The History of the English Bible

The first hand-written English language manuscripts of the Bible were produced in 1380's AD by Oxford theologian John Wycliff (Wycliffe). Curiously, he was also the inventor of bifocal eyeglasses. Wycliff spent many of his years arguing against the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church which he believed to be contrary to the Bible. Though he died a nonviolent death, the Pope was so infuriated by his teachings that 44 years after Wycliff had died, he ordered the bones to be dug-up, crushed, and scattered in the river!

Gutenburg invented the printing press in the 1450's, and the first book to ever be printed was the Bible. It was, however, in Latin rather than English. With the onset of the Reformation in the early 1500's, the first printings of the Bible in the English language were produced...illegally and at great personal risk of those involved. William Tyndale was the Captain of the Army of reformers, and was their spiritual leader. He worked most of his translating years alone, but had help from time to time as God discerned he needed it. Indirectly, he had the help of Erasmus in the publication of his Greek/Latin New Testament printed in 1516. Erasmus and the great printer, scholar, and reformer John Froben published the first non-Latin Vulgate text of the Bible in a millennium. Latin was the language for centuries of scholarship and it was understood by virtually every European who could read or write. Erasmus' Latin was not the Vulgate translation of Jerome, but his own fresh rendering of the Greek New Testament text that he had collated from six or seven partial New Testament manuscripts into a complete Greek New Testament.

The Latin that Erasmus translated from the Greek revealed enormous corruptions in the Vulgate's integrity amongst the rank and file scholars, many of whom were already convinced that the established church was doomed by virtue of its evil hierarchy. Pope Leo X's declaration that "the fable of Christ was very profitable to him" infuriated the people of God. With Erasmus' work in 1516, the die was cast. Martin Luther declared his intolerance with the Roman Curch's corruption on Halloween in 1517, by nailing 95 Theses of Contention to the Wittenberg Door. Luther, who would be exiled in the months following the Diet of Worms Council in 1521 that was designed to martyr him, would translate the New Testament into German from Erasmus' Greek/Latin New Testament and publish it in September of 1522. Simultaneously, William Tyndale would become burdened to translate that same Erasmus text into English. It could not, however, be done in England.

Tyndale showed up on Luther's doorstep in 1525, and by year's end had translated the New Testament into English. Tyndale was fluent in eight languages and is considered by many to be the primary architect of today's English language. Already hunted because of the rumor spread abroad that such a project was underway, inquisitors and bounty hunters were on Tyndale's trail to abort the effort. God foiled their plans, and in 1525/6 Tyndale printed the first English New Testament. They were burned as soon as the Bishop could confiscate them, but copies trickled through and actually ended up in the bedroom of King Henry VIII. The more the King and Bishop resisted its distribution, the more fascinated the public at large became. The church declared it contained thousands of errors as they torched hundreds of New Testaments confiscated by the clergy, while in fact, they burned them because they could find no errors at all. One risked death by burning if caught in mere possession of Tyndale's forbidden books.

Having God's Word available to the public in the language of the common man, English, would have meant disaster to the church. No longer would they control access to the scriptures. If people were able to read the Bible in their own tongue, the church's income and power would crumble. They could not possibly continue to get away with selling indulgences (the forgiveness of sins) or selling the release of loved ones from a church-manufactured "Purgatory." People would begin to challenge the church's authority if the church were exposed as frauds and thieves. The contradictions between what God's Word said, and what the priests taught, would open the public's eyes and the truth would set them free from the grip of fear that the institutional church held. Salvation through faith, not works or donations, would be understood. The need for priests would vanish through the priesthood of all believers. The veneration of church-cannonized Saints and Mary would be called into question. The availability of the scriptures in English was the biggest threat imaginable to the wicked church. Neither side would give up without a fight.

The Tyndale New Testament was the first ever printed in the English language. Its first printing occurred in 1525/6, but only one complete copy of the first printing exists. Any Edition printed before 1570 is very rare and valuable, particularly pre-1540 editions and fragments. Tyndale's flight was an inspiration to freedom-loving Englishmen who drew courage from the 11 years that he was hunted. Books and Bibles flowed into England in bales of cotton and sacks of flour. In the end, Tyndale was caught: betrayed by an Englishman that he had befriended. Tyndale was incarcerated for 500 days before he was strangled and burned at the stake in 1536. His last words were, "Lord, open the eyes of the King of England." Myles Coverdale and John Rogers were loyal disciples the last six years of Tyndale's life, and they carried the project forward and even accelerated it. Coverdale finished translating the Old Testament, and in 1535 he printed the first complete Bible in the English language, making use of Luther's German text and the Latin as sources. Thus, the first complete English Bible was printed on October 4, 1535, and is known as the Coverdale Bible.

