Sacred Texts  Bible  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

The Biography of the Bible, by Ernest Sutherland Bates, [1937], at

p. 99


The Great Translations

IT IS NOW recognized that the Reformation and the great translations of the Bible which accompanied it were incidents in a social revolution. The Catholic Church was a part of the dying feudal system; its prelates were noblemen, its estates rivaled those of earls and dukes. Even in England, where the Church was weaker than on the Continent, its monasteries are estimated to have owned one-tenth of the national wealth. Of the "nyne and twenty in a companye" that gathered at the Tabard Inn in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, more than a third were connected, directly or indirectly, with the ecclesiastical hierarchy. To maintain this enormous bureaucracy, the land was burdened with tithes and taxes. The Papacy no longer even pretended to have a spiritual mission: the licentiousness and crimes of Alexander VI, the political intrigues and ruthless wars of Pope Julius II, the rivalry of the double Popes of Rome and Avignon, these were known to all. Idealists were shocked by the corruptions of the Church,

p. 100

and materialists envied it its wealth. As a new middle class arose through the extension of trade and commerce in the late Middle Ages its members begrudged both the nobility and clergy their special privileges. Of the two the clergy were the more hated because they took their orders from Rome, offending the spirit of nationalism that had begun to develop, particularly in northern Europe. Thus, moral, political, and economic reasons all lay behind the Reformation.

The reformers were drawn to the Bible by natural affinity. Theirs was the cause of the people against the rich and powerful; the Prophets had fought for the same cause. In the struggle of the Hebrews against idolatry, the reformers saw an analogue to their own struggle against the ritualism and relic worship in the Catholic Church. Their emphasis upon the individual conscience drew inspiration from the Gospels; Paul's teaching of justification by faith brought them courage and consolation. Inevitably, the Bible became the chief weapon of the reformers in their war upon the Catholic Church.

The greater the distance from Rome, the less the power of the Catholic hierarchy. So it was at the outer edge of Christendom, in England, that there

p. 101

appeared during the last half of the fourteenth century the "morning star of the Reformation," John Wiclif (whose name is spelled in twenty-eight different ways). Trained in scholastic philosophy at Oxford, fellow of Balliol, Master of Balliol, in favor at the courts of Edward III and Richard II, he was statesman, philosopher, theologian, and reformer. Largely due to his efforts was the defeat of Pope Urban V when the latter claimed from England the payment of feudatory tribute. Five papal bulls against him failed to shake his influence. He sent out his students as itinerant preachers against the corruptions of the Church, and he organized a group of scholars to translate the Bible from the Vulgate into the vernacular. But when his study of the Scriptures led him to deny the doctrine of transubstantiation (the literal presence of the body and blood of Christ in the bread and wine of the Communion service), which had been a subject of dispute from the time of Justin Martyr until Pope Innocent III declared it an article of faith in 1215, then Oxford University turned against its leader and deprived him of his office. He was forced to retire to the living of Lutterworth where he died in 1384.

Two years before Wiclif's death, however, the

p. 102

translation of the Bible which had been projected by him was finished, the first part as far as the middle of the Book of Baruch being chiefly the work of his disciple Nicholas of Hereford, the rest being possibly the work of Wiclif himself. In 1388 the whole was revised by another disciple, John Purvey, after which for over a hundred years the "Wiclif Bible" remained the only English translation in existence.

The Lollards, as the followers of Wiclif came to be called, developed into a mighty social force. They denied the papal authority and the temporal lordship of the clergy; they denounced the worship of images and relics, the pilgrimages to the shrines of saints, and the ceremony of the mass; they were opposed to all wars, and to capital punishment. The Church was forced to adopt more and more vigorous measures against them: from excommunication and imprisonment it proceeded at the beginning of the fifteenth century to burnings at the stake. The circulation of the vernacular Bible, the source of all the Lollard "errors," was strictly forbidden. The persecutions continued through the reigns of Henry V and Henry VI, and the Lollard movement was eventually broken up, though probably not so much by the persecutions

p. 103

as by the devastating Wars of the Roses which held back all learning and social progress in England for over fifty years.

