The Bible
  NT Background
  NT Studies
  NT Books
  OT Background
  OT Studies
  OT Books
  Bible Study
  British Museum
  Museums
  Historical Documents
  Life Questions
  How to Preach
  Teaching

History of the Bible in English

Julian Spriggs M.A.

The English language developed after the Angels, Saxons and Jutes came to England from Germany in the fifth century. Before this, Latin was the main language of the Roman Empire and of the church in western Europe. The native languages of Britain were not English. The original Britons were pushed west by the Anglo-Saxons, and became the Welsh.

Anglo-Saxon (Old English)

The language of the Anglo-Saxons is also known as Old English, and is difficult for most people to read today. It has similarities to Nordic languages. This is John 3:16 in Old English: "God lufode middaneard swa þæt he sealde his ancennedan Sunu, þæt nan ne forwurðe þe on hine gelyfð, ac hæbbe þæt ece lif".

Caedmon (7th century)

Caedmon was a monk in the monastery in Whitby, Yorkshire, who looked after the animals. He had supernatural ability to sing themes from Scripture in English verse in paraphrase. These included creation, the Genesis stories, the Exodus from Egypt, the entry to the promised land, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, Pentecost and the future judgement. This was described by the Venerable Bede, “He sang of the creation of the world, the origin of the human race, and the whole story of Genesis. He sang of Israel's departure from Egypt, their entry into the land of promise, and many other events of scriptural history. He sang of the Lord's Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension into heaven, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the teaching of the Apostles. He also made many poems on the terrors of the Last Judgement, the horrible pains of Hell, and the joys of the kingdom of heaven.” "Let us praise the Maker of the kingdom of heaven, the power and purpose of our Creator, and the acts of the Father of glory. Let us sing how the eternal God, the Author of all marvels, first created the heavens for the sons of men as a roof to cover them, and how their almighty Protector gave them the earth for their dwelling place." Bede: History of the English Church and People 4:24

The Venerable Bede (7th century)

Bede was a priest of the Monastery of Saints Peter and Paul at Wearmouth and Jarrow in the North-East of England. Bede translated John's gospel into Anglo-Saxon, and completed it on the day of his death in 735, according to Cuthbert of Jarrow. His translation is now lost. He may have translated more of the Bible, there is no record of that. Bede was the author of the “History of The English Church and People”

Bishop Aldelm (640-709)

Aldelm was bishop of Sherbourne and abbot of Malmesbury Abbey. He was a Latin poet and scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature. He is thought to have translated the Psalms into Anglo-Saxon English, but this is disputed.

King Alfred the Great (849-901)

In his code of Saxon Laws, Alfred the Great included an English translation of the Ten Commandments, Exodus 21-23 and Acts 15. He also started translating the Psalms. Alfred made the ten commandments the basis of English law.

Alfred’s 10 Commandments (in modern English)
"The Lord spoke these words to Moses, and said: 'I am the Lord your God. I led you out of the lands and out of the bondage of the Egyptians."
1. "Do not love other strange gods before Me!"
2. "Do not call out My Name in idleness! For you are not guiltless with Me, if you call out My Name in idleness."
3. "Mind that you hallow the rest-day! You must work six days; but on the seventh you must rest! For in six days Christ made Heavens and Earth, the seas, and all the shapen things in them; but He rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord hallowed it."
4. "Honour your father and your mother whom the Lord gave you — so that you may live longer on Earth!"
5. "Do not slay!"
6. "Do not commit adultery!"
7. "Do not steal!"
8. "Do not witness falsely!"
9. "Do not unrighteously desire your neighbour's goods!"
10. "Do not make gold or silver gods for yourself!“

There are also manuscripts of the four gospels, the psalms, the Pentateuch and history books by unknown authors from this time.

Middle English

After the Norman conquest in 1066, the English language changed, with influence from French, into Middle English. Before Wyclif, there was no complete English version of the Bible. The only version available and read in the churches was the Latin Vulgate, which the ordinary people could not understand.