John Rogers went on to print the second complete English Bible in 1537. He printed it under the pseudonym "Thomas Matthew," as a considerable part of this Bible was the translation of Tyndale, whose writings had been condemned by the English authorities. It is a composite made up of Tyndale's Pentateuch and New Testament (1534-1535 edition) and Coverdale's Bible and a small amount of Roger's own translation of the text. It remains known most commonly as the Matthews Bible.

In 1539, Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canturbury, hired Myles Coverdale at the bequest of King Henry VIII to publish the "Great Bible." It became the first English Bible authorized for public use, as it was distributed to every church, chained to the pulpit, and a reader was even provided so that the illiterate could hear the Word of God in plain English. It would seem that William Tyndale's last wish had been granted... just three years after his martyrdom. Cranmer's Bible, published by Coverdale, was known as the Great Bible due to its great size: a large pulpit folio measuring over 14 inches tall. Seven editions of this version were printed between April of 1539 and December of 1541.

The ebb and flow of freedom continued through the 1540's...and into the 1550's. The reign of Queen Mary (a.k.a. "Bloody Mary") was the next obstacle to the printing of the Bible in English. She was possessed in her quest to return England to the Roman Church. In 1555, John Rogers ("Thomas Matthew") and Thomas Cranmer were both burned at the stake. Mary went on to burn reformers at the stake by the hundreds for the "crime" of being a Protestant. This era was known as the Marian Exile, and the refugees fled from England with little hope of ever seeing their home or friends again.

In the 1550's, the Church at Geneva, Switzerland, was very sympathetic to the reformer refugees and was one of only a few safe havens for a desperate people. Many of them met in Geneva, led by Myles Coverdale and John Foxe (publisher of the famous Foxe's Book of Martyrs, which is to this day the only exhaustive reference work on the persecution and martyrdom of Early Christians and Protestants from the first century up to the mid-16th century), as well as Thomas Sampson and William Whittingham. There, with the protection of John Calvin and John Knox, the Church of Geneva determined to produce a Bible that would educate their families while they continued in exile.

The New Testament was completed in 1557, and the complete Bible was first published in 1560. It became known as the Geneva Bible. Due to a passage in Genesis describing the clothing that God fashioned for Adam and Eve upon expulsion from the Garden of Eden as "Breeches" (an antiquated form of "Britches"), some people referred to the Geneva Bible as the Breeches Bible.

The Geneva Bible was the first Bible to add verses to the chapters, so that referencing specific passages would be easier. Every chapter was also accompanied by extensive marginal notes and references so thorough and complete that the Geneva Bible is also considered the first English "Study Bible." William Shakespeare quotes thousands of times in his plays from the Geneva translation of the Bible. The Geneva Bible became the Bible of choice for over 100 years of English speaking Christians. Between 1560 and 1644 at least 144 editions of this Bible were published. Examination of the 1611 King James Bible shows clearly that its translators were influenced much more by the Geneva Bible, than by any other source. The Geneva Bible itself retains over 90% of William Tyndale's original English translation. The Geneva in fact, remained more popular than the King James Version until decades after its original release in 1611! The Geneva holds the honor of being the first Bible taken to America, and the Bible of the Puritans and Pilgrims.

With the end of Queen Mary's bloody rein, the reformers could safely return to England. The Aglican Church, under Queen Elizabeth I, reluctantly tolerated the printing and distribution of Geneva version Bibles in England. The marginal notes, which were vehemently against the institutional Church of the day, did not rest well with the rulers of the day, however. Another version, one with a less inflammatory tone was desired. In 1568, the Bishop's Bible was introduced. Despite 19 editions being printed between 1568 and 1606, the version never gained much of a foothold of popularity among the people. The Geneva may have simply been too much to compete with.

By the 1580's, the Roman Catholic Church saw that it had lost the battle to supress the will of God: that His Holy Word be available in the English language. In 1582, the Church of Rome surrendered their fight for "Latin only" and decided that if the Bible was to be available in English, they would at least have an official Roman Catholic English translation. And so, using the Latin Vulgate as a source text, they went on to publish an English Bible with all the distortions and corruptions that Erasmus had revealed and warned of 75 years earlier. Because it was translated at the Roman Catholic College in the city of Rheims, it was known as the Rheims (or Rhemes) New Testament. The Old Testament was translated by the Church of Rome in 1609 at the College in the city of Doway (also spelled Douay and Douai). The combined product is commonly referred to as the "Doway/Rheims" Version.

