How We Got the English Bible (Abridged)

–Daniel S. Ferguson

I get asked two questions a LOT:

  1. What Bible translation is the best?
  2. Hasn’t translation watered the Bible down and lessened its authority or accuracy?

My answer to both questions is the same: It’s a long story.

It rarely occurs to us to imagine a world where the Bible isn’t accessible to us. We all have the ability to get 50+ English translations completely for free at the touch of our fingertips. But there are plenty of historical examples when that wasn’t true. And it’s not just technology that’s made that possible.

We have a Bible we can read in everyday language because people have sacrificed greatly to make that happen.

Throughout history, various governments and church leaders have oppressed people by keeping the Bible away from the public. People in power feared what would happen to their power if regular people could read the Bible for themselves.

The First Fight Over Biblical Translations

The earliest fights over this occurred three centuries before Jesus was born. Some Jews had been exiled from their homeland for so long that they were no longer fluent in Hebrew, which the Old Testament was written in. They translated the Old Testament into the language they did speak, Greek. Some Jewish leaders, including the Pharisees who confronted Jesus repeatedly, thought this was heresy and that those who used the Greek translation were defectors who had abandoned God.

As Christianity spread throughout the world some centuries later, it eventually became the state religion of the Roman Empire. When the emperor began ordering copies of the Bible, questions arose as to what belonged in the Bible and what didn’t. Generations passed before those questions were finally resolved in the form of the Bible we have today. Because all of this was funded and authorized by the state, the state published those “official” copies in the state’s official language: Latin.

In an effort to universalize all Christians throughout the world, the government enforced this official translation and prohibited all other forms of the Bible. This was originally meant to unify Christians, but corrupt leaders used it to prevent the Bible from being accessible to commoners and foreigners. Many leaders claimed their authority to rule came from God and that they were leading in Biblical ways.

If the common people can’t read the Bible for themselves, corrupt church leaders are safe from rebellion. (Click to Tweet)

The First English Translations

In 14th-century England, John Wycliffe tried to make the Bible more accessible by translating the official Latin version into English. Even though he had already died by the time his translation reached Rome, when the Catholic Church learned about his work, they ordered his body to be exhumed, his remains burned, and his ashes thrown in a river.

The church also issued an edict that made reading Wycliffe’s Bible illegal, citing that it was “dangerous…to translate the text of the Holy Scripture out of one tongue and into another.” They conveniently forgot that they had themselves done the same thing. Still, oddly enough, the common people would pay to rent copies of this English Bible (the recorded price was one bale of hay per hour).

The Catholic Church’s stifling of translation was immensely successful for some time. Then the printing press was invented in 1455, and the process of copying a Bible was shortened from months to hours. In the 1520s, William Tyndale began work to translate the Bible into English, but the process was so expensive that it could not be kept a secret. Tyndale was banished from England, but he finished his work in Germany with the help of Martin Luther, then smuggled over 18,000 copies back into England. The Emperor of Rome had Tyndale kidnapped, then executed in 1536.

Politics to the Rescue (Sort Of)

Then a weird thing happened. The King of England in 1534 wanted a divorce. Ordinarily, Christians aren’t big fans of divorce, but if Henry VIII didn’t advocate for his divorce, the rest of this story may never have happened. The Catholic Church wouldn’t approve Henry’s request for an annulment so that he could marry a different woman than his first wife. Henry arrogantly cited his authority as king, and to spite the Catholic Church, he created the Church of England, where he was in charge and therefore could approve his own divorce.

That sounds pretty twisted, but there was an upside to King Henry’s arrogance: it allowed Christians in England to print the Bible in English for the first time. Dozens of English translations popped up, and the Bible became more and more accessible to the public.

The King James Bible

But politics and power got in the way again. In the late 16th century, major disputes erupted in the Church of England over, you guessed it, Bible translations. Two competing translations were common at the time, one used by church leaders and the other by regular people in their homes, and both groups thought theirs should be the official one. Their fight was so fierce that King James stepped in to settle the dispute by commissioning a translation of the Bible that would be acceptable to all, and so arrived the King James Bible in 1611.

The King James Bible was the dominant English translation for 270 years, by when some of its translational flaws could no longer stand the test of time. Thousands of older manuscripts of the Bible had been discovered since its writing, and the KJV was ultimately updated in 1881 to what was called the Revised Version. This version is substantially more accurate, but far less readable, so it proved a dismal failure. However, it spawned other attempts at linguistic accuracy that we still have today, such as the American Standard Version and the Revised Standard Version.

The First American Bible

This time it was American politics that caused a problem, though. When the Revised Standard Version was published in 1952, it sold a million copies in just one day, but it also drew a lot of political ire from Senator Joseph McCarthy, a fundamentalist who, among other things, argued that the translation’s use of the word ‘comrade’ in 3 verses proved that the RSV was the result of a communist plot. McCarthy managed to convince some people of this, and the RSV was banned from use in the Air Force for several years.

But this version also ran into controversy in the churches themselves. Because Isaiah 7:14 was translated in the RSV very literally from the original Hebrew to read “Behold, a young woman, shall conceive and bear a son” (instead of virgin) and because this passage is quoted in Matthew 1:23 as a prophecy of Christ, fundamentalist church leaders branded the RSV as heretical, even calling it “The Bible of the Antichrist.”

The 20th Century Translation Explosion

That vitriol, however, spawned public discussion about the importance of translation. Without that controversy, there may have been less support for other translations, including the New International Version, a watershed translation that made the Bible far more readable to the public than any version ever before. Even though it has flaws (the most serious of which is its total lack of memorable phrasing), it paved the way for other highly readable translations and spawned the dozens of very accessible versions you have on your smart phone today.

In each case, the same theme has emerged: Man may think he can use the Bible’s power to raise himself up, but each and every time, the Bible itself shakes him off and freely gives the loving word of God to everyone.

It’s Not Over Yet

The history I just gave is not complete, not only because it is abridged, but also because it is unfinished. The Bible is still being translated, and those translations are still used today as political and ideological weapons, and people are still suffering for them. That was true 500 years ago, it was true 50 years ago, and it’s true today. To deal with this issue is to fire with live ammunition. It often doesn’t seem like it because it’s couched in 4000 years of history and languages nobody knows, but this is serious stuff.

Christian belief rests on the truth that the Bible is the ultimate authority. Not traditions, not pastors, not religious bodies, not personalities, and not preferences–sola scriptura. Saying that this stuff doesn’t matter is a sacrifice I’m not willing to make.


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