Highlights on the English Bible
Since the inception of the New Testament in English by Tyndale, numerous editions and translations followed in quick succession. Two of these were Matthew’s Bible and Taverner’s Bible.
The year 1537 saw the appearance of an important English version bearing on the title page the name of a certain Thomas Matthew. Probably this was a pseudonym for John Rogers, a former assistant of Tyndale. At any rate, he should not be considered a translator but just an editor or compiler.
His Bible consists of all of Tnydale’s work supplemented by that of Coverdale. Yet this Bible is a significant one, for it quickly attracted the attention of Cranmer, who, by way of Thomas Cromwell, secured for it the approval of Henry VIII. A royal license was issued for it, so that by a stroke of irony Tyndale’s work came out with official commendation only a year after his untimely death.
The Bible of Richard Taverner was published in 1539. It is simply a revision of Matthew’s Bible, in which Taverner’s fine Greek scholarship helps to attain greater accuracy in the New Testament.
Taverner’s work is significant if only for the way that existing translations were refined and further investigated as to accuracy, though it must be admitted that an absolutely accurate translation is non-existent. Taverner was one of many in the line of Bible translators whose ambition was to present the reading public a translation that reflected as accurately as possible the original Greek.
His edition, though, was quickly eclipsed by the publication of the Great Bible in the same year, 1539.
The Geneva Bible
A significant event had taken place during the reign of bloody Mary. English exiles in Geneva, the hub of the Calvinistic Reformation, had continued the work of translation and revision which had been going on steadily from the publication of the first edition of Tyndale’s New Testament.
In 1557 they produced a revised New Testament, the work of William Whittingham, who had married a relative of Calvin and later became Dean of Durham. He introduced the verse divisions, first found in Stephanus’s Greek New Testament of 1551. He also used italics for supplementary words, went back to “church” instead of Tyndale’s “congregation,” and substituted “General Epistles” for the earlier “Catholic Epistles.”
This 1557 translation was only the first part of a larger project which reached its culmination with the total Bible of 1560, normally called the Geneva Bible from its place of origin and also, perhaps, its theological slant.
The Apocryphal books are included, although with warnings not to accord them the same authority as canonical writings. The polemical notes, which champion Calvinism and condemn Romanism, caused offence in some quarters, but for others they gave the Bible its strength. In fact, they are no stronger than was customary in annotated Bibles of the period.
During the reign of Elizabeth the publication of the Geneva Bible went on unhindered. The work attained considerable popularity with the rise of various forms of Elizabethan Puritanism. The Scottish edition of 1579 was the first Bible ever printed in Scotland. Even in later competition with the Authorised Version the Geneva Bible held its own for many years in Scotland. In England, too, editions of the Geneva Bible continued up to 1644.
In the spirit of this great work, Thomas Nelson publishers have recently issued the “New Geneva Study Bible,” bringing the light of the Reformation to Scripture with its condensed and well-written annotations.
The Authorised Version
Pressured by the Puritans, James I summoned a conference at Hampton Court in 1604. A proposal of Puritan leader John Reynolds read as follows: “That a translation be made of the whole Bible, as consonant as can be to the original Hebrew and Greek.” It received the enthusiastic support of the monarch.
Arrangements were quickly set in hand to implement the decision. Responsibility for the Old Testament devolved on three panels of scholars, for the New Testament on two, and for the Apocrypha on one. Fifty-four of the finest scholars of the day, both Anglican and Puritan, were chosen to serve on the panels.
As the preface explains the translators were not expected to begin with a clean slate. The aim was revision, not a fresh translation. The Bishops’ Bible provided the starting-point, but the revisers could also use Tyndale, Coverall, Matthew’s Bible, the Great Bible and of course the Geneva Bible. All these versions were checked against the tongues in which “God was pleased to speak to His Church by His prophets and Apostles.”
The preface modestly admits that the precise meaning of many words has not been attained. It therefore makes a plea for an ongoing work of revision, perfection being beyond achievement in all human enterprises.
Certain rules governed the translation:
1. Change was not to be made merely for the sake of change.
2. Biblical names were to correspond to popular usage.
3. Ecclesiastical terms such as ‘church’ and ‘baptism’ were to be retained.
4. Synonyms might freely be used where the Hebrew or Greek word was the same.
5. Notes were not to be included apart from alternative renderings in the margins.
6. The practice of indicating supplementary words by different type was to be continued.
7. Chapter and verse divisions were to be employed.
When the first edition came out in 1611 it carried in its title the phrase “appointed to be read in churches.” This, along with official sponsorship and the known backing of the king probably helped to give the new Bible in England the common name of Authorised Version.
Although many readers were attached to existing versions, especially the Geneva Bible, the Authorised met with a good reception. The Authorised undoubtedly merited the position it fairly quickly came to occupy in the English-speaking Christian world.
It is based on the Massoretic Text and the Textus Receptus, the divinely-preserved texts throughout the centuries.
Analyses has shown that as much as sixty percent of the Authorised comes from previous versions and that always the underlying genius is that of Tyndale and Coverdale. Their hands may still be traced clearly in this consummation of the Reformation effort, a case in point of the church growing up into maturity.
It achieved considerable accuracy as a result of the many years of work and experience that has preceded it. Freshness, vigour, simplicity and rhythms make it particularly impressive in public and private reading. Up to our own day no other version can compete with it.