Simultaneously, William Tyndale would
become burdened to translate that same Erasmus text into English. It could
not, however, be done in England.
Having God's Word available to the public
in the language of the common man, English, would have meant disaster
to the church. No longer would they control access to the scriptures.
If people were able to read the Bible in their own tongue, the church's
income and power would crumble. They could not possibly continue to get
away with selling indulgences (the forgiveness of sins) or selling the
release of loved ones from a church-manufactured "Purgatory".
People would begin to challenge the church's authority if the church were
exposed as frauds and thieves. The contradictions between what God's Word
said, and what the priests taught, would open the public's eyes and the
truth would set them free from the grip of fear that the institutional
church held. Salvation through faith, not works or donations, would
be understood. The need for priests would vanish through the priesthood
of all believers. The veneration of church-cannonized Saints and Mary
would be called into question. The availablity of the scriptures in English
was the biggest threat imaginable to the wicked church. Neither side would
give up without a fight.
The Tyndale New Testament was the
first ever printed in the English language. Its first printing occurred
in 1525/6, but only one complete copy of the first printing exists. Any
Edition printed before 1570 is very rare and valuable, particularly pre-1540
editions and fragments. Tyndale's flight was an inspiration to freedom-loving
Englishmen who drew courage from the 11 years that he was hunted. Books
and Bibles flowed into England in bales of cotton and sacks of flour.
In the end, Tyndale was caught: betrayed by an Englishman that he had
befriended. Tyndale was incarcerated for 500 days before he was strangled
and burned at the stake in 1536. His last words were, "Lord, open
the eyes of the King of England".
Myles Coverdale and John Rogers
were loyal disciples the last six years of Tyndale's life, and they carried
the project forward and even accelerated it. Coverdale finished translating
the Old Testament, and in 1535 he printed the first complete Bible in
the English language, making use of Luther's German text and the Latin
as sources. Thus, the first complete English Bible was printed on October
4, 1535, and is known as the Coverdale Bible.
John Rogers went on to print the second complete
English Bible in 1537. He printed it under the pseudonym "Thomas
Matthew", as a considerable part of this Bible was the translation
of Tyndale, whose writings had been condemned by the English authorities.
It is a composite made up of Tyndale's Pentateuch and New Testament (1534-1535
edition) and Coverdale's Bible and a small amount of Roger's own translation
of the text. It remains known most commonly as the Matthews Bible.
In 1539, Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop
of Canturbury, hired Myles Coverdale at the bequest of King Henry VIII
to publish the "Great Bible". It became the first English Bible
authorized for public use, as it was disrtibuted to every church, chained
to the pulpit, and a reader was even provided so that the illiterate could
hear the Word of God in plain English. It would seem that William Tyndale's
last wish had been granted...just three years after his martyrdom. Cranmer's
Bible, published by Coverdale, was known as the Great Bible due
to its great size: a large pulpit folio measuring over 14 inches tall.
Seven editions of this version were printed between April of 1539 and
December of 1541.
The ebb and flow of freedom continued through
the 1540's...and into the 1550's. The reign of Queen Mary (a.k.a. "Bloody
Mary") was the next obstacle to the printing of the Bible in
English. She was possessed in her quest to return England to the Roman
Church. In 1555, John Rogers ("Thomas Matthew") and Thomas Cranmer
were both burned at the stake. Mary went on to burn reformers at the stake
by the hundreds for the "crime" of being a Protestant. This
era was known as the Marian Exile, and the refugees fled from England
with little hope of ever seeing their home or friends again.
In the 1550's, the Church at Geneva, Switzerland,
was very sympathetic to the reformer refugees and was one of only a few
safe havens for a desperate people. Many of them met in Geneva, led by
Myles Coverdale and John Foxe (publisher of the famous Foxe's
Book of Martyrs, which is to this day the only exhaustive reference work
on the persecution and martyrdom of Early Christians and Protestants from
the first century up to the mid-16th century), as well as Thomas Sampson
and William Whittingham. There, with the protection of John Calvin
and John Knox, the Church of Geneva determined to produce a Bible
that would educate their families while they continued in exile.
The New Testament was completed in 1557,
and the complete Bible was first published in 1560. It became known as
the Geneva Bible. Due to a passage in Genesis desribing the clothing
that God fashioned for Adam and Eve upon expulsion from the Garden of
Eden as "Breeches" (an antiquated form of "Britches"),
some people referred to the Geneva Bible as the Breeches Bible.
The Geneva Bible was the first Bible to add
verses to the chapters, so that referencing specific passages would be
easier. Every chapter was also accompanied by extensive marginal notes
and references so thorough and complete that the Geneva Bible is also
considered the first English "Study Bible". William Shakespeare
quotes thousands of times in his plays from the Geneva translation of
the Bible. The Geneva Bible became the Bible of choice for over 100 years
of English speaking Christians. Between 1560 and 1644 at least 144 editions
of this Bible were published. Examination of the 1611 King James Bible
shows clearly that its translators were influenced much more by the Geneva
Bible, than by any other source. The Geneva Bible itself retains over
90% of William Tyndale's original English translation. The Geneva
in fact, remained more popular than the King James Version until decades
after its original release in 1611! The Geneva holds the honor of being
the first Bible taken to America, and the Bible of the Puritans and Pilgrims.
