The earliest churches in England used the Latin Vulgate translation of Jerome. It was copied by monks and interpreted by those priests who knew Latin.There were no copies of the Bible in Old English (OE) and the people were taught through wall paintings, relief carvings, poems and songs.
Between the eighth and the eleventh centuries various parts of Scripture as well as the Apostles Creed and the Lord’s Prayer were translated from the Latin into OE, but this was largely for the benefit of the many priests who knew little Latin.
After the Norman Conquest OE gave way to Middle English (ME) and in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries parts of the Vulgate were translated into ME for the devotional use of monks and nuns. By the late fourteenth century ME was gradually being replaced by something similar to modern English, but still the people as a whole had no Bibles in their own language.
John Wyclif changed this situation and encouraged his Oxford colleagues to produce an English translation. The first version was a word-for-word literal rendering of the Latin text, but the second was much more intelligible in English idioms and is believed to be largely the work of John Purvey. He said that his aim was the salvation of “all men in our realm whom the Lord would have saved”, but the church authorities objected, persecuting Lollard preachers and imprisoning some of the translators. Their pretext for doing so was that it was difficult to translate Scripture from one language to another without distorting the meaning, but the real reason was their fear of losing their monopoly of faith to what they saw as heresy. They were particularly incensed by the marginal glosses and comments.
Nevertheless many copies of this second Wycliffite translation were produced (250 copies have survived up to this day). The first copies were produced by hand, but the invention of the printing press in the 1450s changed the situation completely. In 1488 the complete Hebrew Bible was printed, and in 1514 the Greek New Testament (published two years later by Erasmus). Luther, and then Tyndale, used the Greek NT in their translations of the NT into German (1522) and English (1525).
Tyndale’s translation was the first English NT to be printed. He was prevented from doing so in England and moved to the Continent where for eleven years he escaped capture, raised funds, and published and distributed his translations through the help of merchants and smugglers. His primary source was Erasmus’ Greek NT but he also used the Vulgate and Luther’s German NT. He had no Lollard Bible with him and said that he had no one to “counterfeit” or “imitate”. The translation is very much his own.An analysis of the AV in 1998 established that 84% of the NT and 75.8% of as much of the OT as he was able to translate are Tyndale’s words.
So much of his work has become part of our vocabulary; “Eat, drink, and be merry”, “the salt of the earth”,“the powers that be”, “greater love has no man than this”. He wrote so that the Bible might be read aloud – the custom of the time – and although he wrote in prose, his rhythm and cadences indicate a poetic temperament. He saw that English gives the sense of the Greek original better than Latin where verbs come at the end of sentences and nouns are more common than verbs. He preferred short words and sentences and favoured Anglo-Saxon words where French and Latin words were possible, eg “brotherly” for “fraternal”, “freedom” for “liberty”. He used a variety of English words for one Greek original (“came to pass”, “happened”, “chanced”, “fortuned”, “followed”). Many of his phrases are rhythmic and striking (“he showed him all the kingdoms of the world, even in the twinkling of an eye”).
In a preface he made clear that his work was but a beginning and spoke of improving it if God gave him time. He spoke of its imperfection and asked for forgiveness if his rude English offended his readers. His aim was to be faithful to the original and clear in the translation. Explanatory notes were also necessary to make difficult words and phrases “more apt for those with weak stomachs”. He also recognised that language changes so that translations need revising and improving. In fact he revised it in 1534 and this became his definitive version. One scholar has written that this 1534 edition is “still the basis in phrasing, rendering, vocabulary, rhythm, and often in music as well” of the AV, the RV, and RSV.
Whilst at Worms Tyndale learned Hebrew from the Jewish community so that he could translate the OT. Before he died he succeeded in translating the Pentateuch, Jonah, and in all probability the historical books from Joshua to 2 Chronicles as well as parts of Isaiah and the Wisdom literature. His OT has been described as bold, free and idiomatic. He describes Joseph as “a lucky fellow”, Pharaoh’s soldiers as “jolly captains”, and has the serpent telling Eve “Tush, ye shall not die”. He loved Hebrew and said that “it agreeth a 1,000 times more with the English than with the Latin”, specifying Hebrew’s co-ordinate clauses (“and..and..and”) as an example.
