How we got the Bible

  GRAIN ships from the continent were docked at London. Their cargo was not all it purported to be, however. There was contraband hidden amongst the supplies of wheat.

 It was 1526 and the illegal goods consisted of copies of the New Testament. Church and state held a stranglehold over the minds of men and women. They did not wish the Bible to be read. They did not wish their false teaching and wicked practices to be exposed.

 These copies of the New Testament were in English. The common people would be able to understand them. Soon they would read the Bible for themselves for the first time. They would observe how different its teaching was from what they had been taught. Consequently the new books were banned. As many as could be found were burned. Sometimes those selling them, or even possessing them, were burnt too.

 This is just one aspect of a fascinating story. The translations of the Bible available today are the end of a long line of events.

 Most of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew. It was the language of the Jews. By the time of the apostles, however, a translation had been made into Greek. We call this the Septuagint because it was made by seventy scholars. The New Testament writers were familiar with this translation. They quoted from it in their preaching. The New Testament was also written in Greek.

Translations were later made from the Greek into Latin. The best of these was done by a scholar named Jerome at the end of the 4th Century. Latin was the language of the Romans whose empire stretched across most of the known world. However, Latin died out soon after the Roman Empire. For hundreds of years, there were no Bibles in the languages commonly spoken. These were the dark ages. Very few had the opportunity of learning to read or write.

There were others who were not slow to take advantage of this situation. Corruption spread fast. Sometimes it was deliberate. Wicked men saw ways of making money by misleading and terrorising ignorant people. Sometimes it was sheer apathy that led to wrong practices. Sometimes there were genuine misunderstandings in communication that twisted the message.

A Bible for the Plough Boy 
John Wycliffe was anxious that men and women should have the Bible in their own tongue. He translated into English from the Latin. His was the first complete Bible in English in 1384. The printing press had not yet been invented, however. Wycliffe's Bible was handwritten. Copies took a long time to produce and were expensive.

 William Tyndale shared Wycliffe's concern. He vowed to his employer, Sir John Walsh, "If God spare my life ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scriptures than thou dost". He worked to translate the New Testament from the original Greek.

 By this time printing was possible. It was Tyndale's printed New Testament which had begun to arrive at London docks in 1525-6. It was this that caused such a stir. Tyndale had been branded a heretic and forced to flee to the continent to complete his work.

 Translation work on the Old Testament was well underway when Tyndale was betrayed. He was arrested and imprisoned. After a trial in which the verdict was a foregone conclusion, Tyndale was strangled and burnt at the stake. His dying prayer has become famous: "Lord, open the king of England's eyes".

 By 1535 there was a complete English printed Bible. It was the work of a man named Myles Coverdale. It relied heavily on Tyndale's New Testament. Translation of most of the Old Testament was from Latin or Greek.

 A friend of Tyndale called John Rogers produced a Bible in 1537. It was called Matthew's Bible. This disguised the fact that it was largely the work of Tyndale. He had translated about one third of the Old Testament from the Hebrew before his death.

In Every Church in England

By 1539 the Great Bible had been produced. This was published as the result of an injunction from the Secretary of State to the clergy. One was placed in every church. The tide was turning. Now people clamoured to read the Bible. It had often to be chained to the lectern to prevent its removal!

 The English Bible was still not finally established, however. It see-sawed between acceptance and rejection as different monarchs reigned. Henry VIII had broken with Rome and sanctioned the Great Bible. Then he turned tail and forbade the common people to read the Bible again. He ordered any of Tyndale's work to be destroyed.

 In 1547 Edward VI came to the throne. Bibles poured from the printing presses. People saved hard to be able to afford their own copy.

Queen Mary succeeded him in 1553 and everything changed. Bibles were removed from churches. John Rogers and others were burnt at the stake. Others, following in the steps of Tyndale, fled to the continent to continue translation and printing.

 When Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558, public reading of the Bible was restored. Soon the work of those who had fled was making itself felt in a new work of 1560. It was known as the Geneva Bible. It was more compact than other Bibles. The original manuscripts had contained no chapters or verses. These were first added to the Latin Bible. Now, the Geneva Bible divided the text into numbered verses. This is a great help to referencing and finding parts of Scripture. It can sometimes be a disadvantage where no division is really appropriate.

 The Geneva Bible also contained marginal notes and explanations of the text. Sometimes these were controversial. Bishops made a revision of the Great Bible in 1568. We know it as the Bishop's Bible. The Geneva Bible was still the most used amongst ordinary people, however.

 In 1604 King James suggested revising and improving the Bishop's Bible. Many of the best scholars were employed in the work. In 1611 the new Bible was published, "authorised" by the king. Still today the Authorised Version is one of the most well-loved of those available.

 In 1870 it was decided to revise the version of 1611. New documents had come to light which improved the reliability of the New Testament. A number of English words had changed their meanings and spellings. In 1885 the Revised Version was published.

 Within the last fifty or sixty years there have been many modern translations. These have tried to use the language and idiom of today. Some of these are very helpful. Others are very free translations. They use words found in only one or two manuscripts instead of taking the majority evidence.

 All translations tell basically the same story, however. The most important thing is to read the Bible, in whatever version we have. Minor differences will be discovered as familiarity with text grows. Establishing a pattern of regular reading is of primary importance.

 It is a tragedy to think how little read the Scriptures are today. At different stages of history men have clamoured to read them. Some have given the wages of several weeks to possess them, others walked miles to hear them. Some have risked their lives to pass them on to us, others have been tortured and burnt to death to translate them. How much value do we place on this word of God?


From: ‘The Bible, the Lord Jesus and You’

by John S. Roberts

Available to read online at