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King James Bible: Balanced on top of the pile

by
15 February 2011

The King James Bible is sometimes thought to be the first English version, but this is by no means the case, as Chris Wright explains

A fifth-century Latin transla­tion of the Bible, meticulously hand-copied down the centuries on to vellum and parchment, was, for more than 1000 years, the only one in use in churches in England and Western Europe.

In England, in the ninth and tenth centuries, parts of the Latin Bible were translated into Anglo-Saxon; but it was not until 1380 that an Oxford scholar, John Wycliffe, defied the Church by distributing hundreds of hand-written copies of a translation of the Bible from Latin into English.

Wycliffe died in 1384. In May 1415, the Council of Constance ordered that his English Bibles be burned. At the command of Pope Martin V, his remains were dug up and also burned, and his ashes were thrown into the River Swift in Lutterworth, in England.

The late-fourth- and early-fifth-century Latin version that was the standard Western Bible for more than 1000 years was largely the work of St Jerome. It became known as the Vulgate, from the late-Latin editio vulgata, “popular text”. The Old Testament is a translation of the original Hebrew rather than a translation of the Septuagint, a third- and second-century-BC translation of the Hebrew into Greek, which was favoured by many at the time. The translation of the Gospels was based on a Greek manuscript closely akin to the Codex Sinaiticus.

As with any new translation of the Bible, the Vulgate was imme-diately criticised by a number of scholars as revolutionary, subvers­ive, and heretical.

It was only in the late 1400s that Hebrew and Greek became part of the university syllabus in Europe. The first Greek grammar was pub­lished in 1476, and the first Hebrew grammar in 1503, both for Latin readers. Now the ancient scriptures could be studied in greater detail and with a new understanding.

In 1527, Desiderius Erasmus prepared a Greek New Testament, known as the Textus Receptus, or Received Text, from the Greek manu­scripts that he believed were the most reliable copies of the ori-ginal writings. Erasmus also made what he considered to be a more accur­ate translation of the Greek into Latin.

Johann Scholz (1794-1852) also did extensive research into early Greek Bible manuscripts, and pub­lished his work between 1830 and 1836. Since that time, many more ancient manuscripts have been dis­covered and examined.

While the English translations were being made, extreme hostility existed between Catholics and Protestants, and later between the Church of England and Protestant Dissenters who wanted to worship in their own way.

It is wrong to think that the Roman Catholic Church did not want an English Bible. Many Euro­pean countries had early transla­tions in their own languages; but until Henry VIII split from Rome in 1534, England fiercely supported the teaching of the Church that any unauthorised translation of the Latin was a heresy. Wycliffe’s trans­lation of 1380 was, of course, un­authorised.

After Wycliffe, there was some support from the hierarchy for an English translation to be made by approved scholars working under the Church’s direct control, although nothing was published until 1582.

In the English translations, all but the Authorised Version had notes and comments printed throughout. Most early English Bibles contained criticism of Rome.

In the 1440s, Johannes Gutenberg perfected the printing press in Ger­many using movable type. Latin copies of the Vulgate were soon being printed in cities throughout Europe.

Born probably in 1490, William Tyndale, who was fluent in eight languages, began his own unauthor­ised translation of the New Testa­ment into English, using early Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. For this he was persecuted. He had to work secretly from Europe, and smuggle the Bibles into England. Convicted of heresy, he was strangled before being burnt at the stake in Bel­gium in 1536. Much of the antagon­ism from the authorities came not so much from the word­ing in his translation as from the anti-Catholic comments through­out.

The King of England at this time was Henry VIII, who declared him­self head of the Church of England, and ordered that there should be an English Bible in every church in the land. Myles Coverdale had already pub­lished an unauthorised Bible using much of Tyndale’s New Testament. At Henry’s request, Thomas Cran­mer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, hired Coverdale to complete a new translation.

This translation, again largely based on Tyndale’s work, was pub­lished in 1539, and became the first English Bible authorised for public use, distributed to every church and chained to the pulpit. A reader was available so that the illiterate could hear the word of God in plain English.

This was the Great Bible, so called because of its size. It is also known as Cromwell’s Bible, after Thomas Cromwell, who by 1532 was Henry VIII’s chief minister.