The Lollard movement left to posterity the one work of medieval English poetry worthy to rank with Chaucer's—The Vision of Piers Plowman by William Langland, and it left the Wiclif Bible—which continued to circulate in secret, despite the suppression, to such an extent that no less than one hundred and eighty copies have come down to us—and it gave birth to the Reformation.

John Huss, rector of the University of Prague, was deeply influenced by Wiclif: he taught much the same doctrine and instituted a translation of the Bible into the Czech vernacular, for which he paid with his life by burning at the stake in 1415. A hundred years later, Martin Luther, a monk of Wittenberg, deeply influenced by Huss, preached the same doctrines, but this time, though he was excommunicated there was no burning, for he had a nation behind him. So little had all the persecutions availed to halt the spread of ideas that were needed and sought after by the people.

The reformers, however, would hardly have succeeded, or succeeded so soon, but for two extraneous events. The first was the fall of Constantinople

p. 104

before the Turks in 1453. Hundreds of Greek scholars, bearing with them treasured manuscripts, fled to western Europe where they became influential teachers. The New Learning, consisting in a revival of Greek culture, gained adherents everywhere. And scholars, at least, could no longer be satisfied with a Latin version of the New Testament when the original Greek was once more accessible.

A still greater boon to the reformers was the invention of printing, generally attributed to Johann Gutenberg, about the middle of the fifteenth century. The first complete work to issue from the Gutenberg press at Mainz was a Latin edition of the Bible, printed in the manuscript style to which men were accustomed, and illuminated by hand. Forty-five copies have been preserved of this the first and most beautiful of all printed books.

The reformers were quick to take advantage of the new invention. A French translation of the Bible was brought out as early as 1474, and Germany already possessed eighteen vernacular versions when Luther's translation appeared in 152234. In two of these earlier German translations, through a pre-Puritan puritanism, the Song of

Title page of the Great Bible (1539)
Click to enlarge

Title page of the Great Bible (1539)

p. 105

Title page of the Douai Bible (1609)
Click to enlarge

Title page of the Douai Bible (1609)

[paragraph continues] Songs was left in Latin lest it prove a corrupter of youth.

Luther's rendering was by far the most accurate that had yet appeared. For the New Testament he used the Greek text of Erasmus’ edition (published hurriedly in 1515 in order to forestall a Spanish publisher, but thoroughly revised in 1519); for the Old Testament he used substantially the Masoretic text which had been preserved from generation to generation in practically the second-century form by a guild of Hebrew scholars known as the Masoretes, who consecrated their lives to this one purpose; only in the case of the Apocrypha was Luther content with the inferior Latin text. But his translation had a greater merit than mere accuracy. He was a master of words, not their slave; interested not in any pedantic adherence to literalness but in giving the full meaning of the original as forcefully and vividly as possible; the result was that he produced a work of literature so influential that, mainly because of it, the High German in which he wrote eventually displaced Low German and became the national tongue.

Although Luther included all the books of the Bible in his translation, he was far from holding the view which later arose among Protestants that

p. 106

all parts of the Bible were equally inspired. Reverencing especially the writings of Paul, whose doctrine of justification by faith became the cornerstone of his own teaching, he recognized the non-Pauline authorship of Hebrews, considered the anti-Pauline Epistle of James as of relatively little worth, and doubted the value of Esther, Jonah, Jude, and Revelation. Disputes over the canon, together with much hairsplitting as to the exact nature of Christ's spiritual presence in the bread and wine of the Communion, alienated Luther from the Swiss reformers, Zwingli and Calvin, to the great detriment of the progress of the Reformation.

England, which had once led in the translation of the Scriptures, now lagged behind the other nations. Not only were there versions in French and German but also in Spanish, Danish, Dutch, Swedish, Russian, and Bohemian, before the English, exhausted by their civil wars, made any attempt to replace the suppressed Wiclifite translation, now outmoded in its clumsy antiquated prose, by some more faithful and readable translation. But when the work was once begun, although it brought death to its originator, it was

p. 107

carried through to a more glorious conclusion than in any other land.

