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The Durable King James

Originally the Beacon Lights staff asked me to write an article on the topic: “The Usefulness of Modern Bible Translations.” The more that I thought and read on this subject the more I became plagued with questions. They were: What is wrong with the Bible we use, the King James Version? What makes it the Word of God for thou­sands, if not millions, of Christians through­out the English speaking world? In a word, what makes it so durable? And there was my topic: ‘“The Durable King James.”

As is true of any fine work, a work of quality and worth, there lies behind that work an ancestry of quality. The King James Version of the Bible has an an­cestry — a lineage — of quality Biblical scholarship that extends back almost two hundred years before King James called the Conference at Hampton Court in 1604, which in 1611 produced the King James Version.

Although the lineage of the King James Version actually goes back to the Pre- Reformation period, the English Bibles translated during and after the Reformation are more familiar to us. A host of Bibles were translated at this time, but two of them stand out from all the rest. These are Tyndale’s Scriptures and the Geneva Bible. Tyndale’s Scriptures are outstanding because they were the first to be translated from the original languages. Also, Tyndale’s Scriptures were widely read by the common people. The Geneva Bible is outstanding because it was the most popular Bible in English history prior to the King James Version. Consider, then, these two Bibles.

William Tyndale’s life and works are fas­cinating. A few of the highlights of this man’s life will give some insight into his work of translating the Scriptures into English.

William Tyndale was born about 1494 in Gloucestershire. He attended Oxford, and, later, Cambridge Universities. While he was at Cambridge, he studied Greek and the Greek New Testament of Erasmus. After his stay at Cambridge he tutored the chil­dren of Sir John Walsh. Here he met many traveling church leaders of the day with whom he discussed the new ideas coming out of Germany. Often at the center of these discussions was the idea of the sole authority of the Scriptures in the life of the Christian. At one of these meetings Tyndale proclaimed to these church leaders these prophetic words:

If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scrip­ture than thou doest.1

From the Walsh family home he went to London. He presented some of his trans­lated work to the leading church officials. Their attitude was expressed as: “Room enough was there in the Lord’s House for belly cheer; but none to translate the New Testament.”’ In May of 1524, he left London for Germany, and little did he know that he left England for good. After he landed at Hamburg, his movements are uncertain and his journeyings hard to trace. His sole aim, however, remained the same; he went to Germany to search out Reforma­tion sympathizers who could help him print and publish his translated Scriptures (at this time he had already translated only parts of the New Testament). He had little suc­cess in Hamburg, so in June of 1525 he traveled to Cologne.

In Cologne he finally found a printer, but all did not go well here either. Cologne at that time was a hot-bed for an anti-Reformation movement. Tyndale translated in secret and a printer and his men printed the forbidden work behind closed and locked doors. Before the work was com­pleted, the operation was discovered, and Tyndale fled with the unfinished work to Worms. The city of Worms unlike Cologne was a stronghold of the Reformation. Here Martin Luther a few years before had made his famous stand before the Romish Diet. Now it provided Tyndale space, time, and security to do his translating un­hindered. Peter Schoeger printed the Testa­ments, and, in 1526, the first ones were smuggled into England.

Chased and hounded all of his life on the Continent, William Tyndale was finally caught. Through the instigation of the Eng­lish Romish Church authorities, John Dobneck (Cochlaeus) kidnapped him and turned him over to the officers of Emperor Charles V who were determined to rid the Pope of his enemies. He was taken to Vilvorde Castle near Brussels, and from May of 1535 until October of 1536 Tyndale suf­fered in a cold, dark, and damp dungeon. His work on the Old Testament was yet uncompleted; he wanted to finish it. Echo­ing the requests of the Apostle Paul im­prisoned in Rome, Tyndale requested his Hebrew Bible, his lexicon, warmer clothing for the winter, and a candle to light his work. He never stopped working until on October 6, 1536, with cord and fire, his enemies snuffed out his life. His dying prayer was: “Lord, open the King of Eng­land’s eyes.”