This is John 3:16 from the Vulgate:
"sic enim dilexit Deus mundum ut Filium suum unigenitum daret ut omnis qui credit in eum non pereat sed habeat vitam aeternam"

The Wyclif Bible

John Wyclif (1320-1384) was a Catholic priest and a professor at Oxford. He sent out preachers to reach the ordinary peasants. He was associated with the Lollards (an abusive term meaning “babblers”). Up to fifty percent of the population was converted, a powerful move of God. His “poor preachers” would travel round, read the scriptures and tell stories in the market places, influenced by the example of Francis of Assisi.

Wyclif became rector of Lutterworth in Leicestershire towards the end of his life. There is a monument to him in the town. It was here in 1379, that he translated the New Testament into common English to be available to the people. This was done from a Latin base, and in a rather difficult style. It is not certain whether he completed the Old Testament before his death. Wyclif and the Lollards were committed to having the Bible available to all Christians. He saw the translator's need to study, live a clean life of prayer and dependence on the Holy Spirit. His work actually caused English to be established as the main language in England (Latin and French were used before this).

A second version, of the complete Bible, was made by one of Wyclif's followers, John Purvey, in a smoother style, which became extremely influential to succeeding versions. Purvey had help from Lyra, an expert in Greek and Hebrew to check his text.

Wyclif was tried and condemned by the church. He died from a stroke and later the church dug up his bones and burnt them as a heretic. There was severe persecution, but the Lollards survived until the Reformation. Queen Anne, and students from Bohemia in Oxford, brought Wyclif's ideas back to Bohemia, where they had great influence on John Hus, the great Czech reformer. Wyclif is known as “The Morning Star of the Reformation”. He also had great influence on Martin Luther. Wyclif’s translation was the first to have chapters, but has no verses.

This is John 3:16 in Wyclif’s translation:
"For God louede so the world, that he yaf his `oon bigetun sone, that ech man that bileueth in him perische not, but haue euerlastynge lijf."

New English

Three major events occurred which significantly accelerated the development of the English Bible:
1. Printing was invented in the middle of the 15th century, which made books far more available than before. The Gutenberg Bible was printed in 1455, with printed text and illumination by hand.
2. Hebrew and Greek scholarship became more accessible to Western scholars. The Hebrew text was printed in 1488 and Erasmus's Greek NT in 1516.
3. Luther nailed his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenburg in 1517, sparking off the Reformation. He translated the NT into German in 1534.

William Tyndale - the Father of the English Bible

Tyndale came from one of the villages near Dursley in Gloucestershire. He became a tutor at Little Sodbury Manor, where he heard the call from God in 1523 to translate the Bible into English. He used a small chapel behind the Manor house, where he began his translation. He was charged with heresy before William of Malvern, chancellor of Worcester. A visiting cleric said: “We were better without God’s laws than without the Pope’s”. Tyndale’s response was, “I defy the Pope and all his laws. If God spare my life, ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost.”

He moved to London, while translating NT, trying to get support of Bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall. However, he was opposed to Tyndale translating the Bible, and tried to prevent its publication. Tyndale said, “not only that there was no room in my Lord of London’s palace to translate the New Testament but also that there was no place to do it in all England”.

He fled to Europe for the next twelve years, and never returned to England. He was pursued around Europe by English church authorities. He first went to Germany, to Hamburg, and to Wittenburg, where he received help from Martin Luther. He translated NT from Greek, and also consulted the Latin Vulgate, and Luther’s German translation.

The NT completed in Cologne. Tyndale then fled to Worms, where his NT was printed in 1526. This was the first printed complete New Testament. It was smuggled to England in bales of cotton. Many copies were seized and destroyed by the English authorities. Agents were sent to Antwerp by Cuthbert Tunstall to buy all the copies of what he called “this pestilent New Testament”. The Protestants used money to print more copies.

Tyndale learned Hebrew so he could translate the Pentateuch, and the Book of Jonah and some other portions of the OT from the Hebrew. These were printed in Antwerp in 1530. Revised versions were printed in 1534 and 1535.

