The Evolution of the English Bible, Part 1 : From the 1300s Through to the 1800s

A very early 1382 copy of the Wycliffe Bible.

This is the first part in a two part series, and covers the evolution of English language Bibles up until the 1800s.  A second part completes the story through to the present day.

You surely know there are many different versions of the Bible out there, and you also surely know there has never been, right from the time of Jesus until the present day, a single official Bible that has been the unchanging ultimate authority that all modern Bibles are based upon.  The Bible is a consensus compilation of separate works by different authors at different times.

This article is intended to trace the evolution of English-language Bibles.  It is not focused on determining which – if any – is the “best” or “most accurate” Bible.  That’s an important question to answer, of course, and we’ll address it subsequently.  We provide this article first because it provides a background to then understand how to evaluate Bibles.

It is confusing to be confronted with such a wonderful range of so many different Bibles these days.  Depending on how you count them, there is anywhere between 20 and perhaps 200 different versions English language Bibles currently available for sale/purchase – this is not counting all the different formats of each version, but just the versions themselves.  For example, something like the NIV or ESV is available in dozens of different formats, but they all have the same text within them – the differences are in things like extra materials, hardcover/paperback, print size, page size, and so on.  Our article “A Buyer’s Guide to Bibles” looks at these types of issues.

Having so many different Bibles to choose from is a relatively new thing.  For 275 years, there was essentially only one English-language Bible, the “Authorized Version”, also known as the “King James Version” (KJV).  This was first published in 1611.

Even though the English language had much evolved during the 275 years that followed, causing the increasingly archaic language to become more difficult to understand, the KJV remained as the prime source of God’s Word for all Protestant churches, everywhere in the English speaking world.  Many of the Bible translations in other languages were simple translations of the KJV rather than direct translations from “original” documents.

But then something changed.  Or, perhaps better to say, everything changed.  It is helpful to understand how the KJV found itself being supplemented by entirely new Bibles, by understanding the social environment in which this was all occurring.

Note – in the following discussion, we are focused primarily on the New Testament.  It is interesting that the source of the Old Testament is not as controversial as the New Testament (but not something that all scholars and translators unanimously agree upon, either!).

Society Was Essentially Unchanging for Hundreds of Years

Before looking at the changes, let’s first look at the several hundred years prior to the start of the Industrial Revolution in 1760.

Prior to then, development was slow and relatively unchanging – for example, horses and carriages remained the best form of transportation for hundreds/thousands of years, with the only improvements being in the quality of roads for the horses/carriages to travel along.  Communication was by letter – something else also unchanged for hundreds/thousands of years.

Society was equally unchanging – wealthy families kept their wealth for hundreds of years, and there was little movement from one class to another class – if you were born into poverty, that was probably going to be your life.  Many families lived their entire lives in one single house, indeed, entire generations would live in the same house, and most people would never travel more than a day or two’s journey time from their home.  A day’s ride on a horse would be 25 – 30 miles, depending on the nature of the countryside being traveled through.  (Mind you, interesting thought – have you ever traveled somewhere that took more than 48 hours of traveling time?)

The older something was, the “better” it was presumed to be, and the newer something was, the more cautious and wary people were.  Things that had been discovered/determined hundreds of years ago were accepted as settled and with little need to be revisited, revised, or refined.  Yes, there were exceptions, in some branches of the sciences, and there were slow evolutionary trends, particularly in fields surrounding the military.  But these were exceptions rather than the mainstream.

In this environment, no-one ever considered the need to revisit or revise the KJV.  Its creation in the early 1600s was an extraordinary feat of scholarly research, although it didn’t suddenly appear from nowhere.  It needs to be considered in the context of its antecedents.

The Early Antecedents of the KJV

The Books of the Bible were variously written at times prior to either 69AD or 96AD (there’s some doubt about when Revelation was written), and in the case of the New Testament, were written primarily in the Koine version of Greek, the common language of the Eastern Mediterranean at the time, with a very few passages being written in Aramaic. As the message of Christianity spread around the world, it was of course natural, normal, and beneficial for the Scriptures to be translated to the languages of the people in the communities that Christianity was spreading to.  It has been estimated there might have been as many as 500 different language versions of the Bible extant by 500AD.