With the end of Queen Mary's bloody rein,
the reformers could safely return to England. The Aglican Church, under
Queen Elizabeth I, reluctantly tolerated the printing and distribution
of Geneva version Bibles in England. The marginal notes, which were vehemently
against the institutional Church of the day, did not rest well with the
rulers of the day, however. Another version, one with a less inflamatory
tone was desired. In 1568, the Bishop's Bible was introduced. Despite
19 editions being printed between 1568 and 1606, the version never gained
much of a foothold of popularity among the people. The Geneva may have
simply been too much to compete with.
By the 1580's, the Roman Catholic Church
saw that it had lost the battle to supress the will of God: that His Holy
Word be available in the English language. In 1582, the Church of Rome
surrendered their fight for "Latin only" and decided that if
the Bible was to be available in English, they would at least have an
official Roman Catholic English translation. And so, using the Latin Vulgate
as a source text, they went on to publish an English Bible with all the
distortions and corruptions that Erasmus had revealed and warned of 75
years earlier. Because it was translated at the Roman Catholic College
in the city of Rheims, it was known as the Rheims ( or Rhemes) New
Testament. The Old Testament was translated by the Church of Rome
in 1609 at the College in the city of Doway (also spelled Douay and Douai).
The combined product is commonly refered to as the "Doway/Rheims"
In 1589, Dr. Fulke of Cambridge published
the "Fulke's Refutation", in which he printed in parallel
columns the Bishops Version along side the Rheims Version, attempting
to show the error and distortion of the Roman Church's corrupt compromise
of an English version of the Bible.
With the death of Queen Elizabeth I, Prince
James VI of Scotland became King James I of England. The Protestant clergy
approached the new King in 1604 and announced their desire for a new translation
to replace the Bishop's Bible first printed in 1568. They knew that the
Geneva Version had won the hearts of the people because of its excellent
scholarship, accuracy, and exhaustive commentary. However, they did not
want the controversial marginal notes (proclaiming the Pope an Anti-Christ,etc.)
Essentially, the leaders of the church desired a Bible for the people,
with scriptural references only for word clarification when multiple meanings
This "translation to end all translations"
(for a while at least) was the result of the combined effort of about
fifty scholars. They took into consideration: The Tyndale New Testament,
The Coverdale Bible, The Matthews Bible, The Great Bible, The Geneva Bible,
and even the Rheims New Testament. The great revision of the Bishop's
Bible had begun. From 1605 to 1606 the scholars engaged in private research.
From 1607 to 1609 the work was assembled. In 1610 the work went to press,
and in 1611 the first of the huge (16 inch tall) pulpit folios known as
"The King James Bible" came off the printing press.
A typographical error in Ruth 3:15 rendered
the pronoun "He" instead of the correct "She" in that
verse. This caused some of the 1611 First Editions to be known by collectors
as "He" Bibles, and others as "She" Bibles.
It took many years for it to overtake the
Geneva Bible in popularity with the people, but eventually the King James
Version became the Bible of the English people. It became the most printed
book in the history of the world. In fact, for around 250 years...until
the appearance of the Revised Version of 1881...the King James Version
reigned without a rival.
Although the first Bible printed in America
was done in the native Algonquin Indian Language (by John Eliot
in 1663), the first English language Bible to be printed in America (by
Robert Aitken in 1782) was a King James Version. In 1791, Isaac
Collins vastly improved upon the quality and size of the typesetting
of American Bibles and produced the first "Family Bible" printed
in America...also a King James Version. Also in 1791, Isaiah Thomas
published the first Illustrated Bible printed in America...in the King
In 1841, the English Hexapla New Testament
was printed. This wonderful
textual comparison tool shows in parallel columns: The 1380 Wycliff, 1534
1539 Great, 1557 Geneva, 1582 Rheims, and 1611 King James versions of
entire New Testament...with the original Greek at the top of the page.
Consider the following textual comparison
of John 3:16 as they appear in
many of these famous printings of the English Bible:
- 1st Ed. King James (1611): "For
God so loued the world, that he gaue his only begotten Sonne: that
whosoeuer beleeueth in him, should not perish, but haue euerlasting
- Rheims (1582): "For so God loued
the vvorld, that he gaue his only-begotten sonne: that euery one that
beleeueth in him, perish not, but may haue life euerlasting"
- Geneva (1557): "For God so loueth
the world, that he hath geuen his only begotten Sonne: that none that
beleue in him, should peryshe, but haue euerlasting lyfe."
- Great Bible (1539): "For God so loued the worlde, that he
gaue his only begotten sonne, that whosoeuer beleueth in him, shulde
not perisshe, but haue euerlasting lyfe."
- Tyndale (1534): "For God so
loveth the worlde, that he hath geven his only sonne, that none that
beleve in him, shuld perisshe: but shuld have everlastinge lyfe."
- Wycliff (1380): "for god loued
so the world; that he gaf his oon bigetun sone, that eche man that
bileueth in him perisch not: but haue euerlastynge liif,"
It is possible to go back to manuscripts earlier than
Wycliff, but the language found can only be described as the "Anglo-Saxon"
roots of English, and would not be easily recognizable as similar to the
English spoken today.
For example, the Anglo-Saxon pre-English root language
of the year 995 AD yields a manuscript that quotes John 3:16 as:
"God lufode middan-eard swa, dat he seade
his an-cennedan sunu, dat nan ne forweorde de on hine gely ac habbe
dat ece lif."
Presented by Richard Merrell 1996
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