William Tyndale, who suffered martyrdom to give us the basis of the English Bible that we now possess, was born no one knows when or where or of what parents. The most probable conjectural date is some time between 1490 and 1495, the most likely place somewhere in Gloucestershire on the Welsh border. He was entered at Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1510, took his M.A. there in 1515, and went for further study to Cambridge which the fame of Erasmus had made a center of Greek and theological learning. After being ordained to the priesthood, he acted as tutor to the children of Sir John Walsh at Little Sodbury, Gloucestershire, from 1521 to 1523, during which time he also preached in neighboring villages and possibly at Bristol. His liberal views giving offense to the local clergy, he was summoned before William of Malvern, the chancellor of Worcester, on charges of heresy, but was allowed to depart for London without censure. That he already cherished the design of making a vernacular translation of the Scriptures is evident from an incident that occurred during his residence at Little Sodbury. Becoming

p. 108

involved one day in theological argument with a visiting ecclesiastic, when the latter exclaimed, "We were better without God's laws than without the Pope's," Tyndale indignantly replied, "If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more than thou dost." Seven hundred years after Alfred the Great and two hundred after Wiclif, their still undefeated spirit was reborn.

In London, Tyndale's plans received encouragement from laymen but none from the clergy. He lived for a year as chaplain in the house of Alderman Humphrey Monmouth, meanwhile preaching at St. Dunstan's-in-the-West, beginning his translation of the New Testament, and striving vainly to win the ear of the bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall. The bishop, he found, was irreconcilably opposed to his project and, if it were completed, would prevent its publication. At last Tyndale came to understand, in his own words, "not only that there was no room in my Lord of London's palace to translate the New Testament but also that there was no place to do it in all England."

Determined to pursue his task, nonetheless, even at the cost of exile, Tyndale went to Germany, where, after probably visiting Luther at Wittenberg,

p. 109

he settled with his amanuensis, William Roy, in Cologne, and completed his work on the New Testament. An edition was already on the press when a zealous Catholic named Johann Dobneck learned of the undertaking and immediately reported it to John Cochlaeus, dean at Frankfurt, who persuaded the senate of Cologne to interdict the printing. Tyndale took the sheets already finished and fled to Worms where two editions, quarto and octavo, were brought out on the press of Peter Schoeffer in 1526.

Copies were smuggled into England in bales of cotton, but many of them were seized and destroyed through the diligence of Cardinal Wolsey and Bishop Tunstall. In order to suppress the edition entirely, the Bishop sent a special agent to Antwerp to buy up all the copies of this "pestilent New Testament." The Antwerp Protestants gratified him to some extent and then immediately sent the money on to Tyndale to finance larger undertakings of the same nature!

Tyndale's translation of the New Testament, judged by its influence, was the greatest work of English prose ever achieved by a single individual. Following, like Luther, the Greek text of Erasmus, he also made good use of Luther's own translation,

p. 110

and rivaled the great German in a style which so successfully combined dignity, brevity, and familiarity that it worked a revolution in English prose. Tyndale's New Testament was substantially the New Testament of the King James version, which was, as we shall see later, essentially a revision of earlier translations. Even when the King James version was in its turn revised in 1881, the editors testified that eighty per cent of the words in the Revised Version of the New Testament were still the words of Tyndale.

The translator's personal reward for this masterwork was hardship and danger. Harried from place to place, he took refuge for a time with Philip of Hesse at Marburg but found it advisable to move about under such concealment that his wanderings cannot be traced today. Nevertheless, these years were rich in literary production. Having learned Hebrew for the purpose, he finished the translation of the Pentateuch in 1530 and that of the Book of Jonah, which, unlike Luther, he valued highly, in 1531. Meanwhile, his breach with the Church was completed by his following Wiclif and the Swiss reformer Zwingli in a denial of transubstantiation. He set forth his views on the authority of the Scriptures over the Church and on the separation of

p. 111

[paragraph continues] Church and State in his Parable of the Wicked Mammon (1528) and Obedience of a Christen Man (1528), which drew forth a reply by Sir Thomas More, author of the Utopia, this in turn eliciting a rejoinder by Tyndale. In spite of his hostility to the Catholic Church, he could not stomach the brutal method of Henry VIII's divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and in his Practyse of Prelates (1530) he excoriated both the Church and the king.

