Written by: John Sernaque
This will be the third part of a series of articles outlining the history of the Bible. These articles will point you to the most accurate translation of the Bible, and will help you to avoid the many spurious translations which exist today. This series of articles are based on the book “The King James Bible and Modern Translations” written by Vance Ferrell. Let’s pick up where we left off.
The 15th Century Greek Texts
A Greek Text, based on manuscripts comprising the Majority Text, was produced. Until this time, the only way to translate the Bible was either from the Italia (the Waldensian Bible) or from Jerome’s Latin Vulgate. Before this, the Greek Texts had been hidden away in libraries. At the beginning of the Reformation, Greek Texts began to be prepared. As the Majority Text was 90-95% of the manuscripts, it made for an excellent Greek Text. The first scholar to prepare a Greek Text was Desiderius Erasmus. It was his Greek text that laid the foundations of the Reformation throughout Europe. All Reformation translations (with the exception of the French, which was based on the Waldensian Bible) were translated from Erasmus’ Greek Text. Erasmus’ Greek Text was published in 1516, just one year before Martin Luther nailed his thesis on the church door at Wittenberg and began the Reformation. Five editions were produced, the third being the standard for the follow-up Greek texts of Stephenus, Beza, and Elzevir. All were based on the Majority Text and were opposed to the Sinaiticus and Vaticanus. The third edition is considered the standard and was called “Textus Receptus.” Because it made use of the greatest number of Majority Text Greek manuscripts, it was considered the most accurate of the Greek Texts. This was the Greek Text used to translate the Kings James Bible (1611).
The Kings James Bible was the last Protestant Bible produced in England. After that came the English Revised Version of 1881, which was based on the Westcott-Hort critical Greek text. Modern scholars rejected Erasmus’ Greek Text, even though they recognize it was a very good one. The Erasmus Greek Text became the standard for 300 years. It formed the basis of every English Bible translation from Tyndale to the King James as it was superior to the Westcott-Hort, which was based on only two Greek manuscripts. Because the Majority Text manuscripts reached back to the earliest times, Erasmus’ text was an excellent one.
The Reformation Translations
The Waldenses helped get the Reformation started through their Bible. Calvin was influenced by Four bibles that were produced under Waldensian influence: a Greek text, a Waldensian vernacular, a French, and an Italian. Calvin was led to his work by Olivetan, a Waldensian, and Farel, also a Waldensian. Persecution at Paris, and Farel’s solicitation caused Calvin to settle in Geneva, where he brought an edition of the Textus Receptus (the Received Text). This later edition of the Received Text is in reality a Greek New Testament brought out under Waldensian influence. The German, French, and English leaders of the Reformation were convinced that the Received Text was the genuine New Testament because it matched the Received Text which in Waldensian form came down from the days of the apostles. Both the Waldensian Bible (from the Italia) and the great majority of Greek manuscripts were from the same source, the Majority Text as we know it.
There were four European translations of the Bible. The Bohemian was an early translation. But as the power of the pope increased, and intent on enslaving the people, a bull was issued forbidding public worship in the Bohemian tongue. Many of the Waldenses and Albigenses came to Bohemia, where they labored in secret, preserving the true faith from century to century. The Bible was translated into French, and the persecution began immediately. Lefevre undertook the translation of the New Testament at Meaux at the same that Luther’s German Bible was coming off the press in Wittenberg. Soon the peasants in Meaux were in possession of the Holy Scriptures. Every day the number of converts increased. But the papal leaders eventually prevailed and the stake was set up. Farel was forced to flee to Switzerland, seconding the work of Zwingli. Yet he continued to exert influence upon the reform in France. With the help of other exiles, the German writings and the French Bible were printed in large quantities and sold by colporteurs in France. The profits from the work allowed them to continue it. Luther’s German Bible was the basis for the German Reformation. The priests were alarmed that the common people would be able to discuss with them the precepts of God’s Word and that their own ignorance would be exposed. This encouraged the people to know what it really taught. The Bible was translated into Danish. Denmark declared its acceptance of the reformed faith. Olaf Petri translated the Bible into Swedish. The king declared it the book that the entire nation should read. The king of Sweden accepted the Protestant faith. It was ordered that the ministers should explain the Scriptures and that the children in the schools should be taught to read the Bible. Sweden became one of the bulwarks of Protestantism. GC, p. 244. Waldensian traveling teachers helped bring the Bible to Holland. These teachers had the character of the Vaudois missionaries. They penetrated to the Netherlands. The Waldensian Bible they translated in verse into the Dutch language.
The Latin Vulgate
The Vatican highly valued Jerome’s Latin Vulgate. In 1452-1456, Johann Gutenberg produced the first printed Bible in the world. It was the Vulgate. Rome preferred to keep the Bible hidden, including its Vulgate. Through the centuries, all Roman Catholic translations have been based on the Vulgate, until 1966 when the Jerusalem Bible was published. “The Vulgate was the chief weapon relied upon to combat and destroy the Bible of the Waldenses.” Benjamin G. Wilkinson, Our Authorized Version Vindicated, p.51. A few years after the Council of Trent completed its work, in 1590 Pope Sixtus V commissioned the Vatican Press to publish an edition of the Vulgate. Pope Clement VIII issued another one in 1592. It became the standard Vulgate used for Catholic Bible translations to the present day. Because of its many errors, Protestants recognized the Vulgate as a dangerous translation.
