History of the
English Bible

There are four things that we ought to do with the Word of God—admit it as the Word of God, commit it to our hearts and minds, submit to it, and transmit it to the world.

— William Wilberforce

SHORT ARTICLE SERIES

The Story of the English Bible

The story of the English Bible can be traced through the lives of ordinary people–shepherds, monks, scholars, and kings–who shared one thing in common: a passionate commitment to the Bible. The English Bible is the legacy of these “bookish types” who remained faithful to the task God had given them in the face of threats, exile, and even death.  

The story of the English Bible begins around 400 AD with a scholarly monk named Jerome. Before Jerome, the Bible existed in various Greek and Latin editions scattered throughout the Roman world. Jerome corrected variations in the translations and compiled these manuscripts to create a Latin text that would become the church’s Bible for centuries.

Jerome’s Latin translation, called the Vulgate, was the basis for the earliest English translations of Scripture.

The oldest example we have of an English translation is an adaptation of Scripture by a peasant named Caedmon. The English historian Bede tells us that God gave Caedmon a remarkable gift. Caedmon could not read or write, so others would teach him stories and passages from Scripture which he would then turn into poems and songs in the language of common people. Today only one of these poems still exists, yet Caedmon remains a forerunner of English Bible translation. [1, 2]

1. Clinton E. Arnold, How We Got the Bible: A Visual Journey (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan Academic, 2008), 64.
2. “The Anglo-Saxon Bible: Cædmon’s Paraphrase,” accessed June 27, 2020, http://www.bible-researcher.com/caedmon.html.

During the Medieval Period, kings, priests, and monks translated portions of the Vulgate into English, but this could be a dangerous activity. The church leaders discouraged translating Scripture into the “vernacular” (the common language) because they feared that people would not understand it correctly. They believed that only priests could accurately interpret Scripture for the people. Tragically, many leaders in the Catholic Church were becoming increasingly corrupt, and even some of the bishops could not understand the Latin Bible. The Word of God was in danger of being forgotten.

Alarmed by corruption in the church, John Wycliffe courageously began translating the full New Testament into English from the Latin Vulgate. Wycliffe believed passionately that the guide for the church was Scripture and not church tradition which had been confused and corrupted. He wanted the English people to know Scripture as a way to protect and guide the church. He even wrote a 1000-page book explaining these views.

Wycliffe trained teachers to travel across England reading and teaching the Bible in English instead of Latin. These preachers earned the nickname “Lollards” from a Dutch word meaning “mutterers.”[1]

Wycliffe and the Lollards never gained enough power or influence to change the church, but they did lay the foundation for a coming movement that would shake the world—the Protestant Reformation.

1. “Lollard | English Religious History,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed June 28, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Lollards.

When Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, Christians from the East flooded into Europe bringing with them ancient artifacts and a knowledge of the Greek language.

A brilliant scholar from the Netherlands named Erasmus found himself in Italy in the early 1500s surrounded by Greek-speaking refugees. He took the opportunity to learn Greek and later traveled to Basel, Switzerland, where he could study the oldest New Testament manuscripts available at that time.[1]

Initially, Erasmus planned to add notes to the Latin Vulgate to correct or to clarify the Latin translation, but his research led him to compile and publish the New Testament manuscripts as a full Greek New Testament.

Before Erasmus’ work, manuscripts containing portions of the New Testament were scattered among the great libraries of Europe. Collecting these manuscripts into one source began a new era of Bible translation.

As the Protestant Reformation surged across Europe, the desire for Scripture in the language of the people grew. William Tyndale translated Erasmus’ New Testament into English and nearly completed a translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew before he was executed by King Henry VIII. William Coverdale completed and revised Tyndale’s work creating the first, full English Bible.[2]

The persecution of Protestants under Queen Mary I drove Coverdale and other refugees to Geneva, Switzerland where a number of scholars created the Geneva Bible based on Tyndale’s work.