As with his NT, his OT translation gave the English language many new words and phrases (“an eye for an eye”,“the Lord bless thee and keep thee”, “fat of the land”, “beast of the field”, “Passover”, “scapegoat”, “mercy seat”). It is a striking fact that although by 1611 Hebrew studies had made huge strides the Hebrew scholars who worked on the AV made few changes to Tyndale’s work. He has also been described as “the pioneer of English lexicography” because of his explanatory lists of words in the OT which would have been difficult to understand.
By the time of his martyrdom in 1536 16,000 copies of his incomplete translation of the whole Bible had passed into England, a country of two and a half million people. Gradually literacy increased and more and more English people were able to read the Scriptures for themselves. The official church continued to be reluctant to proceed with vernacular translation and as a result it was Miles Coverdale who completed Tyndale’s work in Antwerp in 1535. His was the first complete printed Bible in English. He dedicated it to Henry VIII who accepted it and, with the support of Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer, he allowed it to be distributed in England. Coverdale made extensive use of Tyndale and used the Vulgate and German Bible to translate the books Tyndale had not been able to complete. He was the first to include chapter summaries and to separate the Apocrypha from other OT books.
The execution of the sympathetic Anne Boleyn and Henry’s renewed hostility to Lutheranism meant that Coverdale’s version lost influence. But Henry did give his royal licence to a further English version edited by John Rogers. Rogers took the pseudonym Matthew, and his work became known as Matthew’s Bible. It was substantially Tyndale and Coverdale. Henry VIII and Cromwell agreed that it should be made available in every parish church for the literate to read it and the illiterate to hear it read. It was printed in Paris in 1539 and known as the “Great Bible”. For 20 years it became the definitive English version and went through several editions. The publication of Cranmer’s Prayer Books in 1549 and 1552 meant that for the first time English people had church services conducted in their own language, with the whole Bible being read through once a year.
But things changed under Mary. Men like John Rogers and Cranmer were executed and many copies of the Bible were burned. Church services reverted to Latin. Many English Protestants fled to Geneva where they produced a revision of the English NT and then the whole Bible in 1560. The Geneva Bible was dedicated to Elizabeth whom the translators compared to Zerubbabel. There is a clear Hebraic tone to the Geneva Bible; those OT passages which Tyndale had been unable to finish were translated from the Hebrew, and NT passages followed the many Hebrew idioms underlying the Greek NT. The Apocrypha was included as an appendix and the marginal notes were unashamedly Calvinistic. In all, some 70 editions of the Geneva Bible were published during Elizabeth’s reign, most of them in England itself. For 50 years it became the Bible read and appreciated in Protestant households in England and Scotland. (It is also known as the “Breeches Bible” because of its translation of Gen 3:7: “they made themselves breeches”). It included maps, tables, concordances, a preface, illustrations, marginal notes and glosses, and divided the text into verses, following the example of Robert Estienne’s 1551 French NT.
In 1568 the Church of England establishment brought out a revision of the Great Bible, the Bishops Bible.This became the version for use in public worship but it was not necessarily a rival to the Geneva Bible because people would listen to the one in church and read the other at home. Shakespeare used both, although the Geneva Bible is the major source of his biblical quotations.
Then in 1603 James VI of Scotland became James I of England. The following year he convened the Hampton Court Conference to examine the state of the Church. The Puritan members were disappointed by his insistence on the Elizabethan Settlement, but James enthusiastically accepted John Reynold’s suggestion that there should be a new translation of the Bible. James disliked the marginal notes in the Geneva Bible and believed that a uniform translation without theological commentary would serve both as the Church’s Bible and the people’s Bible.
Like most versions since, the King James Bible was produced by a committee. There were between 47 and 54 translators and all but one of them were ordained C of E clergymen.They were divided into 6 panels, 2 meeting at Westminster, 2 at Oxford and 2 at Cambridge. The OT was entrusted to 3 panels, the NT to 2, and the Apocrypha to one. They were all skilled in the original languages and used the Bishops Bible as their basis, with Coverdale or Geneva being used where they agreed better with the Hebrew and Greek. When the panels had completed their task, the draft translation of the whole Bible was reviewed by a smaller group of 12 men, 2 from each panel, and then the work was sent to the printer.