In 1535 he was at Antwerp, busied with further translation, when he was betrayed by Henry Phillips, an Englishman whom he had befriended. For fifteen months he was confined in Valverde Castle, six miles from Brussels, awaiting trial as a heretic. His friends tried desperately to secure the intercession of Henry VIII, but that monarch, who had become a Protestant in 1534 merely because of the Pope's refusal to validate his divorce, was not the man to forget Tyndale's attack upon him. He did permit Thomas Cromwell to write letters in Tyndale's behalf to Archbishop Carandolet, president of the council, and to the governor of the castle, but without more active intervention these were quite useless. The prisoner, who had serenely turned his confinement to good account by carrying on his translation of the Old Testament through

p. 112

[paragraph continues] Second Chronicles, was condemned as a heretic, and on October 6, 1536, he was executed by strangling, and his body was publicly burned. To the end, he thought only of his great task, and his last words were, "Lord, open the King of England's eyes."

The opening of the King's eyes occurred the very next year but in a somewhat devious manner. Miles Coverdale, an English reformer of about Tyndale's age and, like him, educated at Erasmus’ Cambridge, had found it necessary to spend the troublous years 1528–35 on the Continent rather than in England. According to an unsupported statement of John Foxe, he had met Tyndale in Hamburg and had given him some assistance in his translation of the Pentateuch. However that may be, he had by 1535, without going back to the original texts, completed a translation of the entire Bible in an English style less forceful than Tyndale's but with more of purely literary grace. While sufficiently courageous and a powerful orator, Coverdale was by nature pacific and not averse to the use of tact in a good cause. Accordingly, he dedicated his translation to King Henry VIII and "his dearest just wyfe, and most vertuous Pryncesse, Queen Anne." Since the King had not yet

p. 113

fallen into the mood to execute this dearest wyfe, he accepted the compliment and graciously allowed Coverdale's work to be admitted into England. A complete Bible in English now at last existed and could be freely read.

Coverdale's work, however, contained numerous errors, and in 1537 a better translation appeared over the name of Thomas Matthew, a pseudonym for John Rogers, Tyndale's literary executor. It included all of Tyndale's translations, published and unpublished, and where Tyndale was not available it made use of Coverdale. But the fiery notes of the editor were much too democratic in character to please the ruling powers, so one Richard Taverner was encouraged to rush through a hasty revision of "Matthew's Bible," omitting most of the notes, which was published in the same year, 1537.

This, too, proved unsatisfactory, and Coverdale was commissioned to make a new translation. As printing was cheaper in France, the work was brought out there, but just when the first impression of twenty-five hundred copies was off the press, these were seized and burned by order of the Inquisition. Coverdale was able to rescue a few copies which one of the officers of the Inquisition

p. 114

had privately sold to a haberdasher for waste paper; with these and the presses and types, Coverdale returned to England, where in 1539 the work was published in a huge folio, known from its size as the "Great Bible." A second edition, published in 1540, was called "Cranmer's Bible" from a long introduction by Archbishop Cranmer. With it, Coverdale's major work in the translation of the Scriptures was completed. Much of it was incorporated in the King James version, and Coverdale's rendering of the Psalms, adopted as the Psalter of the first Book of Common Prayer under Edward VI, still appears in the Anglican and Protestant Episcopal Prayer Books. Not an impeccable scholar, Coverdale was a felicitous writer with a delicate ear for all niceties of language; the English Bible owes more to him than to any other man except the mighty Tyndale.

In 1551 Coverdale became bishop of Exeter, but the accession of the Catholic Queen Mary, under whom all English versions of the Bible were suppressed, brought him a year's imprisonment, after which he fled to Geneva whither the more radical reformers had preceded him. There all came under the influence of Calvin and his Scottish follower, John Knox. The result was the appearance

p. 115

in 1560 of the "Geneva Bible," edited chiefly by William Whittingham, Thomas Sampson, and Anthony Gilby, possibly assisted by John Knox and, more doubtfully, by Coverdale. It was the most accurate translation yet produced: its editors were better Hebrew scholars than Tyndale, and in their rendering of the New Testament they had the advantage of possessing the excellent Latin translation made by the reformer, Theodore Beza, in 1556, as well as a revision of Tyndale's New Testament brought out by Whittingham himself in 1557. In the latter, the more readable Roman type had been substituted for the black letter previously used, and this sensible innovation was retained in the "Geneva Bible" which, designed for popular consumption, was also made of portable size and was published at a very moderate price. It was popularly known as the "Breeches Bible" from its translation of Genesis III. 7: "They sewed figge tree leaves together, and made themselves breeches." Later virtually adopted as the authorized version of the Scottish Kirk, it was more widely read even in England than any of the earlier versions. One hundred and sixty editions were published. As the Bible of early Massachusetts and Virginia, it must always have a special interest for Americans.

