.
A draft act of parliament in the reign of Elizabeth (1558-1603) stated that it was "An act for the reducing of diversities of
bibles now extant in the English tongue to one settled vulgar translated from the original." However, the subject was
not pursued. Elizabeth, died in 1603 and was succeeded by James 1.
The King James Version
James desired to secure a reconciliation between the throne and the Anglican church on the one hand, and the puritans
on the other. Therefore he called the Hampton Court Conference in January of 1604 "for the hearing, and for the
determining, things pretended to be amiss in the church" inviting Anglican bishops, clergymen, and professors,
along with four Puritan divines, to consider the complaints of the Puritans. None of the Puritan demands were met but
one. The Puritan president of Corpus Christi College, John Reynolds, "moved his Majesty, that there might be a new
translation of the Bible, because those which were allowed in the reigns of Henry the eighth, and Edward the sixth, were
corrupt and not answerable to the truth of the Original."
James replied that he:
"Could never yet see a Bible well translated in English; but I think that, of all, that of Geneva is the worst. I
wish some special pains were taken for an uniform translation, which should be done by the best learned men in both
Universities, then reviewed by the Bishops, presented to the Privy Council, lastly ratified by the Royal authority, to
be read in the whole Church, and none other."
The resolution states in in part::
"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 of England in time of divine
The translation was undertaken by six committees, comprising 54 invited participants, of whom about 47 apparently
participated in the work. Ten people meeting at Westminster managed Genesis through 2 Kings; seven had Romans through
Jude. At Cambridge, eight produced 1 Chronicles through Ecclesiastes, while seven others handled the Apocrypha. Oxford
employed seven to translate Isaiah through Malachi; eight occupied themselves with the
Gospels, Acts, and Revelation.
Fifteen rules guided the translators:
1. The ordinary Bible read in the Church, commonly called the Bishops Bible, to be followed, and as little altered as
the Truth of the original will permit.
2. The names of the Prophets, and the Holy Writers, with the other Names of the Text, to be retained, as nigh as may be,
accordingly as they were vulgarly used.
3. The Old Ecclesiastical Words to be kept, viz. the Word Church not to be translated Congregation &c.
4. When a Word hath divers Significations, that to be kept which hath been most commonly used by the most of the Ancient
Fathers, being agreeable to the Propriety of the Place, and the Analogy of the Faith.
5. The Division of the Chapters to be altered, either not at all, or as little as may be, if Necessity so require.
6. No Marginal Notes at all to be affixed, but only for the explanation of the Hebrew or Greek Words, which cannot
without some circumlocution, so briefly and fitly be expressed in the Text.
7. Such Quotations of Places to be marginally set down as shall serve for the fit Reference of one Scripture to another.
8. Every particular Man of each Company, to take the same Chapter or Chapters, and having translated or amended them
severally by himself, where he thinketh good, all to meet together, confer what they have done, and agree for their
Parts what shall stand.
9. As any one Company hath dispatched any one Book in this Manner they shall send it to the rest, to be considered of
seriously and judiciously, for His Majesty is very careful in this Point.
10. If any Company, upon the Review of the Book so sent, doubt or differ upon any Place, to send them Word thereof; note
the Place, and withal send the Reasons, to which if they consent not, the Difference to be compounded at the general
Meeting, which is to be of the chief Persons of each Company, at the end of the Work.
11. When any Place of special Obscurity is doubted of, Letters to be directed by Authority, to send to any Learned Man
in the Land, for his Judgement of such a Place.
12. Letters to be sent from every Bishop to the rest of his Clergy, admonishing them of this Translation in hand; and to
move and charge as many skilful in the Tongues; and having taken pains in that kind, to send his particular Observations
to the Company, either at Westminster, Cambridge, or Oxford.
13. The Directors in each Company, to be the Deans of Westminster, and Chester for that Place; and the King's Professors
in the Hebrew or Greek in either University.
14. These translations to be used when they agree better with the Text than the Bishops Bible: Tyndale's, Matthew's,
Coverdale's, Whitchurch's, Geneva.
15. Besides the said Directors before mentioned, three or four of the most Ancient and Grave Divines, in either of the
Universities, not employed in Translating, to be assigned by the vice-Chancellor, upon Conference with the rest of the
Heads, to be Overseers of the Translations as well Hebrew as Greek, for the better observation of the 4th Rule above
Inasmuch as the Bishop's Bible had relied on Tyndale for the most part, the King James Version preserved the work of
Tyndale and carried it forward into modern times. The
preface reflects some of the partisanship between Christian sects that in part motivated the translation:
Lastly, we have on the one side avoided the scrupulosity of the Puritans, who leave the old Ecclesiastical words, and
betake them to other, as when they put WASHING for BAPTISM, and CONGREGATION instead of CHURCH: as also on the other
side we have shunned the obscurity of the Papists, in their AZIMES, TUNIKE, RATIONAL, HOLOCAUSTS, PRAEPUCE, PASCHE, and
a number of such like, whereof their late Translation is full, and that of purpose to darken the sense, that since they
must needs translate the Bible, yet by the language thereof, it may be kept from being understood. But we desire that
the Scripture may speak like itself, as in the language of Canaan, that it may be understood even of the very vulgar.