Published in 1611, it has been commonly named the “AV” in England (probably because it was authorized by Order in Council to be read in churches) and the “KJB” in America. In the lengthy preface the translators said that their intention was not “to make of a bad translation a good one….but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones one principal good one”.They also said that they had translated from the Hebrew and Greek texts and had consulted other translations and commentaries, ancient and modern.
They clearly followed Tyndale in using a variety of English synonyms for original terms where the meaning was the same (“journeying”, travelling”) but they also recognised that since Tyndale’s time some words had become old fashioned so they preferred up-to-date words (rejecting Tyndale’s “frowardly” for “vaunteth not itself ”, and “swelleth not” for Geneva’s “is not puffed up”). They also rejected Tyndale’s “congregation” for “church”, and “elder” for “bishop” because they did not share his doctrinal and ecclesiological views. It is all the more striking, then, that despite these differences, their use of Tyndale is extensive. One writer has called the AV “Tyndale’s undying memorial”.
They worked from a more formal and less fluid translation principle. Sometimes this resulted in a non-idiomatic “Hebrew style” of English. For example their use of co- ordinating clauses (“and…and… and”) is much more frequent than in normal English. Sometimes they opt for ambiguity in translation where there is ambiguity in the original.. For example in 1 Thess 4:4 they translate the original Greek word as “vessel” rather than “wife” (RSV) or “body” (NIV). If these translations sound archaic to us their reason for doing so was the desire to be as faithful to the original as possible.
They were also aware that people might well object to the new translation because it was new, and because of a love for the traditional and familiar. Miles Smith said so in his preface: “Was there never anything projected, that savoureth anyway of newness or renewing, but the same endured many a storm of gain-saying, or opposition?”
Sometimes those who praise the AV because of its style do not realize that there is not a single AV style but a variety of them. Actually this variety is one of its strengths.For example in some places they move away from the Hebraic style for something more akin to the Latin (“propitiation” replaces Tyndale’s “seat of mercy”;“remission” replaces his “forgiveth”)And,frankly, someAV translations are impenetrable (Ezekiel 13:20) or embarrassing (Isaiah 36:12).
It took time for the AV to become the version of the English speaking world. In fact some of the translators themselves (e.g. Lancelot Andrews) rarely quoted it in their preaching. Andrews, for example, knew that there was no one single text nor could there be one faultless translation. So he used the Vulgate and his own translations based on the Geneva Bible. For some time the Puritans and Non- Conformists favoured the Geneva Bible, and that was the version that the early settlers in America took with them. –
But after 1662 Anglican poets and Non- Conformist writers increasingly quoted from the AV, and even men like Bunyan and Defoe who were steeped in the Geneva Bible began to use hybrid editions of the AV with the Genevan notes. In 1737 Alexander Cruden’s concordance of the AV appeared and he was a Scottish Calvinist, and the hymns of Watts, Doddridge and Wesley are utterly AV driven. By the mid eighteenth century the AV had effectively become the text of Protestant Christians of every colour. The first AV actually printed in America was in 1782 and thereafter an astonishing number were produced (3,415 editions of the whole Bible and the NT between 1782 and 1850). Poets like Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson and writers like Herman Melville, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck and Harriet Beecher Stowe were heavily influenced by it. Slaves turned to it for consolation and hope, composing their “spirituals” in AV thought and language. And, of course, it was quoted in Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and Martin Luther King’s Lincoln Memorial speech.
In 1968 whilst watching the Earthrise when orbiting the moon, the Apollo 8 astronauts recited the opening verses of Genesis 1. A Japanese reporter called NASA requesting a copy of the speech and was told to get the book out of his hotel room drawer and turn to page 1. He found a Gideon Bible and commented:“NASA Public Affairs is very efficient—they had a mission transcript in my hotel room”. It is the only English Bible translation read from outer space.
The Greek text used in the NT was based on later MSS from the fourth century on, the so-called “Byzantine” type of Greek text. It was copied and recopied, losing some of its purity in the process, and eventually the standard edition in England became the one issued by Estienne in Paris. In 1633 an edition was issued with a Latin preface by the publisher stating that the reader has “the text which is now received by all”.This piece of publisher’s blurb is the origin of the phrase “Received Text”.
