How We Got Our Bible Series-Mark Sweetnam

This series contains the following titles:

How We Got Our Bible (1): Divine Inspiration and the Certainty of Scripture

How We Got Our Bible (2): Divine Sovereignty and Preservation of Scripture

How We Got Our Bible (3): Divine Providence and the Availability of Scripture

How We Got Our Bible (4): Identifying Scripture

How We Got Our Bible (5): The Bible in Latin

How We Got Our Bible (6): John Wycliffe and the English Bible

How We Got Our Bible (7): The Ploughboy’s Bible – William Tyndale

How We Got Our Bible (8): The Geneva Bible

How We Got Our Bible (9): 1611 King James

How We Got Our Bible (10): The King James Bible

How We Got Our Bible (11): Evaluating a Translation

How We Got Our Bible (12): Recommended Reading


How We Got Our Bible (1): Divine Inspiration and the Certainty of Scripture

Mark Sweetnam, Dublin

Peter’s second epistle records the last words written by the Apostle. Conscious that he would shortly be called upon to put off his tabernacle (1:14), he wrote to “stir up” the believers (v 13) and to prepare them for the coming day when the apostolic voice would be silent and when those who had known the Lord on earth would be in Heaven. As Peter seeks to edify his readers, he is careful to remind them that the message that he preached was not a “cunningly devised fable” (v 16) but, in truth, the Word of God. As he outlines the credentials of his message, he looks back to the holy mount (v 18), what he saw (v 16) and what he heard (v 18). Had Peter been a modern evangelical, he likely would have stopped there: offering the subjective and the experiential as the basis for Christian life and testimony. But he wasn’t, and he didn’t. Rather, he makes one of the greatest claims for the importance of Scripture when he turns away from his great experiences and points the believers who would come after him, not to the sensual, but to Scripture – to the “more sure word of prophecy” (v 19).

The basis for Christianity has not changed in the intervening years. Though we are at a greater distance from the days of the apostles and have never had the privilege of knowing them personally, we are not at a disadvantage to believers of the first century. We have, as they did, a more sure word of prophecy, a revelation from God that He has designed to be reliable, dependable, and absolutely sure.

But Peter’s readers might well have asked what it is that makes God’s Word so secure. We have a natural tendency to trust what we can verify by our senses, and when that isn’t possible, we look for an eyewitness, someone who was there. How then can we be expected not only to rely on Scriptures written centuries ago but even give them greater weight than the evidences of our senses? Peter anticipates the question and provides the answer. The answer is inspiration.

Peter doesn’t use the word inspiration here. Indeed, the word is only found once in our English New Testament, in 2 Timothy 3:16, where it could be literally translated, “God-breathed.” But while Peter doesn’t use the term, he gives a more comprehensive account of how inspiration works than any other New Testament writer: “For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (v 21).

These are crucial details. First, Peter emphasizes the provenance of Scripture – it comes from God. Neither Moses nor any other writers used by God in the writing of Scripture decided of their own volition that they would write Scripture. The Bible is God’s revelation of His person and character and it originates with Him and not with man.

Next, Peter tells us about the people who were used. There is a paradox here that we cannot fully understand. God was inspiring Scripture; when written down, it would be the word-perfect revelation of divine truth. But personality still matters. It matters because the writers had to be holy men. It matters too because, as we read the books of the Bible, we recognize individual vocabularies, individual styles, and individual personalities at work. The inspiration of Scripture does not mean that God dictated His Word to secretaries: the process was more complex than that.

Finally, Peter describes the power behind inspiration – the human authors of Scripture were inspired; they were borne along by the Holy Ghost. This is what Paul means in 2 Timothy 3:16 when he speaks of Scripture as “God-breathed.” It is ever the work of the Holy Spirit to reveal God. He was involved at Creation and the Incarnation. He is central also to the great work of inspiration ensuring that as the Scriptures reveal God, they provide us with a basis for our faith that is absolutely solid, that is “more sure.”

There are two other important details about inspiration not featured in this passage. When we use the term inspiration, it is often useful to define more carefully what we mean by that term. We believe that the Bible teaches the plenary and verbal inspiration of Scripture.

Plenary inspiration simply means that “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Tim 3:16). In other words, all of Scripture reveals God, and we need all of that revelation. Genesis 1:1 is as vital as John 3:16, but so too is Ezekiel 3:3. There is not a verse of Scripture that we can do without. We should also note that all Scripture is equally inspired. There is a trend in some circles to differentiate between the value of the directly spoken words of Christ and Paul’s epistles. But this misses the truth of plenary inspiration. In truth, the epistles of Paul or of John are just as much the Word of God as the Beatitudes.

The verbal inspiration of Scripture is equally important. It holds that God did not simply inspire the writers of the Bible with general ideas and then leave them to figure out the best words with which those ideas were to be expressed. Again, 2 Timothy 3:16 makes this clear. Paul does not say that the ideas behind Scripture were given by inspiration. He does not even say that the books of the Bible were given by inspiration. Instead, he focuses on what is written (the word translated Scripture is “graphe,” literally “writings”), and as words and not concepts are written down, it must be the very words and not merely the ideas that they embody that God has given by inspiration. Other passages also speak of divine inspiration of words (2 Sam 23:2, cf Acts 1:16; Jer 1:9). Similarly, the Lord Jesus Himself drew the attention of His enemies to individual words of Scripture. In Matthew 22:41-46 and John 10:34-36, He bases His argument on the individual words of Old Testament Scripture. So, too, does the Apostle Paul in Galatians 3:16 where the difference between a singular and a plural, a difference of letters rather than words, is shown to be the result of divine design and inspiration.

In Matthew 5:18, the Lord Jesus promised “one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” In speaking these words, He was making a clear claim for the certainty of Scripture. But He was also making a claim for its accuracy, right down to the dots on the i’s and the crosses on the t’s. God does not want us to be unsure of our ground, to be uncertain in our understanding of His person and ways. In His infinite and sovereign wisdom He has provided us with the Scriptures. In order that we might rely entirely upon them, He has given them by means of plenary verbal inspiration and we can rest on the “more sure word of prophecy.”


How We Got Our Bible (2): Divine Sovereignty and Preservation of Scripture

Mark Sweetnam, Dublin

God has revealed Himself to us in Scripture. That revelation was given to holy men by means of inspiration, a process that was initiated, empowered, and overseen by God Himself. But seeing that this took place up to 4,000 years ago, it is clear that the revelation inspired by God had to be preserved through the centuries. The story of its preservation seems, at times, an astoundingly human one. It involved priests, preachers, and politicians. Some of the characters in the story had motives that were holy and pure; others moved in response to the prompting of ego, personal relationships, or political expediency. Yet, for all the messy humanity of the narrative, we can find clear traces of the sovereign hand of God moving providentially to ensure the preservation and transmission of Scripture from Moses to the present day.

God’s providential preservation of Scripture has not always taken the course that we, with human wisdom, might have expected. For example, none of the autographs of Scripture survive. Autographs are the original texts, written by the prophets, the apostles, or their amanuenses. So, we cannot point to a manuscript in the handwriting of Paul or of John in any of the libraries or museums of the world. To us, this does seem strange. Why would God have His people rely on copies, when He could have seen to it that the originals were preserved? It is not for us to question the way in which God has worked or to attempt to second guess His motives. His way, after all, is perfect. But there are two possible reasons for His acting in this way. Firstly, God’s people in every age have had the tendency to erect idols and to give to material objects the worship that is due to God alone. One can hardly begin to imagine the industry of idolatry that would have built up around any surviving autograph of Scripture. Secondly, right from its infancy, the Church has been attacked by heresies. Scripture in the hands of God’s people has always been the weapon with which these heresies have been met. But suppose one organization or individual were able to claim that they alone had access to the authoritative version of Scripture. Even without surviving autographs, this is not unprecedented in Christian history. By ensuring the transmission of Scripture in many copies, God has made it impossible for any one to claim a monopoly on divine truth.