In 1589, Dr. Fulke of Cambridge published the "Fulke's Refutation," in which he printed in parallel columns the Bishops Version along side the Rheims Version, attempting to show the error and distortion of the Roman Church's corrupt compromise of an English version of the Bible.

With the death of Queen Elizabeth I, Prince James VI of Scotland became King James I of England. The Protestant clergy approached the new King in 1604 and announced their desire for a new translation to replace the Bishop's Bible first printed in 1568. They knew that the Geneva Version had won the hearts of the people because of its excellent scholarship, accuracy, and exhaustive commentary. However, they did not want the controversial marginal notes (proclaiming the Pope an Anti-Christ, etc.) Essentially, the leaders of the church desired a Bible for the people, with scriptural references only for word clarification when multiple meanings were possible.

This "translation to end all translations" (for a while at least) was the result of the combined effort of about fifty scholars. They took into consideration: The Tyndale New Testament, The Coverdale Bible, The Matthews Bible, The Great Bible, The Geneva Bible, and even the Rheims New Testament. The great revision of the Bishop's Bible had begun. From 1605 to 1606 the scholars engaged in private research. From 1607 to 1609 the work was assembled. In 1610 the work went to press, and in 1611 the first of the huge (16 inch tall) pulpit folios known as "The King James Bible" came off the printing press.

A typographical error in Ruth 3:15 rendered the pronoun "He" instead of the correct "She" in that verse. This caused some of the 1611 First Editions to be known by collectors as "He" Bibles, and others as "She" Bibles.

It took many years for it to overtake the Geneva Bible in popularity with the people, but eventually the King James Version became the Bible of the English people. It became the most printed book in the history of the world. In fact, for around 250 years...until the appearance of the Revised Version of 1881...the King James Version reigned without a rival. Although the first Bible printed in America was done in the native Algonquin Indian Language (by John Eliot in 1663), the first English language Bible to be printed in America (by Robert Aitken in 1782) was a King James Version. In 1791, Isaac Collins vastly improved upon the quality and size of the typesetting of American Bibles and produced the first "Family Bible" printed in America...also a King James Version. Also in 1791, Isaiah Thomas published the first Illustrated Bible printed in the King James Version.

In 1841, the English Hexapla New Testament was printed. This wonderful textual comparison tool shows in parallel columns: The 1380 Wycliff, 1534 Tyndale, 1539 Great, 1557 Geneva, 1582 Rheims, and 1611 King James versions of the entire New Testament...with the original Greek at the top of the page. (Hexaplas are available on our Book Vault Page). Consider the following textual comparison of John 3:16 as they appear in many of these famous printings of the English Bible:

1st Ed. King James (1611): "For God so loued the world, that he gaue
his only begotten Sonne: that whosoeuer beleeueth in him, should not
perish, but haue euerlasting life."

Rheims (1582): "For so God loued the vvorld, that he gaue his
only-begotten sonne: that euery one that beleeueth in him, perish not,
but may haue life euerlasting"

Geneva (1557): "For God so loueth the world, that he hath geuen his
only begotten Sonne: that none that beleue in him, should peryshe,
but haue euerlasting lyfe."

Great Bible (1539): "For God so loued the worlde, that he gaue his
only begotten sonne, that whosoeuer beleueth in him, shulde not
perisshe, but haue euerlasting lyfe."

Tyndale (1534): "For God so loveth the worlde, that he hath geven his
only sonne, that none that beleve in him, shuld perisshe: but shuld
have everlastinge lyfe."

Wycliff (1380): "for god loued so the world; that he gaf his oon
bigetun sone, that eche man that bileueth in him perisch not: but haue
euerlastynge liif,"

It is possible to go back to manuscripts earlier than Wycliff, but the language found can only be described as the "Anglo-Saxon" roots of English, and would not be easily recognizable as similar to the English spoken today.

For example, the Anglo-Saxon pre-English root language of the year 995 AD yields a manuscript that quotes John 3:16 as: "God lufode middan-eard swa, dat he seade his an-cennedan sunu, dat nan ne forweorde de on hine gely ac habbe dat ece lif."

