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Bible, English Versions

Administrators' note: This article contains outdated information and is in need of significant review and update.

BIBLE, ENGLISH VERSIONS. In the earliest days of English Christianity the only known Bible was the Latin Vulgate, made by Jerome between a.d. 383 and 405. This could be read by the clergy and by monks, the only ones who were familiar with the language. In 670 Caedmon, a monk at Whitby, produced in Old English a metrical version of some of the more interesting narratives of the OT. The first straightforward translation of any part of the Bible into the language of the people was the Psalter, made in about 700 by Aldhelm, the first bishop of Sherborne in Dorset. Some parts of the NT were translated into English by Bede, the learned monk of Jarrow, author of the famous Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation. According to a letter of his disciple Cuthbert, Bede was still engaged in translating the Gospel of John into English on his deathbed. It is not certain whether he completed it, but, unfortunately, his translation has not survived. King Alfred (871-901) produced during his reign English versions of parts of the Old and New Testaments, including a part of the Psalter. Some Latin gospels that survive from this period have written between the lines what are known as “glosses,” a word-for-word translation of the text into English, without regard to the idiom and usage of the vernacular. From the same period as these glosses come what are known as the Wessex Gospels, the first independent Old English version of the gospels. Toward the end of the tenth century Aelfric, archbishop of Canterbury, translated parts of the first seven books of the OT, as well as parts of other OT books.

For nearly three centuries after the Norman Conquest in 1066 the uncertain conditions of the language prevented any real literary progress, but some manuscripts of translations of parts of the Bible into Anglo-Norman French survive. About the beginning of the thirteenth century an Augustinian monk named Orm or Ormin produced a poetical version of the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles called the Ormulum. From the first half of the fourteenth century there survive two prose translations of the Psalter, done in two different dialects; and from the end of the fourteenth century, a version of the principal NT letters, apparently made, however, not for the use of the common people but for monks and nuns. There was no thought as yet of providing ordinary layfolk with the Bible in their own tongue. It was Wycliffe who first entertained this revolutionary idea. And it was Wycliffe who first made the whole Bible available in English.

John Wycliffe. Born in Yorkshire about the year 1320, Wycliffe stands out as one of the most illustrious figures of the fourteenth century. This was a period of transition, neither the Middle Ages nor the Reformation—a kind of middle ground between the two. The old order was struggling with the new. Throughout the whole of this century the prestige of the Roman Catholic church was very low. The “Babylonian Captivity” of the popes at Avignon (1309-1378) was followed by the “Great Schism,” when for forty years there were two rival popes, one at Rome and the other at Avignon. In the struggle between the papacy and the English parliament over the papal tribute, Wycliffe sided with the parliament. The outstanding Oxford theologian of his day and an ardent ecclesiastical reformer, he is called the “Morning-star of the Reformation.” He was convinced that the surest way of defeating Rome was to put the Bible into the hands of the common people, and he therefore decided to make such a translation available. Under his auspices, the NT came out in 1380 and the OT two years later. It is uncertain exactly how much of the translation was done by Wycliffe himself. A number of scholars worked with him on the project, one of them, Nicholas Hereford, doing the greater part of the OT. The translation was made from the Latin, not from the original languages. Since printing was not known, copies were made by hand and were naturally very expensive. About 170 are in existence at present. It was never printed until 1850, when the Oxford Press published it. The original manuscript in the handwriting of at least five different men is preserved in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. To help him in his efforts for reform, Wycliffe organized a kind of religious order of poor preachers, called Lollards, whom he sent throughout England to preach his doctrines and to read the Scriptures to all who wished to hear. Foxe reports that the people were so eager to read it that they would give a whole load of hay for the use of the NT for one day. There was opposition to Wycliffe on the part of the church, but contrary to his own expectations, he was permitted to retire to his rectory of Lutterworth, where he quietly died in 1384. Twelve years later, however, his bones were disinterred and burned, and the ashes scattered over the river that flows through Lutterworth. His translation has indelibly stamped itself on our present-day Bible. Some of the familiar expressions that are first found in his version are “strait gate,” “make whole,” “compass land and sea,” “son of perdition,” “enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.”

