The Struggle Over The English Bible


TODAY, English-speaking Christians may take the King James Bible and modern English translations for granted. But they shouldn't.The translation of the Bible into English out of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin was a virtual revolution. Many of the early Bible translators were great reformers who laid down their lives to give the Scriptures to the public. These reformers played a pivotal role in a convulsive struggle that revolutionized nearly everything that mattered in Renaissance England: church, throne, literature, arts, and sciences. Before these Bibles were published, the idea of making the Scriptures available to the common people was anathema to the leaders of both church and state. They thought that putting the Scriptures into ordinary language would desecrate the Word of God and encourage heresy and rebellion. John Wycliffe, a late-14th-century theologian at Oxford University, found this intolerable. He agonized over the people's ignorance of the essentials of religion and of the Bible. So he sent a corps of "poor preachers" throughout the countryside explaining the Gospel simply and clearly to the common people. And he and his followers translated the whole Bible from Latin into Middle English. Wycliffe paid a price, however. He was condemned by the church and imprisoned for heresy. Yet his followers carried his mission forward boldly, revising his translation and dispersing copies of it all over England. Even so, the popular craving for the Scriptures was far from satisfied by this underground Bible market. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 sent Hebrew and Greek scholars westward for asylum, unlocking those languages for Bible scholars in Western Europe and England. Gutenberg's printing press provided the vehicle for producing Bibles for mass distribution. And Martin Luther completed his monumental translation of the entire Bible into German from the original Hebrew and Greek in 1521. In England, Luther's thinking had an immediate impact. William Tyndale, a scholar of Greek, began a fresh translation of the New Testament into English from the original texts. Finding no support for his work in England, where King Henry VIII believed the Bible would stir up rebellion, he fled to Europe to confer with Luther and complete his text. Dogged by spies who followed him from city to city, Tyndale nevertheless completed and published his New Testament in 1525, smuggling large quantities of the text into England. Tyndale's Bible meant nothing but trouble for Henry, since multitudes of English people defied his authority by reading the new translation. So when the reformer was at last arrested and sentenced to death in Germany in 1535, Henry did nothing to rescue him. Tyndale's final words as he burned at the stake were, "Lord, open the king of England's eyes!" Meanwhile, Henry, having just declared his independence from the Roman Catholic Church, wanted to produce a Bible for which he alone could take credit. So he asked a churchman named Miles Coverdale to complete and publish Tyndale's translation, purged of its militant glosses, its anti-church translations, and even its author's name. Coverdale's Bible - with its bland conservatism - enraged the English people. So in 1537 Henry again published Tyndale's text, disguised as "Matthew's Bible," this time clearly authorizing it. Assembled by a close friend of Tyndale's, John Rogers, the new version was even more radical and anti-ecclesiastical than Tyndale's had been. Rogers, too, was eventually burned at the stake. Groping for an alternative to the Matthew's Bible, Henry again turned to Coverdale. The result was the Great Bible of 1539, an ultraconservative text that the English people detested. During the reign of Catholic Queen Mary Tudor (called by her opponents "Bloody Mary," because she executed so many Protestants), more than 800 earnest Bible readers fled England for refuge in John Calvin's stronghold at Geneva. There they completed an ambitious retranslation of the whole Bible - called the Geneva Bible - from the original Greek and Hebrew in 1560. Surprisingly, the new sovereign, Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, refused to allow it to be sold in England, fearing its strongly antimonarchical notes. Other Bibles followed: the Bishops' Bible of 1568, a rerun of the unpopular Great Bible, and the Rheims New Testament of 1582, an attempt by the Catholic Church to win converts in England. To the queen's horror, the Rheims version became a runaway bestseller. When James VI of Scotland became king of England in 1603, he faced a deeply divided nation committed to two extremist Bibles, the Geneva and the Rheims - and dead set against the one legal Bible, the Bishops' text. His way out of this Bible deadlock was to commission an entirely new translation of the Bible, to be carried out by 50 of England's best scholars. The genius of the project, which was completed in 1611, was its ecumenicism. James stacked each of the six translation committees with scholars of every theological stripe and told them to come up with a text they could all agree on. This was consistent with the king's lifelong dream to reconcile the Protestant and Catholic divisions of Western Christendom in one grand church - united under the banner of the Bible. As a king, James was a failure. He was vain, extravagant, and foolish. But his achievement in forging a gloriously beautiful English Bible, reflecting all the exuberance of the Golden Age of English literature, was enormous. And most important, James gave the Bible for the first time in British history to all people, in small sizes for home reading that anyone could afford. He was the last of the great Bible reformers, finally uniting the English people with the Scriptures.

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