The Bible in English
FROM ADAM TO AUTHORISED? (or thereabouts)
2011 was the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.
(commonly known as the Authorised Version)
IN THE BEGINNING (as it were)
It is generally agreed that the original languages were Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, depending on when a particular part was penned. Most sections of the Jewish (old) Testament were in Hebrew, a few later parts were in Aramaic, whilst the Christian (new) Testament was written mostly in either Aramaic or Greek.
There has been a desire for and continuity of translation over the centuries with a sharing and comparison of texts through the years.
CONSOLIDATION (bind us together Lord?)
The collection of writings that we now have, consisting of 39 “old” testament and 27 “new” testament books, became the accepted Christian “Holy Bible” between about 350 to 400 AD.
Greek and Latin were the generally acknowledged early translations and Latin became the text used by the established Church after St Jerome produced the “Vulgate” version.
THE COMMON TONGUE (but not necessarily as we know it)
There is evidence that translations into English (as then spoken) were made as early as 700 (certainly of specific books) and it is known that Alfred the Great (871-899) issued English translations of the Ten Commandments and other passages.
However, things appear to have got out of hand, because in 1199 the Pope banned the use of unauthorised versions, so that for many years the Church reverted to the Latin text, in both its liturgy and for general reading. This effectively excluded the “common man” from personal access to the scriptures (even if he could read!).
ALONG COMES JOHN (John who?)
In about 1380 a group led by John Wycliffe started to translate the Latin texts into the “ordinary tongue” over a period of a few years. Whilst this was unofficial, and certainly unauthorised, it circulated widely. For any with perseverance it can still be largely understood today:-
For God louede so the world, that he gaf his oon bigetun sone, that ech man that bileueth in him perische not, but haue euerlastynge lijf.
(from St. John’s gospel chapter 3, verse 16)
Wycliffe’s work is widely acknowledged as the first major translation for the “common man” and more than 200 copies still exist.
Another early scholar was William Tyndale (1494-1536), credited not only with crafting phrases still echoing today, but also to be the first to properly print the scriptures in English. (He did not however achieve a complete translation before his death (nor after!)
Later translations included a “Bishops Bible” in 1534, and in 1535 Miles Coverdale produced the first complete printed English version. (the Anglican Book of Common Prayer adopted his texts of the Psalms).
THE REFORMATION (what a shake-up)
In the years leading up to the Reformation many translations appeared throughout Europe: Martin Luther, for example, translated the New Testament from Greek into German, an exercise that undoubtedly led him to rethink his understanding of the text. In 1517 he nailed his famous statement of belief to his local church door, thus starting the great debate that led to the massive split between the “Protestors” and the “Roman” Catholic Church
This split occurred initially in mainland Europe and sadly resulted in much difference of opinion between the emerging “Protestant” leaders, resulting in the creation of separate Lutheran, Presbyterian, Puritan and other groupings, including eventually the establishment of the independent Church of England in 1534, prompted famously by Henry the Eighth and his marital manoeuvres.
In 1538, during Henry’s reign and under the direction of the Vicar General (Thomas Cromwell), Miles Coverdale supervised a further translation, based largely on the earlier Tyndale text, and the resulting “Great Bible” was approved by Henry VIII to be read in what by then were the parish churches of the Church of England.
Later, under Elizabeth I, a further translation, also known as the Bishop’s Bible, was published in 1568 for official use in churches.
(It is a common misunderstanding that the later “King James Version” was the first translation into English.)
ENTER KING JAMES (that’s Scotland 6 - England 1 )
After Henry VIII, various monarchs switched from Anglican to Roman Catholic allegiance and back. Additionally, the various “denominations” created by the Reformation had all established a presence in England.
King James came to the English throne in 1603 and during his reign English translations still circulating included the Tyndale version: the Bishops Bible: the Coverdale Bible: the Matthews Bible: the (approved) Great Bible: the Geneva Bible: another (official) Bishops Bible and the Douay-Rheims Bible
CHAOS REIGNS (James looks worried)
Although the (2nd) Bishop’s Bible was by then largely the norm in the Church of England, each of the non-conformist Protestant groups, particularly the Puritans, favoured different English translations.
In 1604 King James lost his temper because of the bickering between the various factions as to the correct translation and interpretation of the scriptures.
James required that a broad group of experts be gathered (thought to be about 50) to undertake an “agreed” translation using the best of sources to make it acceptable, not only to the Church of England, over which he had “control”, but to the non-conformist groups also.
KJV ARRIVES (worth waiting for?)
In 1611 the group finally produced the “King James Version”, and this third “official” translation of the whole Bible into English became established as standard in both Anglican and non-conformist churches.
Whilst this translation has been shown to have some inaccuracies by modern scholars it is probably the most widely accepted and longest used English version to this day, its style and phraseology giving great resonance, particularly in public reading.
FURTHER VERSIONS (anybody else want a go?)
The “King James Version” remained the English text in common use for some 350 years. However, biblical scholars continued to study, challenge and debate the nuances of interpretation. With the discovery of ancient portions of scripture and increasing co-operation between experts it became clear that updated texts should be published to give access to these developments for the wider user.
FOOTNOTES (for the avoidance of doubt as they say)
Although the “King James Version” was “appointed to be read in churches” there is no evidence that it was ever actually “authorised” (unless someone has a letter from the Almighty to that effect ! )
This brief outline of the Bible’s translation into English, prepared in January 2011, is an un-academic overview for general interest only. It is drawn from various freely available articles, leaflets and internet material. It should not be relied upon for any serious reference or study.
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If you’d like to look up the Bible on-line then have a look at the “English Standard Version”