Tyndale’s Bible became basis for King James Bible, and all modern English Bibles. 85% of the text of the KJV is based on Tyndale’s translation. Many of his phrases became part of English language, for example: “Let there be light”, “Let my people go”, “The truth shall make you free”, “Am I my brother's keeper?”

John 3:16 in Tyndale’s translation:
"For God so loveth the worlde yt he hath geven his only sonne that none that beleve in him shuld perisshe: but shuld have everlastinge lyfe.

He wrote other books, particularly against transubstantiation, following Wyclif. He also wrote about the authority of Scripture over that of Church, the separation of church and state, and criticised Henry VIII for divorcing Catherine of Aragon. In Antwerp, he betrayed by an English spy, who had pretended to be a friend (1535). He was imprisoned for 18 months charged with heresy in horrible conditions in castle in Vilvorde, Belgium (6 miles north of Brussels).

Appeals to Henry VIII were ignored, even after Henry VIII became Protestant in 1534. Tyndale was strangled and burnt at the stake in Vilvorde on 6th Octover 1536. His list words were: “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes”.

The Tyndale monument is still prominent landmark on the top of the Cotswolds on Nibley Hill near Dursley, between Gloucester and Bristol.

The period up to the Authorised Version

Before the reign of Henry VIII England was a Catholic country, under the authority of the Pope. Henry reigned from 1509 to 1547, and rejected papal control in 1534, appointing himself as head of the Church of England. There were the following monarchs after Henry:
Edward VI (1547 - 1553) - Protestant (died young)
Lady Jane Grey (1553 a few days) - Executed by Mary
Mary ( 1553 - 1558) - Catholic (persecuted Protestants - known as Bloody Mary)
Elizabeth I (1558 - 1603) - Protestant (tolerant)
James I (1603 - 1625) - Protestant (The James of the King James Version)

After the rejection of Papal authority in 1534 and change in royal policy, many English versions of the Bible were produced, with royal and church approval.

1. Miles Coverdale Version

Miles Coverdale was a reformer, who later became bishop of Exeter. In 1535, he published a translation of the entire Bible, the first full Bible to be published in English. The attitude of the king and church had changed, so Coverdale dedicated his Bible to King Henry VIII and “his dearest just wyfe, and most vertuous Pryncess, Queen Anne (Boleyn)”. The translation was made from German and Latin versions, with help from Tyndale's. In 1538, he published an edition with the Latin Vulgate and the English in parallel columns.

John 3:16 in Coverdale’s translation:
"For God so loued the worlde, that he gaue his onely sonne, that who so euer beleueth in hi, shulde not perishe, but haue euerlastinge life".

2. The Matthew Bible

The Matthew Bible was published in 1537. It was probably produced by one of Tyndale's followers, John Rogers, who wrote under a pseudonym, Thomas Matthew. He was the first church leader to be burned at the stake by Queen Mary. It is mostly the work of Tyndale, who had been opposed by Henry VIII and the church. He corrected some errors in the Coverdale version. This version was dedicated to King Henry VIII. Taverner published a another revision in 1539.

3. The Great Bible

The Great Bible was prepared by Coverdale in 1539 on the invitation of Thomas Cromwell (Earl of Essex, royal secretary for Henry VIII), so is known as “Cromwell's Bible”. It is called the Great Bible because of its great size. It is also known as “Cranmer's Bible”, as the second edition in 1540 had a preface by Archbishop Cranmer, saying, “The Bible appointed to the use of the churches”. It was ordered to be placed in every English church. It was really only a revision of the Matthew Bible. The Psalms in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer are from this version.

4. The Geneva Bible

The Geneva Bible was a Protestant translation produced in Geneva, during a period when the use of English translations in England was limited, especially during the reign of Mary Tudor. Many Protestants fled to Geneva, Switzerland, to avoid persecution from Mary.