p. 116

And yet, with all its merits, the Geneva version proved a hindrance rather than an aid to the true understanding of the Bible. In 1551 a French printer, Robert Estienne, in publishing a Greek translation of the New Testament, had divided it into verses for the sake of easy reference in a concordance which he had in mind to bring out. The same method was followed in Whittingham's New Testament, and in the Geneva edition was extended to the entire Bible. The effect of thus breaking up a coherent discourse into isolated fragments, divided with little regard to their meaning and each printed as a separate paragraph, was to make it difficult to follow the sequence of thought and to encourage what became the besetting sin of later times—the habit of regarding all parts of the Bible as of equal value so that one could snatch any verse out of its context and hurl it at the head of an opponent in a theological argument.

A minor defect of the "Geneva Bible," which also came from Whittingham's New Testament was the pedantic custom of printing in italics words not found in the original, thus emphasizing the very words that were of most doubtful authenticity and value.

Although the "Geneva Bible" was dedicated to

p. 117

[paragraph continues] Queen Elizabeth with an exhortation to show no mercy to Roman Catholics, the violent notes with which it abounded were almost as critical of the Church of England as the Church of Rome. It was essentially a Puritan Bible and as such could find no favor with the ruling hierarchy. To offset its influence, Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, organized in 1564 a committee of bishops to produce an "official" translation. Known as the "Bishops’ Bible," this appeared in 1568 in a sumptuous edition adorned with woodcuts and copperplate portraits of Queen Elizabeth, the earl of Leicester, and Lord Burleigh. But unfortunately the bishops were neither as good scholars nor as good writers as the reformers. Their New Testament, which was practically Tyndale's, was satisfactory, but there was such an outcry against their translation of the Psalms that in the third edition in 1573 they restored Coverdale's old translation, printing it in parallel columns with their own. This edition was known in popular parlance as the "Leda Bible" because some of the type heads had been previously used for an edition of Ovid's Metamorphoses so that the initial at the beginning of the Epistle to the Hebrews happened to be a rather unsuitable representation of Leda and the

p. 118

swan. On the whole, the elaborate "Bishops’ Bible" was a costly failure which did not in the least serve to displace the "Geneva Bible" from popular affection.

One specific legacy of the "Bishops’ Bible" to subsequent translations was of considerable importance in the matter of ecclesiastical discipline. This was the substitution of "church" as the rendering of the Greek ecclesia for the more accurate "congregation" used by Tyndale and Coverdale. The motivation of the change was the desire of the bishops to conceal the democratic character of the early Christian assemblies and to give the impression that their organization resembled that of the Anglican Church. The point was later deemed so significant by King James I that he specially prohibited the editors of the Authorized Version from returning to the usage of Tyndale and Coverdale.

During these years the Roman Catholic Church had at last awakened to the need of meeting the reformers on their own ground. Although the Church had in its possession the oldest existing manuscript of the New Testament, written on vellum in the fourth century, this manuscript (now known as the Vatican Codex) had lain unnoticed in the library of the Vatican century after century

p. 119

while the Church had done nothing to correct the increasing corruption of the Vulgate text. The condition of the latter had, however, become so scandalous by the time of the Council of Trent in 1546 that a revision of it was authorized, although little was actually done until in 1586 Pope Sixtus V appointed a revisory commission, headed by Cardinal Caraffa, which completed its work within four years. The new text was issued in 1590 with an anathema upon any who should henceforth dare to change it. It proved to contain so many errors that in the next year Pope Gregory XIV appointed a second revisory commission, which within twelve months produced a text differing from that of Sixtus V in 2,134 places. This was issued in 1592 by Pope Clement VIII with a new anathema upon any subsequent changes. To modify any disagreeable impressions that might arise from the difference between the two revisions, the later like the earlier was attributed to Sixtus V.