Four years after Wycliffe’s death his secretary, John Purvey, issued a careful revision of his translation, introduced with an interesting prologue and accompanied by notes. The church, however, did not approve of the new Bible. In 1408 a decree, known as the “Constitutions of Oxford,” was issued forbidding anyone to translate or read any part of the Bible in the vernacular without the approval of his bishop or of a provincial council. Six years later a law was enacted that all persons who should read the Scriptures in their own language should “forfeit land, catel, life, and goods from their heyres for ever.” Nicholas Hereford and John Purvey were imprisoned. The public demand for the Bible continued, however, in spite of the severe penalties attached to its circulation.

The fifteenth century was one of the great epochs of human history. In that century there lived such men as Columbus, Galileo, Frances Bacon, Kepler, and Marco Polo. Another great man of the time was the inventor of printing, Gutenberg, who in 1454 brought out in Germany the first dated printed work, a Latin Psalter, and two years later the famous Gutenberg Bible in the Latin Vulgate. After the capture of Constantinople in 1453, Christian scholars were compelled to leave the capital of the Eastern Empire, where for a thousand years Greek learning had flourished. They brought with them to Western Europe many Greek manuscripts. This led to a revival of interest in biblical studies and made it possible for Erasmus to issue in 1516 the first printed edition of the Greek New Testament. At the beginning of the sixteenth century Greek was for the first time introduced as a subject of study in the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. By 1500 most of the countries of Europe had the Scriptures in the vernacular. England, however, had only scattered copies of the Wycliffe manuscript version, the language of which had by then become obsolete. The Constitutions of Oxford were still in force. England was ready for a new translation of the Bible, from the original languages.

William Tyndale. William Tyndale, the next great figure in the history of the English Bible, was born about the year 1494 and spent ten years studying at Oxford and Cambridge. Soon after leaving Cambridge, while working as a chaplain and tutor, he said in a controversy with a clergyman, “If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth a plough to know more of the Scripture than thou dost.” This became the fixed resolve of his life. In his projected translation he tried to get the support of the bishop of London, but without success. A wealthy London cloth merchant finally came to his support, but after six months, in 1524, Tyndale left for the Continent because, he said, he “understood at the last not only that there was no room in my lord of London’s palace to translate the NT, but also that there was no place to do it in all England, as experience doth now openly declare.” He was never able to return to England. He seems to have visited Luther at Wittenberg, and then went to Cologne, where he found a printer for his NT. A priest discovered his plan, and Tyndale was obliged to flee. In Worms he found another printer, and there, in 1525, three thousand copies of the first printed English NT were published. By 1530 six editions, numbering about fifteen thousand copies, were published. They were all smuggled into England—hidden in bales of cotton, sacks of flour, and bundles of flax.

As soon as Tyndale’s NT reached England, there was a great demand for it: by the laity that they might read it, and by the ecclesiastical authorities, that they might destroy it! A decree was issued for its destruction. Bishops bought up whole editions to consign to the flames. As a result, only a few imperfect copies survive. Tyndale’s English NT began a new epoch in the history of the English Bible. It was not a translation from the Latin, as Wycliffe’s had been, but was translated from the original Greek, the text published by Erasmus. With each successive edition, Tyndale made corrections and improvements. So well did Tyndale do his work that the KJV reproduces about 90 percent of Tyndale in the NT. After the completion of the NT, Tyndale started to bring out a translation of the OT from the Hebrew text, but he lived only to complete the Pentateuch, Jonah, and probably the historical books from Joshua to 2 Chronicles. After ten years on the Continent, mostly in hiding, he was betrayed in Antwerp by an English Roman Catholic and was condemned to death for being a heretic. He was strangled and his body burned at the stake. His last words were a prayer, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” But Tyndale had won his battle. Although his NT was burned in large quantities by the church, it contributed greatly toward creating an appetite for the Bible in English. The government, moreover, began to see the wisdom and necessity of providing the Bible in English for common use. The break with the papacy in 1534 helped greatly in this.

