Of the Making of Many Bibles There Is No End


Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.


One of the greatest ironies of the success of English versions of the Bible is that most people fail to appreciate that they are foreign literature in translation. It’s not at all unusual for people to claim that the Apostle Paul spoke King James English or to engage in intense debates about doctrinal differences without consulting the Bible’s original languages to see whether their arguments are well founded.

While very little controversy has surrounded the numerous contemporary English translations of the Bible, three new books remind us that the earliest attempts to render the biblical texts from their original Hebrew and Greek into English were marked by political intrigue and religious controversy, often ending in the translator’s death.

In Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution That Inspired It (Penguin; $16), Benson Bobrick (author of Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution) eloquently narrates the political and religious history of England from the 14th century to the 17th century as he traces the development of the English Bible. Up until the English Renaissance, the Bible translation that churches used was Jerome’s Vulgate, a 4th-century Latin translation of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) and Greek New Testament. Yet even in the Middle Ages in England, Latin was the language of scholars and clerics rather than that in which people transacted business or conducted daily conversations with their neighbors. Already by time of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a new vernacular English was emerging.

The Tales expressed much of the people’s dissatisfaction with the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church and its abuse of its authority. As the Renaissance flowered in England, a revolution occurred. Literacy rates rose, printing technology made books more accessible, and early Protestants challenged the monolithic religious hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Up through the Middle Ages, priests read the Vulgate to their parishioners because so few could read the Bible for themselves. Such a model upset early English reformers not only because a large part of the populace couldn’t understand Latin but also because it gave Catholic priests unregulated power. Thus, the earliest English translations were not only attempts to provide the Scriptures to people in their own language; they were often also insidious attacks upon the Catholic view of church and the Bible.

Bobrick’s elegant prose brings to life several of these early translators and reformers such as John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, Miles Coverdale, and James I. Oxford-trained Wycliffe fired the first broadsides for reform when he challenged many practices of the Catholic Church as unbiblical. He contended that every individual, whether cleric or layman, had the right to examine the Bible for himself. In order to liberate the Bible from the hands of the Catholic priests, he commissioned the first English translation, based on the Vulgate. According to Bobrick, Wycliffe’s critics denounced him for opening Scriptures to laymen so that “the pearl of the Gospel is scattered abroad and trodden underfoot by swine.”

While there are about only 180 copies of Wycliffe’s Bible still extant, his work opened the gates for a flood of English translations. The first English Bible translation to be printed rather than copied by hand was the work of William Tyndale, a master of ancient languages who could read Latin by the age of 10. Tyndale published his version of the New Testament in 1526, and subsequently published his translations of the Pentateuch and Jonah. Tyndale’s was the first version to make it into the hands of the populace, and, even more important, it was the first to be translated from the Greek and the Hebrew rather than the Latin.
Because of his facility with languages, Tyndale produced an elegant masterpiece. Many of his phrases remain with us today: “a man after his own heart,” “flowing with milk and honey,” “a stranger in a strange land,” and “apple of his eye.”

But this translation stirred deep controversy. Thomas More, an emissary of Henry VIII, who still supported the Pope, challenged many of Tyndale’s renderings of Greek words. More believed that Tyndale had attacked the authority of the Catholic Church by choosing particular English words. For example, More argued that by translating “priest” as “elder” and “church” as “congregation,” Tyndale intentionally misused language to spread Protestant doctrine. For his efforts, Tyndale was eventually burned at the stake.

In 1535 Miles Coverdale produced the first printed English version of the entire Bible. Yet his version depended not on the Greek and Hebrew but on Latin versions and Luther’s German Bible. Three years later, Coverdale published the Great Bible, which became the first authorized English version, with copies placed in every church at the king’s mandate. The early development of the English Bible culminated with the publication of the enduringly popular King James Version of 1611.

While Bobrick provides a spectacular overview of the various players involved in the making of the king James Bible, Alister McGrath’s In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture (Anchor; $15) briefly narrates the evolution of the King James version and then explores the tremendous impact it has had on English and American culture. Both writers agree, however, on the details of events that produced this Bible.

When James I ascended to the throne, both the Puritans and the Anglicans tried to claim him for their own. For English Reformers, the Church of England’s liturgies, doctrines, and internal politics mimicked all too closely those of the Catholic Church. During the Hampton Court Conference of 1604, James played both sides of the religious street as he tried to allay the concerns of both Puritans and Anglicans. Although most of the conference’s conversation favored the Anglicans and their politics, James made a concession to both parties (and to his own greatness as king) when he commissioned a new translation of the Bible. According to its preface, this version would be made as consonant as could be to the original Hebrew and Greek, and was to be used in all churches of England in time of divine service. Almost all contemporary Bible versions are translated by committees, but the King James was the first English version to be done that way—the collaborative effort of 54 translators, appointed by the king and divided into six companies, each responsible for a different section of the Bible.

Although this was to be a new translation, many of the verses of the King James version come from earlier English versions. Indeed, 60 percent of the final form of the English Bible was completed before the King James version. According to some scholars, at least one-third of the King James New Testament is worded exactly as Tyndale’s is, and the other two-thirds is based on Tyndale’s structure.

In spite of the perennial bestselling status of the King James Bible, McGrath points out that it did not immediately win such favor. In 1560, a group of English refugees in Geneva produced the Geneva Bible, largely a revision of Coverdale’s Great Bible. This version became wildly popular because it was the first English Bible available in a hand-held format, it contained numbered verses and set them off in distinct paragraphs, and it included commentaries on the verses. While the King James incorporated some of these innovations, it dropped the commentaries.

Although McGrath’s histories of the development of the English Bible are superficial, breezy and anecdotal, he does offer a helpful and detailed overview of the process of Bible translation. McGrath surveys the ways that the King James translators dealt with difficult, rare or idiomatic words and phrases as well as how they determined which Greek ad Hebrew manuscripts to use. He also points out that the translators of the King James version strove not for elegance but for accuracy in rendering Greek and Hebrew words.

Adam Nicolson’s pedantic and repetitious God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (Harper Perennial; $13.95) covers much the same territory as Bobrick and McGrath. Travel writer Nicolson points out as well that the path to the completion of the translation wasn’t so smooth. Nicolson focuses his attention on the work of the various committees involved in the process of translation. He chronicles the personalities involved, especially the Anglican Divine Lancelot Andrews who possessed at once the pride of his position and the humility of his sinfulness. Nicolson breezily narrates the political and religious struggles of the early seventeenth century that led the translators to produce a version of the Bible that preserved religious authority in aesthetic richness. Yet, Nicolson adds nothing new to what we already know. Bobrick’s remains the most elegant and comprehensive treatment of the making of the King James Bible.

Why, then, did the King James achieve its elevated status among Bible translations, a status not really surpassed, at least in terms of sales, until the late 1970s with the publication of the New International Version? Both Bobrick and McGrath contend that the King James was produced during a period of rapid evolution of the English language. Samuel Johnson, himself a shrewd chronicler of the development of English, observed that the English language came into its own during the Renaissance. The King James Bible both contributed to and benefited from this language revolution. By the 19th century the King James’s place in literary history was so secure that Lord Macaulay could refer to it as a “book which, if everything else in our language should perish, would alone suffice to show the whole extent of its beauty and power.” The language of the King James Bible permeates our language even today. It’s from this version that we get such phrases as “to fall flat on his face,” “sour grapes,” “a fly in the ointment,” and “the salt of the earth.”

One thing is sure: If Wycliffe or Tyndale or any of these early Bible translators walked into a bookstore today and saw the proliferation of translations and special editions of the English Bible, they would be astonished at what their labors have wrought.

Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it  

Contact Us || Site Map || || Article Search || © 2006 - 2012 BiblioBuffet