The Geneva Bible was mass-produced on the newly-invented printing press and made widely available. It became the most popular Bible among the English people for 50 years.

1. Peter J. Goeman, “The Impact and Influence of Erasmus’s Greek New Testament,” Unio Cum Christo 2, no. 1 (n.d.): 69.
2. “Early English Bibles,” accessed June 28, 2020, http://earlyenglishbibles.com/.

The English clergy, however, preferred a translation called The Bishops’ Bible. When King James I of England inherited the throne from Elizabeth, he also inherited the ongoing debate over which English translation should be the official Bible of the Church of England—The Bishop’s Bible or the Geneva Bible. James had his own issues with the Geneva Bible which contained footnotes and commentary challenging the idea that God grants kings absolute authority. For this and other reasons, he championed the cause of a new “authorized” English translation.

In 1604, King James commissioned a team of more than 50 scholars to create a new English Bible using the existing translations while ensuring faithfulness to Erasmus’ Greek New Testament (which had since been edited by others) and the Hebrew Bible. This new translation was completed in 1611 and became known as the King James Version (KJV).

The KJV has been described as “the most popular Bible in history” and “the most influential book in the history of the English language.”[1] The KJV, built on the foundation laid by Wycliffe, Tyndale, and others, stood for more than 250 years as the Bible of the English church and the English-speaking world.

The English Bible is a legacy given to us by the people mentioned here and many others. It is an inheritance that is meant to be used—to be invested in our lives and passed on to others. We honor the legacy by reading the Bible, thinking about what it says, and choosing to let it shape our lives. In the words of the King James Version, we give thanks to God saying, “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path” (Psalm 119:105, KJV).

1. Clinton E. Arnold, How We Got the Bible: A Visual Journey (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan Academic, 2008), 64.

Have you ever “seen eye to eye” with someone or complained that something is “a thorn in your side”? These everyday expressions and many others can be traced back to the King James Version of the Bible. The KJV had a profound influence on the English language and the English-speaking church. It was translated to be read and to be remembered.

Some have pointed out that it is the cadence (rhythm and meter) of the KJV which makes it so beautiful to read aloud and natural to recite. We hear a similar flow of language in Shakespeare’s plays and in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Because of this, even people who were illiterate could recall lengthy passages from the Bible. The KJV shaped the liturgy (the words and songs of church worship) in England but also in English-speaking churches in America, India, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere around the world.

Over the years, the KJV Bible was revised and updated to reflect changes in how we use English. The translation remained rooted in Erasmus’ Greek New Testament, which later came to be known as the Textus Receptus or “received text.”

In centuries following the translation of the KJV, Bible scholars discovered more and more Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Some of these manuscripts were much older (and probably closer to the original documents) than the six texts Erasmus had available.

Because of this, in 1870 church leaders in England decided that English speakers needed a new and more accurate translation. This new translation, called the English Revised Version, was completed in 1885. An American edition, called the American Standard Version, followed in 1901.

The English Revised Version was not very well-received and never gained the same popularity as the KJV. The famous preacher Charles Spurgeon described it as “strong in Greek, weak in English.” It just couldn’t compete with the beautiful and familiar wording of the KJV. The English Revised Version and the American Standard Version did, however, open the floodgate for Bible translations in the 20th century.

Imagine meeting a monastery librarian in post-WWII Jerusalem and being shown several old scrolls wrapped in Arabic newspapers. Upon gently unrolling one of the scrolls, you see ancient Hebrew text clearly older than most known manuscripts. The ancient text turns out to be a verse from the prophet Isaiah.

“I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me.
To a nation that did not call on my name,
I said, ‘Here am I, here am I.’” (Isaiah 65:1 NIV)

The verse turned out to be part of the entire book of Isaiah. Later, researchers found portions of almost every book of the Old Testament among these scrolls. These texts would prove to be the oldest biblical manuscripts ever discovered—older than the existing manuscripts by nearly 1000 years!