It was published in 1557 and was the first Bible to have the verse divisions, introduced in 1551. Each verse was printed as a paragraph. It had great influence on the KJV. It was a smaller size and became very popular from 1570 to 1620, especially as Shakespeare, John Milton and John Bunyan quoted from it. It is also known as the “Breeches Bible” - “..they sewed figg leaves together and made themselves breeches” (Gen 3:7). It was never officially recognised, as it was written from a strongly reformed Calvinistic viewpoint, with outspoken notes against the Papacy and the Catholic Church, as well as against the Church of England. It was the first Bible to be taken to America, on the Mayflower.

This is John 3:16 in the Geneva Bible:
"For God so loued the worlde, that hee hath giuen his onely begotten Sonne, that whosoeuer beleeueth in him, should not perish, but haue euerlasting life."

5. The Bishop's Bible

This was a a revision of the Great Bible done by Anglican bishops in 1568 and 1572, directed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, to counter the Geneva Bible. It received official approval by the church and had great influence on the KJV. It was used mainly by the clergy and was not popular with the ordinary people, so it became a costly failure.

This is John 3:16 in the Bishop’s Bible:
"For God so loued the worlde, that he gaue his only begotten sonne, that whosoeuer beleueth in hym, shoulde not perishe, but haue euerlastyng lyfe."

6. The Rheims-Douai Version

This was made by Catholics who fled from England during the reign of Elizabeth I. It had strongly Catholic doctrine to counteract the influence of Protestant translations. The NT was produced in 1582 at the English college in Rheims and the OT in 1609 in the English college in Douai, even though they did not really believe in the need of having a Bible in English. The translation was based on the Latin Vulgate, with some attention to the Greek. Until recently, it was the generally accepted English version in the Catholic church.

It had a heavy Latinised style, using many words unknown in English, for example: chalice was used instead of cup, and penance instead of repentance.

This is John 3:16 in the Rheims Version:
"For God so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son: that whosoever believeth in him may not perish, but may have life everlasting."

The Authorised Version (AV) - 1611 - The King James Version (KJV)

The Geneva and Bishops Bibles were from two opposing protestant viewpoints, one Reformed and one Anglican. James received the Millenary Petition, 1000 signatures of puritans against abuse and prejudice by clergy.

At a conference of churchmen at Hampton Court Palace in 1604 a proposal was made for a new standard English translation acceptable to all Protestants, with no notes in the margins. King James said this, “I have never yet seen a Bible well translated into English, and the worst of all . . . is the Genevan.”

King James appointed Lancelot Andrews, the Dean of Westminster to organise the translation work. He led a team of 47 learned men from Oxford and Cambridge Universities, divided into six committees, with each committee assigned a separate portion of the Scriptures. The translation was to be reviewed by the most learned men in the church, and finally to be ratified by the king's authority.

The translation must be done “by the best learned in both Universities – reviewed by bishops and chief learned of the Church, presented to Privy Council, ratified by Royal authority, so whole church bound to it, and none other”.

Work on translation began in 1607 and took three and a half years. Many checks and revisions were made before the final publishing in 1611. Even though there is no record of official church or royal authorization, the words “appointed to be read in the churches” appeared in the first edition.

In the preface to the 1611 edition, Miles Smith (later bishop of Gloucester) wrote “Truly we never thought from the beginning, that we should need to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one . . . but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one.”

The KJV was formally a revision of the Bishop's Bible, so is a revision of revisions, rather than an original translation. There is a progression from Tyndale, to Coverdale, to the Matthew Bible, to the Great Bible, to the Bishops Bible, to the King James Bible. It was based on the Hebrew and Greek, but it is estimated that between 60% and 85% of the KJV is Tyndale’s original translation. It soon displaced the Geneva Bible in popular favour, and was also respected by Catholics, and the OT by the Jews. It has been called “the noblest monument of English prose”.

There were many printing errors, so many minor revisions were needed. One of the most famous was the “Wicked Bible” (1631), which unfortunately stated: "Thou shalt commit adultery” (Ex 20:14)

John 3:16 in the King James Bible:
"For God so loued ye world, that he gaue his only begotten Sonne: that whosoeuer beleeueth in him, should not perish, but haue euerlasting life.

