The following introduction to early English Bibles was prepared for an adult Bible class by me in 1996. For several of the observations in it I wish to acknowledge my debt to F.F. Bruce’s book, The English Bible: A History of Translations (Oxford, 1961). —M.D.M.

Early English Bibles

A brief history with observations on their characteristics

The Wyclif Bible

Long before the Reformation began there were rumblings against the Roman Catholic establishment in England, and an underground “Bible study” movement arose under the leadership of the Oxford professor John Wyclif, who recommended the authority of Scripture itself against the authority of the Roman Catholic bishops. This sounds very Protestant to us, and in fact Wyclif has often been called “the morning star of the Reformation,” but Wyclif and his followers were not Protestants in the full sense, because they did not teach the doctrine of justification by faith; they were most interested in teaching about holiness and simplicity.

Wyclif trained a cadre of Bible teachers, and under his direction they translated the entire Latin Vulgate into English between the years 1380 and 1384. The Latin, and not the original Greek, was translated because at that time almost no one knew Greek, and Greek manuscripts were simply not available in England. This was before the invention of printing, so Wyclif’s version circulated in hand-copied portions. It was intended for use in public gatherings, at which the common people heard the Bible read, usually from the Gospels, and expounded by the disciples of Wyclif. These preachers came to be called “Lollards,” a word which had been applied previously to conventicles of very pious students in the Low Countries.

Below is a sample of Wyclif’s work, the first four verses from the beginning of the Epistle to the Hebrews. I have modernized the spelling and punctuation.

Manifold and many manners sometime God speaking to fathers in prophets, at the last in these days spake to us in the Son, whom he ordained heir of all things, by whom he made and the worlds. The which one he is the shining of glory and figure of his substance, and bearing all things by word of his virtue, making purgation of sins, sitteth on the righthalf of Majesty in high things; so much made better than angels, by how much he hath inherited a more different, or excellent, name before them.

This is an exceedingly awkward but literal translation of the Latin. The English has some archaic usages, as for example the word “sometime” used in the sense formerly, the word “and” used in the sense also, the word “bearing” in the sense holding up, the word “virtue” in the sense power; and we see also an archaic compound word, “righthalf,” meaning right side. These words would have been understood in these senses at the time. The Latin basis of the translation is evident from the absence of the definite article “the” in several places, before “fathers” for example, the Latin language having no definite article. In the Greek text there is a definite article here, and if I were translating from the Greek it would not occur to me to leave it out. There are also a couple of other words usually found in the Greek manuscripts which are not represented here: “by himself” would be before “making purgation” and “our” before “sins” if the translation had been made from contemporary Greek copies. One would expect there to be problems in doing a translation from a translation. Nevertheless, because the Latin version is generally accurate and literal, this English still represents the Greek rather well.

Many words of the version are not native English words, but borrowed directly from the Latin language, and so the style is called Latinate. At this time in the history of the English language most educated men wrote in such a style if they wrote in English at all, but usually they wrote their books in Latin. It was the international language of educated men. When they did write in English, it was half Latin. Uneducated people did not talk like this at all, but used native English words; they did not understand the fancy Latinate speech of educated men, because they did not know Latin words. I would call attention to the phrase “figure of his substance,” the meaning of which is not at all clear; here the Latin reads figura substantiae eius. In the final clause the translator gives “different” as a slavish rendering of differentius, which is not very helpful, and so he makes up for it by adding the interpretation “excellent.” The structure of the sentences and order of the words also follow the Latin, which makes for a rather strange English style in the longer sentences. No doubt this version would be rather hard for many people to understand, and would have to be painstakingly interpreted to the common people by Wyclif’s preachers.

After Wyclif’s death his student John Purvey revised the translation, making it somewhat easier to read.

God, that spake sometime by prophets in many manners to our fathers, at the last in these days he hath spoke to us by the Son, whom he hath ordained heir of all things, and by whom he made the worlds. Which one also he is the brightness of glory and figure of his substance, and beareth all things by word of his virtue, he maketh purgation of sins and sitteth on the righthalf of the Majesty in heavens; and so much is made better than angels, by how much he hath inherited a more diverse name before them.

Here the unnatural participial construction at the beginning has been replaced by a subordinate clause, which is much more common English. “In high things” has been replaced by the obvious interpretation, “in heavens,” and some other minor improvements have been made. In general, however, the version remained rather difficult for most people to understand.

