This highly detailed account of the struggle to translate the Bible into English, beginning with John Wyclif's work in the late 14th century and carrying the story through the King James version of 1611, makes a fascinating and remarkable book.
The work behind the translations was not easy; in fact, it was often dangerous. Early translations were made by a series of people fascinated by the idea of adherence to truth. They didn't all agree about what the truth was, but their dedication to that concept was more important to them than their lives. Some died violently for the cause of translation.
The existence of the text of the Scriptures, available to the common person for study and discussion, unsupervised by authorities to give the official meaning, let loose a force that, according to author Benson Bobrick, made the Reformation inevitable. Once the basis for moral authority had shifted from the official views of the church to the private judgment of citizens, based on their own reading of the Scriptures, people could not be counted on to back the views of the authorities automatically.
After Wyclif, who died in 1384, the work of biblical translation into modern European languages did not immediately take off, because it was opposed in general by the church. Bobrick points out, however, that "Bible translations, in fact, dominated 16th-century book production, and by the end of the century every European nation had the Scriptures in its own tongue."
The work of translation into English was taken up by William Tyndale in the 1520s, when Henry VIII of England was still a Catholic. Tyndale had to work on the Continent, and when his translation reached England in 1526, although many wanted it, it was contraband.
Beset by opposition, and even shipwreck, Tyndale persisted in translating and promoting his Bible, opposed in England by the much praised "man for all seasons," Thomas More, who even put one heretic, James Bainham, on the rack and had him whipped for, among other sins, owning Tyndale's translation. Tyndale was eventually tried for heresy in the Netherlands, convicted, and executed in August 1536.
Miles Coverdale, who had worked with Tyndale, produced the first complete translation of the Bible into English in the 1530s, now with Henry VIII's approval. A variety of translations into English in the 16th century had wide distribution, though after Henry's death, attempts were made to turn the nation again to Roman Catholicism, especially under Queen Mary. But when Elizabeth I took the throne in 1558, protestantism, though at first embattled, became settled in the nation.
Since Elizabeth died without an heir, the crown passed to James I of Scotland, and he promoted and supervised a new biblical translation, the still used King James or authorized version of 1611.
Bobrick's account of this translation is very full, spelling out in detail the nature and attitudes of all the translators, the parts of the Scriptures assigned to them, and some of the arguments that translation inevitably caused.
Although the saying is common that "a camel is a horse made by a committee," those who put together the King James translation produced a masterpiece, an unsurpassed model of English prose that has been imitated, relied on, and borrowed from ever since. With a vocabulary of only 8,000 words, relying heavily on those of Anglo-Saxon origin, it is not esoteric and is very readable by the common person.
Bobrick also points out that although King James was a strong advocate of the view of the divine right of kings, his backing this translation made that view forever untenable to the average person.
The Bible, of course, survived the turmoil of England in the 17th century, which saw the beheading of Charles I in 1649, the Puritan interlude under Oliver Cromwell, the restoration of Charles II in 1660, and then the reign of James II, which began in 1685, and during which he attempted to turn the nation back to Roman Catholicism.
Bobrick maintains that the existence of the Bible in English became a source of strength to those who did not want to give authority over to a church hierarchy any longer, and William of Orange became king in 1688 when James II was driven from the country.
Bobrick ends his account by citing the biblical influence on the creation of the United States, and how the idea of individual freedom, not under any aristocracy, was "a biblical light, which the English Bible had given them: the idea of the equality of man." This is an intriguing idea, but one feels it was probably more complicated than that. As precious as the Bible in English has proven to be to the English-speaking people, other influences were also at work, including notions of the Enlightenment.
However, Bobrick's extremely detailed examination of the translation of the Bible makes for fascinating reading. It is a grand story well told of the struggle between those who would control through authority and those who would be freer to follow their own destiny as they saw it, led by an authority they felt to be divine.
Paul O. Williams is a retired professor of English in Belmont, Calif.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor