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Reformed Literature
A Presbyterian Internet Journal

The People’s Bible

The Remarkable History of the King James Version

Derek Wilson

This book is one of several that have been published to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the publication of the Authorised Version of the English Bible. I think it is important on this anniversary to acquaint ourselves a little more with the history of our Bible and who translated it.

I suspect that there is a degree of confusion around who translated the Authorised Version and the relationship between them and the framers of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Yet, as recent Radio 4 programmes have pointed out the Bible has enriched the English language with many of the phrases that we take for granted in our everyday speech and it has been easily the best selling book in history.

The book opens with the lines ‘Christianity has existed in England for over sixteen hundred years and for well over twelve hundred of those years there was no officially approved Bible the English people could read in their own language.’ In the 13th century the vast majority of the population was illiterate and the Church services were in Latin. The word of the preaching friar was everything to our medieval ancestors and as he moved on with his collecting bag they would just be left with a profusion of visual images and relics. In a world of shortened life expectancy and limited scientific understanding, the word of the priest was undisputed and Romanism could spout its mystic views of mass and ritual. John Wycliffe born in Yorkshire in 1330 and educated at Oxford challenged this when he said that if the Bible was the only authority in matters of faith then all Christians ought to know holy writ and be able to defend it. So Wycliffe and a small group of companions settled to a task that would change the world. Clearly, the authorities were uncertain about the spread of lay religion, thinking that pious laymen and women could get above themselves and when they lived purer lives and understood the faith better than their priests they felt challenged and smelt heresy.

In 1521, the chancellor of Cambridge ordered a burning of Luther’s books that could be found in students’ rooms, in front of St Marys Church. This was a signal for some students to flee this type of persecution and one of these was William Tyndale. In 1524, Tyndale was in Wittenberg and he began the work of translation aided by Erasmus Greek text, Luther’s German Bible and Wycliffe’s version. He was intent on translating the Bible into English such that a boy that drove a plough could understand it.

The Church authorities didn’t like an English translation, especially one with an anti-Catholic gloss contained in marginal notes. In the mid-1530s Coverdale (who had worked with Tyndale) sought to produce a version more likely to attain the approval of the establishment with the removal of many of the notes. It was successful, indeed, Coverdale’s version of the Psalms was preferred by the divines who draw up the Book of Common Prayer in 1662 and it is his words that are still chanted by Anglican choirs today. The Coverdale Bible sought the approval of Henry VII and Thomas Cromwell. The Tyndale version was completed by John Rogers who published it under a pseudonym ‘Thomas Matthew’ – and soon the Matthew’s Bible and Coverdale Bible were competing for the marketplace.

Cromwell’s solution to the competing versions was a new Bible that would combine the best version and the most amenable translator. In 1538, Coverdale was set on improving the Matthew’s Bible. This was the first ‘authorised’ version of the English Bible  and became known as the ‘Great Bible’

By 1555, Mary was on the throne and Protestants were leaving England. William Whittingham moved to Geneva and conscious of the support of Calvin (biblical scholar and writer of commentaries) and Beza (the best living expert on Greek and Hebrew) he began to translate the New Testament (aided by Miles Coverdale in 1558). The most significant change they made was the division of the text into verses, a feature that has been retained ever since. The Whittingham translation eventually became the ‘Geneva Bible’ of 1560. This was a superior translation based on scholars who had taken time over accuracy, who had consulted with other scholars and who had used the best original texts (including having the Great Bible to work from). The Geneva Bible was Calvinist in its notes and this set some in the Church of England against it.

The success of the Geneva Bible led Archp Matthew Parker to develop the ‘Bishops Bible’ which was stiffly accurate but lacked fluidity. The Geneva Bible stayed popular.

In 1603, James VI ascended the throne and clearly that is where this book tells the tale of the translation of the version that would surpass its predecessors.

Sadly, the later chapters of the book tell of the discoveries of the Codex in 1859 and the moves towards modern Bible translation. The author does not seek to defend the Received Text which is a huge error and could leave the reader wondering about validity of these faulty Codex. As he has failed to take a Received Text position, he then remains open to the many modern translations and does not try to explain their errors and just merely note their emergence.

The book is well written and is a fascinating read. It will bring the reader right up to the present with the translation of the Bible into English but, the later parts need reading with caution and will probably lead the reader to further books on the texts.