Our English Bible

TO CHRISTIANS the Bible is a divine revelation, written by men of old, who wrote as they were moved by the Spirit of God. (II Pet. 1:21) However, it was not originally given in the convenient form in which it is now possessed by millions throughout all parts of the earth. The first copies of the Bible were handwritten, and in manuscript form—the Old Testament in the ancient Hebrew and Chaldee language, and the New Testament in the Greek language. The purpose of this discussion is to examine briefly some of the historical facts relating to the manner in which our Common or Authorized King James version of the Bible has reached the English-speaking world.

Should we be able to visit one of the early churches, such as the church at Rome, or Corinth, or Ephesus, we would find that not all the individual members of these congregations possessed even manuscript copies of the Bible. It was not until about the year A.D. 120 that the books of the New Testament, as we know them, were complete and available for use.

The most favorable view possible as to the availability of the Bible to these early Christians is that the larger churches possessed, as property of the church, not of the individuals in the congregation: (1) Some manuscripts of the Hebrew Old Testament books; (2) Considerably more of the Old Testament books translated into Greek—such being generally known as the Septuagint Version of the Old Testament; (3) Copies of the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the various apostolic epistles, and the Book of Revelation—all in manuscript form.

From this stockpile of sacred writings came our present-day most used version of the English Bible—the King James or Authorized Version. It has reached us by a long and devious chain of circumstances, including the hand-copying of manuscripts and translating. Both the copying and the translating were often done under most trying circumstances. The early translators were usually persecuted, sometimes even unto death, not by the worldly, but by their contemporary religionists, who often took the viewpoint—as one of the early translators expressed it—that “ignorance was holiness.”

One of the earliest translations of the Bible from the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts is known as the Latin Vulgate, translated by one of the early fathers, known as St. Jerome, in the latter part of the fourth or early fifth century of the Christian era. St. Jerome was born in 340 and died A.D. 420.

One of the earliest English versions of the Bible was translated by John Wycliffe about the year 1367, although no part of it was printed before the year 1731. England at that time was dominated by the Roman Catholic Church, and concerning the death of Wycliffe, one of the monkish writers of the time said,

“On the feast of the Passion of St. Thomas of Canterbury, John Wycliffe, the organ of the devil, the enemy of the church, the idol of heretics, the image of hypocrites, the restorer of schism, the storehouse of lies, the sink of flattery, being struck by the horrible judgment of God, was seized with palsy throughout his whole body.”

Archbishop Arundel, a zealous but not very learned prelate, complained to the pope of “that pestilent wretch, John Wycliffe, the son of the old serpent, the forerunner of anti-Christ, who had completed his iniquity by inventing a new translation of the Scriptures.” Wycliffe himself was evidently keenly aware of the opposition that would be aroused by his translation of the Scriptures, and in the preface had the following inscribed:

“God grant us, to ken and to kepe well Holie Writ, and to suffer joiefulli some paine for it at the laste.”

The First Printed Bible

Singularly the very first book to be printed was the Bible. It was published by the recognized inventor of movable type, Johann Gensfleisch, which name translated into English means John Gooseflesh. Later, Gensfleisch took the name of Gutenberg. Of Gutenberg’s achievement the following excerpt is to the point: “At last, in 1455 or 1456, the complete Bible in the Latin tongue, bound in two volumes, was presented to the world.” Then in 1526 came Tyndale’s English Version of the Bible—the first English translation to be printed. It is claimed that the language of Tyndale’s translation is essentially that which we find today in our Common, or King James Version.

Tyndale, even as former translators of the Bible, was persecuted by the orthodox church of his day. In order to complete his task he was forced to leave England and become an exile in Germany. But it was this, in the providence of God, that put him in touch with the printing press and resulted later in large quantities of his printed Bible being smuggled into England contrary to the decree of the church, and distributed among the common people.