So, Scripture was not preserved in its original manuscripts. But it was preserved in the multitude of apographs or copies that were made. Reverent scribes, both Jewish and Christian, painstakingly and accurately copied out the Scriptures. Because they all held the truth of the plenary and verbal inspiration of Scripture, they would have taken the utmost care in their copying. Both those who supervised their work and the end users of the text would, likewise, carefully ensure the accuracy and reliability of the copy. Mistakes would be made; the scribes were human. But the differences introduced by these mistakes would be minor and would in no way undermine any Biblical doctrine.

These copies were written on two different media. In 2 Timothy 4:13, the apostle Paul mentions “books and parchments” that he wishes to have with him in jail. We don’t know what the contents of those books and parchments were, but these two forms of written text had been the media for the transmission of Scripture right from the start.

Parchment is made from animal skin, usually the hide of a sheep or goat. Dried and scraped free of its hair, it made a smooth writing surface. For ease of use, stitched-together parchments were rolled into scrolls. It was a scroll of this sort that King Jehudi cut with his penknife (Jer 36) and from which the Lord Jesus read in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:17-20). These scrolls were very durable, but they were also expensive and bulky.

For these reasons, many of the books of the New Testament were transmitted in a new form. Technically known as the codex (plural codices), these books were formed from pages of papyrus. These thin sheets were made by laying rows of reeds in alternating directions and beating them flat. Unlike parchments, these papyrus codices were cheap and easily transportable. The latter virtue was particularly appealing to the persecuted Christians of the first century who required books that could readily be concealed and easily carried. However, papyrus is far less durable than parchment and is especially susceptible to damage by dampness. It is for this reason that most of the papyri that have survived have been found in hot and dry desert climates.

In these forms, thousands of portions of Scripture survive. There are more testimonies to the text of Scripture than there are to any other text of similar age. In fact scholars who work on more recent texts, right up to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, frequently have to make do with far fewer witnesses to textual accuracy. Rather than allowing any monopoly on the text of Scripture, God has spread it widely.

When the texts of these manuscript portions are compared, some inconsistencies or disagreements emerge. This gives rise to the work of textual scholars who pore over different manuscript readings, attempting to determine what reading is the best attested and most accurate. Their work is important. Sometimes, however, when we read works of textual criticism, the focus is so much on the differences that we lose sight of the vast amount of agreement that there is between all these manuscripts written across the centuries and found scattered all over the Middle East. Those who oppose the claims of Scripture like to cite vast numbers of “inconsistencies” but seldom outline how minor the disagreements are – often at the level of variations in spelling. These blips that have been introduced into the text of Scripture and transmitted through the centuries in no way imperil the truth of the Bible. Even the most radical critical editions of the Biblical text teach all the doctrines of Christianity.

God has given us His Word. And having given that Word, He has seen to it that it would be preserved to reveal His person and His ways long after those to whom it was first given had been taken to heaven. In His sovereignty, He has overruled so that believers in this twenty-first century do not need to grope after Divine truth or to reconstruct it from a few scattered fragments. He has given us a Book unlike any other, and in confidence and with safety we can receive and obey it.


How We Got Our Bible (3): Divine Providence and the Availability of Scripture

Mark Sweetnam, Dublin

It is the will of God that the gospel should be preached all over the globe. When the Lord Jesus spoke to His disciples immediately before His resurrection, He outlined a service and a message with an international scope: “Ye shall be witnesses unto Me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The book of the Acts records the obedience of the apostles to Christ’s command, charting the spread of the gospel throughout the world as it was known in that day.

The apostles faced many formidable obstacles to their evangelical work. Natural, human, and infernal powers, hindered their movement and endangered their lives. The propagation of the gospel was often purchased at a great price. But one obstacle to their efforts is notable by its absence from the Scriptural record. Though many missionaries of our own day identify the challenge of the language barrier among their most formidable difficulties, the Acts does not suggest that difficulties in communication often stood in the apostles’ way. This is not because they had the gift of tongues. Scripture makes it clear that the focus of that spectacular and short-lived gift was testimony to Israel, and we seek in vain for any indication of tongues-assisted missionary outreach to Gentiles. Rather, in a remarkable movement of divine providence, God had prepared the way of His servants, and had demolished the language barriers that would otherwise have slowed the spread of the gospel.

That preparation had begun seven and a half centuries before the birth of Christ, as the expansion of Greek colonization began to diffuse Greek culture and language throughout the European world. This process continued until the waning power of the Persian Empire was finally crushed, and the Greek Empire, the kingdom of brass foretold by Daniel, emerged in conquest (Dan 2:39). At the head of this empire stood Alexander the Great, the brilliant military strategist who wept because there were no more worlds to conquer. His empire did not long survive his death in 323 B.C., but its impact on the culture of the then known world was profound. Alexander’s policy of hellenization diffused Greek culture beyond the political boundaries of his empire and with that culture came the Greek language. Thus it is that the Lord Himself spoke Greek, and thus it is that His apostles could move throughout the world, unhindered by linguistic barriers in the spread of the gospel. And, when they came to write the gospels and the epistles, the fact that they wrote in the Koine Greek, commonly spoken by all peoples of the Roman Empire, made the New Testament universally accessible.

But that happened centuries later, for Alexander’s empire had an even greater part to play in the purposes of God. Alexandria, the city which he founded as his imperial capital, was not just a center of political power. It was an important cultural and educational center. Its library was the wonder of the ancient world, and was intended to house the best of Greek learning and to gather important documents from around the world. Among these documents was the Hebrew Bible, the collection of books that we recognize as the Old Testament. And, in keeping with the aims of Alexandria’s great library, it is here that the Old Testament Scriptures were first translated into Greek.

This Greek translation of the Old Testament is known as theSeptuagint or LXX (70 in Roman numerals). Both these titles refer to the tradition that the work of translation was carried out by 70 or 72 rabbis. In fact, the translation is likely to have taken a longer time than this legend would indicate. Scholars suggest that, while the translation of the Pentateuch began in the third century before Christ, the translation was most probably not completed for nearly an hundred years. The significance of the Septuagint was enormous. It became the Bible of the Greek-speaking, Hellenistic Jewish diaspora, used throughout the classical world. It brought the knowledge of the One true God to a polytheistic Greek religion. It was the Bible used by the Lord Jesus, the disciples, and the early Christians.

In a very remarkable way, God overruled the fate of nations, their armies, and their culture that the world might be prepared to receive the good news concerning the death and resurrection of His Son. But He did not merely smooth the way for the apostles and evangelists to communicate their message. He saw to it that the written Word of God, the Scripture that lent authority and certainty to the messages preached by the apostles, would also be available to every creature in every nation.

But the story of the Septuagint has an even wider significance for the study in hand in these papers. Its use by the Lord Jesus and His disciples does not indicate the wholesale endorsement of what was a somewhat patchy translation. But it does give divine approval to the principle of translating the Scriptures. God intended His Word to be accessible, and He saw to it that the New Testament was not inspired in the elegant but inaccessible Greek of the classical age. Rather, Scripture was written in the Koine Greek spoken by the common people, in a straightforward and unadorned idiom.

It was something of this truth that Paul expressed as he stood in the Areopagus in Athens, the epicenter of Hellenistic learning and culture. Addressing the renowned philosophers of that great city, he pointed them to a God Whom they described as unknown: “God that made the world and all things therein … hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; that they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after Him, and find Him, though He be not far from every one of us: For in Him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:24-27).