In 1582 an English translation of the Vulgate New Testament was published by a group of Roman Catholic scholars at Rheims; a translation of the Vulgate Old Testament was prepared at the same time, but lack of funds caused the postponement of publication until 1609 when, after revision

p. 120

in accordance with the textual changes noted above, it was brought out at Douai. As polemical in purpose as the "Geneva Bible" or the "Bishops’ Bible," changing "cup" to "chalice" and "repentance" to "penance," its renderings were sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church whose members were forbidden to read the Protestant translations. The chief editor, Gregory Martin, and his colleagues, William Allen and Richard Bristow, were competent scholars but they were not really in sympathy with the purpose of their own work. As if to emphasize their contempt for the vulgar herd they deliberately adopted a heavily Latinized style which obscured the meaning. Thus, for example, the phrase "He humbled himself" became "He exinanited himself." Similar words virtually unknown to the English language outside of the "Douai Bible" are "colinquination," "correption," exprobate, "obsecration," "scenopegia." A Protestant taking up the "Douai Bible," with its unfamiliar headings such as First and Second Paralipomenon, Osee, Micheas, Sophronias, and Aggeus, will feel that he is reading a different work from the Bible that he has always known. In one respect, however, the "Douai Bible" was much superior to the later Protestant versions from the literary point

Original woodcut title page of the King James version (1611)
Click to enlarge

Original woodcut title page of the King James version (1611)

p. 121

Original engraved title page used at the beginning of the New Testament in the King James version
Click to enlarge

Original engraved title page used at the beginning of the New Testament in the King James version

of view: it did not contain the irrelevant and confusing division into numbered verses.

At the time of the accession of King James I in 1603, the situation had wholly changed from that of a century before when there was no English Bible in existence. Now there was a bewildering number of them. The need seemed to be for standardization rather than for further new translations.

In 1604, at a conference of churchmen called by the King at Hampton Court to consider "things pretended to be amiss in the church," Dr. John Reynolds, President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, pointed out the desirability of a revised version of the Bible. The suggestion was welcomed by the learned monarch, who declared, "I have never yet seen a Bible well translated into English, and the worst of all . . . is the Genevan." He proposed that the work be done "by the best learned in both Universities, after them to be reviewed by the Bishops, and the chief learned of the Church; from them to be presented to the Privy Council; and lastly to be ratified by his Royall authority, and so this whole Church to be bound unto it, and none other."

The churchmen were less eager in the matter than was King James, but through his pressure a

p. 122

group of "four and fifty learned men" was appointed during the ensuing year, of whom only forty-seven seem actually to have taken part in the great undertaking which was finally begun in 1607. No company of better scholars ever worked together on a common task. Headed by Dr. Lancelot Andrews, dean of Westminster—who is the subject of a charming essay by T. S. Eliot—the group was mainly composed of the leaders of learning at the universities of Cambridge and Oxford. It was divided into six committees, to each of whom was assigned a separate portion of the Scriptures, the whole work being later gone over by a single committee. The undertaking consumed substantially four years (three and a half in the editing and six months in the printing). The Authorized Version, which incidentally owes its title to the printers, as the King's plan of formal authorization was never carried out, appeared some time in 1611.

Dr. Reynolds, who shared with King James the honor of initiating the work, did not live to see its completion. One of the ablest of the editors, much consulted by the others, he was stricken with tuberculosis but labored on to the very last, so that as we are told "in the very translation of the book of life, he was translated to a better life."

p. 123

In the preface to the 1611 edition, drawn up by Dr. Miles Smith, afterwards bishop of Gloucester, the editors modestly disclaimed all originality. "Truly (good Christian reader)," they said, "we never thought from the beginning, that we should need to make a new Translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one . . . but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one." This is an exact statement of what the editors actually accomplished. The Authorized Version was essentially a revision of revisions. It was based upon a revision of the "Bishops’ Bible" which was a revision of the "Great Bible" which was a revision of "Matthew's Bible" which was a combination of Tyndale and Coverdale. The last two were the main sources of the King James version. But the editors consulted all the existing translations and were deeply influenced by the interpretations of the "Geneva Bible" and by the sonorous Latin of the Douai Old Testament. Their catholicity reaped its reward in what was unquestionably the best translation yet made, both in accuracy and in richness and variety of style.