It was in the year 1524 that he left his native land, never to see it again, and as the historian states, “At Hamburg, in poverty and distress, and amid constant danger, the brave-hearted exile worked at his translation, and so diligently that the following year we find him at Cologne with the sheets of his quarto New Testament already in the printer’s hands.”

It was difficult enough to stop the circulation of Wycliffe’s Bibles, a single copy of which took months to finish, but what could be done about Tyndale’s translation? These books were pouring into the country in great numbers because they were coming off the printing press at the rate of hundreds per day, and at a price within the reach of all.

The Bishop of London hit upon what he thought was an excellent plan to put a stop to this plague. He contacted a man by the name of Augustine Pakington, a merchant trading between England and Antwerp, and asked what he thought of the possibility of buying up all of Tyndale’s copies of the Bible, bringing them to England, and burning them. Pakington was a friend of Tyndale’s, and sympathetic with what he was doing, so quickly agreed with the Bishop, saying,

“My lord, if it be your pleasure, I could do in this matter probably more than any merchant in England, so if it be your lordship’s pleasure to pay for them—for I must disburse money for them—I will insure you to have every book that remains unsold.”

The bishop agreed to this, thinking, as one humorous writer of the time said, that “he hadde God by the toe, whanne in truthe he hadde, as after he thought, the devyl by the fiste.” What happened is this: Tyndale accepted the offer, charged a good price for the Bibles he had on hand, and with the money paid his debts and published a much larger and better edition of his Bible. Hence the bishop’s plan acted as a boomerang, and Tyndale’s Bibles continued to pour into England.

Poverty, distress, and misrepresentation were Tyndale’s constant lot. Imprisonment and death were ever staring him in the face. Finally, in October 1536, he was strangled at the stake, and then burned to ashes, fervently praying with his last words, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.”

Three years after this, in 1539, in every parish church in England was found a copy of what was then known as the “Great Bible,” which was the first English authorized version; that is, authorized by the church. However, this so-called “Great Bible” was virtually Tyndale’s, being but slightly revised. The “Great Bible” so-called from its large size, was really a revised copy of the Matthew’s Bible, which in turn was merely a copy of the Tyndale and Coverdale Bibles.

Some years later, still another English version of the Bible appeared. Reformers, who had fled from England to Geneva, returned bearing with them this new version of the Bible, the work of the best years of their exile. The dedication of the Book was accepted by Queen Elizabeth, and was known as the Geneva Bible. Afterward, it was dubbed the “Breeches Bible,” from the rendering of Genesis 3:7, where Adam and Eve “sewed fig tree leaves together, and made themselves breeches.” This version was published at Geneva in 1560 and Coverdale was among those who issued it.

This was the most popular Bible that had yet appeared in England, and for sixty years it held its own against all rivals. For a time it even contested the ground with what we now know as our own Authorized Version, when later it was published in 1611.

In 1568 the Bishops’ Bible appeared, another English translation. And then, in January 1604, at a conference of bishops and clergymen held in the drawing rooms of Hamptom Court Palace, the first suggestions were made which led to the revision of versions then in use and resulted in our Authorized Version in 1611.

To prepare this translation, forty-seven learned men from Oxford, Cambridge, and London were selected as impartially as possible, from high churchmen and Puritans, as well as from those who represented scholarship totally unconnected with any party. The king (James I) authorized that the cooperation of every Biblical scholar of note in the entire kingdom should be secured. Excellent rules were adopted to govern the work of translating. Never before had such labor and care been expended on translating the English Bible.

The language of the King James Version follows closely the pattern of that used by Tyndale in his translation. Revised and improved by a committee of such excellent scholars, it has stood the test of more than four hundred years of popular use. While many English translations have been produced since, such as the Revised Version (in 1881 and 1885), the Emphatic Diaglott, etc., the King James Version is still the most popular of all in the entire English-speaking world.