There could, perhaps, be no better commentary on the way in which a sovereign and providential God determined the times and bounds of nations to ensure that the gospel message, and the Word of God that embodied it, would come, with an equal lack of linguistic barrier, “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:16).


How We Got Our Bible (4): Identifying Scripture

Mark Sweetnam, Dublin

Clarifying the Canon

The Bible is the Word of God, given by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and preserved by divine providence. Though written millennia ago, it remains relevant and important for the 21st century. As such, it should not surprise us that Scripture has repeatedly been the object of satanic attack. For centuries, the enemies of the truth of Scripture have done their best to suppress it. Since the 18th century the emphasis of their opposition has shifted: no longer is it the object to suppress Scripture, but to discredit it. Scripture first came under attack from higher critics in the universities. Under their assault Scripture endured. The attackers have exhausted themselves but the truth of God has remained impervious.

In recent years the attack has shifted again. What genuine scholarship has been unable to achieve is now being attempted by the uninformed but imaginative efforts of novelists and filmmakers. They have suggested that Scripture is the result, not of divine inspiration and preservation, but of a grubby but successful conspiracy by powerful and power-hungry elements within the Catholic Church. Their allegations are fiction, impure and simple, but they possess an extraordinary power to convince the man and woman on the street. And in no area is this imagined conspiracy more powerful than in relation to the canon of Scripture.

The word “canon” comes from the Greek term for a measuring line or rod. In the context of Scripture, we use the term to refer to the list of books that we recognize as the Bible, the authoritative Word of God. It is easy, perhaps, to take the 66 books of our Bible for granted, but we must remember that each of these books originally circulated on its own and that it was only after the time of the apostles that the Bible, as we know it, appeared.

The Old Testament canon was not a difficult question – Christianity inherited these books that the Jews had recognized for centuries and revered as the oracles of God (Rom 3:2). A handful of books found in the Greek Septuagint, but not in the Hebrew Old Testament, were accepted by some, but were generally recognized as lying outside the canon. But the question was more complicated in relation to the New Testament canon. In addition to the books of the New Testament, there were other books purporting to tell the story of the life of Christ, and other letters alleging to come from the apostles. It is important to recognize that decisions did have to be taken as to which books had the authority of God’s Word and which did not. The process of making these decisions took some time and often it was driven by the need to reply to the attempts of heretics to impose their own ideas about the content of the canon on the church.

The fact that such decisions had to be made and had to be made by men, has been highlighted recently in popular culture and in the media. The suggestion seems to be that the canon of Scripture was cooked up by a powerful cartel of clergy who got together and eliminated from the canon the books that did not agree with their preconceived ideology.

But this is far from the reality of the situation. The church councils that settled the issue of the canon were not creating the Bible from scratch, starting with a blank sheet and literally making it up as they went along. Rather, they were ratifying, or giving their seal of approval, to books that Christians had long recognized as Scripture. It is for this reason that, in spite of suggestions that the canon as it now exists was simply the option endorsed by the group that shouted loudest, there was a consensus on most of the canon, and real debate about only a handful of books.

Thus, one of the earliest lists of the New Testament books, from Tertullian in 150 A.D., contains most of the books that make up our New Testament today. A later list, called the “Muratorian Fragment,” and dating from between 170 and 210 accepts most of the books in our Bible but rejects Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, and 3 John. The first surviving list containing just the 27 books found in our New Testament was written by Athanasius of Alexandria (c 293-373) around 367. That list of 27 books was recognized by the church as a whole in the Council of Carthage in 397, and that recognition largely silenced the debate about the canon. Again, it was not the decision of this Council that made these books Scripture. Rather, the Council of Carthage codified the list of books that the majority of Christians everywhere had recognized as Scripture all along.

We need therefore to have no doubt about the authority of any of the books that we find between the covers of our Bible. They take their place there, not because of a conspiracy, but because they have had, for believers of all ages, the authority and power unique to the Word of God. Equally, when the covers of our magazines and the pages of our newspapers trumpet the discovery of a “new gospel” whose contents challenge the truth of Scripture, we need not be alarmed or shaken. There is nothing new about this. The apostle Paul found it necessary to warn the Thessalonians “that ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand” (2Thes 2:2). The gnostic heresy that was the object of Paul’s most direct and forceful rebuttal produced spurious gospels and epistles then, and these documents and their teachings have enjoyed a new popularity in our day. We are assailed by many efforts to insert false and heretical books into the canon of Scripture. In the face of this onslaught, we, like the Thessalonians, have no need to be troubled; we can rely with certainty on our Bibles knowing that there, and there alone, we find the unique and authoritative Word of God.


How We Got Our Bible (5): The Bible in Latin

Mark Sweetnam

In previous articles, we saw how God overruled the spread of the Greek Empire, culture, and language, to prepare the world for the spread of the gospel and the teaching of the apostles. The Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek, and the fact that the New Testament was originally written in Greek, meant that the Scriptures were accessible throughout the classical world.

The ascendency of the Greek Empire did not last for long. Already by the time of the Gospels, the Greek Empire had fallen and Roman rule spread over the greater part of the known world. The Latin language of Rome was slower to displace Greek as the most widely spoken language, but, over time, it began to dominate. To new generations who spoke Latin, the Greek Scriptures were not accessible. This problem was addressed by a large number of translations of parts of the Bible into Latin. These translations had accumulated over more than a century, were incomplete in their coverage, and very patchy in their quality. With time it became apparent that a better and more complete translation of the Bible was required.

In 382, this problem was recognized by Pope Damascus I, who commissioned Eusebius Hieronymous, better known as Jerome, to begin work on a new translation of Scripture into Latin. Jerome’s parents were Christians, and, after being educated in Rome, Jerome was baptized, and lived a life of self-denial. However, the death of two of his friends, a serious illness, and a dream in which Christ said “you are not a Christian” seem to have brought about Jerome’s true conversion. After spending some time in the desert, and acquiring an excellent knowledge of both Greek and Hebrew, Jerome returned to Rome. Soon, his forthright criticism of the Roman Church and the lax living of the Roman Christians resulted in his being asked to leave the city. He moved to Bethlehem, which provided him with an excellent base for translating the Hebrew Old Testament into Latin.

Initially, Jerome had been commissioned to simply revise the text of the existing Latin translation of the four Gospels, but the project continued to grow until Jerome had overseen the translation of all of the Old Testament and most of the New. Not all of the work of translation was carried out by Jerome and, in some places, the new translation was more of a revision of existing Latin translations. The division of this work was based on Jerome’s recognition that not all the books regarded as Scripture by the Catholic Church were inspired. He was probably the first person to use the term Apocrypha to describe the portions of the Septuagint that are not the translation of Hebrew originals. These, he clearly said, did not form part of the canon of Scripture. He was happy to leave the translation of these works to others, but translated the 39 books of the Hebrew Old Testament himself.

In addition to his translations, Jerome provided prologues to a number of Old Testament books, the Gospels, and to the epistles of Paul among which, he argued, the epistle to the Hebrews was to be numbered.

In contrast to the variable standard of the Old Latin translations that had been in use, Jerome’s translation was of a high literary quality and, while not a closely literal translation, was still an accurate translation of Scripture into the Latin. Jerome valued the Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament very highly, and, while earlier Latin translations of Old Testament books had been based on the Septuagint, his translation went back to the Hebrew text.

Latin was widely spoken throughout the Roman Empire and, even when that empire crumbled, Latin remained prevalent throughout Europe. Therefore, Jerome’s translation was adhered to throughout the Middle Ages, and, consequently, became known as the versio vulgata, or the Vulgate. In 1546, it was declared the official Bible of the Catholic Church by the Council of Trent and, though it has since been revised, it remains so.