In 1553, England became offi­cially Roman Catholic again under Queen Mary, the daughter of Henry VIII. English Bibles were now banned from churches, and once again the only permitted version was the Latin Vulgate. In 1555, Mary agreed to an English New Testa­ment, but it was never made.

Some of the Reformers had by this time fled to Switzerland. In 1557, their English translation of the New Testament was published in Geneva. It was followed in 1560 by the complete Bible. This, the Geneva Bible, is popularly known as the “Breeches Bible” because in Genesis 3.7 it says that Adam and Eve “sewed figge tree leaues to­gether, and made them selues breeches”. Wycliffe had also used the word (“brechis”) in his Bible, however, 177 years earlier.

This unauthorised Bible also had to be smuggled into England while Mary was alive. Although translated by Protestants, and printed in England after Mary’s death in 1558, some comments in the Geneva Bible criticised not only Roman Catholics, but also the Church of England of the day. The Bible sold well, and in Shakespeare’s time it was still used and quoted extens­ively. The Puritans took it to America as their standard version.

The next English translation of significance was the Bishops’ Bible of 1568, again based on Tyndale, and approved by the Church of England. Again, it had notes and comments throughout.

In 1582, an officially approved Roman Catholic translation of the New Testament into English was made in Rheims, France, in the English College of Douai (Douay). This was based mainly, but not exclusively, on the Latin Vulgate, Greek and other Latin translations being consulted to clarify the Vul­gate in places. Although very similar in most passages to the existing Protestant translations, extensive comments and notes explained pas­sages from a Catholic perspec­tive.

In 1592, only ten years after the Douay-Rheims English New Testa­ment was first published, the Vul­gate underwent revision under Pope Clement VIII, and the Douay-Rheims New Testament was there­fore also revised in 1600. A Protest­ant, William Fulke, attacked it verse by verse in 1601. The whole Douay-Rheims Bible translation into English was completed by 1610, and underwent an extensive revision in 1749-50.

The Bishops’ Bible of 1568 never caught on, but was used in revised form as the basis for the Authorised Version of 1611, which is known today by many as the King James Bible. King James VI and I, who was horrified by some of the comments critical of the Church of England in the Geneva Bible, gave the translators strict instructions on how to proceed. Like Tyndale’s translation and the Geneva Bible, the Author­ised Version was translated primar­ily from the Greek, with reference to the Hebrew and Aramaic texts, to the Latin Vulgate, and to earlier scholarly Latin writings.

Several printers were permitted to produce copies of the King James Bible in 1611, but, unfortunately, no master-copy was kept, and typeset­ting errors were missed during hurried proof-reading. As time went on, printers copied the Bibles of other printers, and the mistakes multiplied.

A significant error in 1631, probably the work of a disgruntled employee, is found in what is known as the “Wicked Bible”. In this badly pro­duced and printed version, the word “not” is omitted from the seventh commandment, making it read: “Thou shalt commit adultery.” These Bibles were ordered to be de­stroyed, and the printers were heav­ily fined. A few copies survive today.

In 1769, scholars at Oxford University went back to the earliest printings of the Authorised Version in an attempt to work out the inten­tion of the original translators. They corrected typos, adopted the spel­l-ing then current rather than that of 1611, and updated a few words that had changed their meaning. Cambridge University had already produced a similar edition in 1762; and in 1769 it made a few more changes, mainly to spelling and the use of capital letters, in what is often referred to as the Pure Cambridge Edition. Most Authorised Versions sold today come from these Cam­bridge or Oxford edi­tions.

Although favouring the Church of England in some of its terminology, the Authorised Version was printed without added notes and com­ments, apart from alternative trans­lations of some Hebrew and Greek words in the margins.

The subject of church and Bible history is a fascinating one. Writers and historians can present biased views, however, depending on their church­manship; and many internet web­sites make outrageous assertions that have no foundation in fact. Tread carefully!

Chris Wright, now retired, was until recently senior editor for an American Christian publisher.

This is an edited extract from the introduction to his book English Hexapla: The Gos­pel of John, pub­lished by White Tree Publishing, £6.95; 978-0-9525956-1-8.