Since the seventeenth century other MSS have come to light, including the Codex Alexandrinus (fifth century) and Codex Sinaiticus (1844). Codex Vaticanus (fourth century) has also been made available from theVatican Library. As a result a number of Bible translations appeared incorporating the new textual knowledge.They used what we now call the “Western text” of the NT. (Whitby 1703,Wells 1718-24, Mace 1729,Whiston 1745,Wesley 1768, Dean Alford 1869, J. N. Darby 1871,Young 1862, Newberry 1870).
In the late nineteenth century a revision of the AV was produced, the NT in 1881 and the OT in 1885 (the Apocrypha in 1895). It was based on a comparison of the MSS available so as to correct “plain and clear errors” in the Hebrew and Greek text originally used. Some of the translators favoured the Byzantine or Received text, others, such as Westcott and Hort, followed Vaticanus and Sinaiticus (the Western text). The translation was known as the RV. It is helpful for students but does not read well.
The twentieth century saw many new translations. (The Twentieth Century NT 1902,Weymouth’s NT 1903, the Tercentenary Commemoration Bible 1911, James Moffatt 1913,1924, the GoodspeedVersion 1927,American,Wade 1934, the Basic English Bible 1949, the Plain English NT, 1937, American, Wuest’s Expanded Translation 1956-59, the Amplified Bible 1965, J.B. Phillips NT 1958, the Berkeley Version 1959, Today’s English Version or Good News for Modern Man 1966,1976, NEB 1961,1970, NASB 1971, the NIV 1973,1978, the New English Translation 2005, the NKJB 1982, the NAB 1970 the NIVI 1996, and the ESV 2001. Most are American, some with British editions, the NIVI being an exclusively British edition.
The ASB and the RSV were revisions of the KJB, leaving much of it untouched. The RSV was especially influential in Britain and had a number of noteworthy features.
- The language of the KJB was modernized. Thus “th” became “s” ; (“sendeth”, “sends”); “and “ is frequent; the Semitic idiom “and it came to pass” is dropped; “you” replaces “thou”, “thee”, and “thy” “except in language addressed to less God”; “you” is in the Gospels because during his earthly life people spoke to him as to other human beings, but “thou” after the Ascension.
- Quotation marks are used. e.g. John 3:1-15 are in quotes, 3:16-21 are not, so there is some interpretation.
- Poetical passages are increased from the RV to include the prophets (RV used them in the poetical books).
- Emendations of the traditional Hebrew text are used where in the judgement of Hebrew scholars the traditional text is defective (e.g. Gen 4:8 includes Cain’s words to Abel which are found in the Septuagint (LXX) and the Samaritan Bible, but not in the MT)
- Unlike the RV which tended to use the same English word to render one Hebrew or Greek original, the RSV followed the AV (and therefore Tyndale) using a variety of English words.
There are three approaches to the Greek NT text.
- Some favour the Byzantine or Greek Text supporting the Textus Receptus. Westcott and Hort’s criticisms of it do not carry the same weight today.
- Others favour the Alexandrian Text based on Codex Vaticanus and Sinaiticus and papyri, but some scholars doubt their faithfulness because they sometimes disagree with each other, and Sinaiticus has a goodly number of omissions.
- Most people take a Majority Text position which is based on the consensus of the existing Greek MSS where they are in substantial agreement. It is true that many of these MSS are late (none is earlier than the fifth century) but in many places they have been verified by papyri, ancient versions, and quotations from the early church Fathers. 85% of the NT text is the same in the Textus Receptus, the Alexandrian and Majority texts.
There are a number of issues here.
- The principle of building on and revising the AV is surely correct. Tyndale and the AV translators recognized that no translation is perfect.
a) Language changes.Therefore all translations are temporary. (e.g.“gay” in James 2:3; “carnal” in 1 Cor:3;“charity” in 1 Cor 13).
b) Social and cultural contexts change. (e.g. “slave” translates “doulos” best but the AV has “servant”, partly because of the influence of the Hebrew word for “servant”– “ebed”–but partly because of the connotations of cruelty which “slave” carried at the time).
- Balancing faithfulness to the original in dignified translation and communicating easily with the masses is not easy to maintain. A dignified translation might not communicate well, or an effective one might not be as accurate or worthy. The aim will be to have a translation that is as formally accurate as possible but also functional and accessible.
- All translation involves some degree of interpretation, because the original and the translation languages are never exactly the same. Translators must understand the original, or think they do, before rendering it. Therefore instead of criticising a translation for interpreting the text it would be better to indicate where the interpretation is faulty and provide something better.