Although Jerome’s translation was in the common language of fifth century Europe and although the Vulgate was intended to make Scripture widely accessible, it came, ultimately, to have the opposite effect. To some extent, Jerome had done his job too well. Because his translation was so good, no one felt the need to improve it, and throughout the Middle Ages, the Vulgate remained the version of Scripture most widely used.

As Latin became increasingly the language of the learned, those who did not speak it found themselves cut off from Scripture. Attempts to translate Scripture into the vernacular languages spoken by the common people of the European countries were opposed – often violently – by the priests who had come to see their monopoly on the meaning of Scripture as one of the chief sources of their power. It was, perhaps, this abuse more than any other that energized the Reformers in their protest against the Catholic Church.

The Vulgate was, for its day, an excellent translation. But it also reminds us that it is a dangerous and foolish thing to insist that any one translation is the definitive version of the Word of God. The Words of Scripture are inspired; Jerome and his successors, as translators of the Word, were not.

In medieval Europe, a project initially designed to make Scripture reliably and widely available ended up as the symbol of an exclusive and elitist approach to Scripture. And it may be that this irony is one of history’s lessons for us.


How We Got Our Bible (6): John Wycliffe and the English Bible

Mark Sweetnam, Dublin

How many Bibles do you own? For very few of us would the answer to that question be “one.” We have Bibles on our shelves, in our pockets, on our laptops, and on our phones. There are Bibles for every price range. Some may have cost us a great deal, others have not cost us anything. We have a choice of versions, a choice of printings, and can even choose the color of the binding to match our shoes or hat. We are inundated by choice, and never need to be without access to the Word of God.

But imagine that this was not so. Imagine that there was only one version of the Bible available to you. Imagine that a single copy of this Bible took 10 months of skilled labor and a great deal of costly material and that, as a consequence, it cost £40, a sum of money which would have fed 10 families for a year. Imagine further that this Bible, an enormous calf-bound book, had to be carefully hidden when not in use, because the mere possession of the Scriptures in English was punishable by death. Such a situation is difficult for us to understand but, in the fifteenth century, these were the obstacles that had to be faced and overcome by any man or woman in England who wanted to read God’s Word in their mother tongue.

But at least fifteenth century believers could read the Scriptures in their own language. While partial translations of the Bible into English had been made in previous centuries, no complete English Bible had ever existed. That the need for such a translation was recognized, and addressed, owes a great deal to John Wycliffe (1320s-1384) and, though it is likely that he did not translate any of the Bible that bears his name, it is fitting that the first English Bible has become known as the Wycliffe Bible.

John Wycliffe has justly been described as “the morning star of the Reformation.” Over a century before Martin Luther nailed the “Ninety-Five Theses” to the door of Wittenberg cathedral, Wycliffe was a voice crying in the wilderness, lamenting and opposing the doctrinal error and moral abuses of the Roman Catholic Church. As a scholar at Oxford and a priest at Lutterworth, Wycliffe preached and wrote against a wide range of abuses in the Church. Primarily, he opposed Rome on three crucial issues. He objected to the authority that the Pope claimed in English affairs. At this time the Roman papacy exercised enormous power over the nations of Europe and claimed a power greater than that of king or Parliament. Wycliffe argued for the sovereignty of the English nation, but also objected that, in making these claims to super-national authority, the Pope was displacing Christ – the King of kings.

Wycliffe also took a stand against the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation – the belief that, in the mass, the bread and wine were transformed into Christ’s body and blood. Anticipating the later reformers, Wycliffe dismissed this teaching as not Scriptural, and this dismissal struck directly at the power of the priests. Perhaps the most significant of Wycliffe’s quarrels with Rome, though, was over the issue of Scripture. In his book The Truth of Holy Scripture, Wycliffe taught that Scripture was without error and contained God’s revelation in its entirety. This meant that Scripture alone was sufficient to guide the life of the believer and the Church – no traditions of the fathers or pronouncements of the Pope were needed.

Wycliffe’s views attracted a large number of people who were equally disenchanted with the state of the Church. Individuals from all social ranks accepted Wycliffe’s teaching of the truth of Scripture. They played a vitally important role in spreading Wycliffe’s ideas beyond the universities, traveling all over England preaching to the common people. Their emphasis on preaching in English led the clergy to label them, dismissively, as Lollards, or mumblers. Whether this aspersion on their preaching is deserved or not, these men, who moved in danger of intense persecution or death, made a profound impact on English society.

But the most profound impact of Wycliffe’s life was his impact upon the translation of Scripture. The necessity for a translation followed naturally from his belief that Scripture was the one important standard for the Christian life. Wycliffe himself was, most probably, not directly involved in the translation project. Instead, the translation seems to have been made, in the first instance, by Nicholas of Hereford, and revised heavily by John Purvey. Because Greek and Hebrew were virtually unknown in medieval England, their translation was based on the Latin Vulgate. By our standards, it is a stiff translation, and the adherence to the Latin word order in Nicholas’s version especially, makes it difficult to read at times. Nonetheless, its significance was immense.

Distributing the Bible involved even greater challenges than its translation. Printing with moveable type had not yet been invented, so each Bible had to be copied out, slowly and painstakingly, by hand. This made the finished product very expensive. Few individuals could afford such a costly book, and there are records of people traveling considerable distances or paying large sums simply to hear the Bible read and to spend time with the Book.

But cost was only one of the obstacles to the spread of the Word of God in English. Wycliffe had challenged the authority on a number of fronts and, in response, Archbishop Arundel drew up the Arundel Constitutions in 1408. While the Church had always discouraged the possession of Scripture in the vernacular, these constitutions made it illegal for the first time, and introduced severe punishments for any association with the Lollards. As a result of these laws, many English Christians went to the stake or the gallows. Wycliffe was dead by this time but, rather than have him escape the stake, the Church ordered that his remains be exhumed and burned.

As well as burning Christians, the bishops burned Bibles. Any copies of the Wycliffe Bible found in the possession of Lollards were seized and destroyed. Despite this, over 200 have survived. In these Bibles we have an ample testimony to the success and importance of Wycliffe’s vision and to the determination of his followers that Scripture be restored to its unique position of authority. We owe him, and them, a debt of gratitude for their sacrifices and their commitment to the truth of the Word of God.


How We Got Our Bible (7): The Ploughboy’s Bible – William Tyndale

Mark Sweetnam

The Matthew Bible, first published in 1537 was the first English Bible to be printed with official approval. Thanks largely to the skilled lobbying of Miles Coverdale, King Henry VIII had given it his royal approval. It is difficult to know how carefully the king had read the copy submitted to him by Coverdale. He seems to have missed or misunderstood the large and ornate “W.T.” which followed the end of Malachi. Had he recognized Coverdale’s tribute to a notorious heretic executed just a few years earlier, he might have thought twice about giving his consent to this revolutionary project.

Such a tribute was well earned. Any history of the Reformation and any telling of the story of the English Bible would be incomplete if it did not pay attention to the remarkable life and work of William Tyndale, if it failed to acknowledge his towering intellect, steely determination, and total devotion to the truth of God’s Word.

Tyndale was born in Gloustershire, England around 1494. His family was involved in the cloth trade. This, along with his place of birth, is significant. The clothiers of Gloustershire were notorious for their Lollard or Wycliffe sympathies. It is not clear at what point Tyndale decided to give his life to the translation of Scripture, but his upbringing seems almost certain to have been a vitally important factor and Tyndale’s life work may, in a sense, be the most enduring legacy of John Wycliffe.

From Gloustershire, Tyndale went first to Oxford and then to Cambridge. In both institutions he was identified with those who gathered to read and discuss the Scriptures. At this time Cambridge, in particular, was a hotbed for the teachings of Martin Luther, and included among its students some of the most influential figures of the English Reformation.

