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“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” – Hebrews 4:12
The Bible, God’s Book, holds profound significance as it contains His thoughts and reveals His purposes for us. Understanding the sublime thoughts of our Creator is essential, for Jesus, the Son of God, declared that “every word that comes from the mouth of God” is vital for our lives. But how did we obtain the written form of the Life-giver’s thoughts?
The Bible is not an ordinary book; it is unique. Its words are the utterances of God Himself. It guides us, enlightens us, and reveals God’s desires for us. In today’s world, we are fortunate to have the Bible available in hundreds of languages, allowing people from various nations to freely read and access its teachings. However, during the Middle Ages, the common people were unable to read the Bible as it remained entombed in a language that was no longer spoken.
Yet, it was never God’s intention for the Bible to be confined to a dead language. He desired for people to understand His thoughts clearly. To ensure effective communication, the Author of the Bible chose to write His words in the familiar language of the people.
The everyday language of God’s chosen nation, Israel, was Hebrew. Therefore, the Author of the Bible employed this language to write the majority of what is known as the Old Testament or the Hebrew Scriptures. By using Hebrew, God ensured that His message was accessible and comprehensible to His people.
The Hebrew Scriptures stand as a testament to God’s desire for us to understand His thoughts and to have a personal connection with Him. Through the language of the people, God made Himself known, paving the way for a deep and meaningful relationship between humanity and their Creator.
When did Bible writing begin? The writing of the Bible traces back to around the year 1556 B.C., shortly after the Israelites were delivered from bondage in Egypt. Jehovah instructed Moses, saying, “Write this as a memorial in the book.” God Himself gave Moses two stone tablets, the Ten Commandments, which were written with His own finger. Moses incorporated these tablets into the book of Exodus while writing the first five books of the Bible. (Exodus 17:14; 31:18)
Following this, the writing of the Bible continued. God utilized various men from different walks of life to contribute to its composition. Among them were Joshua, a general; Samuel, a judge; David, a king; Daniel, a prime minister; Ezra, a scribe; Nehemiah, a court official; Amos, a herdsman; and Jeremiah, a prophet. These men penned their writings under the guidance of the infinite wisdom and power of the Bible’s Originator. They acknowledged that the thoughts they recorded were not of their own creation. David proclaimed, “The Spirit of Jehovah spoke by me, and his word was upon my tongue.” (2 Samuel 23:2)
With the completion of the book of Malachi, around eleven centuries after Moses began writing Genesis, the writing of the Hebrew Scriptures came to an end.
Nevertheless, there was more writing to be done, this time in a different language. Jesus Christ came to earth, and it was crucial to document His life and teachings in writing. As a result, the disciples and apostles of Christ authored an additional twenty-seven books, spanning from Matthew to Revelation. They wrote under the influence of God’s spirit. Hence, the apostle could affirm, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
In what language were these twenty-seven inspired books written? They were not written in Hebrew, for Hebrew would not have reached all the people of that time, both Jews and Gentiles. Instead, the language chosen by God for writing the so-called “New Testament,” known as the Greek New Testament, was koiné or common Greek. Common Greek had become an international language, widely spoken by the people. Thus, God utilized this language to convey His thoughts and teachings, ensuring that they could reach a broader audience.
This demonstrates God’s desire for people to understand His thoughts and receive guidance. Psalm 119:105 (AS) affirms, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” The Bible serves as humanity’s guide. Numerous handwritten copies or manuscripts of the Bible were produced and distributed extensively for the benefit of all Christians.
However, over time, languages change and evolve, giving rise to new languages. Consequently, Bible translation became necessary to preserve God’s thoughts and teachings. As early as the third and fourth centuries B.C., Greek-speaking Jews in Alexandria and Egypt struggled to read the Scriptures written in Hebrew. Around 280 B.C., a group of approximately seventy men embarked on the task of translating the Hebrew Scriptures into common Greek. This translation, known as the “Septuagint,” was completed sometime in the first century B.C. Its name derives from the Roman numerals for seventy, LXX.
