I was once a staunch advocate of using only the King James Version of the Bible. I believed as most American Southern Baptists have at one time in their lives, that it was the only accurate translation of the Holy Scriptures handed down to us from the original languages. I have since come to realize that this was a flaw in my thinking, as well as in many others of the Christian faith here in the United States of America. The transliteration of the Scripture, or the handing down of it from one generation to the next, has been a near miracle in its preservation. As far as we know, all of our original manuscripts, also called autographs, are lost to us today, though some ancient copies still exist.
The Holy Scriptures of the Old Testament Bible were at first kept by oral tradition in testimony and song. As writing developed man began to keep a written record of his inspired revelations from God. These first manuscripts were likely written on Papyrus scrolls, made from a water plant in Egypt, which was not very durable in the humid Mediterranean climate of Palestine and Israel. Only a few precious ancient manuscripts remain of these, including the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran, where the climate is much more arid. Around the second century the scrolls were converted to Codex form (book form) with numbered pages. In the fourth century papyrus was replaced by vellum (parchment) as the writing medium, which was much more durable.
The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew and the New Testament was mostly in Greek with some Aramaic, which had come to be the everyday language of the people of Palestine in the New Testament times. The Old Testament Hebrew Text was translated into Greek at the request of one of the Ptolemies of Egypt in the third century B.C. It was called the Septuagint, meaning seventy, because tradition had it that it was done by seventy-two scholars, six from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. The Pentateuch, a translation of the first five books was made by the Samaritans, who also followed Jewish law. There were also Aramaic and Syrian translations.
From the Greek translations, the Bible was then translated into Latin and other languages that were common in their day. But as Latin became more and more lost to the common people of the church, it became necessary to translate the Scriptures into yet other languages common to their culture and times.
The Roman Catholic Church, which had won the predominance in the world at that time, suppressed publication of Scripture in the common language of the people on pain of death, even though they had received the Scriptures themselves translated from the Greek into the Latin Vulgate, which was the “vulgar” or common language of the people at the time of translation. The early church clergy laid claim to the Scriptures at this time, and as the majority of the people became poor and illiterate, the hoarding of the knowledge of the God’s Word completed the control they held over the people.
Pope Innocent III claimed the passage in I Corinthians stating that “the secret mysteries of the faith ought not to be explained to all men in all places, since they cannot be everywhere understood by all men; but only to those who can conceive them with a faithful mind… Even as babes in Christ I have fed you with milk and not meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able.” But I would like to consider the adjacent passage in Hebrews that states “for when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat.” The idea here is that we are fed milk until we are able to bear strong meat, not that we should be kept from meat entirely. The common people were not discipled as they should have been in the Word of God, but were instead instructed in the ritual ceremonies of the Roman Catholic Church.
We are deeply indebted to those faithful ones in the church who penned the first handwritten copies of the testaments, sometimes at risk of death, before printing was invented in the 15th century. These first handwritten copies began as epistles (or letters) written by the disciples of Jesus and mostly by Saul of Tarsus, who became Paul after his miraculous conversion by the heavenly vision of the resurrected Christ. These letters were copied and circulated among the early churches and eventually put into collections and added to the then canonized Old Testament. Other books that were considered helpful but not inspired were included in the Apocrypha, which was accepted by the Roman Catholic Church but not by the later dissenting Protestants. Still others were considered heretical and dismissed as having any value at all for the church.
The Lindisfarne Gospels contained a condensed version of the first seven books of the Old Testament in the Anglo-Saxon language, translated between the lines of a Latin Irish Script by Aelfric who was the first to successfully attempt the translation of the Scriptures into the English language. The Ormulum was a poetical version of the Gospels and Acts, which were accompanied by a commentary by an Augustinian monk, Orm. Genesis and Exodus were also translated into rhyming English verse in the 14th century. There were also two prose translations of the Psalter, one by Richard Rolle, which was very popular in its time.
