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I Like Bibles Part 2: Some History

In the bigynnyng was the word, and the word was at God, and God was the word. This was in the bigynnyng at God. Alle thingis weren maad bi hym, and withouten hym was maad no thing, that thing that was maad. In hym was lijf, and the lijf was the liyt of men; and the liyt schyneth in derknessis, and derknessis comprehendiden not it. 
(John 1:1-5, Wycliffe, 1394 A.D.)
In our last episode, I told you a bit of my history, and that I have a fondness for Bibles. This time, I would like to go a few hundred years before my own history. No, not all the way back to "how we got the Bible in the first place", that is more than I am willing to take on (but you can check this out if you want more of that information, as well as this source). Instead, I am going to do an overview of English language Bible history.

The first Bible that was translated into English was done through John Wycliffe (or Wyclife). He trained teachers who translated the Bible from the Latin Vulgate in the 1380s. The printing press was not invented yet, so the copies were all done by hand. The Roman Catholic Church was the seat of both political and religious power, and the Pope did not like the Bible being made available in the language of the people. In addition, Wycliffe taught that Rome was wrong in several doctrines (including the papacy itself). After Wycliffe had been dead for about forty years, the Pope ordered his bones to be dug up, burned, and scattered on the river.

Move ahead in time.

The Reformation was underway, as Martin Luther had translated the Bible into German in 1522. In England, William Tyndale translated the New Testament and the Pentateuch into English from the original languages in 1525. Not only was this the first translation of Scriptures into English from the original languages, but it is also the first printed edition of the Scriptures in English. His reward? The Roman Catholic Church executed him for "heresy" (strangled and then burned at the stake). The Church confiscated as many copies as it could, and burned them as well. Fortunately, the public was fascinated and kept copies hidden away.

King Henry VIII broke with the Roman church and established his slightly Protestant Church of England. He was more willing to allow Bibles to become available. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer recommended that they create an official translation. The king approved, but Cranmer's bishops were reluctant to have the Bible available for reading in English. Along came Myles Coverdale, who took up where Tyndale left off. Since he did not know Hebrew and Greek, he combined Tyndale's work with the Latin Vulgate and Martin Luther's German translation. That is how, in 1535, we got the first complete printed Bible in English.

John Rogers was an associate of Tyndale. He, too, continued Tyndale's translation work (using manuscripts that Tyndale had been working on in his imprisonment), and translated the rest of the Bible. He used the name "Thomas Matthew", so he could stay alive and continue his illegal translation work, but was eventually martyred by the Roman Catholic Queen "Bloody" Mary because of his teachings against Catholic dogma.

Back to Archbishop Cranmer and King Henry VIII.

Cranmer persuaded the king to commission an official version through Myles Coverdale, who presented his revision of the John Rogers version. In 1539-40, the "Great Bible" was printed, the first English Bible authorized for public use. "Objectionable" content was revised (presumably the margin notes). It was "great" because of its size, fourteen inches. It was chained to the pulpit to prevent theft. (Ironic, really. Let me interject that I made a joke at the Barnes and Noble store that I was going to steal a Bible. The lady told me that Bibles are a high-theft item!) The "Great Bible" was a pulpit Bible, not something readily available to the people.

Henry VIII broke with Rome, renounced the Catholic Church and established his own. He was effectively the Anglican Church's Pope. Freedoms for printing the Bible increased and decreased, and his motivation for allowing such freedoms in the first place appeared to be simply to spite Rome.

Skip ahead to July, 1553. Mary I ("Bloody Mary"), daughter of Henry VIII, was the ruler of England (Not to be confused with Mary Tudor, "Queen of Scots"). She was Roman Catholic, and hated the Protestants so much that she had hundreds murdered, many burned alive at the stake.

English Puritans fled the persecution, and many went to Switzerland. A new translation of the Bible was done in 1560 by several men who were knowledgeable in Hebrew and Greek. Their translation was very accurate, the verses were numbered and the Bible was small enough to fit into a personal collection, unlike the larger volumes that had preceded it.

The Geneva Bible became popular quite quickly. This was expedited by the death of Bloody Mary in 1559 and the succession of the Protestant queen, Elizabeth I. Also, Romanism was fading in popularity with the English people because Rome controlled Spain and other countries that wanted to subjugate England. In 1599, it was reissued with extensive margin notes, making it the first "study Bible". (It contains ninety percent of Tyndale's translation work, which is quite a vote of confidence that these later scholars agreed with what he did.) Another probable reason for its popularity was that it was the first Bible printed in Roman type. What is less known today is that it was the Geneva Bible that first came to the New World on the Mayflower. Yes, the Biblical foundations of America began firmly rooted in this Bible version.
In the beginning was that Word, and that Word was with God, and that Word was God. This same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by it, and without it was made nothing that was made. In it was life, and that life was the light of men. And that light shineth in the darkenesse, and the darkenesse comprehended it not.
(John 1:1-5, Geneva)
The English rulers tried to rival the now-popular Geneva Bible, but the translators were afraid to imitate it too closely, and were not exactly competent. One of the goals was to have less inflammatory margin notes. So, the Bishops Bible of 1568 (a revision of the aging Great Bible) was produced, as were nineteen subsequent editions. But it failed to make an impression; the Geneva Bible was too good, and too popular.

However, the Bishops Bible is considered to be a rough draft of the next one, which was commissioned by the successor to Elizabeth I, which was King James I. It was commissioned to rival the Protestant Geneva Bible (Catholics were not the only ones to dislike and persecute Protestants, the Anglicans had their time with it as well). The work began in 1605, drawing from several Bible versions mentioned previously as well as the Catholic Rheims New Testament. Forty seven scholars were involved in the new translation. This version had fewer margin notes, which were primarily for word clarification and cross reference. Four hundred years ago, the 1611 King James "Authorized" Version was released.

In the beginning was the Word, & the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darknesse, and the darknesse comprehended it not.
(John 1:1-5, KJV 1611)
After several decades, the KJV became the English language standard, and the Geneva Bible fell by the wayside, eventually going out of print. Some feel that examination of the Geneva Bible along with the King James Version will show that the KJV translators were heavily influenced by the Geneva Bible.

The King James Version had numerous problems, and had several printing errors. It had several revisions over time. As a matter of fact, even though publishers use the preface of the 1611 version, that King James Bible you are holding is actually the 1769 revision. This aggravates people who maintain that the KJV is the "one true inspired Bible" to no end. However, the KJV is considered to be a very accurate translation.

Translations are continuing, and I believe that we have a glut of English translations. Yes, some are good. Others are biased. Discernment and research is required. But more about that another time. 

Anyway, I hope you realize that people died to be able to spread the written Word of God, so that people like you and I, in the English-speaking lands, can have more than enough copies available.

Part 3 of this series, including information on various "editions" and King James Only-ism, can be found here.

And now, a song:

I spent several hours preparing this overview. The people from whom I drew substantially and did the real work include: 
These sites will give you a tremendous amount of information.