Tyndale’s New Testament

After the Reformation had begun in Germany, Martin Luther published (in 1522) a German translation of the Greek New Testament recently edited by the noted scholar, Erasmus. The Reformation movement quickly spread to England. William Tyndale, one of the earliest advocates for reform in England, decided to imitate Luther by making a fresh English translation of the New Testament from the same Greek text, using Luther’s German translation and the Vulgate as guides for interpretation in hard places. It was published in 1526, and was the first printed English New Testament.

God in time past diversely and many ways spake unto the fathers by prophets: but in these last days he hath spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath made heir of all things: by whom also he made the world. Which Son, being the brightness of his glory and very image of his substance, bearing up all things with the word of his power, hath in his own person purged our sins, and is sitten on the right hand of the Majesty on high, and is more excellent than the angels in as much as he hath by inheritance obtained an excellenter name than have they.

This is quite literal by our modern standards, but not quite so literal as Wyclif’s translation of the Vulgate. Theoretically, of course, it is better to translate directly from the Greek, especially if you are doing a literal translation. In our sample passage, there are at least three places in which Tyndale’s version differs from Wyclif’s on this account.

Notice the tense of “hath . . . purged,” by which we understand that this purgation is an event which occurred in the past, which of course refers to the Lord’s sacrifice of himself on the cross. If you will look at Wyclif here, you can see that it reads “making purgation” in the first and “he maketh purgation” in the revision, both of which would seem to imply an ongoing activity. Here I suppose a good Roman Catholic would think of the continual putting away of sins in the mass, which purports to be a daily repetition of the sacrifice on the cross. But that is by no means the idea of the verse, because in the Greek the word is an aorist participle, which is certainly not equivalent to an English present participle. It refers to an action over and done, as in Tyndale’s version. Why then has Wyclif translated it thus? Because the Latin let him down here. He gives a perfectly good translation of the Latin, but the Latin here does not accurately represent the Greek. One could find several less significant examples of this in every chapter.

I have already mentioned the phrase “in his own person” and “our” before “sins.” These represent words in Tyndale’s Greek text which are not in the Latin version. Here we get into a very thorny question concerning the Greek text, for not all Greek copies have these words either, and so they sometimes do not appear in translations based on these other Greek copies. But I will not go into this subject now. Let me only point out now that it is possible to misunderstand the sentence in Wyclif’s version as if it were saying that the Lord had his own sins to purge. But the little word “our” in Tyndale prevents such a perverse interpretation.

It is important to note that at this time great doctrinal controversies were being waged, and the Bible was used to prove this or that teaching. Literal translations have always been valued most by persons who are occupied in the formulation and public defense of doctrines, because by means of a literal translation even the fine details of Scripture may be brought to bear on the points under dispute.

The vocabulary of Tyndale’s version is less Latinate than Wyclif’s, and his sentences are generally more natural English, and so more easily understood. I will point out some examples of this. Notice that he has used the word “made” instead of the Latin-derived “ordained,” the word “image” instead of the Latin “figure,” the word “power” instead of the Latin “virtue.” The readability of the version is much improved by using these more familiar English words. There are some more significant changes in other passages, where the substitution of a common English word had the effect of throwing out some Roman Catholic baggage which had become attached to the traditional words. Tyndale used “repent” instead of “do penance;” he used “congregation” instead of “church;” and he used “elder” instead of “priest.”

Tyndale also provided prefaces, cross-references, and some marginal notes, most of them borrowed from Luther, which were helpful in the interpretation of the text. The text was set in natural paragraphs, which is also an aid to interpretation. By means of marks in the text he indicated the beginning and end of traditional lectionary readings in the English churches. The prefaces were mostly translations of the prefaces written by Martin Luther for his German version. The weighty Prologue to Romans set forth the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith, and was very influential. Some of the marginal notes were polemical in tone, being directed against the teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church.

The following characteristics of the version are therefore to be noted: It was literal so far as common English permitted; it included interpretive helps; it was a product of collaboration; and it was otherwise adapted to churchly use. This version was not given as a private interpretation, or meant to be read in a corner.

After he had published his New Testament Tyndale began to translate the Old Testament. He finished the Pentateuch, but shortly after that he was caught and burned at the stake for “heresy” by Roman Catholics, and so he was prevented from finishing his version of the Bible. His New Testament and Pentateuch were printed in Europe because they were banned by King Henry VIII of England, who at that time was still connected with the Roman Catholic Church. Nevertheless, Henry and his bishops were unable to prevent thousands of copies from being smuggled into the land.