Tyndale left Cambridge early in the 1520s, and took a position as a tutor to the children of a wealthy Gloustershire family. By this time he was firmly committed to the ideas of the Reformation. He upset and annoyed many of the important local clerics who enjoyed his master’s hospitality by the anti-clerical tone of his table talk. But the life work that he had chosen – to “cause the boy that drives the plough to know more of the Scriptures than the Pope himself” – meant that he could not remain in his comfortable and congenial position.

The Constitutions of Oxford, which had been passed, we might recall, to suppress the Wycliffite movement, made it illegal to translate the Bible into English without the endorsement of a bishop. Tyndale, proceeding within the law, sought out Tunstall, the Bishop of London. Tunstall must have seemed a promising prospect – he was known as a scholarly and moderate cleric. However, he refused to approve Tyndale’s proposal, and Tyndale realized that, if his work of translation was to be done, it would have to be done outside of England. So, for his country’s blessing, he went into exile, leaving England behind him forever.

Germany seemed an obvious place to set up operations. Here, at the center of Luther’s teaching, Tyndale could find opportunity to begin the translation of Scripture. Furthermore, a location at one of the great European ports would make it easy to get the finished Bibles to England. And, just as importantly, printing technology in Germany and the Low Countries (the Netherlands) far surpassed anything available in England. So, after spending time in Hamburg and Wittenberg, Tyndale arrived in Cologne early in 1525.

His work prospered and, by the summer of 1525, he saw the first printed pages of the English Bible coming off the press. But there was little room for complacency. Cardinal Wolsey’s network of spies had reported Tyndale’s location and identity, and tipped off the Cologne authorities who raided the printers. Printing had reached as far as Matthew 22. Tyndale and his assistant just had time to flee, grabbing the printed sheets, and took off, up the Rhine to Worms. There the work continued and, in 1526, the first complete printing of the English New Testament was completed. The shift to Worms had a profound and providential influence on the shape of the English New Testament. The Cologne printing had been a large and fairly ornate book modeled closely on Luther’s September Testament. The complete Worms edition was smaller and simpler, but clearly printed, a book that could be easily used. Just as importantly, the book could readily be smuggled into England, often by those cloth merchants with whom Tyndale had lifelong links.

The availability of Scripture in English dismayed and alarmed Church authorities in England. Since the beginning of the European Reformation, books by Luther, Calvin, and other Reformers, had been burned from time to time. Now, for the first time, and to the horror of Tyndale and others, the Word of God was put to the fire. Even this was used in the furtherance of Tyndale’s work. Some reports from the period suggest that Tunstall, now implacably opposed to Tyndale and his work, was sold Bibles for burning at inflated prices by Tyndale’s supporters, who channelled the money raised back to Tyndale.

Tyndale’s work continued. He was busy revising his translation of the New Testament, improving and refining his work. But he also came to face new challenges. In spite of the complexity of finding a qualified teacher of Hebrew, and the difficulty of mastering Hebrew in his middle age, Tyndale began work on the translation of the Old Testament. The Pentateuch was published in 1530. Though Tyndale’s translation of the historical books of the Old Testament was never published under his own name, it provided the basis for Coverdale’s Old Testament. These books reveal his brilliance as a translator, especially when we realize how little was known about Hebrew during the early modern period.

We would give much to have Tyndale’s translation of Old Testament poetry. But he was never to complete it. Tyndale was befriended by a man named Henry Philips. Philips, the wastrel son of a wealthy English family, acted as an agent for Wolsey and other powerful English clergy. He befriended Tyndale, entered into his confidence, and betrayed him to the authorities in Antwerp. Tyndale was charged with heresy and, in spite of intercession on his behalf by Thomas Cromwell (Henry VIII’s pro–Reformation chief minister), was sentenced to death.

So it was that, in the early days of October 1536, one of the spiritual giants of the English Reformation was delivered by the ecclesiastical court to the secular authorities. Brought to the place of execution, he was tied to the stake amidst a pile of firewood. Some little mercy was shown to him – he was strangled before the executioner’s torch was laid to the wood. But before his breath was stopped, his final prayer restated the preoccupation of his life and expressed the desire of his heart. With a fervent zeal, and a loud voice he cried “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.”

Only eternity will reveal whether this prayer was answered in relation to Henry’s personal salvation. Sadly, it is very far from clear that it was. But Henry was soon to give his approval to the Coverdale Bible, and, within four years of Tyndale’s death, four translations of the Bible, all drawing heavily on Tyndale’s work, were in print in England. The progress of reformation and the spread of the gospel in England would not, in the future, always be smooth. But, thanks to Tyndale’s steadfast commitment and remarkable ability, the availability of Scripture in English was secured for the future. It is no small tribute to that zeal and ability that Tyndale’s work has survived. His coinages have become an integral part of the English language but, more than that, his work provided the backbone to English Bible translation for centuries to come.


How We Got Our Bible (8): The Geneva Bible

Mark Sweetnam

Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!” Uttered from a bonfire in Antwerp, the dying prayer of William Tyndale asked not just for Henry VIII’s personal enlightenment, but for that of a nation. Shortly after Tyndale’s death, the light of the gospel began to shine more strongly in England, though slowly and painfully at first. While English lay-people demonstrated their appetite for the Word of God in their own language, their rulers were not always so enthusiastic. Henry did eventually break from the Church of Rome but his reasons had far more to do with sovereignty – and his complicated family life – than with doctrine. Though his motivation may have been less than noble, his action in proclaiming that he, and not the Pope, was the head of the Church of England did allow those in his administration who favored the cause of reform to advance it.

After Henry’s death in 1547, his only son, aged 9, ascended the throne as Edward VI. A council of regency initially ruled who accelerated the program of reformation. As Edward began to exert his own influence, it became clear that his commitment to reformation went well beyond his father’s. Under his reign, men like Thomas Cranmer had a new freedom to reform the practice of the Church. A number of reformed – and indeed Scriptural – doctrines, including, most importantly, the truth of justification by faith alone, were adopted as official doctrines of the Church of England. But before the full extent of Edward’s – and Cranmer’s – ambitions could be realized, the young king died in 1553 at the age of 15.

Edward’s death precipitated a succession crisis. The closest heir was his sister Mary, but she was ardently Catholic. Protestant nobles found their most promising candidate in Lady Jane Gray, Edward’s cousin. She was in fact crowned queen, but after nine days was imprisoned by those loyal to Mary, and she and her husband were beheaded.

Thus it was that England, once more, had a Catholic monarch. Moreover, that monarch was determined to root out the shoots of reformation and blot out the light of the gospel. She embarked on the vicious campaign of persecution that earned her the title “Bloody Mary.” Many English Christians were tortured and slaughtered – at the stake, on the gallows, and at the pillory.

Fleeing such persecution, many other Christians left England for the European continent. Many of these “Marian exiles” made their way to the city-state of Geneva, a theocratic society based, in large part, on the teachings of John Calvin and Theodore Beza. There, Beza had established the Geneva Academy, a university devoted to the humanities. This academy became a center for the translation of Scripture into the European vernaculars: French, Italian, Spanish, and English. The English translation was carried out by a small number of the English theologians and scholars gathered at Geneva and, both for the benefit of English congregations on the continent and their persecuted fellow-believers in England, they began work on a new translation of the Scriptures. The first edition of the New Testament in this translation was published in 1557 and the first edition of theGeneva Bible was published in 1560. In 1576 the first edition to be printed in England was published, and over 150 editions, in various revisions, were ultimately issued.

The Geneva Bible was heavily in debt to the past. Like every translation of Scripture before the 20th century, it drew heavily on Tyndale’s work. As a measure of this indebtedness, it is estimated that the Geneva Bible retains almost 90% of Tyndale’s translation.

