Chapter 5
The English Bible

The Reformation produced a great demand for translations of the Bible into the languages of the peoples of Western Europe; for the Reformers found one of their chief weapons for their campaign against Rome in placing the Scriptures in the hands of the common people. We come therefore now to the genesis of our English Bible.

In pre-Reformation days the Bible had been translated into English, at first in separate books from the time of Bede (d.735) onwards, but completely only by Wyclif and his colleagues in 1382-8. These versions, however, were all made from the Latin Vulgate, and have had no influence on our present English Bible. The true father of this was William Tyndale, who on the publication of the Greek New Testament by Erasmus was filled with the resolve to translate it into English, so that, as he said, the boy that drove the plough might know the Scriptures. He had hoped to secure for this the patronage of the Bishop of London, Tunstall, who was a friend of Erasmus; but finding no encouragement there, nor anywhere in England, he migrated in 1524 to Hamburg, and there completed his work. In 1525 he began printing it at Cologne, and being driven thence by enemies of the Reformation, he finished it at Worms, and thence copies reached England early in 1526. It was vigorously condemned by the authorities of Church and State, who attributed to error many novelties which were in fact due to Tyndale's use of the original Greek, whereas they themselves were only acquainted with the Latin; but the public appetite was whetted, and before long, as the Reformation made progress in England, the demand for an English Bible became irresistible.

Tyndale himself, before his martyrdom at the hands of the Imperial authorities in 1536, had revised his New Testament in 1534 and 1535, had published (in 1530) the Pentateuch, translated from the original Hebrew, and had translated, but not published, the historical books of the Old Testament. This work was never accepted by the rulers of the Church in England; yet before his death a complete English Bible had been published, in which his translation was incorporated. This was the work of his disciple, Miles Coverdale, who had the patronage of Thomas Cromwell, then chief minister of Henry VIII. Utilizing Tyndale's version, and completing it by a translation of his own from German and Latin Bibles, he was able to produce his work by the end of 1535; so that about Christmas in 1935 we commemorated the fourth centenary of the first complete English printed Bible. This edition was dedicated to Henry VIII, who had now quarrelled with the Roman Church; and a second edition in 1537 was definitely licensed by the King. From this moment Englishmen possessed, and were allowed to possess, an English Bible.

There follows a period of some seventy-five years, during which the work of revising and improving the English Bible was almost continually in progress. Throughout, the work of Tyndale formed the foundation, and more than anyone else he established the rhythms and furnished much of the language which is familiar to us in the Authorized Version. In 1537 Cromwell and Cranmer co-operated in the production of a Bible (known as 'Matthew's') which silently incorporated Tyndale's unpublished version of the historical books of the Old Testament; but this was superseded in 1539 by a further revision by Coverdale, known as the Great Bible. This was the first Bible to be formally authorized for public use; for an injunction was issued by Cromwell requiring a copy to be set up in every parish church. A contemporary chronicler paints a vivid picture of the crowds that gathered round the six copies which were set up in various parts of St. Paul's, listening to those who read aloud from them even to the disturbance of the regular services. In two years seven editions were called for, and, though a change in Henry's policy then caused him to discourage Protestantism, the English people had now become definitely Bible-minded. During the reign of Edward VI editions of Tyndale, Coverdale, and the Great Bible poured from the press; and when Mary's accession put an end to this, the work was carried on by the Protestant exiles, who at Geneva produced, first a New Testament (1557) and then a complete Bible (1560), with notes in a strongly Calvinistic tone, and of a popular character. All previous Bibles had been large in form, suitable for use in Churches, and printed in 'black letter'; but the Geneva Bible was issued in smaller forms, suitable for personal and domestic use, and for the first time was printed in roman type, and with the division into verses first made by Stephanus for the Greek New Testament in 1551. [1] With the accession of Elizabeth the Bible in this form rapidly spread from the churches to the homes; and though a new revision was prepared in 1568 by the bishops (whence it is known as the Bishops' Bible), this was mainly for use in churches, and the Geneva Bible remained the Bible of the people until it was superseded by the Authorised Version of 1611. A revision by English Roman Catholic refugees (New Testament at Rheims in 1582, the whole Bible at Douai in 1609) had little effect, though it was utilized by the authors of the Authorized Version.

The Authorized Version may be put down as the best deed ever done by James I. It was he that seized upon the idea when it was put forward by Dr. Reynolds, the Puritan leader, at the Hampton Court Conference of 1604; it was he that suggested that the work of revision should be entrusted to the universities; it was he that insisted that it should not be encumbered or prejudiced by any notes, and so preserved it from having any party colour. The work was divided among six companies, two in London and two each at Oxford and Cambridge. It was taken in hand in 1607, and in two years the companies had completed their first draft. A small committee, composed of two representatives from each company, then revised the draft in nine months, after which it was seen through the press by two editors, Dr. Miles Smith (who wrote the excellent preface) and Bishop Bilson. And so, in 1611, the great English Bible appeared. It was the result of 86 years' gestation, with Tyndale's work, as supplemented by Coverdale, always at the base of it; and the result was final. Though revisions had been so frequent previously, no one proposed to revise the version of 1611 for two hundred and seventy years. Though the Geneva Bible was pre-eminently the Bible of the Puritans, and the Puritans were in ascendancy until 1660, the Authorized Version drove it out of the field by sheer merit. The last Geneva Bible was printed in 1644. It is strange that a version of such outstanding merit and success should be the work of a committee; for committees are not generally happy in drafting literary prose. It may be attributed in part to the strong imprint given by the genius of Tyndale, in part to the good sense of the revisers in avoiding unnecessary and pedantic alterations; and in part to the ingrained aptitude for nobility of phrase characteristic of Tudor and Jacobean England.

The misfortune of the version, for which the revisers were not to blame, was that they had such a defective text to translate from. Tyndale and Coverdale worked on Erasmus's text, aided by German and Latin translations. The Genevan and King James's revisers had the 'received text' of 1550. All alike were in fact accepting as the authentic Greek text the form which it had assumed after 1,400 years of transmission by manuscript, and with the deterioration, small in each detail but cumulatively great, due to the errors of scribes and the well-meant efforts of editors. For the moment, however, the work was done, and admirably done. The English people had received a version as good as the scholarship of the day could produce from the available materials, and incomparably superior in literary merit to any translation into any other language. It is the simple truth that, as literature, the English Authorized Version is superior to the original Greek. It was the good fortune of the English nation that its Bible was produced at a time when the genius of the language for noble prose was at its height, and when a natural sense of style was not infected by self-conscious scholarship. The beauty of the language commended the teaching of the sacred books and made them dear to the heart of the people, while it made an indelible and enduring impression alike on literature and on popular speech.

The work of bringing the Bible to the people was now done. It remained for scholars to amend the text upon which the translators had worked, and to restore, as nearly as might be, the Greek text to the form in which it was originally written by its authors. That was to be the task of the next three hundred years, and remains our task today.

1. The Hebrew Old Testament was divided into verses by Rabbi Nathan in 1448 (first printed in a Venice edition of 1524). This division was adopted in the Latin Bible of Pagninus in 1528, with a different division in the N.T. The first Bible that has the present verse division in both Testaments is Stephanus's Vulgate of 1555.