Miles Coverdale. While Tyndale was imprisoned in Belgium, an English Bible suddenly appeared in England in 1535. It had come from the Continent. The title page stated that it had been translated out of the German and Latin into English. This Bible was the rendering of Miles Coverdale, although in the NT and in those parts of the OT done by Tyndale, it was no more than a slight revision of the latter’s work. It was the first complete printed Bible in the English language. It was not translated from the Hebrew and Greek, for in the dedication (to Henry VIII) Coverdale says that he used the work of five different translators. His version of the Psalms still appears in the Book of Common Prayer, used daily in the ritual of the Church of England. Two new editions of Coverdale’s Bible appeared in 1537, the title page containing the significant words “Set forth with the King’s most gracious license.” So within a year of Tyndale’s death, the entire Bible was translated, printed, and distributed, apparently with royal approval.

Thomas Matthew. In 1537 another Bible appeared in England, this one by Thomas Matthew (a pen name for John Rogers, a former associate of Tyndale’s), who was burned at the stake by Queen Mary in 1555. The whole of the NT and about half of the OT are Tyndale’s, while the remainder is Coverdale’s. It bore on its title page the words, “Set forth with the king’s most gracious license.” This Bible has the distinction of being the first edition of the whole English Bible actually to be printed in England. So now two versions of the English Bible circulated in England with the king’s permission, Coverdale’s and Matthew’s, both of them heavily dependent on Tyndale.

The Great Bible. The next Bible to appear was a revision of the Matthew Bible, done by Coverdale. The printing of this was begun in Paris, but the Inquisition stepped in and the work was completed in England. It appeared in 1539 and was called the Great Bible because of its large size and sumptuousness. In his revision Coverdale made considerable use of the Hebrew and Greek texts then available. Subsequent editions were called Cranmer’s Bible because of a preface he wrote for it in which he commended the widespread reading of the Scriptures and declared that they were the sufficient rule of faith and life. At the foot of the title page were the words “This is the Bible appointed to the use of the churches.” This makes explicit an order that was issued in 1538, while this Bible was being printed, that a copy of it was to be placed in every church in the land. The people cordially welcomed the Great Bible, but its size and cost limited it largely to use in churches.

The later years of Henry VIII were marked by a serious reaction against the Reform movement. In 1543 Parliament passed an act to ban the use of Tyndale’s NT, made it a crime for an unlicensed person to read or expound the Bible publicly to others, and restricted even the private reading of the Bible to the upper classes. Three years later Parliament prohibited the use of everything but the Great Bible. In London large quantities of Tyndale’s NT and Coverdale’s Bible were burned at St. Paul’s Cross.

In the brief reign of Edward VI, who succeeded his father Henry VIII in 1547, no new translation work was done. However, great encouragement was given to the reading of the Bible and to the printing of existing versions, and injunctions were reissued that a copy of the Great Bible be placed in every parish church.

The Genevan Bible. With the accession of Mary in 1553, hundreds of Protestants lost their lives, among them some men closely associated with Bible translation, like John Rogers and Thomas Cranmer. Coverdale escaped martyrdom by fleeing to the Continent. Some of the English Reformers escaped to Geneva, where the leading figure was John Calvin. One of their number, William Wittingham, who had married Calvin’s sister, produced in 1557 a revision of the English NT. This was the first English NT printed in roman type and with the text divided into verses. He and his associates then undertook the revision of the whole Bible. This appeared in 1560 and is known as the Genevan Bible, or as the Breeches Bible from its rendering of Gen.3.7, “They sewed fig tree leaves together, and made themselves breeches.” It enjoyed a long popularity, going through 160 editions, 60 of them during the reign of Queen Elizabeth alone, and continued to be printed even after the publication of the KJV in 1611.