Coverdale’s Bible

Soon after the death of Tyndale, King Henry broke with the Roman Catholic Church, confiscated its property in England, and established the moderately Protestant Church of England. After these actions, he was more inclined to allow English versions to be published in his realm; and so when his Archbishop, Thomas Cranmer, proposed that an official translation be prepared, Henry told him to see to it. But Cranmer was too busy to do it himself, and was hampered by lack of help from his bishops. These bishops were really Roman Catholics at heart, and were not willing to have Scripture read in English in the churches. While they dragged their feet an English churchman named Miles Coverdale produced an edition of the whole Bible by himself, combining Tyndale’s work with his own to create the first printed English Bible. Coverdale’s Bible had various shortcomings, chiefly because he did not know Hebrew or Greek, but relied upon the Vulgate and Luther’s German version for the parts that he translated. The portions he took over from Tyndale also stood in need of some correction. Coverdale was not so much interested in literal exactness as in getting a complete Bible into print. But he had a good ear for English style, and contributed much toward the literary quality of the English Bible.

God in time past diversely and many ways spake unto the fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he hath spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath made heir of all things, by whom also he made the world. Which [Son], being the brightness of his glory and the very image of his substance, bearing up all things with the word of his power, hath in his own person purged our sins, and is set on the right hand of the Majesty on high: being even as much more excellent than the angels, as he hath obtained a more excellent name than they.

As you can see, this is all but identical to Tyndale’s, but with the final sentence recast in a much more graceful construction, in which Coverdale shows his literary talent.

Because he was connected with the Church of England, which from the beginning was a sort of blend of Catholicism and Protestantism, Coverdale’s notes were milder than his predecessors’. He had hoped that the King would officially appoint his Bible for use in the English churches. But Henry’s bishops advised him not to take this action. Still, he permitted Coverdale to print and sell his version.

“Matthew’s” Bible

Soon after the publication of Coverdale’s version another one appeared under the name of Thomas Matthew. This was a pseudonym used by John Rogers, who had been a close associate of Tyndale. Evidently while in prison Tyndale had managed to continue translating up through First Chronicles, and gave his manuscript to Rogers before his execution. Rogers then completed the work by supplying the remainder of the Old Testament from Coverdale’s version, but published it under a false name, in order to avoid the fate of Tyndale. His marginal notes were, like Tyndale’s, rather sharply anti-Roman Catholic, and were offensive to the conservative bishops in England. But Cranmer prevailed upon Henry to allow the new version to be distributed in England, because he judged it to be superior to Coverdale’s version, and could not get his bishops moving on the one he had planned. I have not given Rogers’ translation of the sample passage because it is identical to Tyndale’s.

Cranmer’s “Great Bible”

Archbishop Cranmer finally gave up on his bishops, and convinced Henry to commission an official version from Coverdale, who in fulfillment of his commission presented a revision of Rogers’ version. The book was first published in 1539, but was quickly followed by a somewhat revised edition in 1540.

God in time past diversely and many ways spake unto the fathers by prophets, but in these last days he hath spoken unto us by his own Son, whom he hath made heir of all things, by whom also he made the world. Which [Son] being the brightness of his glory and the very image of his substance, ruling all things with the word of his power, hath by his own person purged our sins, and sitteth on the right hand of the Majesty on high; being so much more excellent than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.

This second edition bore a preface by Cranmer, and at the foot of the title page appeared the words, “This is the Bible appointed to the use of the churches.” This was the first officially approved English Bible, called “Cranmer’s Bible” after the name of its sponsor, and sometimes called the “Great Bible” because of its large size. Its translation of the Psalms was also printed in the Book of Common Prayer, which has remained unchanged to this day.

The Geneva Bible

Refer to the Geneva Bible Page

In 1560 a new translation of the Bible was published by English Puritans who had fled to Geneva under persecution during the reign of Mary, the Roman Catholic daughter of Henry VIII. These men knew Hebrew and Greek, and they had the advantage of being in a seat of Protestant learning. Their version was very accurate, and even used italic type to alert the reader to words which were supplied to complete the interpretation into English, but which were not actually to be found in the Hebrew or Greek texts. The translators explained in their Preface that they strove to present the most accurate and literal translation, because they observed that the Apostles usually quoted the Old Testament with highly literal Greek translations of the Hebrew. Here is our passage as it appears in the Geneva Bible:

1 At sundry times and in diverse manners God spake in the old time to our fathers by the prophets: 2 In these last days he hath spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath made heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds, 3 who, being the brightness of the glory, and the engraved form of his person, and bearing up all things by his mighty word, hath by himself purged our sins, and sitteth at the right hand of the Majesty in the high places; 4 and is made so much more excellent than the angels in as much as he hath obtained a more excellent name than they.