They apparently relied in great part on previous English translations:
They also relied on other sources:
"We are so far off from condemning any of their labors that travailed before us in this kind, either in this land or
beyond sea, either in King Henry's time, or King Edward's...or Queen Elizabeth's of ever renowned memory, that we
acknowledge them to have been raised up of God, for the building and furnishing of his Church, and that they deserve to
be had of us and of posterity in everlasting remembrance."
"Neither did we think much to consult the Translators or Commentators, Chaldee, Hebrew,
Syrian, Greek, or Latin, no nor the Spanish, French, Italian, or Dutch." The Greek editions of Erasmus, Stephanus, and
Beza were all accessible, as were the Complutensian and Antwerp Polyglots, and the Latin translations of Pagninus,
Termellius, and Beza.
It is difficult to determine to what extent the translators relied on other translations rather than the original
wording. It is certain that distorted place names and personal names and some other errors introduced in translations
were perpetuated either either because of the rules they adopted, or because of considerations of dogma. Nonetheless,
the new King James Version of the Bible was a great improvement on the previous versions.
|The work was completed and published in 1611, the complete title page reading:
TTHE HOLY BIBLE.
Conteyning the Old Testament,
and the New:
Newly Translated out of the Originall tongues: & with the
former Translations diligently compared and revised, by his Majesties Special Commandment.
Appointed to be read in
Imprinted at London by Robert Barker, Printer to the Kings most Excellent Majestie.
ANNO DOM. 1611.
The New Testament title page read:
"THE NEWE Testament of our Lord and Saviour JESUS CHRIST.
Newly Translated out of the Originall Greeke: and with the
former Translations diligently compared and revised, by his Majesties speciall Commandment.
IMPRINTED at London by
Robert Barker, Printer to the Kings most Excellent Majestie.
ANNO DOM. 1611.
The preface incorporated and explained many of
the concerns and considerations of the translators. See:
Preface to the First Edition of the King James Version of the Bible.
Further History of the King James Version of the Bible
The King James Version of the Bible came to be known as the Authorized Version. It went through numerous editions and revisions.
Two revisions were done at Cambridge in 1629 and 1638. The latter reflected contributions of John Bois and
Samuel Ward, two of the original translators. The most important revisions were those of the 1762 Cambridge
revision by Thomas Paris, and the 1769 Oxford revision by Benjamin Blayney. In the United States, yet another revision
was done by Robert Aitken in 1782. Later editions of the King James version suppressed the 14 books of the apocrypha,
that were not accepted as part of the canonical bible, though these had been included in the 1611 version of the King
The Authorized King James Version of the Bible eclipsed all previous versions of the Bible, and has not been entirely
displaced by either the revised version or other translations for English speaking Protestants. In Britain, and later in
the United States, the King James Version and its descendants produced a cultural revolution that was to be expressed,
among other things, in cultural acceptance of restoration of the Jews in both Britain and the United States. It was the
King James Version and its English language predecessors, and not the 20th century Scofield bible, that caused a
revolution in thinking about the Jews among English speaking Christians. (see
Christian Zionism ).
... generation after generation of Englishmen came to know The Book. Everyone knew it. In many homes it was the only
book in the house and, being so, was read over and over until its words and images and characters and stories became as
familiar as bread. Children learned long chapters by heard and usually knew the geography of Palestine before they knew
their own. Lloyd George recalled how in his first meeting with Chaim Weizmann in December 1914, place names kept coming
into the conversation that were "more familiar to me than those of the Western Front" Lord Balfour's biographer says
that his interest in Zionism stemmed from his boyhood training in the Old Testament under the guidance of his mother.
(Tuchman, Barbara, Bible and Sword, 1956, p 83).
Brooke Westcott, one of the members of the committee that produced the Revised Version, and the editor, with
Fenton Hort, of an edition of the Greek New Testament, stated that:
From the middle of the seventeenth century, the King's Bible has been the acknowledged Bible of the English-speaking
nations throughout the world simply because it is the best. A revision which embodied the ripe fruits of nearly a
century of labour, and appealed to the religious instinct of a great Christian people, gained by its own internal
character a vital authority which could never have been secured by any edict of sovereign rulers.
Winston Churchill considered the King James Version of the Bible to be one of the lasting achievements of English culture, which
bound together all the English speaking people of the world. In his History of the English Speaking Peoples, Churchill
"The scholars who produced this masterpiece are mostly unknown and unremembered. But
they forged an enduring link, literary and religious, between the English-speaking people of the world."