But the work of the Geneva translators was also innovative in many ways. The Geneva Bible was the first English Bible to have all of its Old Testament translated directly from Hebrew. It was the first English Bible to feature verse numbers as well as chapter numbers. While previous English Bibles had been printed in black letter typefaces, theGeneva Bible was set in modern Roman type. Words provided by the translators to help with the English sense were printed in italics for the first time in this Bible. This valuable new feature signaled how committed its translators were to the concept of the verbal inspiration of Scripture, and was adopted, almost a century later, by the translators of the King James Bible.

These were significant and useful innovations. They paled into relative insignificance, however, next to the Geneva Bible’s most significant novelty. The Geneva translators did not just provide the world with a new English Bible, they produced the first ever study Bible.

The idea of including interpretative helps in the same volume as Scripture was not a new one. Printings of the Vulgate were available with all manner of helps, and both Luther and Tyndale’s vernacular translations had included – sometimes at some length – prologues that guided the reader to a correct understanding of Scripture. But what was dramatically new was the decision of the Geneva translators to print their notes to Scripture alongside the passages that they expounded. These marginal notes, along with detailed woodcuts of the tabernacle, the garments of the high priest, and other visual aids, provided the reader with Scripture and commentary in one convenient volume. This format has survived, and a quick scan of the shelves of any Bible bookshop will confirm its enduring popularity.

In spite of that popularity, it is not clear that the Geneva notes were an unmixedly good thing. Written as they were in Calvin’s Geneva and by Calvinist theologians, they embodied a Calvinist understanding of Scripture. They were enormously effective in spreading these ideas. Their influence, along with that of the returning exiles under Elizabeth, changed the orientation of the Church of England from Luther’s teachings to Calvin’s. Our view of the value, or otherwise, of this effect will obviously depend greatly on our estimation of the value of that teaching.

In any case,the Geneva Bible’s annotations were to some degree responsible for its ultimate demise. This demise came only after considerable success. For decades the Geneva Bible was the English Bible of choice, the Bible of Shakespeare, Spenser, and Donne. It was the Bible available in every church and in more and more households.

However, as the Calvinism of its notes became less popular with some parties within the Church of England, the Geneva Bible itself was regarded with increasing disfavor. Furthermore, Elizabeth’s failure to produce an heir – or even to marry – meant that King James VI of Scotland became James I of England. James had, even for the time, an unusually exalted view of kingship, and the anti-monarchical orientation of some of the Geneva notes offended him. Ultimately, as we shall see, all parties within the Church of England agreed on the need for a new and entirely un-annotated translation.

The Geneva Bible was an important stage in the development of the English Bible. It was successful and hugely influential. Its weakness, however, was its notes, which caused Scripture itself to be seen as a partisan document. In the final analysis, this first study Bible is a cautionary tale about blurring the lines between the infallible and unfailing Word of the Living God, and the words of men, no matter how well intentioned those men or how helpful their words may be.


How We Got Our Bible (9): 1611 King James

Mark Sweetnam

The 1611 King James Version (KJV) of the Bible is often regarded as a timeless monument of Bible translation, the crowning achievement of English literature somehow remote from the influences of politics, doctrinal disagreement, or personal bias. This viewpoint, though appealing, is misleading. While the King James Version is, in truth, a fine translation and a remarkable literary achievement, while it occupies a unique position in the hearts of many of God’s people, while it is, for many of us, “our Bible” in a special way, it did not emerge in the undisturbed calm of an evangelical Utopia. Rather, its origins were complex and politically charged, and its success was by no means assured. In the providence of God, however, it did succeed, and the complicated and messy circumstances in which it had its roots served to further its usefulness and enhance its value as a sound translation of God’s Word.

To understand the context in which the KJV had its origin we must pay attention to the events that were happening in England at the dawn of the seventeenth century. On March 24, 1603, Elizabeth I had died. During her reign, the Church of England had been established as a moderately reformed church, Protestant in its doctrine, but retaining many of the ceremonies of the pre-Reformation church. This Elizabethan settlement, in trying to please everyone, had come to please no one and, at the time of the queen’s death, two parties had emerged within the English Church. The majority party, certainly among the bishops, tended to favor an increased ceremonialism, emphasizing the role of the clergy and the importance of the sacraments. A sizeable majority – often described as Puritans, though that is a problematic term in the English context – felt that the Elizabethan settlement had only commenced the work of the Reformation. They wanted a simpler and less ceremonial church, with a greater focus on preaching and with a less exalted view of the ordained ministry. Toward the end of Elizabeth’s reign, these groups were at a stalemate – the aged queen seemed to have little interest in supporting either. Her death, however, opened up an exciting range of possibilities for both parties.

Elizabeth died unmarried and childless. There was, therefore, no direct heir to fill the English throne. The closest candidate was James VI of Scotland. His religious views were something of a puzzle. On the one hand, his mother had been the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, who had been executed on Elizabeth’s orders. On the other, he had reigned over Presbyterian Scotland effectively, seemingly getting on well with the ministers of the Scottish Kirk. Faced with such a conundrum, the leaders of both groups in the English Church rushed to lobby the new king, and to secure his approval for their positions. The Puritans didn’t wait for James to arrive in London, but presented him with the Millenary Petition during his slow progress southwards. The Millenary Petition was a statement of Puritan hopes for further reformation, reportedly signed by over 1,000 ministers. It objected to those aspects of church practice that these ministers, and many English lay-people, regarded as unacceptable hangovers from Catholicism. In response to this petition, James called a conference of bishops, held at the magnificent Hampton Court Palace, for the discussion of these and other concerns.

James appears to have had a politician’s ability to appear to promise everyone what they wanted, and then to do whatever he wanted personally. It quickly became clear to the Puritan delegates at Hampton Court that they could expect little in the way of further reform from this new king. The four Puritan delegates, who faced 18 of the most illustrious members of the opposing party, failed to secure the king’s endorsement for any of their positions. As the conference drew to a close, it seemed that they would take away no success, no concession.
However, in the last minutes of the last session, Dr. John Reynolds, the leader of the Puritan grouping made a suggestion. This, seemingly, came out of nowhere. It was not part of the Millenary petition or of the Conference’s agenda. Whatever the reason, Reynolds called for a new translation of Scripture to be authorized by the King. Reynolds’ proposal was greeted with the only unanimity the conference produced. The Puritans liked his idea because it stressed the importance of Scripture. It also offered their only prospect of a positive result from the conference. The more ceremonially-minded bishops liked it because it offered the opportunity to replace the massively popular Geneva Bible, whose annotations did not sit well with their theology. And the king liked it. Probably the idea appealed to James for a number of reasons. He too was unhappy about some of the marginal notes of the Geneva Bible – less on theological grounds than on the basis that they seemed to undermine the absolute authority of the king and to legitimize the sort of action that had seen his mother deprived of her head. A newly authorized translation also allowed a unique opportunity for James to stamp his authority on the English Church, and to offer something that would appeal to both parties within that church.

So it was that work began on the translation of Scripture variously (though inaccurately) known as the King James or the Authorized Version. The project proceeded quickly. Within six months 54 translators had been appointed who worked in six teams, two each located in Oxford, Cambridge, and Westminster. These panels included the leading experts in Hebrew and Greek, from across the doctrinal range of the English Church, from the ceremonially and sacramentally-focused Lancelot Andrews to the Puritan John Reynolds. We know very little about some of these men. Many of them held doctrinal positions that would occasion us considerable unease. They were united, however in the conviction that the Bible was the inspired Word of God. These men were not inspired, nor was their work inerrant, but over the next seven years, as they set aside doctrinal and personal differences to work on the new version of the Bible, they did accomplish a remarkable feat. In spite of circumstances that seemed scarcely propitious, they produced a translation of Scripture whose popularity and usefulness has endured over four centuries and that celebrates its 400th birthday as valuable as ever.


