'That Inestimable Treasure': The History of the English Bible

This post contains my lecture notes for a guest lecture during a block class on Bibliology at Foundation Baptist College given on March 9, 2013.

But among all our joys, there was no one that more filled our hearts, than the blessed continuance of the preaching of God’s sacred Word among us; which is that inestimable treasure, which excelleth all the riches of the earth; because the fruit thereof extendeth itself, not only to the time spent in this transitory world, but directeth and disposeth men unto that eternal happiness which is above in heaven.1

Readers of the English Bible have had the privilege of “the blessed continuance of the preaching of God’s sacred Word” now for centuries, a blessing that is dependent upon popular access to reliable English translations. At the time that the King James translators wrote these words, there were a handful of English translations available to the relatively small proportion of the world’s population that spoke English.

Today, those circumstances have changed. Thanks to the growth of the British Empire in the Victorian era and today’s trend toward globalization, English now serves as the trade language for the world. This burgeoning market of English readers has created a demand for updated translations, and today there is such a proliferation of English Bibles on the market that publishers now use slick marketing campaigns as they Compete for readership.

This lecture will attempt to explain how we arrived at this point from such humble beginnings.

The history of the English Bible divides into three eras:

  1. The Medieval period (ca. 700–1500)
  2. The English Reformation to the 19th century (ca. 1500–1900)
  3. The 20th and 21st centuries (1901–2013)

1. The Medieval period (ca. 700–1500)

1.1. Early Christian heritage of the British Isles

The story of the English Christianity begins under the Roman empire. Christian influence can be found in England as early as the first and second centuries2, although it is unknown how Christianity arrived. These early Christians were wiped out when the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes pushed the Romans out of England during the early 5th century. Christianity carried on in the regions of Ireland and Scotland during this time under the leadership of men such as Patrick (5th century) in Ireland and Columba (6th century) in Scotland.

Eventually, Christianity reappeared in England in two competing streams. Missionaries from Scotland were first to arrive, establishing Celtic Christianity. Meanwhile, Roman Christianity was reestablished by Augustine of Canterbury (601–604), who was commissioned by Pope Gregory I (590–604).

Celtic Christianity established itself first in Lindisfarne (known as “the Holy Island”), under the leadership of Aidan ca. A.D. 635. The Celtic monks played an important role in the history of the English Bible and the history of educated Europe. The Lindisfarne monks produced the renowned Lindisfarne Gospels, a beautifully illuminated Latin edition that enabled them to preserve the knowledge of Latin after it was otherwise lost in continental Europe.

1.2. Medieval English Bibles

The language of the medieval church in the British Isles was Latin, but a few individuals translated portions of scripture into the common English tongue of the day:

  • Around A.D. 650, Caedmon paraphrased parts of Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel. His work represents an early example of Anglo-Saxon poetry.
  • Around A.D. 735, Bede the Historian (primarily remembered for his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People”) translated parts of the Gospels
  • In the late 800s, King Alfred the Great translated some of the Psalms and the 10 Commandments into Anglo-Saxon.
  • From A.D. 955–1020, Aelfric translated various books of the Bible into the English of his day.
  • In 1325, Richard Rolle and William of Shoreham translate psalms into metrical verse.

1.3. John Wycliffe and the Lollards

John Wycliffe was the great English reformer who predates the Reformation proper by 150 years and has very little help. He reaches a number of the same conclusions that Luther and Calvin would make much later. He lives from ca. 1320 to 1384, during the time of the Black Plague in England. He lives in a time of clerical ignorance, and desires to teach people to read the Bible for themselves. This is also during the period of the Babylonian Captivity of the papacy.

He gained his degree from Oxford, and preaches against the pope as the Anti-Christ at a young age. He writes a number of tracts against the pope, and sends young men to go from town to town to preach his doctrines. They were called the Lollards. One reason he was successful was his patronage of John of Gaunt, a relative of the King. In 1381 he drew up 12 theses declaring that the doctrine of the RCC was unscriptural, and then he began to translate the Bible into English. He did not know Greek and Hebrew, so he translated from the Latin.