At the same time that Christianity was spreading in an “organic” growth fashion, there was also a growing centralization of power and claimed authority by the Church in/of Rome, what we now know of as the Roman Catholic Church.  The central nature, power and influence of the Church of Rome was probably as much a result of the power and spread of the Roman Empire at the time as it was for any moral or Christian superiority.

The Roman Catholic Church was a power-hungry organization – charitably this could be described as “keen to continue to grow the spread of Christianity”; another charitable description would be to say that it wished to “quality control” the Christian message that was being spread.  Certainly, even in those early days, there were a large number of different versions of Christian faith, often being combinations of Christianity and previous pagan worship traditions.  So, for perhaps good reasons, the Church of Rome decided to centralize and restrict access to the Bible itself, and in the 600s, issued an edict mandating that the Bible was only to be in Latin, and only priests would be allowed to view earlier and more original sources.

This Latin translation was subsequently criticized during the Reformation period as being unduly favorable to the Catholic church, but with the Roman Catholic “Vulgate” translation restricted, and the source documents unavailable, no-one realized this for over 1,000 years.

Prior to the development of the printing press by Gutenberg in 1440, Bibles were in short supply and expensive, so even if “ordinary” people could understand Latin, they could not find a Bible for sale.  Even if they could find a Bible for sale, the cost would be impossible to afford.  So there was not a great deal of pressure for Bibles.

The demand for English language Bibles was even lower.  In that era, French was the preferred language of the nobility and upper classes, and Latin was the preferred language of scholars and intellectuals.

At Last – An English Bible

Eventually, however, with the developing concept of England as a nation and English as its language, the first English Bible of note, what has been termed the “Wycliffe Bible” (named after John Wycliffe, a distinguished English academic, the person responsible for its creation, and increasingly a critic of some elements of the Roman Catholic church and its doctrines), appeared in the period 1382 – 1395.  This was a great step forward, but was flawed because it was essentially an English translation from the official Roman Catholic Vulgate Latin, and the doctrinal biases remained fully present.

Even though the Wycliffe Bible was little more than a translation of the Latin in the official Catholic “Vulgate” into English, the simple act of doing this was viewed by the church as revolutionary and threatening, and of course contravening the Vatican ruling that Bibles must only be in Latin.  This ultimately resulted in Wycliffe being declared a heretic, and the church decreed all his published works be burned.  Subsequently, under the command of the Pope, Wycliffe’s remains were dug up, burned, and the ashes cast into the River Swift.  Translation of Scripture into English was made a crime punishable by charges of heresy.  This discouraged further work on English Bibles for some time.

The version of English in use in the 1300s is very hard for us to understand today.  For that reason, the small numbers published, and its lack of scholarly underpinnings, while the Wycliffe Bible was a key point on the road to a definitive English Bible, it was not influential on the new translations that were to follow.

The Roman Catholic dominance of the Christian world started to fray, and 1517 is generally considered to be the start of the Protestant Reformation with the posting of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg.  In England, the English Reformation was motivated equally by political as religious issues, due to King Henry VIII wishing to have his marriage annulled, with a series of Acts of Parliament between 1532 and 1534 formalizing the split and the creation of the Church of England with the King as its supreme head on earth.

But the new Church of England was not necessarily very different from the earlier Church of Rome (and even today, some CofE churches are described as “High Church” meaning very similar to Roman Catholic churches), and successive kings and queens were sometimes Roman Catholic or Protestant for the next hundred years or so.

What was formerly somewhere between unthinkable and dangerous – creating a new English language Bible – slowly became increasingly appropriate and even necessary.  But a key English Bible was written and published a bit “too soon for safety”, with its author (William Tyndale) ending up being burned at the stake for heresy in 1536.

English Bibles Finally Free Themselves from the Roman Catholic Vulgate

In the early 1500s, William Tyndale created a new English translation, with the first complete version of the New Testament being published in 1526.  This was a foundational moment, because his translation was not from the Latin/Catholic “Vulgate” Bible, but from so-called “original” manuscripts in Greek and Hebrew, primarily the third (1522) edition of Erasmus’s collation of documents into his Greek New Testament, what has subsequently come to be described as the Received Text or Textus Receptus.