‘Other versions fall short’

‘Other versions fall short’

While other Bible translations may be more accurate, they lack the poetic power of the King James, says the writer Murray Watts

While other Bible translations may be more accurate, they lack the poetic power of the King James, says the writer Murray Watts

ONE of the great puritan writers of the 17th century prayed the memorable prayer, “O Lord, let me not lay my pipe too short of the fountain.” I have often thought of this little prayer, which contains a warning as well as a blessing, when I have looked at con­temporary versions of the Bible in recent years.

ONE of the great puritan writers of the 17th century prayed the memorable prayer, “O Lord, let me not lay my pipe too short of the fountain.” I have often thought of this little prayer, which contains a warning as well as a blessing, when I have looked at con­temporary versions of the Bible in recent years.

The words could also express a writer’s longing for the abundant riches of language, art­istry, rhythm, and power which come from the great fountain of the English language in the time of Shakespeare and the translators of the King James Bible.

The words could also express a writer’s longing for the abundant riches of language, art­istry, rhythm, and power which come from the great fountain of the English language in the time of Shakespeare and the translators of the King James Bible.

Perhaps this is why, more and more, I have returned to the glories of this supreme ver­sion, which I grew up with, but which I aban­doned for so many years, al­most cas­ually, in search of more “modern” transla­tions.

Perhaps this is why, more and more, I have returned to the glories of this supreme ver­sion, which I grew up with, but which I aban­doned for so many years, al­most cas­ually, in search of more “modern” transla­tions.

Take the great Mes­si­anic mandate from Isaiah 61: “He hath sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to pro­claim liberty to the captives, and the open­ing of the prison to them that are bound.”

Take the great Mes­si­anic mandate from Isaiah 61: “He hath sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to pro­claim liberty to the captives, and the open­ing of the prison to them that are bound.”

Them that are bound. This has a weight and a sol­emn­ity that de­mands to be heard out loud, like a clarion call to the oppres­sed. And the simplicity of “to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the gar­ment of praise for the spirit of heaviness” has so much more au­thor­ity and grace than contemporary at­tempts at “a beautiful headdress for ashes”, and “a garland for ashes” — even if these are more precise translations.

Them that are bound. This has a weight and a sol­emn­ity that de­mands to be heard out loud, like a clarion call to the oppres­sed. And the simplicity of “to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the gar­ment of praise for the spirit of heaviness” has so much more au­thor­ity and grace than contemporary at­tempts at “a beautiful headdress for ashes”, and “a garland for ashes” — even if these are more precise translations.

And what could be more evocative of our personal plight, of the condition of “mod­ern” Britain, than “the spirit of heavi­ness”? We talk of depression and despair, we know hopelessness, but we feel in our burdened hearts that we are crushed under the huge weight of “a spirit of heaviness”.

And what could be more evocative of our personal plight, of the condition of “mod­ern” Britain, than “the spirit of heavi­ness”? We talk of depression and despair, we know hopelessness, but we feel in our burdened hearts that we are crushed under the huge weight of “a spirit of heaviness”.

And so the power of the deliverer to save is magnified by the poetic power of the language. Here is “soul food” indeed: a version that should be rediscovered, like the lost coin, with tears of joy. We can turn to the modern versions for their many virtues of accuracy and clarity, but we can take refuge from their banalities in the greatest version of them all. “Let me not lay my pipe too short of the fountain.”

And so the power of the deliverer to save is magnified by the poetic power of the language. Here is “soul food” indeed: a version that should be rediscovered, like the lost coin, with tears of joy. We can turn to the modern versions for their many virtues of accuracy and clarity, but we can take refuge from their banalities in the greatest version of them all. “Let me not lay my pipe too short of the fountain.”

Murray Watts has written the screenplay for KJB: The book that changed the world, a new drama-documentary directed by Norman Stone, and presented by John Rhys-Davies, price £12.99.

www.kjbthefilm.com  

Murray Watts has written the screenplay for KJB: The book that changed the world, a new drama-documentary directed by Norman Stone, and presented by John Rhys-Davies, price £12.99.

www.kjbthefilm.com  

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