Legacy of an English Bible

The English Bible, perhaps more than any other translation of the Scriptures, enabled the timeless truths of God’s Word to transform millions of souls.  This endeavor did not form in the heart of ordained clergymen but in the bosom of passionate individuals who held the Scriptures as divine literature.

The trying fires endured by early translators left an indelible mark on English translation of Holy Scripture.

* Citations denoted in parenthesis; references provided at end of article.

The translation of Scripture is an immensely complicated task involving the selection of scholars, choosing the source texts, translation techniques to be used, and the particular beliefs of the translators. Modern translations include the Revised Standard Version of 1885, the American Standard Version of 1901, the New American Standard Bible of 1971, the New International Version of 1973, and the New King James Version of 1982. Although these are not all the modern English Bibles available, they are common alternatives to the venerable King James Bible (KJB or KJV) or Authorized Version (AV) of 1611.

There are diverse arguments for the dethronement of the KJB’s three-century reign; however, based upon several factors the AV is an enduring and faithful translation of the Holy Writ into English.  Many facets separate the character of the KJB from its descendants: a true, direct carrying-over of Scripture terminates at the KJV – but how the AV originated is a legacy worthy of exposition.


The roots of the King James Bible are embedded in the soil of its progenitors.  The Anglo-Saxon translation of the New Testament was completed around 995 AD (History 37).

By 1385 John Wycliffe, a British theologian, completed his work on the first translation of the Bible into English (History 1).  Wycliffe’s hand-written manuscripts were translated almost entirely out of the fourth-century Latin Vulgate (LV): manuscripts in the original Hebrew and Greek languages were unavailable to him during his tenure at Oxford University (Tyndale 1).   One man copying Wycliffe’s manuscripts by hand consumed ten months of full-time labor (Defined 1667).

Wycliffe enjoyed little cooperation from the religious authority of his time; however, this lack of assistance resulted partially from disagreements with (and teachings against) the Roman Catholic Church (RCC).  The RCC, during that time, held monumental control over political and social institutions and exercised that control against those perceived as ‘heretics’.  

Wycliffe died a peaceful death, but he so infuriated the RCC that forty-four years after his death the Council of Constance declared John Wycliffe “a notorious heretic… cursing alike him and condemning his memory.  This council also decrees and ordains that his body and bones… be taken out of the ground, and thrown away…” (Foxe 77) 

The RCC ordered Wycliffe to be exhumed, crushed, and scattered in a river.  Wycliffe’s devotion to revealing the Scriptures to common people of England was transferred (along with persecution) to those who took up the pen after him.


The Reformation was not the greatest event to impact translation of the English Bible; rather, invention of the printing press in 1455 by Gutenburg laid the necessary foundation for Reformation ideas to proliferate (History 2). 

Bibles gained the advantage of being mass-produced quicker and in greater numbers compared with laborious hand-written duplication.  The impeccable timing of this invention allowed the Reformation’s transforming power to expand faster and amongst people never allowed to handle the Scriptures or infer fresh meaning from them.  

These dual events (the printing press and the Reformation) ushered in a spiritual awareness – particularly among commoners of Europe who dwelt in the enveloping shadow of imposed ignorance.


Wycliffe’s work remained in circulation until William Tyndale became involved in the project.  Tyndale was a brilliant scholar and theologian; he was self-taught in dozens of various subjects and was fluent in eight languages (History 6). 

William Tyndale expanded Wycliffe’s work immensely by drawing on his powerful command of language and his access to manuscripts of the New Testament preserved in the original Greek tongue.  Tyndale’s complete English New Testament was printed in 1525 (Tyndale 8).  Copies from that time period are
difficult to locate, because the RCC ordered that any of Tyndale’s work that was discovered be burned immediately – thousands of English New Testaments were destroyed (History 6).

Tyndale undertook this mission in the midst of the Spanish Inquisition which, by Tyndale’s time, had incinerated nearly 9,000 and imprisoned 90,000 for their professions of faith contrary to RCC dogma (Defined 1667).

William Tyndale was betrayed for a price, and from his prison cell in Vilvorde, Netherlands the godly man declared that he “never altered one syllable of God’s Word against my conscience, nor would I do so this day if all that is in earth… might be given to me” (Foxe 132). 

For 500 days Tyndale was tortured and interrogated about his Bible translation work (Tyndale 8).  After his refusal to acquiesce to the RCC and renounce his beliefs, Tyndale was brought to the place of his execution. On October 6th, 1536 William Tyndale was tied to a wooden stake and strangled to the edge of death.  When Tyndale saw executioners lighting wood piled at his feet, he said, “Lord! Open the king of England’s eyes!” and there he burned for his work and for his beliefs. (133)

Tyndale’s work built on that of the scholar Erasmus who, in 1516, completed a New Testament translation from preserved Greek and Latin manuscripts (History 3).  Erasmus’s work illuminated substantial differences compared to texts used by the RCC – particularly the LV.  In 1517, after reading the Erasmus New Testament, Martin Luther’s contention with the RCC climaxed, and he nailed 95 Theses of Contention to the door of Wittenberg Monastery (Tyndale 5). 

