The story of the Bible in English

In 1611 the Privy Council authorised the publication of a translation of the Bible into English that has had a profound influence on everyone who speaks the language.   This is the Authorised Version (sometimes known as the King James Version) of the Bible.

The missionaries who first brought the Christian faith to what is now the United Kingdom, long before the Norman Conquest, used Scriptures written in Latin.  They were handwritten.  They were themselves translations because the original languages of the Bible were Hebrew for the Old Testament and Greek for the New Testament.

There was a strong desire to provide translations that would convey meaning to greater numbers than the learned people who spoke Latin.  Manuscripts in the British Library show translations into Old English in tiny lettering between the Latin lines of richly illustrated extracts of the Bible.  Old English is, however, practically a foreign language compared to the English that is now spoken.  Names associated with translations from the eighth to tenth centuries are Bede (a monk and historian from Northumberland), Alfred the Great (king of the West Saxons), and Aelfric (a monk from Oxfordshire).

English language changed markedly after the Norman Conquest, and different versions or translations of parts of the Bible continued to appear.  The first complete Bible in English was by John Wycliffe, Master of Balliol College, Oxford, in the fourteenth century.  He was persuaded that society needed reform, and that the law of God was the finest basis for human law.  So it needed to be known.  His translation was from Latin into English, every copy made laboriously by hand.

However, Wycliffe’s views of the need for political reform made him powerful enemies.  The result was legislation to suppress his views.  A law of 1408 forbade anyone to translate or own any part of the Bible in English, except by permission of the church authorities.

In Germany, communication was revolutionised by the invention of the printing press.  William Tyndale (1494 – 1536) was determined to produce a faithful translation of the Bible into English from the original languages.  With restrictions still in force in England, he was forced to work abroad.  His English New Testaments were printed in Germany and smuggled into England in bales of cloth.  He was at work on the Old Testament when he was kidnapped and eventually executed.

Dramatic changes were underway in Europe.  Henry VIII had declared himself Governor of the newly formed Church of England.  He consented to Bibles being published in English.  A version edited by Miles Coverdale, completing the work of his friend Tyndale, was circulated.

Henry VIII went further in 1538 and commanded that ‘one book of the whole Bible … in English’ should be placed in every parish church.  Complete versions followed during the reign of his daughter Elizabeth II – the Geneva Bible and the Bishops’ Bible.  Each was popular with different groups within the Christian church.

James I (who gave his name to the King James Version) succeeded Elizabeth.  At a conference to regulate the affairs of the Church of England it was decided that a new translation would be made, building on the work of William Tyndale.  About fifty scholars worked on it.  This translation, the Authorised Version, has a style that is exceptionally beautiful, particularly when read aloud.  For more than four hundred years it has been loved as a great work of literature as well as revered by those who want to know the ways of God.

Other translations of the Bible have followed.  Some have taken advantage of subsequent scholarship to produce translations that are more accurate.  Some have attempted to create versions that are easier for succeeding generations to understand.  And most people living in the world now have a translation of the Bible in their own language.  There was an abundance of new translations during the twentieth century.  Titles include the Jerusalem Bible, the Revised Standard Version, the New International Version, the Good News Bible, and The Message (not a literal translation, but a colloquial version that is easy and pleasurable to read).  All of them owe a debt to the Authorised Version, which is the world’s best-selling book.

What the Bible says about it

An extract from the Bible:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that God’s servant may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Where to find it:

2 Timothy 3:16,17

About these words:

Paul, one of the first leaders of the Christian church, encourages his protégé Timothy to make use of the Bible.  He had in mind the books that Christians now know as the Old Testament, but his letter subsequently became part of the New Testament.

And they said…

Daniel Sturridge, Liverpool and England footballer:

[My most prized possession] is probably my Bible.  It’s important to me because I am very religious.  I believe that you have to pray, as well as work hard, in order to get what you want in life.  When I was growing up I prayed every morning and night – and I still do that today.

Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and noted atheist:

A native speaker of English who has not read a word of the King James Bible is verging on the barbarian.

William Tyndale, 1494–1536, Bible translator.  These were his last words before he was burnt at the stake – a prayer that the law would be changed to allow the Bible to be read freely in English:

Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.

Elizabeth I, 1533–1603, queen of England:

Tell your prince that this book is the secret of England’s success.

Johannes Guttenberg, 1398-1468, inventor of the printing press:

Religious truth is imprisoned in a small number of manuscript books which confine instead of spreading the public treasure.  Let us break the seal which seals up holy things and give wings to the truth, in order that she may win every soul that comes into the world by her word – no longer written at great expense by hands easily crippled, but multiplied like the wind by an untiring machine.