From what we have seen, the whole history of the English Bible has been one of growth and improvement by means of repeated revisions. This was true previous to Tyndale’s first New Testament (1525), which was revised by himself in 1534, and again in 1535. Coverdale’s (1535) and Tyndale’s translations appeared in Matthew’s Bible (1537), having undergone a still further revision. Then came the Great Bible (1539), representing more changes and further improvement. Additional revisions were published in the Geneva Bible (1560), but this was not the end of revision, for the Bishops’ Bible, published in 1568, contained more changes; and then the King James or Authorized Version in 1611.


Probably the greatest weakness of the King James Version is the fact that when it was translated only eight manuscripts were available from which the work could be done, the oldest one dating back only to the tenth century. Since then, many hundreds of manuscripts have come to light, some of them dating back as early as the fourth century.

It is well to note the difference between manuscripts and translations. In terms of bibliography, the word manuscript is used to describe copies of the original writings of the Scriptures in the same language as the original. The original writings of the Bible are all lost, hence manuscripts now available are merely copies—usually copies of copies, many times removed. The value of a manuscript for critical textual examination depends largely on its age. The oldest manuscripts are written in capital letters, in the style of the original writings of the Bible; namely, without punctuation, and with no division between words.

The Old Testament was divided into chapters as they now stand, by Cardinal Hugo, in the middle of the thirteenth century. These chapters were divided into verses, as we now have them, by Rabbi Nathan, and adopted by Robert Stephens, a French printer, in his edition of the Vulgate, in 1555. The chapter and verse division of the New Testament was done in 1551, likewise long centuries after the original manuscripts were written.

Punctuation was not used in the original writings of the Bible, nor does it appear in the oldest of the manuscripts, as punctuation was not generally used until the end of the fifteenth century. It is important to keep this fact in mind when we study any English translation of the Bible, and to remember that the punctuation is not a part of the inspired record. Generally speaking, the punctuation of all the English versions of the Bible is very helpful, but at times it has served to confuse the meaning of the text. The words of Jesus to the thief on the cross are an example.

When punctuation was introduced into this statement, the misplacement of the comma makes it appear that Jesus expected to be in paradise with the thief the very day he died. But by placing the comma where it should be, in harmony with what the Master really meant, Jesus’ words simply emphasize that the promise he was making to the thief was made on a day when, from the human standpoint, it seemed impossible that it could be fulfilled: “Indeed I say to thee this day, thou shalt be with me in paradise.”—Luke 23:43, Emphatic Diaglott

It is well, also, to remember that all the manuscript copies of the Bible were written by hand, and that each additional copy of these copies, when needed, also had to be written out, letter by letter, at a great expense of time and trouble, and very often, too, at some expense of the original correctness.

Careful though the scribe might be, it was well-nigh impossible to keep from making mistakes. One letter could be mistaken for another. If the manuscript were read to the scribe he might confound two words of similar sound. Remarks and explanations written in the margin might sometimes, in transcribing, be inserted in the text.

In these and various other ways errors might creep into the copy of a manuscript. Naturally these errors would be repeated by the copyist. To these, sometimes, would be added other errors of his own. It is evident, as copies increased, the errors would be likely to increase also. Therefore, as a general rule, the earlier the manuscript the more nearly correct it is likely to be.

Even in the case of printed Bibles errors are likely to occur, as all who are acquainted with the publishing business are painfully aware, and this despite every precaution and care in the preparation of copy by editors and proofreaders with years of training and experience. For example, in an edition of the Bible published in 1653, I Corinthians 6:9 reads, “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall inherit the kingdom of God?” In an old version known as the “Printer’s Bible,” Psalm 119:161 reads, “Printers have persecuted me without a cause.”

Three Oldest Manuscripts

The three oldest known manuscripts available for use today are those known as the Sinaitic, the Vatican, and the Alexandrian. The Sinaitic and the Vatican are probably the oldest, having been written about the same time. The Sinaitic, however, is the more valuable of these two, being the more complete. The Vatican had a number of omissions, including the entire Book of Revelation.