Luther reached the same conclusion that Erasmus reached: RCC control over interpretation of the Scriptures resulted in distortion of original meanings.  This event heralded the explosive religious splintering of the Protestant Reformation.

Men and women who believed in authority of the Bible have practiced that belief since the first century (after Christ’s crucifixion and during the time of the Apostles).  The notion that denominations outside the RCC emerged from the Protestant Reformation is misguided.  

The Protestant Reformation divided the RCC and presented enemies of Rome with an alternative to Catholicism – breaking the yoke of religious and political power concentrated in Rome.  There are accounts prior to the Reformation of Christians standing against the institutions of the RCC and suffering torture or death or both (Foxe 11).

Prior to the wedding of Romanism and Christianity by Constantine, persecution was in full rage throughout Rome (39).  A military commander named Eustachius was required to participate in a myriad of pagan ceremonies held by Roman rulers: Eustachius had believed on Christ before this juncture, and his refusal caused the loss of his family and of his head (15). 

The Spanish Inquisition fomented the torture and death of 32,000 people disillusioned with RCC teachings (63).  In addition some 340,000 people lost homes, wealth, status, freedom, and spent years confined in dungeons (64).  These victims were not secular criminals: the differences in fundamental Christianity and RCC Christianity was so pronounced that one group was ready to die for their version of truth, and the other group was willing to torture and to murder for their version.  The knowledge of this persecution was not alien to reformers who committed to spreading a truth that seared thousands at the stake.


In 1535, Myles Coverdale and John Rogers inherited Tyndale’s work of translation – accelerating it beyond what Tyndale had envisioned (History 9).  Coverdale finished translating the Old Testament from preserved copies of Hebrew manuscripts.  On October 4th, 1535 the first complete English Bible, known as the Coverdale Bible, was printed (9). 

John Rogers later corrected and updated spelling mistakes in a subsequent printing – adding several notes and alternative translations for words with multiple meanings (10).  Over 95% of Tyndale’s original work was preserved by Coverdale and Rogers (Tyndale 10).  William Tyndale’s powerful command of language was evident in the endurance of his work.

Between the years 1539 and 1608 updates in spelling and vocabulary produced several revisions of previous English Bibles. In 1560, the Geneva Bible became the first English “Study Bible” - it contained extensive notes and references (15).  The Geneva Bible was the first volume that added complete chapter and verse citations to facilitate referencing (15).  The Geneva Bible retained 90% of William Tyndale’s original translation – again demonstrating the accuracy and the depth of his talent (History 16).


In 1604 Protestant clergymen proposed the ‘translation to end all translations’ to King James I at the Hampton Court Conference (King 1).  

The clergymen asserted several points: controversial notes and references in the margins of previous versions confused readers; changes in language structure rendered words obsolete and spelling changes made portions of manuscripts difficult to read; Protestant clergy feared influences from the RCC permeated the ranks of scholars (1).  King James entertained the request and selection of scholars for the project commenced (2).

The theology of the translators held paramount position during the King James Bible translation.  

The scholars’ notes sum up their collective ideology:

But now what piety without truth? What truth (what saving truth) without the word of God?  What word of God (whereof we may be sure) without the Scripture? … And what marvel?  The original thereof being from heaven, not from earth, the author being God, not man; the indicter, the Holy Spirit, not the wit of the Apostles or Prophets; the penmen, such as were sanctified from the womb, and endued with a principal portion of God’s Spirit … Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most holy place; … Indeed without translation into the vulgar tongue, the unlearned are but like children at Jacob’s well (which was deep) without a bucket or something to draw with (Genesis 29:10). (Waite 63)
The men chosen for the translation of the KJV adhered to ‘high-view of Scripture’: ‘highview’ adherents believe divine inspiration of Scripture, and that God will preserve the words of Scripture for eternity (6).  This belief derives from God’s promises in the Bible: “I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor anything taken from it: and God doeth it, that men should fear before him” (King James Bible, Ecclesiastes 3.14). The men working on the King James Bible believed they were handling actual words God had spoken to mankind.


The scholars who embarked on this venture have no equals in any period of history.  Laboring in the Old Testament, Dr. Lancelot Andrews was a master linguist.  Dr. Andrews had accumulated studies in some seventeen European and Oriental languages; additionally, it was noted that Lancelot Andrews was conversant in fifteen of those languages.  He composed a manual of devotions entirely in Greek. (Waite 67)

Assisting Dr. Andrews in Old Testament translation was Dr. William Bedwell.  Dr. Bedwell was a reputed Oriental scholar who was recognized for reviving Arabic language and literature in Europe (Waite 68).  In contemporary translations the meaning of some ancient Hebrew and Aramaic words was undiscovered (69).   
Modern linguists do not have the superior command of languages as was held by Dr. William Bedwell.  Dr. Bedwell compiled lexicons and dictionaries in Persian, Arabic, and Hebrew.  He wielded knowledge of cognate languages such as Arabic, Persian, Syriac, Aramaic, Coptic, Hebrew, Chaldee, and others (69): these languages enabled Dr. Bedwell to identify words common to other languages.

