“But how shall men meditate in that, which they cannot understand? How shall they understand that which is kept close in an unknown tongue?”
—Translators of the King James Version, 1611
Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible was published in 1534. Photo credit: “Lucas Cranach d.Ä. – Martin Luther, 1528 (Veste Coburg)” by Lucas Cranach the Elder.
Long’s desire for a Bible in everyday language was not a novel idea. It was one that for centuries men and women had fought and died for. Prior to the late Middle Ages, few parts of the Bible existed in the vernacular. The Roman Catholic Church kept the Scriptures in Latin, though it had ceased to be the language of the people centuries before.
In Britain, certain passages had been translated into Anglo-Saxon and Middle English over the centuries, but copies were rare. Before the invention of the printing press, all Bibles had to be transcribed by hand. Even copies of the Bible in Latin were scarce, and only members of the clergy or the extremely wealthy had access to them.
Early forerunners to the Protestant Reformation began to advocate the authority of Scripture over church teaching. They also began to translate the Bible into the language of the people, believing that everyone should be able to understand what the Bible had to say. John Wycliffe, an Oxford scholar, initiated the first translation of the entire text into English in the 1380s.
Translated from the Latin Vulgate, the Wycliffe Bible slowly spread throughout England, to the delight of the people but the horror of the church, which believed only priests had the special ability to decipher Scripture. Wycliffe was posthumously condemned for his efforts; church officials dug up his grave, burned his bones and threw the dust into the River Swift.
The people were hungry for a Bible they could understand, however, and demand for an English Bible persisted, no matter what church authorities preached.
Across Europe, scholars were translating the Bible into the vernacular, and with the advent of the printing press in 1450, scholarly and religious books could be produced more quickly and cheaply. By 1500, the Bible had been printed in German, French, Italian, Catalan, Czech, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese. However, these too were translations from the Latin, not from the original Greek and Hebrew.
After Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg in 1517, initiating the Protestant Reformation, he began work on a translation of the New Testament into German from the original Greek, believing that ordinary people needed an accurate, understandable version of the Scriptures. Afterward, Luther established a group of scholars to help with ongoing revisions to the New Testament and support the translation of the Old.
At the same time, an exiled English reformer named William Tyndale was also working on a translation from the Greek and Hebrew. By 1526, thousands of copies of Tyndale’s New Testament had come off the German presses and were smuggled into England hidden in bales of cloth, infuriating the church and state authorities.
Tyndale soon began working on the Old Testament while continuing to revise his New Testament translation, but before he could finish, Tyndale was captured, strangled and burned at the stake for his efforts.
Tyndale’s work would not disappear after his death. It informed several translations in the 1500s, including the Geneva Bible, as Protestantism was endorsed in England, then banned, then endorsed again.
In response to a request for a new, official translation, King James I commissioned a group of 54 scholars in 1604 to produce what came to be known as the Authorized Bible, or the King James Bible. For the next seven years, translators consulted biblical texts in the original Greek and Hebrew, as well as other English translations, to produce a complete Bible that had the backing of the king.
“But how shall men meditate in that, which they cannot understand?” they wrote in the Bible’s preface. “How shall they understand that which is kept close in an unknown tongue?” They completed their work in 1611, and the result was a translation that was faithful to the Bible in the original languages and accessible to the people of England.
King James Version, 1613 edition. Photo credit: King James Bible 1612-1613, Private Collection of S. Whitehead
It was also beautiful. The scholars had a gift for not only translation but also the English language. They respected the style introduced by Tyndale and used much of the language from his translation. “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life” (John 6:47). It was the speech people would later associate with Shakespeare.
Over the coming decades and centuries, the King James Version grew to become the world’s most beloved and bestselling English Bible. People came to see its phrases and style as the language of heaven.
But the translators never claimed their version was the definitive translation of the Bible. “Wee do not deny, nay wee affirme and avow, that the very meanest translation of the Bible in English, set foorth by men of our profession . . . containeth the word of God, nay is the word of God.”
However lovely it may be, language is not static. It shifts and changes as people and groups merge, new ideas are shared, and the pace of communication increases. The KJV was frequently revised by printers to correct errors and slightly update the language, but the phrasing remained largely Elizabethan English.
The Revised Version of 1885 and its American edition, the American Standard Version of 1901, were intended to be revisions of and updates to the King James Version. But neither the RV nor the ASV gained wide acceptance because the language was pedantic and the translation woodenly literal.
In 1952, the Revised Standard Version appeared; however, it was a revision of the ASV, not a new translation. The RSV became standard in many mainline Protestant churches, but the sentiment among evangelicals was that it had problems that could not be overlooked. Most evangelical churches continued to use the KJV, seeing no acceptable alternative to the respected KJV translation.