- To categorize translations as “word-for-word” or “phrase-by-phrase” or even “thought-for- thought” is misleading. The AV translators said as much:“We have not tied ourselves to a uniformity of phrasing or to an identity of words as some peradventure would wish that we had done”. As good translators they endeavoured to translate the sense of the original in context as faithfully as possible in accurate, fluid, idiomatic English. Like Tyndale they recognized that Scripture has many styles and sought to reproduce this as closely as possible.
- What about inclusive language? If the original languages use terms which in that culture were gender inclusive, should the English translation adapt to today’s culture and use language that is not gender specific? (e.g.“sons” in Hebrew can refer to “sons and daughters”. Should an English translation follow suit?) This is not new. Tyndale translated Matt 5:9 “huioi” as “children”. The AV does the same, whereas the NKJ has “sons”. Paul himself in 2 Cor 6:18 when quoting 2 Samuel 7:14 “I will be his Father and he will be My son”, has “I will be a Father to you and you shall be my sons and daughters”. “Sons”becomes “sons and daughters”, and “he” becomes “you”. The issue of inclusive language continues to be controversial and Christians are not agreed about the extent to which gender inclusiveness is now a feature of modern society or about the influence of feminism.
- The principle of building on and revising the AV is surely correct. Tyndale and the AV translators recognized that no translation is perfect.
Don Carson has written about the matter in his book:“The Gender Inclusive Debate” (1998). He helpfully explains some of the complexities of translation especially where language and gender systems differ. He points out that in Hebrew “the Spirit of the Lord” is formally feminine but in English translations it is always a masculine pronoun. So it is not necessarily wrong to use different pronouns in the receptor language.The issue is “how do these pronouns function in the gender systems of the two languages”? For example, in Psalm 1:1,2 the AV, NKJ and NIV translate the Hebrew singular,“Blessed is the man who does not walk”, although the meaning is clearly “everyone” (male and female). So should we translate “those who do not walk” thereby sacrificing the Hebrew singular, or “the man” thereby implying men only? In a review of Carson’s book Ted Donnelly quotes the translation of Luke 9:23:“If anyone comes after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” and says that this is perfectly comprehensible. The Greek pronouns are masculine and are so rendered in English. No one seriously imagines that the verse applies only to males. Others might prefer it if the translation was: “Those who come after me must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me”.
Carson pleads for fairness and charity in this matter. He suggests that it is wrong to criticize a translation for “twisting the Word of God” because it uses different gender pronouns in some instances. It is also unfair to accuse translators of downplaying maleness when they render Hebrew and Greek words which are gender inclusive in an inclusive way (e.g.“adam” can mean “humanity”,“ish” can mean “person”, “anthropos” often means “”a human being”). The same is true of the generic use of “adelphoi” for “brothers and sisters” or “fathers” for “parents”.
Charity extends also to disagreements about the extent to which the language is changing. And it may be that some still prefer to preserve the distinction between the singular “thee” and the plural “you” and may wish to address the Almighty with the singular “Thou”, whilst others who wish to be equally reverent may find the term archaic.
There are still large numbers of Christians particularly in America who love and use the AV. Some are extremists, like the pastor in Rocky Mount NC who, when the RSV appeared in 1952, publicly burnt a copy with a blowlamp, condemning it as “a heretical, communist- inspired Bible”. Bruce Metzger expressed relief that whereas in former centuries translators were burned, today it is the translation.
Others are traditionalists and belong to a “King James only” movement with the motto “if it ain’t the KJB it ain’t the Bible”. Others take a more rational position and continue to love and use the AV because of its cultural heritage. Others again, argue that despite the discovery of new MSS and advances in linguistic and textual scholarship it is still the best English Bible. Its cadences, rhythms, balances, directness, and economy of language are difficult to beat. And it lends itself to easy memorization.
But whilst agreeing with this judgement many prefer a revision that is both faithful to the original and more easily intelligible to the modern world. It may well be that it is impossible in a world where there are so many Englishes for one commonly accepted translation to do what the AV did for 350 years. We may well have to settle for what Carson calls the inevitability of constituency Bibles. But may we do so with a charitable spirit of mutual fellowship.
Rev. Andrew Davies