Because Tyndale ignored the Vulgate, and preferred to go back to original source documents as much as possible, the Wycliffe Bible text had very little influence on the Tyndale Bible.  Tyndale’s Bible was the first to be printed on a press in large numbers, and in being so published, became available at a reasonably low cost, being both affordable and available to many “ordinary” people.  It was his Bible and its availability that saw England move to the forefront of the Protestant Reformation of those times.

Every part of the Tyndale Bible was revolutionary, and in particular, where it differed from the Wycliffe Bible was in spurning the Catholic official Vulgate Bible and reaching back to as close to original Greek texts as was possible.  This was due to a growing awareness that the Vulgate was far from a reliable and authoritative source – something that formerly had never even been considered, but which was now expressed, perhaps for the first time, by the renowned scholar (and priest) Thomas Linacre, who became an expert in Greek and compared Greek manuscripts with the Vulgate.  He was surprised and unsettled by the differences he was finding, and wrote in his diary “Either this (the original Greek) is not the Gospel… or we are not Christians”.

Tyndale’s work was one of the cornerstones of the Protestant Reformation, and an article of his provided King Henry VIII with the rationale to break from the Catholic Church in 1534.  It is estimated that over 70% of the King James Bible was a carry-forward of his translation, and one estimate suggests that as much as 83% of Tyndale’s work was incorporated into the KJV’s New Testament, often word for word.  Without knowing it, much of the time if you are citing a passage from the KJV today, you might be using words researched and chosen by William Tyndale, almost 100 years earlier.

Tyndale’s work, and its reaching back to original sources, was revolutionary.  He changed some key Roman Catholic terms/phrases – for example, “do penance” became “repent”, “church” became “congregation” and “priest” became “senior” or “elder” – changes that struck at the heart of the Roman Catholic organization, doctrine, and ritual.  But his greatest challenge to the established church was that he created a Bible that could be read and understood by everyone, rather than allowing it to remain reserved exclusively for the clergy elite.  Ultimately, he was burned at the stake as a heretic, in 1536.

From his work came the Geneva Bible, published in Geneva and created by English Protestant scholars who were exiled during the reign of Roman Catholic Queen Mary (she reigned 1553 – 1558).  The scholars worked under the general direction of Miles Coverdale (who earlier completed the unfinished work of William Tyndale to create the Tyndale Bible and its successor, the Matthew Bible) and John Knox (a prominent Scottish Protestant), and with influence received from John Calvin.  The New Testament appeared in 1557 and the Old Testament following three years later, in 1560.  This version was the first to add numbered verses, and also the first to include commentary notes, a controversial move that was condemned as seditious by King James when he banned it in 1611.  The Geneva Bible remained popular for a while, even after being banned (perhaps because of being banned!) with its popularity continuing, but diminishing after the publication of the KJV, and indeed it was the Bible the Pilgrims took to America in 1620.

In 1539 a new Bible appeared, significant for being the first ever authorized (by the King) edition of the Bible in English.  It included much of the Tyndale Bible, with additions by Miles Coverdale, who regrettably sourced his translations from the Vulgate rather than from original materials.  He also removed portions of Tyndale’s translation which the Church of England bishops objected to.  This Bible was referred to as the Great Bible – but please understand the word “Great” was referring to its large size rather than any other form of greatness!

The flowering of printing presses and publishing, and of English translations of the Bible, meant that during the 45 year reign of Queen Elizabeth I (a Protestant who reigned from 1558 – 1603) no fewer than 130 different versions of the New Testament were printed (that we know of, today).

The elements of Calvinism in the Geneva Bible, and his concept of replacing the concept of a hierarchical form of church government by bishops (Episcopalian) with a form of church government by lay elders (Presbyterian) were objectionable to the Church of England and its established bishops, and they were keen to replace this Bible and obscure its messages.  The Great Bible was greatly preferable to them, but they also wished to “de-Catholicize” the portions taken from the Vulgate, and so in theory rewrote those passages, although in reality many of them survived with little change in what was eventually published in 1568, and known as the Bishops’ Bible.

