History of the English Bible
Note: a PowerPoint set of slides related to this lesson is available here.
The reader is asked to mercifully accept this lesson as a whim of the teacher. We usually take the existence of the Scripture much too lightly, forgetting that – particularly in the English language – a great price was paid so that we might have that comfortable, leather-bound volume. In this lesson we will review three things:
· The history of the English Bible, and how we got to our situation today.
· The various translations and phrasings of the Bible in print today
· Recommendations for purchasing a Bible, for various people.
Tracing the steps
In the early part of the history of the church, the original Greek manuscripts were translated into over 500 languages. But about AD 600 the western church, now the Roman Catholic Church, forbade reading the Bible in anything but Latin. This was not particularly well enforced until about AD 900, when Latin became a method of control for the church. This eventually gave rise to one of the three conditions necessary for the English Bible to emerge:
· First, there was the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church. The most grievous example was selling indulgences, but there were plenty of others. The church was dominant; forcing “Latin only” was a tool to keep that dominance by preventing the ordinary citizen from having a standard by which to judge that corruption.
· Second, as we shall see there were a small number of scholars who had access to the Greek version of the New Testament. These men had the courage to translate the Word – and to act on what they found. This often cost them their lives.
· Finally, the doom of this world system came through an instrument of technology: the printing press.
We may now make reference to a diagram which shows the general flow of the English Bible’s development:
(copyright W. W. Kirkbride Publishers. Used by permission).
It is seen that the first translation into what we would call English is the Wycliffe translation. (There had been a translation into Anglo-Saxon in the 10th century, but the English language underwent major transformation after the Norman Conquest in 1066.) This was a hand copied version, with only a few dozen copies ever made. It had an enormous influence, largely through the Lollard movement, which was a political reform movement. This was violently stamped out by church and state. Wycliffe’s greatest follower, John Hus, was burned at the stake – the fire being kindled by as many copies of Wycliffe’s New Testament as they could find.
Noting that Hus died in 1415, and the printing press became practical during the 1450’s, you can see that the little flame stayed alight just long enough to reach the presses. Three notable people kept this flame going:
· Thomas Linacre, personal physician to Kings Henry 7th and 8th, translated the Greek and discovered how distorted the church had become. Protected by his position with the king, he eventually convinced Henry the 8th of this.
· John Colet, another politically well connected scholar, read the Scripture in English at St. Paul’s cathedral – to crowds in the thousands. He was the son of the Lord Mayor of London, and thus escaped execution for this. He helped build the political grass-roots passion for the Scripture in England.
· Finally, in 1516, the great European scholar Erasmus put together a Latin-Greek interlinear New Testament. The Greek portion became the “textus receptus,” or received text, which was the basis of the following Bibles. His goal was to correct Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, but his Greek became the basis for the first generation of English Bibles. Always tell the truth; the first rule of good scholarship.
The stage was now set. William Tyndale, fleeing to Germany (he showed up on Luther’s doorstep) took Erasmus’ work and translated the New Testament into English. In 1525 he published the New Testament. Interestingly, his largest customers were the King of England and the Roman Catholic Church – who bought as many copies as they could to burn them. But the printing press was faster than the torch, and the copies proliferated throughout England. For the first time the common Englishman could read and hear the Bible in his native language – and decide for himself what it really meant. Tyndale paid dearly for this; in 1536 he was strangled and burned at the stake, in England. Three years later Henry the 8th funded the publication of the Great Bible.
Tyndale’s work was carried forward by Miles Coverdale and John Rogers. They published editions of the Bible in English based on Tyndale’s work, but using their own work for the Old Testament. Rogers, working under the pseudonym Thomas Matthew, used much of Coverdale’s work in his version.
Henry the 8th, you will recall, was a man of six wives. He wanted a divorce in one instance, but the Pope refused to grant it. Henry promptly declared himself the head of the church in England (now the Anglican Church, or Episcopal Church in America). As part of this, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, asked Coverdale to produce a new version of the Bible to be read in the churches. Called the Great Bible (for its large page size, over 14” tall), it was read in church as the official Bible.
John Rogers and Cranmer would be executed by Queen Mary, known as “Bloody Mary” for her hundreds of martyrs as she attempted to re-convert England to the Roman Catholic church. Coverdale escaped to Geneva, Switzerland – then a hotbed of Protestant activity. Protected by the influence of John Calvin and John Knox, in 1560 he published what would be known as the Geneva Bible. It instantly became the Bible of the English speaking peoples. The pilgrims, the puritans and practically everyone else considered it “the Bible.” This Bible had two prominent features:
· For the first time, chapter and verse numbers were inserted. You could actually find John 3:16. People could memorize Scripture and be specific about where they found it. (The start of memory verses in VBS).