The Sinaitic manuscript, about as old as the Vatican, is the most complete in this prized group of three. It is called the Sinaitic manuscript from the place where it was found—in a convent at the foot of Mt. Sinai, by the great German scholar, Dr. Tischendorf, in 1859.

The Alexandrian manuscript is the latest of the three, and is also incomplete. The original of this manuscript can be seen at the British Museum, but copies which exactly represent it are kept in many of the principal public libraries. The Arabic inscription on the first sheet states that it was written “by the hand of Thekla the Martyr.”

Changed Meaning of Words

Publishers of the new Revised Standard Version of the Bible have called special attention to the changed meaning of many English words since the King James Version was first published. This is true, and the use of modern English in the new version helps to clarify some texts. For example, the King James Version translates Psalm 119:147, “I prevented the dawning of the morning, and cried: I hoped in thy Word.” The Revised Standard Version of this text reads, “I rise before dawn and cry for help; I hope in thy words.” Obviously this is more correct, for David could not very well “prevent” the “dawning of the morning.” In Old English the word “prevent” meant to precede, so it was a correct translation when first used.

Another English word used in the King James Version of the Bible, the meaning of which has changed through the centuries is “suffer.” For example, Jesus said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 19:14) The word in the Greek would be much better translated permit or allow, according to the present meaning of the English.

Another English word which has greatly changed in meaning is “hell.” Originally it meant to cover, or conceal. Thus in Scotland burying potatoes in the ground for the winter was referred to as “helling” the potatoes. Putting a thatched roof on a cottage was “helling” the cottage. Now, through misuse, hell usually suggests fire and torment. In the new translation this word is not used to translate sheol of the Old Testament, and hades of the New Testament. Instead these words are usually left untranslated. This is a step in the right direction, but the student of the Bible would have been much better informed on the state of the dead had sheol and hades in every instance been properly and uniformly translated.

In Matthew 16:18 the King James Version translates hades by the English word hell, in the expression “the gates of hell.” Here the Revised Standard Version translates hades by the word “death,” the expression reading, “the powers of death.” This is better than the word hell with its modern meaning, but it still leaves the student to determine what death might be. Probably the best translation of sheol and hades would have been “oblivion.” This, indeed, is the Bible’s own definition of sheol as given in Ecclesiastes 9:10.

In the King James Version, Matthew 6:34 reads, “Take therefore no thought for the morrow.” The Revised Standard Version gives a more correct thought. It reads, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow.”

In some texts which deal with God’s great plan of redemption and restoration, the Revised Standard Version is not as accurate as the King James Version. Acts 3:21 is an example. Here the King James Version uses the word “restitution,” which is the exact equivalent of the Greek word which it translates. The text is part of the Apostle Peter’s sermon in which he explains that following the second coming of Christ there would be “times of restitution of all things.”

The Revised Standard Version uses the word “establishing” instead of restitution, omitting the prefix “re” which is definitely contained in the Greek text. By this omission the reader is not made to realize that what is to be established as a result of Christ’s return had previously existed, particularly life and man’s lost dominion over the earth.—Matt. 25:34

Concluding Thoughts

When we realize the devious ways by which our English Bibles have reached us, we become aware of the obvious fact that the best we have of the true Word of God is more or less tinctured by the opinions of men. On the whole, however, the Lord’s people through these translations are furnished with what is substantially the Word of God. And how wonderful it is to realize when we open the Bible and begin reading its wonderful promises and prophecies, that the Lord is thereby revealing to us his mind—that he is talking to us.

How important it is, then, that our use of the Word of God is in all sincerity and humility. We are confident, if we study the Bible with a sincere desire to know the Word of God, and with a determination to do His will regardless of what the cost might be, that he will overrule any slight errors that may appear in the manmade translations. Only those who read the Bible with a desire to be enlightened as to the will of God will have that will revealed to them. May this be the desire of our hearts as day by day we walk in the narrow way of sacrifice, seeking the Lord’s directions through his Holy Word and through our fellowship with his people.

Dawn Bible Students Association
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