Like Jerome's Vulgate, the Authorized Version was slow to win its ultimate position of unquestioned supremacy. The radical wing of the Puritans

p. 124

continued to prefer the "Geneva Bible," selections from which were republished in 1643 as "The Soldier's Pocket Bible" in pamphlet form for the use of Cromwell's army. During the Civil War in the United States, about fifty thousand copies of this were reprinted for circulation among the Northern troops.

In spite of the utmost care, the King James version was from the outset bedeviled by printers’ errors. The two impressions of the first edition were known respectively as "the Great Hee Bible" and "the Great She Bible" because the one rendered Ruth iii. 15 as "Hee went into the city," while the other read "She went into the city," both forms still appearing in modern Bibles. Another error that has never been corrected was the substitution of "at" for "out" in Matthew xxiii. 24, giving the oft-quoted mistranslation, "straining at a gnat." There was also much inconsistency in the spelling of Hebrew names, some of which has never been eliminated.

The errors were, in fact, so numerous that a revised edition was called for as early as 1615, to be followed by others every few years. In each new edition, however, new errors cropped up. That of 1631 was called the "Wicked Bible" because it

p. 125

gave the seventh commandment as "Thou shalt commit adultery." Cromwell was reputed to have paid out a thousand pounds in bribes to the 1638 revisers to induce them to change "we" to "ye" in Acts vi. 3 so that the power of appointing officers should seem to have belonged to the people instead of to the Apostles. An elaborate edition put out by the University of Oxford in 1727 was nicknamed the "Vinegar Bible" because a headline to the parable of the vineyard in Luke xxii read "The Parable of the Vinegar."

At last in 1762, in the "Standard Edition" prepared by Dr. Thomas Paris of Trinity College, Cambridge, a work appeared almost free from printers’ errors, and with modernized spelling and punctuation; but at the same time some demon of pedantry inspired the editor to start the evil custom of elaborating the marginal reference notes. Succeeding generations of editors indulged in the same pastime until the Bible came to assume its familiar modern form in which, to quote Professor Goodspeed of the University of Chicago, "It often looks more like a surveyor's manual than a work of literature."

Cross references to other passages of a translation are of little service to genuine scholarship if

p. 126

the whole translation is based on a faulty text. Gradually it became evident that this had been the case with the King James version, at least so far as the New Testament was concerned. The translators had conscientiously consulted the Greek text of Erasmus as the best then known, but Erasmus himself had had no manuscripts earlier than the eleventh century. Only seventeen years after the publication of the Authorized Version, Cyril Lucar, Patriarch of Alexandria, presented King Charles I with a fifth-century manuscript, the Codex Alexandrinus, which embodied a text differing in many places from that of Erasmus. During the next three centuries, fifth-, fourth-, and even third-century manuscripts of parts of the New Testament came to light in increasing numbers. (The total of New Testament manuscripts now in existence is estimated at four thousand.) The additional knowledge furnished by these was reinforced by an ever closer study of the early Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, Arabic, and Persian versions. It was inevitable that many new English translations should be attempted.

In fact, between the King James version and the Revised Version nearly a hundred such translations were published. Most of them were produced

p. 127

solely in the interest of greater accuracy, but two of the translators, Principal George Campbell of Aberdeen, in 1788, and Gilbert Wakefield, fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1789–91, had enough literary sense to abandon the verse divisions for modern paragraphing. In 1798 Nathaniel Scarlett made an interesting experiment: in order to emphasize the conversational character of much of the New Testament, he arranged it as dialogue, putting the speakers’ names at the side as in drama. The most important of all these translations, however, was Challoner's thorough revision of the Catholic Rheims-Douai Bible in 1749.