Several revisions were unofficially made to the KJV over the next 300 years, by several people, including John Wesley in 1755.

The Revised Version (RV)

This was an official revision of the KJV made in 1870 by scholars from the Church of England and other churches, as some English words used in the KJV had changed their meaning. It was based on a more accurate text and aimed for word-for-word translation. This gave it a rather wooden style. It never became very popular, but was valuable for study purposes.

Twentieth Century Versions

There have been a multitude of versions published since the start of the twentieth century. Since the KJV was published, many more of the ancient texts and manuscripts, including the Dead Sea Scrolls have been discovered. The understanding from these ancient manuscripts have been incorporated into the modern versions. Some versions are revisions of older versions, others are completely new translations.

The following list is a selection:

1. American Standard (ASV) - 1901, an American edition of the Revised Version

2. Weymouth Version - 1902, an idiomatic translation from the Greek into everyday English.

3. James Moffatt - 1913/1924, a free idiomatic translation, with some inaccuracies

4. E.J. Goodspeed - 1927, an American translation, very readable

5. Ronald Knox - 1944/1949, a Roman Catholic translation from the Vulgate

6. The Revised Standard Version (RSV) - 1946/1952, a revision of the ASV of 1901, which was a revision of the KJV, the work of 32 scholars. Additional revisions were made in 1971.

7. The Amplified Bible - 1958/1965, by 12 editors in California, a version giving alternative words to suggest different possible meanings.

8. J.B. Phillips - 1958, The New Testament in Modern English, a fresh free translation of the NT. Philips translated the Bible for a youth club in a much-bombed area of London during the Second World War. It was revised in 1972.

9. The Berkeley Version - 1959, a conservative revision, concerned for accuracy.

10. The New English Bible (NEB) - 1961/1970, a new translation by scholars from most churches except R.C. The main contributor was C.H. Dodd.

11. The New American Standard Bible (NASB) - 1963/1971, an very literal evangelical revision of the ASV.

12. The Jerusalem Bible (JB) - 1966, a clear accurate Catholic version, translated first into French in 1956 by the Domminican Bible School in Jerusalem, then into English. It includes the Apocrypha.

13. The Good News Bible (GNB) or Today's English Version (TEV) or "Good News for Modern Man" - 1966/1976, a completely new translation in common, non-academic English. This was the first translation to be a dynamic equivalent.

14. The New American Bible - 1970, a new Catholic translation, based on the original languages.

15. The Living Bible (LB) - 1971, by Kenneth Taylor, a colloquial, conservative American paraphrase for ordinary people. He wanted the Bible to be clear to his children.

16. The New International Version (NIV) - 1972/1979, a new dynamic equivalent translation by an international team of evangelical scholars from various denominations, using the most recent research to produce a dignified version in the best English tradition.

17. The Common Bible - 1973, an American version of the RSV, including the Apocrypha

18. The New King James Version (NKJV) or Revised Authorised Version - 1982, a revision of the KJV with changes in language and word meanings since 1611.

19. The New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) - 1985, a revision of the Catholic Jerusalem Bible

20. The Revised English Bible (REB) - 1989, an update of the New English Bible.

21. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) - 1990, an update of the Revised Standard Version in more readable modern English, without the archaic words thee/thou for addressing God. It also uses gender-inclusive language to avoid the use of man, when mankind is meant.

22. The Message - 1993 to 2002 by Eugene Petersen of Regent College Vancover, Canada. The whole Bible in modern highly idiomatic English, paraphrased from the original languages.

23. English Standard Version (ESV) - 2001, by Crossway Books. This is a revision of the Revised Standard Version (RSV), aimed to meet the need for an essentially literal translation for students and pastors. It takes into account differences in grammar, syntax and idiom from the original languages, and uses some gender-inclusive language.

Bibliography:
Bede: A History of the English Church and People. Penguin Classics 1955
Bruce, F.F. History of the Bible in English. OUP 1978.