The demand for copies of the Septuagint was immense, especially during the first century of the Christian era. The publishing houses of Alexandria likely faced challenges in meeting this demand, despite organizing large-scale production in the homes of the rabbis in the Jewish quarter. During this process, a chief scribe would read slowly from the Septuagint, while a group of five to ten scribes seated at desks wrote in unison. They utilized pens and ink and wrote swiftly. After careful proofreading, the papyrus strips were rolled up, packed, and shipped to the Greek-speaking world at large. The Septuagint Bible spread far and wide, so much so that the apostle Paul, during his missionary journeys, encountered many Gentiles who were already familiar with the Scriptures.
THE BIBLE IN A DEAD LANGUAGE
“As for God, his way is perfect: The Lord’s word is flawless; he shields all who take refuge in him.” – Psalm 18:30
Over the course of centuries, the Greek language ceased to be an international language, and Latin emerged as the popular tongue in Western Europe. Near the end of the fourth century, a man named Jerome undertook the translation of the Bible into Latin, resulting in the “Latin Vulgate.” However, as time passed, even Latin became a dead language for the common people. New languages came into use, including English.
Despite this linguistic shift, the common people were left with a Latin Bible they could not comprehend. Yet, the authorities of the Roman Catholic Church vehemently opposed the notion of making the Bible accessible to the people in their own language. In 1199, Pope Innocent III declared that the mysteries of faith should not be explained to all since they could not be universally understood. Other popes condemned the use of the Bible by the common people. Although they possessed the Latin Bible, it was akin to having no Bible at all, given its unintelligibility.
In the latter part of the fourteenth century, a Roman Catholic clergyman named John Wycliffe, who served as a scholar and lecturer at Oxford, criticized the spiritual indifference and ignorance prevalent among clergy members. The clergy’s lack of knowledge about the Bible was alarming, let alone the common people, many of whom were unaware of its existence. Wycliffe boldly proclaimed, “To be ignorant of the Scriptures is to be ignorant of Christ.” Motivated by this conviction, Wycliffe took the Latin Bible and completed the first comprehensive translation of the Bible into English around 1382.
The efforts of Wycliffe were met with strong opposition from the Roman Catholic Church, which vehemently criticized him. Archbishop Arundel, writing to the pope in 1412, described Wycliffe as a “wretched and pestilent fellow of damnable memory” who exacerbated his wickedness by translating the Scriptures into the mother tongue. Church authorities subsequently imposed a ban on any further translations of the Bible into English.
However, significant events unfolded in the mid-15th century. In 1453, Constantinople fell, leading to the dispersion of scholars to the West. These scholars possessed knowledge of the Greek language, which had largely been forgotten in the Western world. Simultaneously, Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type printing, revolutionizing the dissemination of written materials. These two occurrences converged, igniting a surge of activity aimed at translating God’s thoughts into the familiar language of the people.
Foremost in the work of helping the common people gain access to God’s thoughts was William Tyndale. Tyndale, a highly esteemed scholar at Oxford and Cambridge, possessed a profound knowledge of Greek. Recognizing that John Wycliffe had translated the English Bible not from the original biblical languages but from the Latin Bible, Tyndale aspired to undertake a direct translation from the original languages. His objective was to achieve accuracy and unwavering faithfulness to the original text.
Church leaders viewed Tyndale with suspicion, often engaging in contentious debates with the scholar. One of his opponents even declared, “We had better be without God’s laws than the pope’s.” Tyndale was fiercely outraged by such a statement and boldly proclaimed, “If God spares me, I will one day make the boy that drives the plough in England know more of Scripture than the pope does.” True to his word, Tyndale set out on a mission to fulfill this promise.