The Bishops’ Bible. Queen Elizabeth, who succeeded Mary Tudor as queen, restored the arrangements of Edward VI. The Great Bible was again placed in every church, and people were encouraged to read the Scriptures. The excellence of the Genevan Bible made obvious the deficiencies of the Great Bible, but some of the Genevan Bible’s renderings and the marginal notes made it unacceptable to many of the clergy. Archbishop Parker, aided by eight bishops and some other scholars, therefore made a revision of the Great Bible, which was completed and published in 1568 and came to be known as the Bishops' Bible. It gained considerable circulation, but the Genevan Bible was far more popular and was used more widely.

Rheims and Douai Version. This came from the Church of Rome and is the work of Gregory Martin, who with a number of other English Romanists left England at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign and settled in NE France, where in 1568 they founded a college. The NT was published in 1582, and was done while the college was at Rheims, and hence is known as the Rheims NT; but the OT was not published until 1609-10, after the college had moved to Douai, and hence it is called the Douai OT. The preface warned readers against the then-existing “profane” translations and blames Protestants for casting what was holy to dogs. Like Wycliffe’s version, this one was made not from the original languages but from Latin, and is therefore only a secondary translation. The main objection to the version is its too close adherence to the words of the original Latin and the too great Latinizing of the English. It included the Apocrypha and contained a large number of notes, most of them to interpret the sacred text in conformity with Roman Catholic teaching and to reply to the arguments of the Reformers. The Rheims-Douay Bible in use today is not the same as the one made by Gregory Martin, but is a thorough revision made of it between 1749 and 1763 by Bishop Richard Challoner. It was first authorized for use by American Roman Catholics in 1810.

King James (or Authorized) Version. When Elizabeth died in 1603, the crown passed to James I, who had been king of Scotland for thirty-six years as James VI. Several months after he ascended the throne of England he called a conference of bishops and Puritan clergy to harmonize the differences that existed in the church. At this conference Dr. John Reynolds, President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, a leader of the Puritan party in the Church of England, suggested that a new translation of the Bible be made to replace the Bishops’ Bible, which many people found unacceptable. The proposal pleased the king, who violently disliked the Genevan Bible; a resolution was passed to produce a new translation of the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek, without any marginal notes, for the use of all the churches in England.

Without delay King James nominated fifty-four of the best Hebrew and Greek scholars of the day. Only forty-seven actually took part in the work, which did not begin until 1607. They were divided into six groups: three for the OT, two for the NT, and one for the Apocrypha. Two of the groups met at Oxford, two at Cambridge, and two at Westminster. Elaborate rules were laid down for their guidance. When a group had completed its task, its work was submitted to twelve men, two from each panel. Final differences of opinion were settled at a general meeting of each company. In cases of special difficulty, learned men outside the board of revisers were consulted. Marginal notes were used only to explain Hebrew and Greek words and to draw attention to parallel passages. Italics were used for words not found in the original but necessary to complete the sense.

The revisers, who received no financial remuneration for their work, completed their task in two years; nine more months were devoted to a revision of their work by a special committee consisting of two members from each group. In 1611 the new version was published. Although the title page described it as “newly translated out of the original tongues” and as “appointed to be read in churches,” neither statement is entirely in accord with the facts. The work was actually a revision of the Bishops’ Bible on the basis of the Hebrew and Greek; and it was never officially sanctioned by king, Parliament, or the church. It did not win immediate universal acceptance, taking almost fifty years to displace the Genevan Bible in popular favor. In the course of time slight alterations were made, especially in spelling, to conform to changing usage, but these were all done piecemeal by private enterprise. Its excellence is shown by the fact that after 375 years it is still used in preference to any other version in the English-speaking Protestant world, for both public and private use.