Another notable Bible during these times was the “official” printing of an English version of the Vulgate by the Roman Catholic Church in 1582 – the church was acknowledging its weakening status and believed that by distributing its version of the truth, it might be able to reclaim some of its earlier prominence and authority.  But this version was of course still the Vulgate, just in English, and so in places was at odds with the underlying Greek texts and the English Bible translations based on those texts, and was not welcomed by reform-minded Protestants.  Perhaps it is fair to say this edition slowed the loss of Catholic followers, but certainly did not encourage many Protestants to return to Catholicism.

The King James Version

Almost immediately after King James I ascended the throne in 1603, he was approached by a group of Puritan ministers, hoping that a new and Protestant King would have new policies more favorable to their cause.  Most of their requests were denied, but one in particular was accepted by the King – a request to resolve the flood of Bible translations of dubious value and accuracy and to create one official translation.  It should be remembered that the King was not only ruler of England but also the head of the Church of England, and so this was a proper request to him in both his capacities.

There were two reasons for creating a new Bible version.  The first was to create some order in what was becoming a confusing morass of different Bible versions, and to provide an official stamp of approval on what would become the most authoritative and “best” version.  The second reason was the rapid evolution in the English language itself.  Already the English used in the Wycliffe Bible, barely 200 years earlier, was hard to understand, and even the Tyndale Bible’s English was becoming dated.  A new Bible in current English was needed.

As an aside, one of the results of the KJV was perhaps to create and standardize “the King’s English”, and possibly to slow down some elements of the evolution of the language into the future.  There are elements of the KJV in modern day speech, even now, although few people realize where the words and phrases are are using come from – here’s a fun video made up of 100 Biblical phrases strung into a three minute talk.

Responding to the Puritans’ petition and recognizing the need/value in a new Bible, in 1604 King James I commissioned a group of 54 widely respected Biblical scholars (plus some supervisors) to create a new translation of the Bible, based on what they could amass in the form of authoritative source documents, mainly in Hebrew and Greek, but also some of the Latin and English translations too.

They split into six different groups, and had an extraordinarily open and detailed process of writing and editing which in effect meant that every single verse was scrutinized, in different contexts, as many as 14 times, and by 50 different people.  This made the final product very much a consensus work without allowing any one person or persons to unduly influence the final version.  They relied upon the Textus Receptus, but not exclusively.  They also referred to many other source documents, and were further directed by King James, who was keen to not attack the status quo of “his” church too severely, to preserve the wording of the Bishops’ Bible as much as possible, with preference to be given to using the old ecclesiastical words (such as “church” instead of “congregation”).

Their work took seven years (and seven of them died during the process, hence various accounts suggest differing numbers of people working on the project), and in 1611 the Bible known either as the “Authorized Version” or the “King James Version/Bible” was completed.  With the King’s support in both his roles as head of state and head of church, and the unquestionable scholarly authority of the text itself, this quickly became the official English language Bible, displacing all the many current and previous versions.  With Britain’s Empire growing around the world, this Bible spread with it.

Astonishingly, the KJV remained essentially the only English language version of the Bible with any sort of mainstream following for the next approximately 275 years.  While the KJV went through several editions after its initial release in 1611 – 1611 twice, 1629, 1638, 1762 and 1769, the changes very exceedingly minor.  The edition changes typically were little more than corrections of printer/typesetting errors, and standardizing spelling conventions as English evolved its spelling rules, but they did not alter/add/remove any verses.  The present day KJV texts are based on the 1769 edition.

So, other than these corrections, it has never been revised.  Or, perhaps, better to say, that in recent times, when being revised, it was also renamed.  The history of the KJV subsequent to its first printing is well set out on this page.

Even though the English language had much evolved during that time, making the increasingly archaic language increasingly difficult to understand, it remained as the prime source of God’s Word to all Protestant churches, everywhere in the English speaking world.  Many of the Bible translations in other languages were simple translations of the KJV rather than direct translations from “original” documents.

The Extraordinary Developments in the 1800s and Subsequently

The Bible stability since the publication of the KJV was now about to be rocked and massively challenges.

We continue this article series in a second part that looks at the extraordinary social, economic, and technological changes in the 1800s, and the growth of new Bible translations, partly as a result.

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