Wycliffe’s theology can be found in his Summa Theologica. His core beliefs were as follows:

  1. The church consists of the elect. This was a novel concept to the church, which viewed all as subject to the pope.
  2. He viewed the papacy as the anti-christ.
  3. He viewed the priesthood as scandalous and immoral and incapable of effecting salvation.
  4. Transubstantiation is a myth.
  5. The scriptures are of supreme authority.

He was very literal in his translation of scripture. He was more successful in Bohemia because of John Huss than he was in England. The Lollards were interesting people who would leave sections of the Scriptures in different villages. In 1401, Parliament passed an act aimed at the Lollards that gave the right to the civil authorities to burn heretics at the stake. Eventually, the Lollards who remained were incorporated into the Puritan movement. They were opposed to images, pilgrimages, etc.

2. The English Reformation to the 19th century (ca. 1500–1900)

2.1. William Tyndale (ca. 1494-1536)

The lineage of the modern English Bible begins with the work of William Tyndale (ca. 1494–1536). Below are a few significant dates for Tyndale’s life.

1512 Graduates with Oxford BA
1515 Graduates with Oxford MA
1525-35 Translates the Bible

Tyndale came from an obscure childhood. The one note we have from his youth is that while young he had read that King Alfred had produced a translation of the Bible. He went to Oxford, unlike the others. He was disturbed that he was not encouraged to read the Scriptures. He complained that they were not allowed to look at the Scriptures until after 8 or 9 years of indoctrination in doctrines which prevented understanding of the Bible. In 1516, he came to Cambridge. He probably joined the meetings at the White Horse Inn. He later became a private tutor for Sir John Walsh of Gloucestershire. He seems to have convinced Sir John that a good translation of the Bible was necessary.

He went outdoors to preach in the open air, and discovered that the Catholics created a rumor about him and attempted to ruin him. Distressed, he returned to Cambridge where he met an old scholar named William Latimer (no relation to Hugh). Latimer said to him: “Do you not know that the Pope is very anti-Christ, whom the Scriptures speaketh of? But beware of what you say, for if you say so publicly you will lose your life.” Tyndale never overcame this.

He was convinced that what England needed was a new translation of the Scripture. He found a man named Humphrey Monmouth who was interested in a translation of the Scripture and supported him. However, Monmouth advised him that England was not the best place to produce a translation. In 1524, Tyndale left all his goods with Monmouth and set sail for Hamburg. He did not know it, but he would never return. He is hard to track down at this point, because he is forever on the run. He printed Bibles in Cologne, but then quickly fled to Worms where he produced his first edition of the New Testament. He found German merchants who were all too glad to smuggle his Bibles into England. Eventually he wound up in Antwerp on the coast where it was easier to smuggle the Bibles back to England. In 1526 Bishop Tunstall ordered that all Tyndale Bibles were to be burned. It was too little too late. He wrote many other works, commentaries, The Obedience of a Christian Man, The Practice of the Prelates, and a great Dialogue with Thomas More. In all, he produced three editions of the New Testament until 1535. He then fell victim to a plot to lure him out of hiding. He was imprisoned in the Low Countries and ignored. Here he died on October 6, 1536. He was strangled and then his body burned at the stake. His last words, as they come down to us, were “Lord, Open the King of England’s eyes.” Ironically, his third edition was printed on the King’s press in England. Approximately 4/5 of this translation made it into the KJV.

2.2. The King James Bible

The KJV was produced during the reign of James I of England. James I was already James VI of Scotland. His reign over England and Scotland lasted from the death of Elizabeth I in 1603 to his death in 1625.