“Here am I, here am I.” It is as if the Word of God refused to be silenced by passing centuries.

The story of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls reads like an adventure novel. In the winter of 1946-1947, Beduin shepherds tending goats in the region north of the Dead Sea tossed a stone through an opening in the rocky hillside and heard the shattering of a clay pot. One of the boys, lowered himself into the cavern and discovered ten earthenware jars. Inside the jars were very old scrolls.

The shepherds took several of the scrolls and sold them to an antiquities dealer in Jerusalem. The antiquities dealer then showed them to experts in the Hebrew Bible. Very quickly, it became clear that the manuscripts were an extraordinary find. Since that initial discovery, more than 50,000 fragments of 800-900 manuscripts have been discovered in the Dead Sea region. About a fourth of these manuscripts contain parts of the Old Testament.

To determine the age of the Dead Sea Scrolls, researchers examined the style of the handwriting, since script changes over time. They also relied upon archeological discoveries made in the caves (pottery shards, bones, cloth, etc.). Finally, scientists used radio-carbon dating to measure the age of the linen wrappings and later of the scrolls themselves. All of these methods dated the scrolls between 150BC and AD68.

Why do the Dead Sea Scrolls matter? Biblical scholars are always excited to find old manuscripts. The idea is that the older the text, the closer it is to the original document written by the human authors of the Bible. This isn’t always true. Sometimes a person copying the Bible might make a slight change that would later be corrected. For this reason, scholars also consider which translation occurs across the majority of texts. The Dead Sea Scrolls provide a gold mine of data to help us better understand and translate the Old Testament. The scrolls also provide interesting insights into the culture during the life of Jesus and before the writing of the New Testament.

Perhaps the most important contribution of the Dead Sea Scrolls is that they confirm that the text of the Bible we are reading today is remarkably close to what existed more than 2000 years ago. Praise God for preserving his Word and for speaking to us through it!

Following in the footsteps of Erasmus, Bible scholars from all over the world joined together under the United Bible Societies to create “critical editions” of Greek and Hebrew texts that could be used for Bible translation in the 20th century and beyond.

“Critical editions” means that they include extensive footnotes describing all of the places where various Greek and Hebrew manuscripts differ slightly from one another. The scholars working with United Bible Societies collected all of the available manuscripts into one book and gave Bible translators the tools they needed to make “critical” decisions about the very best translation from Greek and Hebrew. 

Bible translators all over the world have used the United Bible Societies’ Greek and Hebrew texts to translate Scripture into local languages. These texts also played an important role in English Bible translations after the mid-1960s.

The English Revised Version (1885)published in North America as the American Standard Version in 1901was the first “authorized” translation since the King James Version. “Authorized” simply means that it was sponsored and approved by the Church of England. While the translation never caught up to the KJV in popularity, it was seen by many as being more accurate to the original Greek and Hebrew texts. This gave rise to a growing desire for an English Bible translation that was both accurate and readable.

English Bible Translation in the 20th and 21st centuries looks a bit like a family tree with the United Bible Societies’ texts as the trunk. To learn about the specific translations that followed, check out the tree of Bible translation graphic below.

Bible
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The Grandest English Bible Translation

by Steven Nichols

Arguably, the King James Version stands as the grandest of the English Bible translations. It has been dubbed a monument of literary translation, considered a sublime text. To be sure, for contemporary audiences the sublime prose can be confusing at times, more obscuring than helpful. Considering that it is nearly four hundred years old, however, it clearly has staying power. The King James Version also provides a good anchor for the history of the English Bible. It’s the result of nearly four centuries of work that led up to it, and has, for another four centuries, continued to cast its shadow. We can frame our history of the English Bible around it.

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Article: 10 Min

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by Bibles.net

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Comparing English Bible Translations

Have more questions about the English Bible? Check out our page comparing English Bible translations and answering frequently asked questions about Bible translation.

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