A History of the English Bible–To Modern Times


by Wayne S. Walker

     In 1603, James I (VI of Scotland) came to the throne of England. The following year, he appointed 54 of the best English scholars to make a new translation of the Bible in English. This committee included Anglicans, Puritans, and other Independents, and it followed the Bishops’ Bible except where the Hebrew or Greek required a change. The work was completed in 1611 and issued by 47 of the original translators. Since King James had been so active in promoting the translation, it became known as the King James Version. It is also called the Authorized Version, although there is no record that it was ever officially authorized by the King, parliament, or the Church of England. Yet, within forty to fifty years, it overtook the Geneva Bible in popularity. Many other translations were made in the years between 1611 and 1886, but none of them ever received the acclaim that was accorded the King James Version, and it became "the Bible" of the English speaking world for over 350 years.

     However, while the King James Version is still printed in quantities of hundreds of thousands every year, the present edition differs from the original of 1611 in spelling and punctuation. And the fact is that the English language, like any other living tongue, changes with time. Therefore, around 1870, a group of English scholars felt that a major revision of the King James Verion was needed, and a group of American scholars was enlisted to assist with this enterprise. The aim was to retain the readings of the King James Version except where faithfulness to the original demanded a change. The basic difference is that instead of being based on the Textus Receptus, the new version was based on a text that followed the Wescott-Hort practice of relying more heavily on the newly-found but older manuscripts (Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, and Alexandrinus).

     About 100 scholars, English and American, worked together to produce an exact, literal, word-for-word translation (as much as possible and still be readable), including Henry Alford, J. B. Lightfoot, Richard C. Trench, B. F. Wescott, Philip Schaff, and Joseph Henry Thayer. Where the English and American committees differed, the English preferences were placed in the text and the American preferences were placed in an appendix. Some have said that it is "strong in Greek and weak in English." It is certainly the best (i.e., most exact) translation of its text that has ever been made. The New Testament of this "Revised Version" was published in England in 1881, and the Old Testament in 1885. Then in 1901 the American edition, commonly known as the "American Standard Version," appeared. It is basically the same as the English Revised Version with the American committee preferences taken from the appendix and placed in the text.

     In 1946, a new revision of the King James and American Standard Vesions appeared with the publication of the New Testament of the Revised Standard Version. The Old Testament followed in 1952. It had been decided that no chang would be made except by a two-thirds vote of the entire committee of translators, but some departures from the Hebrew and Greek texts were permitted on the basis of ancient versions, and a few conjectural emendations were accepted. As a result, it differs greatly in a number of ways from its predecessors, such as not using italics to indicate interpolations to clarify the meaning and departing from the ideal of a verbally precise rendering. Thus, a free translation was made in which great opportunity was provided for the translators to reflect their own ideas, whether done consciously or not.

     Disappointed in this effort, another group of scholars saw the need for a different, more faithful revision of the American Standard Version. The New Testament of the New American Standard Bible was published in 1964 and the Old Testament in 1973. Still another group of scholars decided that instead of revising the revisions, they wanted to go back and revise the original King James Version with its basis in the Textus Receptus. The New King James Version resulted, with the New Testament appearing in 1979 and the Old Testament in 1983. There were a couple of other widely-hailed committee works that were intended as completely new translations rather than revisions. The New English Bible was published in Great Britain in 1961 and the New International Version was published in the United States in 1973.

     Other modern translations have been made in the twentieth century by various publishers and individuals, and we shall have more to say about some of these in future articles. However, the conclusion of a study of this nature is that we do have in our English language reliable translations of what God originally revealed in the Old and New Testaments. "The Christian can take the whole Bible in his hand and say without fear or hesitation that he holds in it the true word of God, handed down without essential loss from generation to generation throughout the centuries" (Sir Frederick Kenyon, quoted by Ferrell Jenkins in Introduction to Christian Evidences, p. 84). (—taken from With All Boldness; September, 1999; Vol. 9, No. 9; p. 14)


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