Tyndale’s work was finished, bhut the Lord was not finished with Tyndale’s work: for Bishop Wescott in his A General View of the History of the English Bible writes concerning Tyndale’s influence on the King James Version.

Not only did Tyndale contribute to it directly the substantial basis of half of the Old Testament (in all probability) and of the whole of the New, but he established a standard of Biblical translation which others followed. It is even of less moment that by far the greater part of his translation remains intact in our present Bibles, than that his spirit animates the whole …. His in­fluence decided that our Bible should be popular and not literary, speaking in a simple dialect.3

Space does not allow us to pursue the stories behind the Coverdale’s Bible (1535), the first printed English Bible; Matthew’s Bible (1539); The Great Bible (1539); or The Bishop’s Bible (1568). The latter was used as the basis for the King James Version, and all the rest, including Tyn­dale’s, Whitchurch’s, and The Geneva Bible, were used when they agreed better with the text than the Bishop’s Bible.

There is one more Bible that greatly in­fluenced the King James Version. This Bible was the Bible of William Shakespeare, John Bunyan, the Elizabethan sea dogs, and Cromwellian soldiers. This Bible was one of the first English Bibles to come to the New World. It was the first to contain versifications of the Psalms, chapter and verse divisions, and the use of italics. It was the first Bible that was easy to read and carry — the print was clear, the book was small. Prior to the King James Version this Bible was the mostly widely read Bible in all of the English speaking world; for from 1560 to 1644 this Bible went through no less than 140 editions. This highly un­usual and highly influential Bible was the Geneva Bible.

The Geneva Bible was unusual for yet another and more important reason. This Bible, that bore the name of the city in which John Calvin labored, was a Calvinistic Bible. Geneva was a haven for persecuted Calvinists from all over Europe. “Bloody” Mary, Queen of Scots, persecuted the Cal­vinists in England and Scotland. Many fled to this haven. In Geneva these people es­tablished their own English Church. John Knox was their first pastor. William Whittingham, John Calvin’s brother-in-law, suc­ceeded John Knox. Building upon the work of Tyndale and Coverdale, using the recent works of Theodore Beza and Pagninus, William Whittingham, Anthony Gilby, and Thomas Sampson, his helpers, produced this work.

The production of this Bible brings up a point that distinguishes the Reformation from almost any other major religious move­ment in history. The Reformation was not a religious upheaval in the sense that the people were looking for something new, but it was an upheaval that was a return to something that had been lost. It was a return to the basics. One of these basics was the sole authority of the Word of God. Coupled with this sole authority was the idea that everyone must bow to that author­ity — monarch, bishop, pope, and plow boy. In order to bow to that supreme author­ity everyone must know the Scriptures. All the Reformers adhere to this idea, and to assure that everyone knew the Scriptures, they made the Scriptures available to every­one in his own language. The number of vernacular Bibles printed during and im­mediately following the Reformation is simply phenomenal.

The English used the Geneva and for them it was a durable Bible, durable for the same reason the King James Version is dur­able today. Behind them both lay quality scholarship and a deep respect for the Word of God, but they are durable for yet another reason.

Biologists and physiologists maintain that the organs and muscles of man’s physical body are made to follow this simple rule: Use them or lose them. The same is true of Bible reading and Bible study. The Geneva Bible was widely read in the home, it was memorized, it was recited, and it was sung. It was used consistently in the home and the school. It was written upon the hearts of men, women, and children. The same is true of the King James. The fact that these Bibles are used in no small way contributed to their durability.

Young people, you have rich heritage in the King James Version. Many are predict­ing gleefully its doom to the musty archives of forgotten hooks. Use it, and their predic­tions are doomed.

 

  1. Margaret Hills, A Ready Reference His­tory of the English Bible, New York: American Bible Society, 1971, p. 5.
  2. Geddes Mac Gregor, A Literary History of the Bible, New York: Abingdon Press, 1968, p. 112.
  3. Margaret Hills, A Ready Reference His­tory of the English Bible, New York: American Bible Society, 1971, p. 7.