QUESTION: Is the King James Bible inspired or preserved?

ANSWER:  The original Scriptures (in Hebrew, Arabic, and Greek) were inspired (II Tim. 3:16 and II Peter 1:21). The King James Bible is those same Scriptures preserved up to today, in English. There were other Translations prior to the King James Translation of 1611 that also "preserved God's word'. There are also other Translations in other Languages which "preserve" the Word of God. Are we so foolish to believe that God left his people without his Word until 1611 AD? What Bible did the great preachers of God's word use  prior to 1611? Are we so foolish to believe that God has preserved his Word only in the English language? While the Originals have long been lost, decayed or faded away, the INSPIRED Word of God has always been "preserved" for his people.

EXPLANATION: The best way to distinguish between inspiration and preservation of the Scriptures is as follows:

Inspiration is when God takes a blank piece of paper (papyrus, vellum, or ROLL, etc. - Jere 36:2) and uses men to write His words.

Preservation is when God takes those words already written and uses men to preserve them to today. See Jeremiah 36:27-28.

Both of these actions are DIVINE and are assured by God as recorded in Psalms 12:6, 7. Verse 6 "The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times.  Verse 7 "Thou shalt keep them, 0 LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever."

In Psalms 12:6 God assures us that His originals are perfect. Even though penned by fallible men with the heinous sins of; murder (Moses and David), adultery (David), idolatry (Solomon), and denial of the lord (Peter), the chiefest of sinners, Paul. God's words are untainted by the sins of those whom he inspires to pen them.

That the originals were inspired perfect in their entirety is an undisputed belief among Bible Believers today.

Psalms 12:7 plainly states, thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt  preserve them from this generation for ever." Thus we have God promising to preserve the same words that He inspired. This is not too much of a feat to overwhelm our omnipotent God.



Why the King James Part 1 - Inspiration  - Elder Don Watson


Why the King James Part 2 - Preservation - Elder Don Watson


The King was for appointing fifty-four learned men to this great and good work; but the number actually employed upon it, in the first instance, was forty-seven. Order was also taken, that the bishops, in their several dioceses, should find what men of learning there were, who might be able to assist; and the bishops were to write to them, earnestly charging them, at the king's desire, to send in their suggestions and critical observations, that so, as his Majesty remarks, "our said intended translation may have the help and furtherance of all our principal learned men within this our kingdom."

Seventeen of the translators were to work at Westminster, fifteen at Cambridge, and as many at Oxford. Those who met at each place were divided into two companies; so that there were, in all, six distinct companies of translators. They received a set of rules for their direction.

The first instructed them to make the "Bishop's Bible," so called, the basis of their work, altering it no further than fidelity to the originals required…

The second rule requires that the mode then used of spelling the proper names should be retained as far as might be.

The third rule requires "the old ecclesiastical words to be kept," such as "church" instead of "congregation."

The fourth rule prescribes, that where a word has different meanings, that is to be preferred which has the general sanction of the most ancient Fathers, regard being had to "the propriety of the place, and the analogy of faith."

The fifth rule directs that the divisions into chapters be altered as little as may be.

The sixth rule, agreeably to Dr. Reynolds's wise suggestion at Hampton Court, prohibits all notes or comments, thus obliging the translators to make their version intelligible without those dangerous helps.

The seventh rule provides for marginal references to parallel or explanatory passages.

The eighth rule enjoins that each man in each company shall separately examine the same chapter or chapters, and put the translation into the best shape he can. The whole company must then come together, and compare what they have done, and agree on what shall stand. Thus in each company, according to the number of members, there would be from seven to ten distinct and carefully labored revisions, the whole to be compared, and digested into one copy of the portion of the Bible assigned to each particular company.

The ninth rule directs, that as fast as any company shall, in this manner, complete any one of the sacred books, it is to be sent to each of the other companies, to be critically reviewed by them all.

The tenth rule prescribes, that if any company, upon reviewing a book so sent to them, find any thing doubtful or unsatisfactory, they are to note the places, and their reasons for objecting thereto, and send it back to the company from whence it came. If that company should not concur in the suggestions thus made, the matter was to be finally arranged at a general meeting of the chief persons of all the companies at the end of the work. Thus every part of the Bible would be fully considered, first, separately, by each member of the company to which it was originally assigned; secondly, by that whole company m concert; thirdly, by the other five companies severally; and fourthly, by the general committee of revision. By this judicious plan, each part must have been closely scrutinized at least fourteen times.