· It also featured an extensive set of notes – highly critical of the church of the day (Anglican and Catholic). For example, the Pope was declared to be the Antichrist. This did not set well with the authorities, but the overwhelming popularity of the version left them little choice but to tolerate it.
In an effort to combat this, the Anglican church commissioned and published the Bishop’s Bible in 1568. This was largely a revision of the Great Bible, with a differing set of footnotes. It was not particularly popular with the common man, but became the official Bible of the Anglican church, and was used by many scholars.
1611 King James
James the 1st of England had been Prince James 6th of Scotland – and had learned well the fervor with which Christianity was debated. He was not a particularly devout Christian, but an excellent politician. The conflict between versions of the Bible appeared to be a source of political disunion, the church asked the king to authorize a new version – and James came up with the method of impartiality still used today. He invited all the leading scholars, of whatever denomination, to participate. Translation was done in these stages:
· First, one scholar would prepare a baseline translation of a particular text.
· This would be reviewed by a small team of scholars.
· They would present it for review by their team (there were two teams).
· Finally, the two teams would hammer out any differences.
By the king’s command, the version had footnotes only to explain translation problems or other non-controversial items. It was impartial; the king authorized it – and within 50 years it replaced the Geneva Bible and remained the Bible of the English speaking peoples well into the 20th century. With the possible exception of Shakespeare, it is the most powerful influencer of the English language.
The version we have today is NOT the 1611 version. In 1769 a man named Baskerville produced a revision which updated the spelling of the King James. Publishers continued to include the 1611 preface with the new version, giving rise to the thought that this is the original.
A comparison of ancient versions
- 1st Ed. King James (1611): "For God so loued the world, that he gaue his only begotten Sonne: that whosoeuer beleeueth in him, should not perish, but haue euerlasting life."
- Rheims (1582): "For so God loued the vvorld, that he gaue his only-begotten sonne: that euery one that beleeueth in him, perish not, but may haue life euerlasting"
- Geneva (1560): "For God so loueth the world, that he hath geuen his only begotten Sonne: that none that beleue in him, should peryshe, but haue euerlasting lyfe."
- Great Bible (1539): "For God so loued the worlde, that he gaue his only begotten sonne, that whosoeuer beleueth in him, shulde not perisshe, but haue euerlasting lyfe."
- Tyndale (1534): "For God so loveth the worlde, that he hath geven his only sonne, that none that beleve in him, shuld perisshe: but shuld have everlastinge lyfe."
- Wycliff (1380): "for god loued so the world; that he gaf his oon bigetun sone, that eche man that bileueth in him perisch not: but haue euerlastynge liif,"
- Anglo-Saxon Proto-English Manuscripts (995 AD): “God lufode middan-eard swa, dat he seade his an-cennedan sunu, dat nan ne forweorde de on hine gely ac habbe dat ece lif."
King James Version to the present
It is difficult to overestimate the influence of the King James Version on the language and life of the English speaking people. Along with Shakespeare, the KJV is considered the foundation of modern language. It is, moreover, written in magnificent language. It is holy by definition, but it is also awesome. A measure of this impact comes from the fact that from 1611 to 1880 – 270 years – no serious body of scholars attempted another translation, despite changes in the language. In the 20th century, however, new versions bloomed. We can but survey these.
Revisions of the KJV
Given the popularity of the King James, it is not surprising that we have modernized versions of same:
· New King James Version – produced in 1982, it was originally intended only as an update of archaic language. Thomas Nelson, the publishers, discovered that they could not copyright this. They therefore added some additional translation work to it. This is largely a marketing gimmick.
· 3rd Millennium Bible – Deuel Publishers, 1998 – is noted primarily for including the Apocrypha (which was in the KJV). Not a commercial success.
· Modern King James Version – an extremely conservative revision of the KJV. Required by fanatics, otherwise not particularly harmful.
· Revised Version – published in the 1880’s, it gave rise to the American Standard Version (American English) and the Revised Standard Version. Somewhat hybridized, they are updates to the language with some of the more difficult translational difficulties addressed.
