by Dr. Luis Ritto*
Today I am going to write about a book that helped shape the history of religion and of our Western civilisation: the English Bible of King James I of England. Published in 1611, 403 years ago, it helped greatly to promote the development of the Christian faith and of the English language at a time when Christianity was being shaken by a great schism and scandals in the Catholic Church. Until then, the Bible was in Latin and the Church of Rome did not authorise it to be published in other languages, which made it inaccessible to the majority of lay people around Europe.
The Bible in English commissioned by King James (1566-1625) has sold over a billion copies since it saw the day, making it to be by far the biggest best-seller in human history. A best-seller that has not lost appeal until today, as it can be seen by the fact that in recent times it was copied into hundreds of software and smart-phone editions. Like no other publication therefore, it is still very influential today.
For those who are not very familiar with it, the English word “Bible” comes from “biblia” in Latin and “biblos” in Greek. The term means book, or books and also holy books or sacred writings.
The Bible is a compilation of 66 books and letters written by more than 40 authors during a period of about 1,500 years. Its original text has three languages: the Old Testament was written for the most part in Hebrew with a small percentage in the Aramaic language; and the New Testament was written in Koine Greek. Besides the two mentioned sections (Old and New Testament), the Bible contains several other divisions: the Pentateuch, the Historical Books, the Poetry and Wisdom Books, the Books of Prophecy, the Gospels and the Epistles. Testament refers to a covenant between God and his people.
The Bible is considered sacred in Judaism as well as in Christianity, although the contents of each of their collections of canonical texts are not the same.
Before the first Bibles were translated in English, the Bible that existed not only in England but throughout Western Europe was mainly the Catholic Bible called Vulgate, which the great majority of the peasants of the continent could not read and understand because it was in Latin, as already mentioned in the first paragraph. In fact, the Vulgate was the official Bible in Western Europe from the late 4th century onwards. It is a translation of that holy book made by St. Jerome mainly from Hebrew and Aramaic into Latin at the request of the Portuguese Pope Damasus (305-384) in Rome. It received widespread adoption and by the 13th century this version of the Bible had come to be called “versio vulgate”, which means the “commonly used translation” or the commonly accepted version of the Bible. In the 16th century it became the definitive and official Latin version of the Roman Catholic Church Bible.
The reason for this version of the Bible to be in Latin has to do with the fact that by the time it was commissioned by Pope Damasus, the Greek language had begun to die out in Western Europe. After the Roman Emperor Constantine (272-337) built a new imperial residence in the town of Byzantium (later Constantinople and today Istanbul), Latin became the main language of the people of the west of the continent. During the period called “Middle Ages – 5th to the 15th centuries”, Greek was not known any more in Western Europe. Therefore all the clergy in the west for a thousand of years had to learn Latin (not Greek or Hebrew). Scholars tell us that in terms of longevity, the Latin Vulgate Bible is the most influential translation of the Bible in history.
It is important to mention at this stage that in the 16th century, Western Europe witnessed the spread of what historians call the “Protestant Reformation”. Started by a Catholic monk called Martin Luther of Germany in 1517, it spread to many parts of the continent and consisted in the separation of many churches in Europe from the one of Rome. England under the reign of King Henry VIII (1491-1547), also separated itself from the Church of Rome, in a process that was started in 1529 and was completed in 1536, thus aligning it with the broad Reformed Christian movement that expanded through a good part of the old continent.
With the Protestant Reformation came the need for many churches and countries to have their own versions of the Bible, preferably written in the local languages of their people. The idea was to translate the Bible into the language that lay persons could understand. At the time of King James, English was only infrequently used in written documents. Noblemen wrote in French—which was the language of the elite— and all official church documents were in Latin. English was mainly used for peasants. Therefore and to attract the peasants to the Church of England, the King was advised by the clergy of that Church to the need to have a Bible written in English.
However, it must be said that before the King James Bible of 1611, the Bible had already been translated in English, but not with the exact precision, accuracy and excellent scholarship of that King’s Bible, scholars say. Among them, we would like to mention the following ones:
– The first English Bible is said to have been published by John Wycliffe in 1380, a Catholic priest and a Professor of Theology at the University of Oxford. It was a hand-written version based on the Latin Vulgate, which was the only text available to him at the time! He translated and published it in a manuscript form (with the assistance of his followers, called Lollards) the 80 books that made up the Bible those days.