How We Got Our Bible (10): The King James Bible

Mark Sweetnam

As we have seen in the previous article in this series, the politics and ecclesiastical in-fighting that dominated the closing years of Elizabeth’s reign were given clear expression at the Hampton Court conference. This event was convened to address the concerns of those who wanted the further reformation of the English Church but ended in disappointment, as their requests were largely ignored or denied. It was in this atmosphere that the suggestion of a new translation of Scripture originated. It was hardly an auspicious start. Yet the translation of Scripture that resulted from John Reynold’s last minute suggestion was one of the greatest achievements of the English Reformation, one of the most enduring monuments of English literature, and the best loved English translation of Scripture. TheAuthorized or King James Version (KJV), as it came, with questionable accuracy to be known, occupies a unique place in the history of the English Bible. In the centuries that followed its translation, it helped to form the fabric of English language and literature. It is, for many of us, the most loved translation. We have memorized its renderings, its cadences work themselves into our prayers and our preaching, and it is, in a unique way, our Bible.

For all that, the King James Version is not perfect. No translation is, and, though the seventeenth century translators did their work well, they were not immune from human error, and shared the limitations of their age. But, in addition to these general imperfections, the KJV had two serious limitations built into it by design. Firstly, it was not really a new translation. It was a new translation that Reynolds had called for, and that had been agreed to. Unfortunately, James wanted results quickly, and the amount of time that a completely new translation would take was too great to allow his propagandistic purposes ideally to be served. So, when the translators began their work, their remit had changed. Now they were to concentrate on the revision of existing translations. The situation was made worse by the fact that they were instructed to base their work, not on the Geneva translation or on Tyndale, but on the Latinate Bishop’s Bible. Happily, the translators knew a good thing when they saw it, and managed to incorporate a great deal of Tyndale into their revision. It has been estimated that the translators of the KJV adopted over 80% of Tyndale’s renderings.

The second limitation of the KJV also sprang from political considerations. The instructions laid down to guide the translators insisted that they should not alter terms already in ecclesiastical usage. So, for example, while Tyndale had understood that the word ekklesia referred neither to a building or a system, and had correctly translated it as “assembly,” the KJV translators rendered it as “church.” Similarly, Tyndale had correctly translated presbyteros as “elder,” the KJV followed the Bishop’s Bible in translating the word as “priest.” To follow Tyndale in these translations would lend considerable support to the Puritan cause, and so scholarship came second to political concerns. In addition to its treatment of ecclesiastical terms, the KJV was a deliberately old-fashioned translation. 1 Corinthians 13 is the outstanding example of this. Where Tyndale used “love” throughout the chapter, the KJV uses the more dated, and even misleading “charity.” In general, the KJV is less modern than Tyndale and the Geneva translation even though Tyndale’s work had preceded it by more than 80 years.

None of this is intended to deny that the KJV is a very good translation. Indeed, the very fact that it has retained its preeminent position for over four centuries is testimony to just how good it is. It could have been even better, but the pressures and politics of the time militated against that. However, the circumstances of its production did prove advantageous in one way.

The work of translating the KJV was carried out by 47 translators, divided into six committees; two each at Westminster, Oxford, and Cambridge. The members of these committees were chosen solely on the basis of their linguistic ability. So, men like the brilliant Hebraist Lancelot Andrewes, who was, in some ways, almost a Catholic, worked together with Puritan scholars like Reynolds and Miles Smith. The presence on the committees of men from all strands within the English Church had the advantage of preventing any bias emerging in the translation. Apart from the treatment of ecclesiastical terms enforced on the translators, the KJV is a very impartial translation. It only enhanced that impartiality that the guidelines for the translators also prohibited them from supplying any explanatory notes. In contrast to the voluminous commentary to be found on the pages of the Geneva Bible, the marginalia of the KJV were to be limited to variant readings and cross-references. This fact has played no small part in the universal popularity and enduring usefulness of the translation.

Unfortunately for the historian, very little detailed information about the translation process has survived. We know that the committees were provided with 40 unbound copies of the Bishop’s Bible, printed on very large sheets. These pages provided the basis from which the translators worked. Each committee was given a particular section of Scripture, and these sections were then divided between the committee members. The individual members worked on their own sections, and their work was reviewed and corrected by the committee as a whole.

The translators’ work was completed in 1609 and two years later the first editions of the King James Version issued from the presses. The text was revised and corrected in 1769 and, in that version, it has never since been out of print. New editions continue to pour from the printing presses of Bible publishing houses. The KJV is not just the best-selling translation of the Bible ever, but the best-selling book in the history of printing.

The history of Biblical translation is a complex one. The motives underpinning Biblical translation are likewise complex, especially when we move from the solo projects of devout believers like Tyndale to the sort of committee approach taken by the translators of the KJV and most major modern translations. If this history teaches us nothing else, it confirms for us, time and again, that, behind the sometimes petty and ill-judged considerations that matter to men, the hand of God can be seen at work for the preservation and propagation of His Word and the blessing of His people. We have no basis – either historical or theological – for suggesting, as some do, that the translators of theKJV were divinely inspired in their activity. When we trace its history, however, we receive a compelling reminder of the power and grace of God in taking up flawed human instruments to make mighty and enduring use of them.


How We Got Our Bible (11): Evaluating a Translation

Mark Sweetnam

We have looked at the ancient origins of Scripture, at the way in which God safeguarded the survival of His Word, and the ways in which men of God dedicated their lives to the task of translating Scripture into the English vernacular. We have come, most recently, to 1611 and the translation of the King James Version (KJV).

This may seem a strange point at which to stop. Four centuries have passed since the KJV first appeared, and it is certainly not the case that the intervening years have been barren of translation. In fact, it has been estimated that at least 3,000 translations of Scripture into English have appeared since 1611. Some of these versions have been noteworthy, many have been helpful, and some, sadly, have been perversions of God’s Word and its truth. All, however, lie outside the direct scope of this series. There are a number of reasons for this. These articles have sought to tell the story of how we got our Bible and this is, perhaps, a description better fitted by the KJV than by any other translation. Furthermore, while the histories of many later translations are of interest to the specialist, they are far more prosaic affairs than those that have occupied us so far. And, of course, one has to stop somewhere.

Before concluding our series, however, it is worth our while to extend the scope of these articles by thinking about how we evaluate a translation of Scripture. Not all translations are equally good and, given the importance that we do and should attach to the Word of God, it is vital that we think carefully about our choice of translation. This is particularly true when we think of our main translation.

Most of us, in our private reading and Bible study, will refer to a range of versions. This is a very valuable practice, and can often give us a clearer understanding of the truth of Scripture. However, using a translation in this supplementary way is a different thing than selecting the main translation for our individual and collective use. When it is this decision that we are making, a number of important factors need to be carefully considered.

Principles of Translation

This is, perhaps, the most important feature of any translation. There are essentially two approaches that are adopted to Biblical translation. One, often called formal or literal equivalence, or essentially literal translation, attempts, as far as possible, to convey the meaning of the original word for word. These translations are the most faithful. However, because of the differences in word order and other features of the language, at times they can seem wooden in their style.