Only this last group has had any commercial success, largely due to being adopted by Protestant denominations. Most of these denominations are now liberal, and Bible reading is discouraged. Hence, revising the King James does not seem to have had the desired effect. (It also didn’t help that the Revised Version was done by scholars who had a very dull understanding of the English sentence structure).
A number of scholars or eminent preachers translated the Bible (or at least the New Testament) on their own. The most prominent names here are John Wesley, the co-founder of Methodism (New Testament); John Darby, the re-inventor of dispensationalism and pre-millennial theory; Noah Webster, the Webster in Webster’s Dictionary.
One with a modern impact is Eugene Peterson’s The Message – which is described as the Bible in “contemporary idiom.” (Read: hip, cool, with it, and quickly out of date). This one is much favored by preachers in the Consumer Christianity movement (see Willow Creek Christian Church) as being “seeker friendly.”
Special Purpose Versions
A number of Bibles have been created to meet specific needs”
· Translations for those with limited English skills (e.g., foreign students) are useful. The Bible in Basic English is one such. Another is the Contemporary English Version, which is similar but places much more emphasis on being politically correct.
· Literal versions – such as Young’s Literal Translation and A Literal Translation – are designed to assist those who are not fluent in Hebrew and Greek to understand the original structure of the sentences. Not very readable, they are an assistance to Bible teachers.
· Hebrew Names – Messianic Jewish congregations often require a Bible with the Hebrew names used. The Jewish Publication Society Old Testament is often used for this; also the Hebrew Names Version (taken from the World English Bible, discussed later). A controversial version is the “The Scriptures 98” version, which apparently caters to certain biases in this select community.
· The Bible for the Deaf is one translated into English (it is a translation) with the understanding that it will be rendered in sign language.
· One sectarian Bible – the New World Translation – is exclusive to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Everyone else considers it a biased and unscholarly translation.
· The Douay-Rheims version and the Jerusalem Bible are Roman Catholic versions. The DR is a poor translation, being based on the Vulgate. The Jerusalem Bible suffers from the fact that the original translation was from original language into French, then adapted into English.
For reasons which will be apparent, we will consider the NIV later. Other modern translations include:
· The Authorized Standard Version, which gave rise to the New American Standard Bible (NASB). A fine scholarly Bible, based on “word for word” translation (as opposed to “phrase by phrase,” as in the NIV). Popular among those who want the closest possible understanding, which necessarily involves some sacrifice in readability.
· God’s Word – a product of a group of Lutherans, this is either a poor translation or a good paraphrase. For marketing reasons, it is referred to as a translation. Popular with Consumer Christianity.
· Holman Christian Standard Bible – a conservative translation, retaining traditional spellings and “church words” such as atonement and redemption.
· International Standard Version – a work currently (2009) in progress, the New Testament is available. It is designed to be between the “word for word” and “phrase for phrase” (sometimes called “thought for thought”) philosophy.
· World English Bible – an update of the American Standard Version, it is currently in draft form.
· Living Bible – originally a paraphrase, this has been rebranded as a translation. Very popular in Consumer Christianity for its breezy style. As the Red Queen said, words mean what I say they mean.
New International Version
By far the best selling version today is the New International Version and its derivatives. Its original publication was marked with controversy over the “phrase by phrase” translation methodology - and later noted for the influence of the homosexuals on its staff. See the following comparison:
1 Corinthians 6:9 NIV Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders
1 Corinthians 6:9 NASB Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals,
1 Corinthians 6:9 KJV Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind,
1 Corinthians 6:9 ALT You* know that unrighteous [ones] will not inherit [the] kingdom of God, do you* not? Stop being led astray [fig., being deceived]; neither sexual sinners nor idolaters nor adulterers nor passive partners in male-male sex nor active partners in male-male sex
(That last is a literal translation). The phrase “homosexual offenders” appears in no other translations; the idea (explicitly claimed by one of the homosexuals on the translation committee) was that homosexuals and homosexuality were not condemned, only the mysterious offenders were. It is, simply, a fabrication.
It gets worse with “Today’s New International Version,” the “gender accurate” version. Favored in Consumer Christianity because it is strictly politically correct and supports radical feminist interpretations, it poses a number of problems. Many of these are trivial (“warriors” for “men”, going out to battle). A common variety is the substitution of the plural “they” for “he.” Read at face value, this often gives the impression that individual responsibility for sin is replaced by group responsibility. Here’s that passage in the TNIV:
1Co 6:9 TNIV Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor practicing homosexuals
We might well ask, then, why the NIV Is so popular among Christians today? Here are a few reasons:
· It is heavily marketed, an effect intensified by the decline of small Christian bookstores in favor of chain stores.