The Wycliff Version was the first complete Bible to be translated into the English language. John Wycliff encouraged a demand by many to have the Bible in their own language. A second translation of this version was done by John Purvey. The Gutenberg Bible, with Latin Text, was the first book and Bible to be printed with moveable type. With the invention of printing, Bibles became much less costly and more abundant for the common people. This greatly promoted the circulation and influence it had among the people.
The Tyndale Bible was the first printed English New Testament, printed in Cologne in 1525 by William Tyndale. Tyndale was later betrayed by a friend and martyred in England. The Coverdale Bible was the first completed Bible printed in English, a predecessor to The Great Bible, which was the first to be issued in the name of the king, and for which Coverdale was also responsible. This Bible was commanded to be placed in every English Church, to which any literate person would flock to and read to themselves and any others who could not read it.
Other Bibles, like the Cranmer Bible, the Bishop’s Bible, and the Geneva Bible were taken mostly from Tyndale and Coverdale. The only English Bible eventually approved by the Roman Catholic Church was the Douay Bible, which was wholly translated from the Latin Vulgate and published in 1609, by the English College at Rheims and Douay.
The King James Version is likely the most important and revered Bible to be published in the history of our English Bible. By order of the King of England, a new translation was undertaken on request of the Puritan Clergy. A delegation of fifty-four of the most prominent Biblical scholars were called together for this purpose. They were divided into six groups, with three to work on the Old Testament and the other three to work on the New Testament translation. One group from each were chosen to meet at three designations, which were Oxford, Cambridge, and Westminster. These groups consulted all the manuscripts available at that time and considered all the previous translations, with as little altered as the Truth allowed. The majority of the work was taken from Tyndale, Coverdale, Geneva Bible, and the Bishop’s Bible, but much of it’s wording is unique to the King James translation. The work was begun in 1607 and published in 1611.
In the following decades, minor changes were made including corrected misprints, modernized spelling, abbreviated chapter summaries, and additional margin references. Between 1870 and 1885, a revision of the King James Version was undertaken at the request of Bishop Wilberforce. By this time much more was known about the Hebrew text and better Greek Manuscripts were available to be studied. The first principle was to make as few changes as possible to the Authorized King James Version as was consistent with faithfulness to the Texts. Some passages, not appearing in the earlier Greek Texts were taken out of the Text and placed in the margin. Some of the more controversial ones were John 5:3,4, John 8:1-9, and I John 5:6,7. The Revised version is considered to be more accurate and the most useful edition and is still in use today by much of the Christian community.
The great translations that have been handed down to us through every generation have met with much resistance, sometimes at risk of life and limb, to those who would venture to bring them to us in our own language. Many translations and paraphrases have been attempted since the KJV, but none since has earned the respect and widespread use that the KJV has. Some of the more notable ones are the American Standard Revised Version, The Revised Standard Version, The Holy Scripture According to the Masoretic Text, and the Living Bible. But almost all of these more recent translations have been copyrighted and may not be copied in full to fulfill the great commission. One thing is true: The Bible, God’s Word to all people, at all times, and everywhere, should not have copyrights on it, which would hinder the spread of the Word to the people. We have no more right today to demand that the Scripture remain in the old language of the KJV, than the Hebrews did their language, or the Greeks did their language, or the Roman Catholics did Latin. The Word of God should be in the language of the people, whatever that is and wherever that is, without copyrights that only stall the great commission and line the pockets of those who profit from their sale.
When we confine God’s Word or His plan for humanity’s salvation to a particular language or culture, we suppress God’s plan for the salvation of the whole world! The great commission cannot go forward without the procreation of the Gospel into the common language of all people throughout each generation. But we must be careful that each translation or paraphrase holds to the original intents and ideas of the first authors, who were inspired by God, even though they, themselves were imperfect human beings. Each successive translation or paraphrase is susceptible to the imperfections of translating any language to another, and the people who interpret them.
Haley’s Bible Handbook
The New Book of Knowledge, Bible.
The Bible, Family and Library Reference Edition
Civilization Past and Present, 7th Ed.