The eleventh rule provides, that in case of any special difficulty or obscurity, letters shall be issued by authority to any learned man in the land, calling for his judgment thereon.

The twelfth rule requires every bishop to notify the clergy of his diocese as to the work in hand, and to "move and charge as many as, being skilful in the tongues, have taken pains in that kind, to send his particular observations" to some one of the companies.

The thirteenth rule appoints the directors of the different companies.

The fourteenth rule names five other translations to be used, "when they agree better with the text than the Bishop's Bible." These are Tyndale's; Matthew's, which is by Tyndale and John Rogers; Coverdale's; Whitchurch's, which is "Cranmer's,'' or the "Great Bible," and was printed by Whitchurch; and the Geneva Bible. The object of this regulation was to avoid, as far as possible, the suspicious stamp of novelty. To the careful observance of these injunctions, which, with the exception of the first five, are highly judicious, is to be ascribed much of the excellence of the completed translation.

To these rules, Which were delivered to the Translators, there appears to have been added another, providing that, besides the directors of the six companies, "three or four of the most ancient and grave divines in either of the Universities, not employed in translating be designated by the Vice-Chancellors and Heads of Colleges, to be overseers of the Translation, as well Hebrew as Greek, for the better observation of the fourth rule."

The learned Selden says, that when the Translators met to compare what they had done, each of them held in his hand a Bible in some language. If any thing struck any one as requiring alteration, he spoke; otherwise the reaqing went on. The final revision was made, not by six men, as the tenth of the above rules would seem to indicate, but by twelve. At least, such was the statement made in the Synod of Dort in--1618, by Dr. Samuel Weird, who was one of the most active of the Translators. It seems to have been carried through the press by Dr. Miles Smith and Bishop Bilson, aided perhaps by Archbishop Bancroft and other prelates. All the expense of making and printing the translation was defrayed by Robert Barker, "Printer to the King's most gxcellent Maiestie." The copyright thus cost him three thousand five hundred pounds; and his heirs and assigns retained their privilege down to the year 1709…Popery, apparently believing that Ignorance is the mother of devotion, and especially ignorance of the Word of God, would fain have supplanted it by priestly inventions and monkish corruptions…

The printing of the English Bible has proved to be by far the mightiest barrier ever reared to repel the advance of Popery, and to damage all the resources of the Papacy. Originally intended for the five or six millions who dwelt within the narrow limits of the British Islands, it at once formed and fixed their language, till then unsettled; and has since gone with that language to the isles and shores of every sea. And now, during the lapse of almost two and a half centuries, it has gladdened the hearts, and still gladdens the hearts of millions upon millions, not only in Great Britain, but throughout North America and the Indies, in portions of Africa, and in Australia. At the present day, the English is probably the vernacular tongue of more millions than of any other one language under heaven; and the English Bible has brought and still brings home the knowledge of God's revealed truth to a myriad more of minds than ever received it through the original tongues. The Translators little foresaw the vast results and immeasurable influence of what they had thus done, both for time and for eternity. Venerated men! their very names are now hardly known to more than a few persons; yet, in the providence of God, the fruits of their labors have spread to far distant climes; have laid broad and deep the foundations of mighty empires; have afforded to multitudes strength to endure adversity, and grace to resist the temptations of prosperity; and only the revelations of the judgment-day can disclose how many millions and millions, through the instrumentality of their labors, have been made wise unto salvation.
*Report of the Committee on Versions, made to the Board of Managers of the American Bible Society, and adopted May Ist, 1851.

Surely it is time, that the names of these venerated men were rescued from such unjust oblivion; and that at least some considerable part of those who have received such incalculable benefits at their hands, should know to whom they are so deeply indebted. The sensation of gratitude is one of pleasure; and it is hoped that this little book may serve to awaken it in many a bosom, both toward the men who wrought so good a work, "and made all coming ages their own," and toward Him who gave them their skill, and the opportunity to exert it in thus widely diffusing his saving truth.


Follow this link to learn more about these men and their work:  King James Translators  



The History of the English Bible

Rules for Translating the 1611 Effort

Is the King James Bible inspired or preserved?

Why the King James Part 1 - Inspiration

Why the King James Part 2 - Preservation

Benefits of the Word

Bible Rules For Bible Study

Completeness of the Scriptures

Profitability and Benefits of the Scriptures

To whom are the scriptures written?