· More than any other version in copyright, it is used for differing versions. Schuller has the “Possibility Thinkers Bible,” Warren the “Purpose Driven Bible” and so on.
· It strikes the happy medium between paraphrase (or loose translation) and strict word for word translation. It is therefore quite readable.
· Its intended reading level is lower than other translations. It’s designed for proficiency in English at the 6th grade level. By comparison, the NASB is designed for the 8th grade level. It’s easier to read.
· The emphasis on study of the Bible (as opposed to simply reading it) has greatly declined in the last forty years. Three generations ago a church would have been proud of having a large number of Bible classes; today they are considered an anachronism. The need for accurate translation has thus declined.
· The advocates of Consumer Christianity find the political correctness and delicate translation (notice how “unrighteous” became “wrongdoers?”) very “seeker friendly.” It thus has become the de facto official version of that movement, and Christians see this version projected onto the screens during worship. In short, it’s recommended from the pulpit.
What would you recommend?
So, if I were to recommend a translation to you, which one would it be? It depends. Here are a few scenarios:
We need a big Bible for the coffee table. Either the eloquence of the KJV or the modern language of the NIV will do. Lots of pictures, and places to record family life are needed. You’re probably not going to read it anyway, but just in case make sure it’s a large print edition.
My cousin is a new Christian, and … Your best bet here is probably the NIV. Get one with a lot of footnotes from a source you trust. There are several versions designed for young people and/or new Christians.
I want to give one to someone who’s curious about Christianity. Try the Bible in Basic English, especially for one with limited English ability. Otherwise there are several versions of the NIV for this.
What about one for the serious student of the Bible? There are three I’d recommend as necessary:
· First, the KJV. You might as well have the eloquence at your fingertips, and its cadences are everywhere in literature. (Read the 23rd Psalm in all three versions, you’ll get the idea.)
· Next, the NIV – if for no other reason than everyone else has it. You can get one of these with some serious footnotes, which might help.
· Finally, the NASB – the best of the modern “word for word” translations, and closest to the spirit of the KJV.
And for the teacher? The primary Bible for a teacher would be the NASB (understanding that you already have the NIV and KJV). Better yet, get a computer and go to www.e-sword.net and download e-Sword. The NIV and NASB will cost you a few bucks, but most of the other translations, the actual software itself and dozens of great add-ons are free.
Here’s a comparison of the versions available from e-Sword, which should give you some idea of how each translation sounds.
(ALT) "For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten [or, unique] Son, so that every [one] believing [or, trusting] in Him shall not perish, _but_ shall be having eternal life!
(ASV) For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life.
(BBE) For God had such love for the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever has faith in him may not come to destruction but have eternal life.
(Bishops) For God so loued the worlde, that he gaue his only begotten sonne, that whosoeuer beleueth in hym, shoulde not perishe, but haue euerlastyng lyfe.
(CEV) God loved the people of this world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who has faith in him will have eternal life and never really die.
(Darby) For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believes on him may not perish, but have life eternal.
(DRB) For God so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son: that whosoever believeth in him may not perish, but may have life everlasting.
(EMTV) For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
(ESV) "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
(Geneva) For God so loued the worlde, that hee hath giuen his onely begotten Sonne, that whosoeuer beleeueth in him, should not perish, but haue euerlasting life.
(GNB) For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life.
(GW) God loved the world this way: He gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him will not die but will have eternal life.
(HCSB) "For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.
(HNV) For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.
(ISV) "For this is how God loved the world: He gave his unique Son so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life.
(KJV) For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
(KJV-1611) For God so loued ye world, that he gaue his only begotten Sonne: that whosoeuer beleeueth in him, should not perish, but haue euerlasting life.
(LITV) For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that everyone believing into Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
(MKJV) For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
(MSG) "This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.
(NASB) "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.
(NIV) "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
(RV) For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life.
(TS98) "For Elohim so loved the world that He gave His only brought-forth Son, so that everyone who believes in Him should not perish but possess everlasting life.
(WEB) For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.
(Webster) For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believeth in him, should not perish, but have everlasting life.
(YLT) for God did so love the world, that His Son--the only begotten--He gave, that every one who is believing in him may not perish, but may have life age-during.
There is also the NIrV, the New International Readers Version, which is a basic English version of the NIV. This is relatively popular in Great Britain.