English Revised Version. This version was seen as necessary for a number of reasons: (1) in the course of time some words in the KJV had become obsolete, (2) a number of Greek manuscripts were discovered that were older than those available to the KJV translators, and (3) scholars’ knowledge of the Hebrew language had improved. It had its origin in 1870 when, at the Convocation of Canterbury of the Church of England, a committee was appointed to invite outstanding Hebrew and Greek scholars, irrespective of religious denomination, to join in revising the KJV. Eventually a committee of fifty-four was formed, divided into two groups of twenty-seven each—one for the OT, the other for the NT. American scholars were also invited to cooperate, and they formed two groups corresponding to the British groups. It was agreed that American suggestions not accepted by the British revisers be recorded in an appendix to the published volume and that the American revisers give their moral support to the new Bible and not issue an edition of their own until at least fourteen years later. The revisers were guided by a number of rules, the most important being that they were to make as few alterations as possible in the text of the KJV, while basing their translation on a different Greek text.

Altogether the Greek text underlying the revised NT differed in 5,788 readings from that used by the KJV translators—only about one-fourth of these making any material difference in the substance of the text, though none so seriously as to affect major Christian doctrines. In the English text of the NT there are about 36,000 changes. The new Bible differed from its predecessors in printing poetical passages in the OT as poetry and in grouping verses into paragraphs according to sense units.

The NT was published in 1881, the OT in 1885. The work occupied the NT translators for about 40 days each year for ten years, while the OT group was occupied for 792 days over a period of fourteen years. The revisers gave their time and labor without charge. When they completed their work, they disbanded. Although the new version was widely accepted (three million copies being sold within the first year), it did not meet with immediate approval, nor did it in succeeding years ever surpass the KJV for supremacy among Bible translations; the English of the Revised Version was not sufficiently readable to replace the time-honored KJV. Though not part of the original project, the Apocrypha was published in 1895.

American Standard Version. The American scholars who cooperated with the English revisers on the ERV were not entirely satisfied with it. The suggested changes printed in the appendix represented only a part of the changes they wanted made; and the English revisers retained a large number of words and phrases whose meanings and spellings were regarded as antiquated. These revisers also retained words that were English but not American in meaning. For these and other reasons the American scholars did not disband when the ERV was published, but their revision of the ERV was not published until 1901. It is regarded as being on the whole superior to the ERV, at least for American uses; but it has its defects, as, for example, the substitution of “Jehovah” for “Lord,” especially in the Psalter.

Other Twentieth-Century Versions. The discovery at the end of the nineteenth century of many thousands of Greek papyri in the sands of Egypt, all written in the everyday Greek language of the people, had a revolutionary influence on the study of the Greek of the NT. NT Greek had hitherto presented a vexing problem, since it was neither classical Greek nor the Greek of the Septuagint. Now it was shown to be the Greek of the Papyri, and therefore the colloquial language of Greek-speaking people in the first century. Many felt, therefore, that the NT should be translated into today’s everyday speech, not in stilted and antiquated English. These developments created a keen interest in bringing out fresh translations of the NT in the spoken English of today; and in the next forty-five years a number of new modern-speech versions came out, most of them by individuals but a few by groups of scholars.

The first of these to appear was The Twentieth Century New Testament: A Translation into Modern English Made from the Original Greek (Westcott and Hort’s Text). This was published in 1902 (reprinted 1961) and was the work of about twenty translators whose names were not given. In 1903 R. F. Weymouth brought out The New Testament in Modern Speech; it was thoroughly revised in 1924 by J. A. Robertson. James Moffatt, the well-known Scottish NT scholar, brought out The Bible: A New Translation in 1913-14. The American counterpart of Moffatt was The Complete Bible: An American Translation (1927, revised 1935). The NT part first appeared in 1923 and was the work of E. J. Goodspeed; four scholars, headed by J. M. Powis Smith, did the OT. The New Testament. A Translation in the Language of the People, by C. B. Williams, came out in 1937. The New Testament in Modern English (1958) by J. B. Phillips, is one of the most readable of the modern-speech translations. The Amplified New Testament (1958), which gives variant shades of meaning in the original, was followed in 1961 by The Amplified Old Testament. It was the work of Frances E. Siewert and unnamed assistants. The Holy Bible: The Berkeley Version in Modern English (1959) was the work of Gerrit Verkuyl in the NT and of twenty American scholars in the OT. Kenneth Wuest’s The New Testament—An Expanded Translation appeared complete in 1961. Also in 1961 The Simplified New Testament appeared, a new translation by Olaf M. Norlie.