The text was paragraphed as in Tyndale. The verses were numbered, according to the Greek edition of Stephens, for precise reference. Like Tyndale the Genevan translators also supplied many helpful explanatory notes. Their version became known as the “Geneva Bible.” In the year before its appearance (1559) Mary died, and was succeeded by her Protestant sister, Elizabeth, to the great relief of the nation. In the same year every bishop in the Church of England was ousted and replaced by men more sympathetic to the Protestant cause. The English people had gradually become more Protestant, as Romanism was now definitely associated with foreign powers like Spain which sought to hold England in subjection. Therefore when the Geneva Bible was published, England was in the midst of a strong reaction against Rome, and copies of the new “anti-Romish” Bible poured into the land, and it was frequently reprinted there. It quickly became the most popular version. In Scotland every household was required to purchase a copy, and this law was actually enforced by government inspectors.

The Bishops’ Bible, 1568

The great popularity of the Geneva Bible in England moved the new English bishops, who were not entirely in agreement with the exiled radical Puritans, to cooperate in the production of a new official version, which they hoped would rival the Geneva Bible in popularity. Cranmer was now dead, having been removed from his office and burned at the stake during the reign of Mary, and so the project was superintended by Elizabeth’s new Archbishop, Matthew Parker. Parker assigned portions of the Bible to various bishops, and so the version has been called the “Bishops’ Bible.”

1 God, which in time past, at sundry times and in diverse manners, spake unto the fathers in the prophets, 2 hath in these last days spoken unto us in the Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds. 3 Who, being the brightness of the glory and the very image of his substance, upholding all things with the word of his power, having by himself purged our sins, hath sat on the right hand of the Majesty on high; 4 being so much more excellent than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.

Parker’s bishops were not especially competent to do this work, because they had not much proficiency in the original languages, nor did any of them have the literary skill of Coverdale. Moreover, it seems that they were unwilling to imitate the Geneva Bible too closely, and so failed to take advantage of its improvements over Coverdale in the Old Testament. Consequently, their version did not gain wide acceptance, although it was appointed to be the version read in English church services. The Geneva Bible continued to be the one most commonly used for quotation in theological literature, for religious instruction, and for casual reading throughout England and Scotland.

The King James Version

Refer to the Preface to the King James Version

The failure of the Bishops’ Bible to replace the Geneva Bible in popular use left the authorities of the Church of England in a embarrassing position for many years, because everyone knew that the version authorized for use in church services was not as accurate as the Geneva Bible, and this undermined the people’s confidence in the established church as an institution. When this was pointed out to King James I, who succeeded Elizabeth, he commissioned a new version for use in the churches. This is our King James version, published in 1611.

1 God, who at sundry times and in diverse manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets,
2 Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds,
3 Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high,
4 Being made so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.

It was generally superior to the Geneva Bible in literal exactness. Verses were numbered, each one being made a separate paragraph now for ease of reference. A different type was used for supplied words, as in the Geneva Bible. This was the period of Protestant “scholasticism,” in which theologians like Theodore Beza were refining their doctrines by very close application of Scripture. Literalness is of course required for this kind of work, and for those who wish to understand it. Literalness also tends to promote wide acceptance, because it involves a minimum of interpretation, and leaves room for various expositions of the text. Because King James wanted his version to be acceptable to all of his subjects he directed that the notes should not advocate controversial positions, as in Tyndale and the Geneva Bible. The notes of the KJV are therefore strictly philological or mere cross-references. Neither were there any prefaces, except for the general preface, which was not dogmatic in character. It should be noted that the first few printings of this version were large folio volumes, pulpit Bibles that is. This is significant. The King James version soon displaced all other versions. It gradually came to be regarded as an authoritative text by reason of its long and universal use in England and America.

Editions of the King James version we buy in the bookstore today are not actually the very thing as published in 1611, because the spelling has been updated and a few other minor changes made. I have examined the differences closely and have listed them in an appendix, Changes in the King James Version.

Summary of Reformation Bibles

We might well pause here, and look at some aspects of the development of the English Bible up to this point. From Tyndale to Geneva to King James there was a definite movement toward greater precision. This served at least three purposes. First, it sharpened the sword, as it were, of Protestant advocates. Secondly, it served the cause of theological refinement, a kind of dogmatic housekeeping. Third, it promoted wide acceptance of the versions, by allowing different interpretations. Tyndale and the Geneva translators were conscious also of their obligations as teachers, and so provided many helps for interpretation, which were in fact made more needful by the literalness of their versions. But when King James sought to avoid controversial interpretations, these helps were taken away. This was acceptable to most, because it was assumed that a competent pulpit ministry would supply whatever interpretation was needed.