Experts say that there were many shortcomings in the translation work of Wycliffe, mainly because it was literal to the point of retaining the Latin word order, which made no sense in English. It shows also that a word-for-word translation is not generally an accurate translation because the meaning of the original text is not necessarily passed in a clear form to the final version.
Wycliffe was prosecuted for his work of translating the Bible in English, he lost his post at Oxford and five Papal edicts were issued for his arrest. He took refuge in the house of powerful nobles, who protected him, but after his death the Pope ordered that his bones be dug-up, crushed and scattered in a river near his place of burial! However, he launched the way for other translations of the Bible to be made in English.
– Nearly 150 years after the Wycliffe Bible, William Tyndale, another Oxford scholar, theologian and leading figure in Protestant reform (1494-1536), produced the first printed version in English of the New Testament. Tyndale, who spoke 8 languages fluently, is also frequently referred to as a father of the English language—more than William Shakespeare— for the way in which he wrote that language (with skill and finesse), having coined phrases which are still in use today. In fact, he is acknowledged as being the person who developed what is called nowadays the “Early Modern English”, which was later used by Shakespeare in his work.
Tyndale was influenced in his work by Desiderius Erasmus (who made the Greek New Testament available in Europe) and by Martin Luther (1483-1546). Tyndale’s translation of the Bible was the first one to draw directly from Hebrew and Greek texts and the first one to take advantage of the printing press. Therefore, while the Wycliffe’s translation was hand-written and mainly based on the Latin Bible, the one of Tyndale was printed and based on Greek and Hebrew texts. The Tyndale New Testament was copied and printed by the thousands and was used significantly by the scholars who wrote the King James Bible.
Tyndale paid with his life the fact that he produced a Bible that was not written in Latin and was imprisoned and executed in Vilvoorde (Belgium) in 1536.
– The list of other Bibles written in English is large and cannot be mentioned in a paper of this type. One ofthem was the so-called “Geneva Bible”, which was published in 1560 in Geneva and was very popular in the English-speaking world. Another one was the “Bishop’s Bible”, which was printed in England in 1568 at the request of Queen Elizabeth I (1523-1603). Even the Roman Catholic Church, when it saw that it could not gain the battle for a Latin only Bible, decided to publish a Bible in English in 1582 (called Rheims New Testament).
In such a context, with so many Bibles being published from different sources, it is not surprising that the clergy of England asked King James I in 1604 that a new Bible be published. The idea was to put some order in all the versions of the Bible published until then and to have a more accurate and true book, which would be as much as possible close to the original books of the Scriptures. This “translation to end all translations” was accepted by the King and a team of at least 50 learned men and scholars was charged with the work to produce a new version of the Bible. Their work was overseen by the then Dean of Westminster (Dr. Launcelot Andrewes) and by a number of Hebrew and Greek Professors from different English Universities.
The first few years were of research; then from 1607 to 1609 the scholars assembled the work to be done; and by the end of 1610 the new version of the Bible was ready to go to the press, where it was printed in 1611. The scholars took into consideration past versions of the Bible (like for example, the Tyndale New Testament, the Coverdale Bible, the Matthews Bible, the Great Bible, the Geneva Bible and even the Rheims New Testament) and original Hebrew and Greek texts, which they were able to access. The final work consisted of 80 books (39 in Old Testament, 14 in Apocrypha and 27 in New Testament). It was a major work in terms of translation at a time (17th century) when the tools and means to translate works from other languages did not exist as today. And the way it was written (language and style) is hailed until now as being of superior quality, balancing accuracy of literation with clarity of meaning, a great literally event that helped the spread of the English language throughout the world. It is certainly the most influential translation in English of all times.
When it was published in 1611, it was just called “The Holy Bible” and it became a sort of authorised version to be used in all Churches in England and Scotland. More than a book of high literary value, the Bible of 1611 is said to be more true to the original manuscripts than the Vulgate Bible version and to preserve as much as possible the meaning of the ancient scriptures (in fact, its fidelity to the original scriptures is universally acknowledged). Besides, its popularity and wide acceptance greatly helped Christianity to consolidate in Europe and afterwards to expand to other parts of the world (namely to the Americas, Asia and Africa). The Bible became consequently with time the holy book of the Christians, it was translated since 1611 into hundreds of native languages and its teachings are the ones that are followed by millions of Christian people. It is common nowadays for most Christian families to have a copy of the Bible in their houses and to read and pray from it regularly within their family circles and friends. It has been therefore an enormous force in shaping the Christian faith and civilisation.