During this period a number of new Roman Catholic versions were brought out also. The New Testament of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (1941) was a revision of the Rheims-Challoner NT sponsored by the Episcopal Committee of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine; therefore it was called the Confraternity Version. It was followed by the translation of the OT in four successive volumes (1948-69), which represented, not a revision of Douai-Challoner, but a new version from Hebrew. It seemed unreasonable to have a secondary version of the NT alongside a primary version of the OT; but when it was decided to make a new translation of the NT from Greek it was also decided to undertake a thorough revision of the whole Confraternity Version. This revision appeared in 1970 under the new title The New American Bible. The Westminster Version of the Sacred Scriptures appeared under the editorship of Cuthbert Lattey—the NT in 1935, followed by parts of the OT. It was discontinued after Lattey’s death in 1954. R. A. Knox’s translation from the Latin Vulgate (NT, 1941; OT, 1949; revision, 1955) is a literary masterpiece and retains the charm of a period piece. The Jerusalem Bible (1966), a scholarly and widely appreciated translation, follows the pattern of the French Bible de Jerusalem (1956), produced by the Dominican faculty of the Biblical and Archaeological School in Jerusalem.

Revised Standard Version. This is a revision of the ASV (1901), the NT appearing in 1946 and the OT in 1952. It was sponsored by the International Council of Religious Education and is the work of thirty-two American scholars who worked in two sections, one dealing with the OT, the other with the NT. It was designed for use in public and private worship. In this version the language is modernized; direct speech is regularly indicated by the use of quotation marks; and the policy is followed (as in the kjv) of using a variety of synonyms to translate the Greek words where it is thought to be advisable. Special Catholic editions of the RSV appeared in 1965 (NT) and 1966 (complete Bible). But a new edition of the RSV in 1973 was accepted as a “common Bible” for Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians alike.

New English Bible. This is a completely new translation, not a revision of previously existing versions. The first suggestion for this version came in 1946 from the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, but it is the joint effort of all the major religious denominations (with the main Bible Societies) in the British Isles, apart from the Roman Catholic church. C. H. Dodd was the general director of the whole translation. The first requirement put on the translators was to produce a genuinely new translation, in which an attempt should be made consistently to use the idiom of contemporary English to convey the meaning of the original languages. The translators were assisted by a panel of advisors on literary and stylistic questions. The NT came out in 1961; the complete Bible (including the Apocrypha), in 1970. As with most earlier translations, this also was greeted with a mixture of praise and criticism. But criticisms of substance are under consideration by a revising committee, which plans to produce a new edition before long.

Other Recent Versions. The New American Standard Bible (completed 1971) was a revision and modernization of the American Standard Version of 1901. A more recent revision is the New King James Version (NT, 1979; complete Bible, 1982), a modernization of the KJV; although the OT is based on the most recent edition of the text of the Hebrew Bible, the NT stays with the type of Greek text used by the original KJV translators in 1611.

The year 1971 saw the completion of The Living Bible, a paraphrase into simple English, the work of one man, Kenneth N. Taylor. It attained widespread popularity, especially among young people, but has lost ground since 1976 to the Good News Bible, completed in that year. The NT part of this latter work had been published ten years earlier under the title Today’s English Version or Good News for Modern Man. The translators had specially in mind the needs of those for whom English is an acquired language as well as those who speak it as their mother tongue. The idiom is contemporary; the aim has been to produce “dynamic equivalence”—the producing of the same effect on readers today as the Hebrew and Greek texts produced on the original readers or hearers.

The New International Version has since been published. This was the work of a team of over one hundred evangelical scholars drawn from most of the English-speaking countries. A pilot scheme was launched in 1969—a version of the Gospel of John called A Contemporary Translation. The complete NT followed in 1973 and the entire Bible in 1978. Unlike RSV, and like NEB, it is a direct translation from the original languages, not a revision of any existing version.

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