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History of Translation of the English Bible

Christianity was established in England way back in the mid-6th century, and since then, the bible played a key role in English Christianity. But when we refer to the English Bible, it does not literally mean that the bible belongs to England, but rather, the Scriptures have been translated and written in the English language (Bruce 1). There were probably numerous translations of the Scriptures in the English language made by the earliest English missionaries, but these could have been lost even before they have been documented, and, the reason behind their loss, is yet unknown at this time.

The earliest version of the bible known and used in the English Church was in Latin, or otherwise known as the Latin Vulgate of St. Jerome, which dates back in A. D. 383 to 405 (Bruce 1). The Latin Vulgate was the most reliable and readily available source at that time in England, and, the first ever, hand-written manuscripts of the bible in the English language produced by theologian, John Wycliffe, was translated out of it. Wycliffe’s version came late in the fourteenth century (1380s), and his work was considered a major feat at translating the entire Bible into English.

His version of the bible attained such popularity throughout Europe and, with his teachings that opposed the Church of England, it even infuriated the Pope. Wycliffe’s work was evidence of his conviction that “the best way to translate from Latin to English was to make the sentence, rather than the individual word, the sense-unit” (Bruce xii). The positive response of early believers to Wycliffe’s version is proof of a commendable work. It is also interesting to consider that the translators of the English Bible that we know today have likewise adapted the meaning for meaning translation method of Wycliffe.

Now, we have the most popular English translations recorded in bible history, such as, the Great Bible, Elizabethan Bible, the King James, Revised, and the American Standard Versions. Of the mentioned English Bible versions, the King James Version is considered to be the Authorized Version. Simply put, “an Authorized Version is one that has been authorized for stated purposes by competent authority” (Bruce xii). It was a translation of the Scriptures commissioned for the English Church and was a product of collaborative effort of forty seven bible scholars. The King James Version later on became the English Bible.

In its literal and figurative sense, it became the bible of the English people. The Great Bible The Great Bible was called by its name because of its large volume size. The Great Bible was the product of the efforts of diverse scholars, is essentially Coverdale’s revision of Matthew’s Bible (which was principally a revision of Tyndale’s work). It was the first English bible authorized for public use. The Great Bible came about when a decree was made that every English church should make available some place where churchgoers could have access to it, and even the illiterate could hear the Word of God in plain English.

“Nicolas Shaxton, bishop of Salisbury, required his clergy, early in 1538, to see to it that by All Saints day of that year, an English Bible should be chained to the desk in every parish church throughout the diocese where literate parishioners might read, and illiterate ones hear ‘Wholesome doctrines and comfort to their souls’” (Bruce 67). The English people’s response was overwhelming and crowds gathered everywhere. This freedom was later on abused by many and the Scriptures were defamed. King Henry VIII later on put restrictions on its use to preserve the sanctity of the scriptures.

The Elizabethan Bible After King Henry VIII, King Edward VI took the throne and the reformation of England was on the upswing. On the first year of King Edward’s reign, he saw the need to repeat his father’s royal injunction of 1538 because during the preceding years, most church Bibles were either removed or dilapidated. “The injunction of 1538 had not been abrogated, but the trend of those latter years was not favourable to its full observance, in letter or in spirit ” (Bruce 81). The Great Bible was reprinted twice under King Edward VI, one in 1549 and again in 1553.

It was also during this period when the first English Edition of The Book of the Common Prayer and Administracion of the Sacraments, and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church after the Use of the Churche of England was published. In 1552, the second edition of the English Prayer Book followed. Note that it was used under King Edward’s reign throughout the English Communion Service. “A royal injunction laid it down that the Epistle and Gospel in the Communion Service should be read in English” (Bruce 81).

It was for the purpose of rendering (church) services in the common tongue that the Great Bible version of the Psalms was printed in the English Prayer Book (Bruce 81-82). Soon after Queen Elizabeth’s accession, once again, the injunction of King Henry VIII and of King Edward VI, was adopted – “one book of the whole Bible of the largest volume in English should be procured and set up in every parish church” (Bruce 85). As it was, upon King Edward’s assumption of the throne, most churches had no copies of the Bible, and if there were any, they were worn out.

With several editions of the Great Bible printed since its first publication in 1539, it is worth mentioning that indeed, it has served its generation well. The Great Bible, however, remained the official English Bible for many years until a better version came out in the 1560s. The King James Version The King James Version was the most famous English Bible of all time. King James I of England agreed to come up with a new translation of the bible to put an end to all translations, as there had been too many already.

King James was trying to reconcile the religious parties in his monarchy so he agreed to the proposal of one Bible only for use in the public worship services of the English Church. The translation had to be a close approximate version of the original Hebrew and Greek, published without marginal notes, unlike those annexed to the Geneva Bible. These marginal notes in Geneva Bible, and not the actual text, made it unacceptable to many church and state leaders at that time (Bruce 96-97). King James himself took the lead in the translation work along with forty-seven of the finest Hebrew and Greek scholars of that time.

“The work was divided up between them, with the Old Testament was entrusted over to three panels, the New Testament to two, and the Apocrypha to one” (Bruce 98). The Bishops’ Bible guided the translators in their work. As much as possible, they tried to use the common name or forms of the biblical characters in the new translation. However, it was noticeable that they failed to synchronize the use of biblical names in the New and Old Testaments. For instance, the name Elias in the New Testament was Elijah in the Old Testament.

After two years of translation work of King James’ group, the bible that later became known as the Authorized Version was successfully published. Although the King James Version is commonly known as the Authorized Version, it should be interesting to note that “it was never formally authorized by any competent body either in church or state” (Bruce 99). Unlike the English Book of Prayer, which was imposed by a Parliamentary Act, the King James Version was not formally authorized for use in the Church of England.

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