The first English translation of the Bible based on the original tongues was William Tyndale’s (1525, 1536). Tyndale’s was also the first English Bible since Wycliffe’s, written almost 150 years earlier. Tyndale was a master of English and was perhaps the best ancient Greek scholar in England at the time. The story of Tyndale’s legacy is incredible, stunning really. But that will have to wait for another time.
Tyndale started a movement that accelerated during the sixteenth century. Translation after translation appeared, and virtually all of them were based, to one degree or another, on Tyndale’s work.
Myles Coverdale, Tyndale’s assistant, published a complete Bible (Tyndale’s didn’t have the whole Old Testament) in 1535. But it was based on Tyndale’s work everywhere it could be. And it became the first complete Bible in English since Wycliffe’s.
Just two years after Coverdale’s Bible was published, Matthew’s Bible appeared (1537). It was the work of John Rogers, whose pen name was Thomas Matthew. This combined Coverdale’s Old Testament with Tyndale’s New Testament, and added 2000 notes.
And just two years after Matthew’s Bible was published, the Great Bible came off the presses (1539). The king of England had decreed that the largest Bible belonged in each church. The Great Bible filled the need. And it too was based on Tyndale.
Nearly two decades went by before another significant translation would be done. And this time it was one of the smallest Bibles to appear: the Geneva Bible (NT, 1557; whole Bible, 1560). Protestant scholars from England fled to Geneva during Bloody Mary’s reign and there they produced an exquisite translation—the first translation ever to be produced by a committee, in fact. It was small because they were shipping it back to England and wanted to make it affordable for the masses. Again, it was largely Tyndale’s work.
But clerics in England didn’t care much for the Geneva Bible, so they produced their own, the Bishop’s Bible of 1568. This translation was inferior to the Geneva Bible in virtually every sense, but became the official basis for the King James Bible.
Then, Elizabeth, a Protestant, became queen, and this time Roman Catholic scholars fled England. They went to France and there published the Douay-Rheims Bible (1582 for NT; 1609-10 for whole Bible). It was based on the Latin Vulgate.
Admittedly, the situation had become intolerable. The Protestant church had its Bishop’s Bible in the pulpit, but laypeople were reading the Geneva at home. And Catholics were reading the Douay-Rheims.
When James became king of England, he met with church leaders in 1604 and there they drew up plans for a new translation. Seven years later, the Authorized Version (or King James Bible) was published. Although the king had ordered that it be based on the Bishop’s Bible, the translators repeatedly went back to the Geneva for inspiration and wording. The KJV was in reality the fifth revision of Tyndale. When it originally appeared it contained more than 8000 marginal comments, giving alternate translations or noting variants in the manuscripts. These have unfortunately disappeared in modern printings of the KJV, giving the false sense that these translators had no doubts about anything they were translating. Fifty years after the KJV was published, the Geneva Bible was still more popular. And even though the king had disdained the Geneva, considering it the worst Bible ever, the translators based their work largely on it.
Today, there are “King James Only” advocates who believe that with the publication of this translation all of biblical scholarship came to an end. But even the translators themselves declared that Bible translation was an ongoing process. In the preface to the original Authorized Version they said:
To those who complain that [the translators] have introduced so many changes in relation to the older English version, they answer by expressing surprise that revision and correction should be imputed as faults. The whole history of Bible translation in any language is a history of repeated revision and correction.
It was true in their day, and it’s true in ours. The work of translating the Bible is constant revision and correction. There are countless translations of the Bible in English today, yet remarkably they affirm the basic tenets of the Christian faith. Each English-speaking Christian should own at least two or three translations, and the KJV should be one of them. It may not be the most accurate any more, but it is still the most elegant. And it has a deservedly high place in the history of English literature.