Recognition of the need for an official revision of the King James version was voiced in 1810 by Dr. Marsh, Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Cambridge. With true Anglo-Saxon conservatism, nothing was done about it until 1856 when another Lady Margaret professor, Dr. Selwyn, brought the matter up in the Canterbury Convocation, thus provoking a motion in the House of Commons for the appointment of a Royal Commission to consider various "amendments" to the King James version and report back to the House—much as if the Bible had been a set of legal statutes. Finally, in 1870, through the efforts of

p. 128

[paragraph continues] Bishop Wilberforce and others, the Convocation of Canterbury appointed a committee of seven to have general charge of a complete revision of the King James version. The enterprise was conducted in a broad and tolerant spirit which was something new in Biblical history: scholars of other denominations were invited to co-operate, with the further assistance of an American Revision Committee headed by Dr. Philip Schaff, editor of the Schaff Herzog Encyclopaedia of Religious Knowledge. Owing to the thoroughness of their work, it took the revisers more than six times as long to complete their task as it had taken the King James editors. The New Testament was published in 1881, the Old Testament, without the Apocrypha, in 1885, and the Apocrypha itself in 1895.

The Revised Version proved to be a very conservative revision. All radicalism was eliminated at the outset by the adoption of a set of rigid rules: to introduce only such changes as were absolutely necessary on account of the meaning; to accept no changes in the text except by a two-thirds vote; and to adhere so far as possible to the language of the King James version. The American Revision Committee took these rules less literally than did their British cousins, with the result that there was

p. 129

considerable diversity of opinion between the two committees. More than a thousand of the American suggestions were indeed incorporated in the British edition, but the more important of them were relegated to an appendix. Furthermore, what has since become the accepted Greek text of the New Testament, that prepared by Westcott and Hort, was not published until 1881, and though both of these great textual critics were members of the British committee their suggestions were frequently not adopted. For these reasons, the American Revision Committee felt justified in continuing its own work, which resulted in the publication of the American Revision in 1901.

Of all the official and semiofficial editions of the Bible, the American Revision of 1901 (the edition circulated by the Gideons) is by far the best from the point of view of literal accuracy. Unfortunately, from the point of view of literary value it is one of the worst ever published. It came out during the period when American scholarship, justifiably proud of its learning and its new methods of technical research, looked with suspicion on all literary attainment as a kind of concession to emotional weakness. Both the British and American revisers recognized the absurdity of the verse paragraphing

p. 130

in the King James version, but they went to the opposite extreme of adopting unconscionably long paragraphs even in conversational passages. The unreadability of these was increased in the American Version by the inclusion of the old verse numbers within the paragraphs, so that the reader often had to hurdle two or three of them in a single sentence. And whereas the British revisers had had the courage to remove the network of marginal notes enmeshing the text, the American edition dutifully restored this smothering parasitic growth.

It was left for an individual to do what the churches and the groups of organized scholars had signally failed to do—present the greatest literary work of all time in a literary form—one which should bring out the meaning, emotional as well as intellectual, instead of obscuring this meaning in conformity with dogmas of religion or pedantry. Professor Richard Green Moulton of the University of Chicago began in 1895 to publish the books of the Bible separately—thus calling attention to the distinctive character of each—in an edition named "The Modern Reader's Bible" in which the text of the British Revision was presented in an attractive form, with verse printed as verse, prose as prose, and the latter paragraphed with some regard to

p. 131

meaning. His work was a great improvement upon anything that had gone before, but it was still, like the English Revised Version on which it was based, a compromise. Professor Moulton was not quite willing to be so radical as to accord the Bible the full advantages possessed by other works of literature. His paragraphing was so heavy that today it already looks archaic; he seemed to share with previous editors a feeling that there was something profane in the use of quotation marks (although he did finally consent to introduce them in the Gospel of John); and he obstinately refused to recognize the conclusions of the Higher Criticism with the result that he was occasionally led into serious errors—such as his endeavor to reconstruct the Song of Songs as a connected drama. His edition, completed and published in a single volume in 1907 (unfortunately in a print so fine that it did not encourage reading), was the last important one to disregard, even partially, the Higher Criticism. The development of the latter has proved so fundamental not merely to individual translations and editions but to the entire understanding of the Bible that its story demands a separate chapter.

Next: Six. The Higher Criticism