THE “INVASION OF ENGLAND”
Despite the constant threat of arrest, William Tyndale sought refuge on the Continent, where he went into hiding. By 1525, Tyndale had completed his translation of the Greek New Testament into English. However, a church official discovered his work and wrote a letter to King Henry VIII, warning him about the “invasion of England” by the Bible. The letter urged the king to safeguard the ports against this “pernicious merchandise.” Bibles had to be smuggled into England, concealed in bales of cotton and sacks of flour. Once inside the country, they found eager buyers. The clergy became alarmed and purchased as many copies as possible to burn them. The bishop of London approached a merchant named Pakington, who had connections in Antwerp, and requested him to buy up all remaining copies.
“My lord,” responded Pakington, secretly sympathetic to Tyndale, “I could do more in this matter than any other merchant in England. I will ensure that you have every unsold book.” “Acquire them for me,” said the bishop, “and I will gladly pay whatever they cost. I fully intend to destroy them all and burn them at Paul’s Cross.”
Four weeks later, the merchant located Tyndale, knowing that he was in financial distress. “Master Tyndale,” he said, “I have found a willing buyer for your books.” “Who is it?” inquired Tyndale. “It is the bishop of London!” “But if the bishop wants the books,” Tyndale remarked, “it can only be to burn them.” “Well,” replied Pakington, “what does it matter? The bishop will burn them regardless, and it is best that you have the money to enable you to print more in their place.”
And so the deal was struck. The bishop obtained the Bibles, and Tyndale received the money. Tyndale expressed his satisfaction, stating, “I am glad for these two benefits that will result. I will have the funds to clear my debts, and the world will protest against the burning of God’s Word. Additionally, the surplus money remaining will enable me to correct the New Testament and print it once again. I trust that the second edition will be even better than the first.” Thus, unknowingly, the bishop of London inadvertently financed Tyndale in his Bible translation work.
Following this, Bibles flooded into England in great numbers. The church authorities soon realized that the printed Bible was beyond their power to destroy. The clergy resorted to attacking the English Bible from the pulpit. Meanwhile, Tyndale delved into the study of Hebrew to translate the Hebrew Scriptures directly from the original language. He succeeded in translating portions of the Hebrew Scriptures. However, in 1535, he was captured by church authorities. The following year, he was condemned as a heretic, strangled to death, and burned at the stake. Yet, Tyndale’s work could not be extinguished with his physical demise.
In the seventy-five years that followed Tyndale’s death, six significant English Bibles emerged. These included Coverdale’s, Matthew’s, the Great Bible, the Geneva Bible, the Bishops’ Bible, and the Rheims-Douay Bible. The Douay Bible was translated from the Latin Bible, while the others were primarily revisions of Tyndale’s work.
However, the most influential translation in England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was yet to come. This translation would leave an indelible mark on the English-speaking world and become a literary masterpiece: the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible.
In the early seventeenth century, King James I of England recognized the need for a unified and authorized translation of the Bible. He wanted a translation that would be accessible to the common people and serve as a unifying force in his kingdom. A group of renowned scholars and translators was assembled to undertake this monumental task.
Interestingly, about 90 percent of the KJV is estimated to have been derived from Tyndale’s translation. The translators heavily relied on Tyndale’s work, recognizing its remarkable accuracy and linguistic beauty. Tyndale’s contribution to the English Bible was so significant that his words and phrases permeate the pages of the King James Version.
The King James Version, published in 1611, quickly gained widespread acceptance and became the standard English Bible for centuries to come. Its majestic language and poetic rhythm captured the hearts and minds of countless readers. It played a vital role in shaping the English language and exerted a profound influence on literature, culture, and religious life.
While Tyndale did not live to see the completion of the King James Version, his dedication to making God’s thoughts known to the common people laid the foundation for this monumental translation. His unwavering commitment to accuracy and accessibility paved the way for the English-speaking world to have a Bible that could be read and understood by all.
The story of the English Bible is a testament to the enduring power of God’s Word and the unwavering dedication of those who sought to make it accessible to people in their own language. The journey from the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts to the translations we have today is a remarkable testament to the preservation and impact of the Scriptures throughout history.
In the next article, we will explore the fascinating history of the King James Version and delve into its enduring significance in the English-speaking world.