There were other scholars that contributed to the Old Testament translation, and they had qualifications equal or comparable to Dr. Andrews and Dr. Bedwell.  These men were, in addition to academic titans, devoted Bible-believers and ardent defenders of Christian principles (131).  

The task of translating the Old Testament Scriptures was an honor - not a burden – to these men.

The New Testament translation committees were no less qualified than those appointed to the Old Testament.  Sir Henry Savile was renowned for masterful command of Greek and natural brilliance in mathematics.  He translated many Greek works into English, and Sir Savile was tutor in Greek and mathematics to Queen Elizabeth. Sir Savile translated and revised over a thousand volumes of classical Greek writings. (Waite 70)

John Bois was an anomaly – even among colleagues of the translation committees.  Instructed by his father, John read the entire Hebrew Old Testament when he was five years of age (Waite 73).  In college John composed letters to home and to his instructors in Greek and Hebrew.  Additionally, Mr. Bois lived eighty-three years and penned over 30,000 pages of writing.  That volume of work amounts to almost one page per day of his life. (Waite 75)


The translators on the committees possessed credentials that dwarf modern scholars.  The translators themselves, though exceptionally gifted, abided by strict rules that governed translation of Scripture (Defined 1669). 

Rules that directly affected proceedings were considered irrevocable.  For instance, preserved manuscripts of Hebrew and Greek were used whenever possible - but translators also relied on Tyndale’s English Bible.   Suggested changes or revisions to English translations had to be approved by the reviser’s immediate group and subsequently by the entire translation committee. When one group completed translation of an entire book they circulated that book among the other committees for suggested corrections.  (Waite 83-89)

The crucial instrument of this operation was the method to render Hebrew and Greek manuscripts into English.  The method used by contemporary translators is referred to as ‘dynamic equivalence’ (89).   Dynamic equivalence (DE) is a method that utilizes Transformational Grammar, where every form is changed into another (Waite 90).  

Obviously, the Hebrew and Greek contain different sentence structures – but transforming the form of original languages to increase understanding affects the intended meaning.  

The translators of the AV used verbal and formal equivalence.  Verbal equivalence, or ‘word-for-word’, translation prevented alteration or substitution of archaic words: words from Hebrew or Greek manuscripts were rendered as closely as possible into English (89).  

Formal equivalence is the idea that original forms must be transferred precisely to English – even if it sounds awkward (90).  The KJV translators used this method as they carried over original tongues into English; however, if significant English words were missing from the passage they inserted them.  KJB translators indicated inserted words, which appear italicized in reprinted editions.  

The AV translators took every precaution to preserve the meaning and form of original texts.  Comparing, for instance, the KJV and the New International Version (NIV) reveals crucial differences in fundamental doctrines.  The doctrine of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ is undermined in the NIV: 
“And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn Son: and he called His name JESUS” (King James Version, Matthew 1.25). 
The underlined word is omitted in the NIV and this weakens two important truths.  First, deleting “firstborn” implies Mary was not a virgin; secondly, the change suggests that Jesus was Mary’s only Son – which contradicts passages stating Mary gave birth to several children after Jesus. 

This alteration is a sample of differences between the original Greek texts and the modern translations.  A study by Dr. D. A. Waite, Th.D., Ph.D., revealed at least 10,000 verbal and formal changes in the New Testament alone (Waite xii).

The KJV and the NIV do not express the same fundamental teachings; likewise, all translations completed after the KJV used Greek texts and English texts revised under the forge of dynamic equivalence (93).   

Eventually the preserved Hebrew and Greek manuscripts were rewritten by scholars using dynamic equivalence: scholars purported that revision of original texts simplified translation – modern English Bibles embraced this idea and produced such translations as the NIV. 

The common myth that all Bible versions are similar requires scrutiny: the choice of which Bible version to read is a question of theology more than readability.  English has flourished as a major language in the world. Translating the Scriptures into English that is both accurate and readable remains an important task: it is estimated that some three hundred to five hundred million professing Christians do not own a Bible (Persecution).


Defined. Waite, D.A., et al, ed. The Defined King James Bible. Korea: Bible for Today Press, 2001

Foxe, John. The New Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. 1563. Ed. Harold J. Chadwick. New Jersey: Bridge-Logos, 1997.

History, The History of the English Bible. 1997. Great Site Marketing. 29 Feb. 2003.  <http://www.greatsite.com/engbibhis/>.

King, Biography of King James I. Jesus Christ is the Only Way to God. 28 Feb. 2003 <http://www.jesus-is-lord.com/kingbio.htm>.

Persecution, Persecution of Bible Believers. 2002. Bible League. 29 Feb. 2003 <http://www.gospelcom.net/bibleleague/persecuted/pe_alb.htm>.

Tyndale, Transmission of the Bible into English. 1997. Friends of William Tyndale. 28 Feb. 2003 <http://www.williamtyndale.com/0biblehistory.htm>.

Waite, D.A. Defending the King James Bible. Collingswood, New Jersey: Bible for Today Press, 1999.

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