The other method of translation, usually called “dynamic equivalence” is less wedded to the words of the text, and translates thought for thought. These versions prioritize easy readability and, in theory at least, good style. Dynamic equivalence requires the translator to identify the thought that is being communicated, then translation and interpretation become dangerously entangled. For the believer in the verbal inspiration of Scripture, this is not a difficult choice to make. We seek “the words of eternal life,” not the general thoughts. It must be acknowledged that no translation is completely formally equivalent, but we should ensure that we use one that is as close as possible. In today’s Bible marketplace this limits our choice considerably. As belief in the verbal inspiration of Scripture has weakened in Christendom, the trend in modern translations has been away from formal equivalence. The KJV, the Revised Version, the New King James Version, the New American Standard Bible, and the English Standard Version are all regarded as essentially literal translations. However, only the KJV and the NASB take literal equivalence seriously enough to identify words supplied by the translators to help the sense by setting them in italics. For the reader who is committed to the plenary verbal inspiration of Scripture, this is an essential feature. The commitment of the KJVtranslators to the word-for-word meaning of the text is one of the major advantages of this translation.

English Style

On the face of it, this might seem a frivolous consideration when choosing a translation: it is not. It was once fashionable to argue, as C. S. Lewis most notably did, that Scripture ought to be translated in as ordinary a style as possible. Those who took this viewpoint, quite correctly, declared that the koine Greek of the New Testament is not the language of literary or rhetorical endeavor, but the quotidian language of the common people. What they fail to take account of, however, is that the writers of the New Testament use this language, with great effect, to vividly convey a variety of styles from the simple narrative of Mark’s gospel to the close legal reasoning of Paul’s epistles, and the visionary language of Revelation.

The Old Testament manifests, if anything, an even greater array of literary styles. The transmission of this is one of the greatest weaknesses of most modern translations. Though some of them have included in their translating bodies specialists in English, they seem either to have chosen these specialists poorly, or to have ignored their advice. The variety and verve of Scripture are flattened into a dull mediocrity. This cannot but impoverish our public gatherings. Scripture need not be couched in complicated and outdated language. However, the version of the Bible that gives texture to our worship, our prayer, and our preaching, ought to have a dignity of language, and a versatility of style that do justice to the original.

Preference as to style is inevitably a subjective matter. However, it is difficult to think of any modern translation that matches the majesty of the KJV. Translated as the English language enjoyed its heyday of literary achievement, it was translated by men whose other writings clearly indicate that they did not need the advice of “style consultants.” These men were united in their appreciation of the importance of God’s Word, and they did their best to ensure that it was expressed in the best that English had to offer. In doing so, they helped to shape that language, and their translation is hard to beat both for beauty and, on the whole and certain archaisms notwithstanding, for clarity.

The stylistic advantages of the KJV become particularly clear when we think about memorizing Scripture. Memorizing Scripture in some modern translations is about as easy as learning from an instruction manual. The cadences and rhythms of the KJV commend themselves to the memory as well as to the ear, and assist us in the invaluable exercise of memorizing the Word of God.

Collective Practice

When we are choosing our main translation of Scripture, it is important to consider the translation that is used in the assembly of which we form a part. The confusion caused by the use of multiple versions in the public reading, or quotation of Scripture, is best avoided. And, as we will find the words of the translation that we most use in private reading and Bible study coming most readily to mind, it makes sense to be guided in our individual choice by collective practice. This does not mean that we cannot or should not consult other translations. It does mean that we ought to carefully consider our choice of translation, for the benefit of the assembly and of all those who attend our meetings.


How We Got Our Bible (12): Recommended Reading

Mark Sweetnam

The story of how we got our English Bible is a fascinating one. In this series of articles we have been able only to trace the outstanding incidents and the most renowned individuals in this history. These articles will have succeeded in their purpose if they have caused us to value more highly the Word of God and to appreciate the sacrifices that have been made by faithful servants of God in order that we might have Scripture freely available in our own language. Hopefully, in addition to this, they will have piqued the interest of some readers to know more of this story. This final article acknowledges the sources used throughout this series. The list is not comprehensive, and doesn’t begin to exhaust the wealth of scholarly and popular books on the history of the Bible. However, these books are accessible and useful introductions to the subject.

While our articles have looked back to the origins of Scripture and traced their path through Greek and Latin, we have concentrated especially on the Bible in English. Obviously, this is only a part of the story. An excellent overview of the wider history of the transmission and translation of Scripture can be found in Christopher De Hamel’sThe Book: A History of the Bible. This book is particularly valuable for its illustrations – it provides beautiful photographs of some of the most important versions of Scripture. For the story of the English Bible, David Daniell’s The Bible in English: History and Influence is essential reading. At precisely 900 pages long it is not a small book, but it is both comprehensive and outstandingly readable. Daniell begins with the earliest manuscript versions in English, and closes by discussing the twentieth-century translations. En route he discusses a fascinating range of material. His work is deeply scholarly and highly enjoyable. F. F. Bruce’s History of the Bible in English covers the same ground, more briefly and, it must be said, less entertainingly than Daniell. At a more popular level, Ken Connolly’s The Indestructible Book is a much briefer account of the history of the English Bible. At a more scholarly level, Alfred Pollard’s Records of the English Bible: The Documents relating to the Translation and Publication of the Bible in English, 1525-1611 is a very valuable collection. Originally published in 1911, it has recently been made available in an affordable modern printing.

At the beginning of this series, we looked at the inspiration and transmission of Scripture in Greek and Latin. The Text of the New Testament by Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman provides, in its earlier chapters, an excellent discussion of the production and transmission of the earliest copies of Scripture. Its later chapters, which discuss textual criticism, provide a clear account of the history and practice of the discipline. Some of the widely-accepted conclusions of textual criticism have been challenged by Eta Linnemann in Biblical Criticism on Trial. Her argument is complex, and heavily statistical and not, perhaps, for the faint of heart. Also valuable are F. F. Bruce’s The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable?and The Books and the Parchments. The latter book provides an especially useful discussion of the formation of the Old Testament and New Testament canons.

The name of William Tyndale must loom large in any account of the history of the English Bible. The story of his life makes fascinating reading, and numerous writers have essayed their version. The definitive biography, though, is David Daniell’s William Tyndale: A Biography. As with The Bible in English, this book demonstrates Daniell’s ability to couch scholarly discussion in clear, readable, and often humorous prose. His deep admiration for Tyndale is clear, and gives this book a warmth and charm unusual in scholarly biographies. We also have Daniell to thank for his editions of Tyndale’s writings, including his translations of the Old and New Testaments. These are not merely historical oddities – to read Tyndale’s translation is to be struck by the magnitude of his achievement as a translator of Scripture.

The Geneva Bible has been strangely neglected by scholars and, while it has recently been the object of increased study, there is still a lack of material on its translation and influence. However, note should be taken of The Geneva Bible: A Facsimile of the 1560 Edition, recently published by Hendrickson. This is of interest both for the quality of the translation and for the additional material provided. In addition to the famous – or infamous – marginalia, this edition of the Geneva Bible is illustrated by detailed woodcuts. Those depicting the construction and furnishings of the tabernacle are of great value.

As we have seen, the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible is of enormous importance in the history of the English Bible. Oddly enough, given the status it was to achieve, the poor record keeping of the translators means that we have only a partial insight into the history of its translation. A useful primary source is Miles Smith’s preface The Translators to the Reader. This is omitted from most modern printings of the KJV, but is available online. Two reliable popular accounts of the translation of the KJV are available: Alistair McGrath’s In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture and Adam Nicholson’s Power and Glory: Jacobean England and the Making of the King James Bible (published in the USA as God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible).

As we appreciate something of the infinite grace of God in speaking to humanity, and of His wisdom and providence in inspiring and preserving the text of Holy Scripture we must, of necessity, value more highly the content of that revelation. And, as we recall with gratitude the dedicated scholarship and devoted sacrifices of the godly men who gave themselves to the cause of bringing the light of divine revelation to successive generations, may God give us help to profit by their example and to match their commitment to the Word of God and its truth. In the words of John Purvey, “God grant to us all grace to know well and to keep well holy writ, and to suffer joyfully some pain for it at the last.”

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