The Tyndale Bible (1525-1526)
In the history of the English Bible, Willian Tyndale’s (1494-1536) is the most important of the Bible translations. It was the first English translation from the Greek Text. Tyndale used Erasmus’ text. It was such a good translation, that all the later ones, up to and including the King James, were almost identical to it. Tyndale went to Cambridge to study Greek under Erasmus. Tyndale was a genius with foreign languages, including Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, English, and French. It was this ability in languages that enabled Tyndale to translate the Majority Text into English. That is why the King James Bible is basically Tyndale’s. As Luther took Erasmus Greek Text to produce the German Bible, so did Tyndale in producing the English Bible. It was while reading the Erasmus’ Greek Text that Tyndale found Christ and was converted. He fearlessly preached his convictions, urging that all doctrines be tested by the Scriptures. His mission was to produce an outstanding English translation of the Holy Bible. Only by the Bible could men arrive at the truth. Driven from his home by persecution, he went to London. But again, the violence of the papists forced him to flee.
In 1524 Tyndale went to Wittenberg and continued the work under Luther’s guidance. At Cologne he began to print his version of the New Testament from the Greek Text as edited by Erasmus. An English agent roused the authorities against him, so Tyndale fled from Catholic Cologne to Protestant Worms, and there printed 6,000 copies. But then Tyndale was captured by papal agents. Early in 1535, a trusting Tyndale was betrayed by an undercover Catholic agent, Henry Phillips. The pair departed Tyndale’s boardinghouse for dinner. Phillips pretentiously insisted on Tyndale going before him. Once outside the door, Phillips pointed at him from behind his back as the sign for waiting officials, who promptly took him to the dungeon. Throughout his 18- month imprisonment, Tyndale suffered accordingly. Finally, as he died at the stake, Tyndale cried out “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!” At the very time when Tyndale was burned at Vilvorde, a folio edition of his translation was printed in London. This was the first copy of the Scriptures ever printed on English ground. Amazingly, king Henry VIII of England sanctioned the printing of two English Bibles within a year after Tyndale had been martyred in October 1536.
After the Tyndale Bible (1526) came five other English Bibles: the Coverdale Bible (1535), the Great Bible (1539), the Geneva Bible (1560), the Bishop’s Bible (1568), and the Authorized (King James) Bible (1611). Because of his influence on the five subsequent Bibles, Tyndale has been designated as the “Father of the English Bible.” It should be noted that Tyndale did not complete all of the Old Testament translation prior to his arrest. Tyndale’s Bible was a threat to the Catholics since it was the first English Bible to be printed from the Greek Text, which meant it could be distributed in large quantities. It was Rome’s intent to keep the people in ignorance, but the invention of the printing press was a deathblow to that idea. The invention of the printing press by Johann Gutenberg gave the Reformation its power, but also started all modern research and scientific endeavor.
The Coverdale Bible (1535)
Miles Coverdale had been Tyndale’s proofreader at Antwerp. He continued the work laid down by Tyndale when in prison and 18 months later martyred. Coverdale based his Bible on Tyndale’s translation. In the sections Tyndale left undone, Coverdale used Zwingli’s Zurich Bible (1529) while referring to Luther’s German Bible (1522-1534). Coverdale published his first edition in Cologne and dedicated it to the King of England. Coverdale was essentially an editor who gathered together the best materials within reach. Less than one year after Tyndale’s death, the entire Bible had been translated, printed, and distributed in England with the full permission of the King. Coverdale’s Bibles were the first printed complete Bibles in the English language.
The Matthew Bible (1537)
This translation was made by John Rogers who used the pseudonym Thomas Matthew. Rogers worked closely with Tyndale and knew Coverdale. When Tyndale was in prison, he turned over to Rogers his unpublished work which he had prepared in prison- his translation of Joshua to 2 Chronicles. Rogers published a new Bible which had Tyndale’s final translation material. The rest of the Old Testament was from the Tyndale and Coverdale Bibles. It was dedicated to King Henry VIII and Queen Jane. The king gave the Bible his approval.
The Great Bible (1539)
Because it was so large a book, the common folk referred to it as the “Great Bible.” It was also sometimes called the “Cranmer Bible.” The Matthew Bible was a compilation of Tyndale and Coverdale and was the best English Bible in print. A leading official in Henry’s court, Thomas Cromwell, wanted a complete translation. He obtained the services of Coverdale to prepare a revised Bible. Coverdale used accomplished Greek and Hebrew scholars in so doing. As there was no printing facility large enough in London to produce these large Bibles, Coverdale went to Paris in the spring of 1538. With the French printer Regnault, and under royal license, the printing began. However, the inquisition ordered the work to be confiscated as Rome did not want any more Bibles. But Coverdale was able to transfer printed sheets, printers, presses, type, and other equipment and supplies to London. In April 1539, the new Bible was fully printed. Again, as it was so large, it was called the “Great Bible.” This Bible was a revised version of the Matthew Bible, which was the most complete presentation of Tyndale’s work. In 1526, Tyndale’s New Testament was publicly burned at St Paul’s Cathedral in London. In 1538, the same book under a different name, was ordered by royal authority to be placed in public places for all to read. Bishop Tunstall had earlier bought up Tyndale’s books so he could burn them. Now that the situation had changed, he had his name placed on the title page of two of the 1840 editions of the Great Bible as officially endorsing its publication. Within two years, seven editions of the Great Bible were printed. It became the basis of the English Prayer Book.
To be continued in the next article, Part 4.