In the last two centuries a number of scholars have pointed out to the fact that there are many errors, inconsistencies and even inaccuracies in the Bible translations which have been in use since 1611. Some go as far as to say that they find no evidence that the Bible was inspired by God, they allege that they find no proof that the word of God as divinely revealed through His chosen and expressly inspired scribes appear in the Bible. We are not going into such a controversial matter and discussion here as it is not the purpose of this paper; maybe it can be discussed and developed in a future paper.
What we are attempting to show is the impact of the Bible and in particular of the different Bibles that were published since the 17th century in the promotion and spread of the Christian faith as the major religion of the world, as it is today with more than 2.1 billion followers worldwide (or about 32% of the world population, according to UN sources). Anyway, the King James Bible of 1611 has been the object of several revisions and improvements, the most important of which are: in 1769 the English was edited and updated to reflect the evolving language; in 1885 the Apocrypha part was removed, leaving the Bible with 66 books; and in 1982 the Bible saw again its English being improved and modernised. The same happened in versions of the Bible in other languages which with time were improved and updated. And in the United States of America an important revision of the Bible was carried out in 1901 in what became known as the “American Standard Version of the Bible”. The most noticeable difference in relation to the English Bible is the more frequent use of the word “Jehovah” especially in the Old Testament, rather than the word “the Lord”, to represent the divine name of God.
What is to be remembered therefore is that the Bible not only made religion more accessible to people but also helped to shape the civilisation of the so-called Western World and societies. Several scholars point to the Bible, and specifically to the King James Bible, as the starting point of modern democracy, the cornerstone of our culture and values. Theodore Roosevelt, who was the 26th US President (1901-1909) called the Bible “the most democratic book in the world”. As the Bible constantly speaks about the notions of equality, charity, social responsibility and spirituality, these values were adopted by Western societies. This in turn shaped politics, which gave us laws that protect the common man and makes all human beings equal before the law. Besides, the teachings of the Bible led to the abolition of slavery, to the establishment of healthcare systems and education for the common man. And mass education has been a significant step towards people calling for democracy and human rights.
With the Peace of Westphalia (1648), the modern state system in Europe developed based on the separation of church and state and on the principle that all states agreed to mutually recognise each other’s right to sovereign rights and jurisdiction over their own territories. The notion of religious freedom was recognised for the first time in the Oliva Peace Treaty of 1660 and was subsequently endorsed in President’s Franklin Roosevelt “Four Freedoms” in 1941 and by the United Nations Commission on the Rights of Man (1955-1960).
And in the fields of economics and science, many of the founding fathers were devout Christians, they were behind the start of the Industrial Revolution (which shaped the world in which we live today) and brought the entrepreneurial spirit to the Western world, thus making it the most prosperous and developed of all other societies.
Good reasons therefore for us to remember the book called Bible, which has changed the face of the world and helped to shape the Western world and its values.
*About the author:
Dr. Luis Ritto is the former EU Ambassador to the Holy See and the Order of Malta and former EU Permanent Representative to the United Nations Organisations, ISPD Emeritus Professor and expert on diplomacy, diplomatic protocol and world affairs.
Johnson, Paul, “A History of Christianity”, Simon & Schuster (New York, 1976);
Smith, Wilbur, “The English Bible and its Development”, Thomas Nelson Pub. (Nashville, 1979);
Stott, John, “Basic Christianity”, Inter-Varsity Press, 1971;
Daniel, David, “The Bible in English: Its History and Influence”, Yale University Press (2003);
Spencer, Nick, “Freedom and Order: History, Politics and the English Bible”, Hodder & Stoughton (London, 2011);
Metzger, Bruce and Ehrman, Bart, “The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restauration”, Oxford University Press (USA, 2005);
History of the King James Bible, retrieved from: www.bible-researcher.com;
English Bible History, retrieved from: www.greatsite.com/timeline-english-bible-history;
Bobrick, Benson, “Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution it Inspired”, Simon & Schuster (New York, 2011);
Bruce, Frederick Fyvie, “History of the Bible in English” (Cambridge, 2002); and
Dubuisson, Daniel, “The Western Construction of Religion” (John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2003).