Historical Overview

Paul Dyck, Associate Professor of English, Canadian Mennonite University

History: Pre-Sixteenth Century

        The translation of the Bible into English had been problematic since the 14th century, when the translations of John Wycliffe and other Oxford scholars became a popular resource and symbol of the anti-hierarchical Lollard movement.  For the Lollards, making the Bible accessible by putting it into the common tongue rightly took both power (both interpretive and political) out of the bishops’ hands and put it into those of the congregation. Yet, even while church and secular authorities suppressed the Lollards and Wycliffe bibles both as heretical, Wycliffe’s translation gained a quiet but massive popularity among the upper classes, who were not inclined to sedition and for whom the English translation proved an accessible text: Over 250 copies survive, more than any other medieval English text.  In comparison, the nearest rival, The Prick of Conscience, survives in only 117 copies, and there are only 64 copies of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

The Sixteenth Century

        From the beginning of the controversy around translation, then, the question of the text itself was not as inherently politically dangerous as the question of who was reading it: as Thomas More argued in the early 16th century, there was no reason not to have the English Bible, so long as it was in the bishops’ power to distribute it to those who would “vse it reuerently with humble hart and lowly mynd, rather seeking therin occasion of deuocyon [devotion] than of dyspscyon [disposition, i.e., the making of argument].”

        More, however, lived in the age of print, and while the control of manuscript bibles had been more-or-less feasible, the capacity of the printers to provide great numbers of copies made the task of preventing the circulation of bibles to a receptive population practically impossible.  William Tyndale, the great translator and target of More, moved to Hamburg and translated the New Testament into English, having editions printed in Germany and smuggled into England, where many copies were burned but many others circulated, as many as 50,000.

        One of the great reversals in the history of the English Bible was in the official treatment of Tyndale’s text.  Officially it and he were declared heretical, and along with the burning of books, Tyndale himself was kidnapped from the free city of Antwerp and put on trial for heresy and to death October 6, 1536.  At virtually the same time, however, Henry was declaring himself the head of the Church of England and thus beginning the English Reformation, which raised the question of an English Bible again, and at a Convocation of Bishops in 1537 the argument for the rightness and the irrepressibility of the Bible in the common tongue won the day.  Within that year two English Bibles—the Coverdale Bible and the Matthew’s Bible—were printed and authorized by royal decree, one influenced by and the other containing Tyndale’s New Testament and his translation of  Joshua through 2 Chronicles.  The name Matthew’s Bible comes from the name “Thomas Matthew” on its title page, a pseudonym for its editor, John Rogers: notably, Rogers apparently did not consider it expedient for either the main translator (Tyndale, the dead heretic) or for the editor (himself, alive and wishing to remain so) to be named on the title page.

        These two Bibles quickly gave way to a third, the Great Bible.  Coverdale—a Latin scholar—did not translate from the original Hebrew and Greek, but rather from Latin and German translations, including the Vulgate, with reference to Tyndale.  On the other hand, Rogers had compiled various translations to produce the Matthew Bible and he had added marginal notes that were strongly and divisively pro-Protestant.  Henry VIII thus authorized an ambitious project: a single official Bible to be printed in Paris by the great French printer François Regnault.  However, the Inquisition interfered in the production, and eventually Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s chief minister, had all the materials, including the standing type, as well as Regnault’s presses themselves, purchased and, along with Regnault’s compositors, brought to London, where the printing continued, so that in April 1539, the first edition of the Great Bible was finished.

        Movement of translators, printing equipment, and books across the channel was a constant dynamic.  The great centers of the print trade were not in England, but in Germany, Italy, and France.  Besides the German and French printing sites mentioned above, as well as the city of Antwerp, other Flemish sites and Geneva, Switzerland, were to prove instrumental in providing the technical expertise, the commercial capacity, and, at given times, the political and religious conditions necessary to the work. 

        The sixteenth century work of translating and printing the English Bible began in Germany, Antwerp, and Paris before moving to London, but before long, Mary came to the throne, and English reformers were once again in exile, this time to Geneva, where they soon produced the most influential Bible of the time, known as the Geneva Bible.  This Bible, first printed in 1560 (the New Testament was printed in 1557), had several distinctive marks.  The most obvious is its size.  These bibles were smaller than the Matthew’s or Great bibles because while the former were meant to be placed on a stand prominently in each parish church, chapel or cathedral, the Geneva bibles were meant for personal use.  A second prominent mark is the title page, which shows a scene from the book of Exodus, of the Israelites being led by God out of slavery in Egypt.  The square image is surrounded on all four sides by passages of scripture, which typographically and symbolically as well as verbally demonstrates God’s protection of God’s people through the word.  Significantly, this image imagines the English godly as Israelites fleeing their captivity to the Catholic Mary, so that England becomes a stand-in for Egypt.  A third prominent mark is the typeface—roman rather than black letter—which identifies the text with textual scholarship rather than church authority.  And a fourth mark is the marginal commentary, interpreting the text via reformed scholarship.  This Bible was within a few years being printed in London by Christopher Barker, father to Robert, the printer of the 1611 KJB.  Queen Mary had died in 1558, and when her protestant half-sister Elizabeth came to the throne, the reformed scholars came back to England while the Roman Catholic scholars left, later producing an English Catholic Bible across the channel in the towns of Doauy and Rheims.  The Geneva Bible quickly became the dominant English Bible, read by Shakespeare, John Donne, and King James himself.

        In spite of its popularity, or rather, because of it, the Geneva Bible rankled the English authorities, both church and secular.  The translation was clearly superior to any others (though it followed every other Bible of the time in building on what had gone before), but its association with continental reformed ecclesial politics was a thorn in the English authorities’ collective side.  While the English church was broadly Calvinist in its theology, it retained the episcopacy and high view of monarchy that other Calvinist churches rejected as Roman Catholic, and thus the Geneva Bible, for all its popular range, was nonetheless divisive.  The bishops’ attempt to update the Great Bible with the so-called Bishops’ Bible in 1568 produced some very fine church bibles (the first edition, included here, features the finest illustrations of any of the early English bibles), but did not significantly undermine the position of Geneva as England’s Bible.

1611: the new Bible

        We thus come to the moment in 1604 of the mandate for the KJB.  The new king, James I, called the Hampton Court Conference in order to reconcile the puritan and establishment elements in the English church.  Out of this conference came James’s order that scholars of both parties work together to produce a new Bible, putatively an improvement of the Bishops translation, but in reality a thorough revisiting of the best available Hebrew and Greek texts and all the English translations, most prominently, the Geneva.  The work was undertaken by six companies of translators: two in Westminster, two in Oxford, and two in Cambridge, and was ultimately published by the King’s Printer, Robert Barker.  While the new Bible did not immediately replace the Geneva, it did eventually fulfill James’s goal for it: to be the one English Bible for both church and private use, regardless of ecclesial leaning.  That it became England’s one Bible is all the more remarkable in that England’s one church within the next few decades did not itself hold, but rather fragmented into a multiplicity of sects.  While the new Bible did not unify the church politically, it—perhaps all the more remarkably—became the one text that churches of radically different natures all read, in England and its colonies, until the twentieth century, when once again, many translations proliferated.