At his ascension, England was plagued with a variety of problems, and there was religious unrest between the Calvinist Puritans and the Catholics. The Calvinists and Puritans thought he would favor them since he was Scottish after all. The Catholics thought he would favor them because his mother Mary was a good Catholic. In reality, the side he took was his own. He believed in the “divine right” of the monarchy, whereby the authority of the despot is directly given by God and he cannot be questioned. This view is that God ordained human government in the person of an individual king who is responsible for the nation. We see this view expressed in the actions of Richard Bancroft, archbishop of Canterbury during this time:

The tension between the prelates of the official church and the Puritans grew during James’s reign. In 1604, Richard Bancroft, archbishop of Canterbury, had a series of canons approved in which it was affirmed that episcopal hierarchy was an institution of divine origin, and that without it there could be no true church. This implied a rejection of the many Protestant churches on the Continent that had no bishops, and therefore Puritans saw in it a step towards breaking away from Protestant ties in order to reintroduce Catholicism in England. Besides this, several other canons approved on the archbishop’s insistence were clearly directed against Puritans.3

The story of the KJV begins when the Puritans came to James in 1604 with a “Millenary Petition” asking to move England in a Protestant direction. They hoped to establish Presbyterianism, institute freedom of worship, etc. They met him at the Hampton Court, and he refused all their requests (except the production of the Authorized Version).

James was not involved in the work of translation himself, but he did take an interest in it. Shortly after Hampton Court he instructed Archbishop Richard Bancroft (no friend of the Puritans, as we have seen) to contact all English churchmen requesting that they seek church positions for the translators, thus assuring them an income.

Right trusty and well beloved, we greet you well. Whereas we have appointed certain learned men, to the number of 4 and 50, for the translating of the Bible, and in this number, divers of them have either no ecclesiastical preferment at all, or else so very small, as the same is far unmeet for men of their deserts and yet we in ourself in any convenient time cannot well remedy it, therefor we do hereby require you, that presently you write in our name as well to the Archbishop of York, as to the rest of the bishops of the province of Cant.[erbury] signifying unto them, that we do well, and straitly charge everyone of them … that (all excuses set apart) when we prebend or parsonage … shall next upon any occasion happen to be void … we may commend for the same some such of the learned men, as we shall think fit to be preferred unto it … Given unto our signet at our palace of West.[minister] on 2 and 20 July , in the 2nd year of our reign of England, France, and of Ireland, and of Scotland xxxvii.“4

2.2.1. Translation process

The work of translation took place in two stages:

  1. A Translation Committee translated sections of the Bible from 1604–1608.
  2. The completed translation was evaluated by a General Committee of Review from 1609–1611.
  3. The original printing of the Authorized Version was published by Robert Barker, the King’s Printer, in 1611 as a complete folio Bible. It was sold looseleaf for ten shillings, or bound for twelve.

2.2.2. Publication history

By current standards, seventeenth-century book printing appears informal and unstandardized, and the early production history of the KJV includes a variety of well-known printer’s errors. These errors ranged in severity from comical typos (such as the “Printer’s Bible” and “Vinegar Bible”) to serious omissions (such as the “Wicked Bible”).

The publication history of the KJV can also be divided into stages:

  1. KJV produced by the King’s Printer (1612–1617). “This short period sees no fewer than thirty printings of the KJB. Careless mistakes continue to be found and deliberate changes start to creep in.”5
  2. KJV produced by the Cambridge and Oxford University Presses (1629–1760). “This period marks the transition in the printing rights from the King’s Printer to the hands of the two university presses. it is a period in which the commercial benefits of being scholarly were occasionally realized. Both Oxford and Cambridge published two major editions (cambridge, 1629 and 1638; Oxford, 1675 and 1679). the great care of the editors of the cambridge editions contrasts sharply with that of the King’s Printer.”6
  3. Attempts to standardize the KJV text (1762–1769). “By the mid-eighteenth century the wide variation in the various modernized reprints of the KJB, combined with all the notorious misprints, had reached the proportion of a scandal. eventually, the Universities of Oxford (Benjamin Blayney in 1769) and Cambridge (F. S. Parris in 1762) both sought to produce an updated standard text.”7 Eventually, the Oxford standardization by Blayney became the accepted standard for the KJV text.

Edited by Benjamin Blayney, the 1769 edition sought to overcome the numerous variants introduced by printing errors since 1611 and has since become the text of all modern editions of the KJV. To understand the types of changes Blayney made, consider these passages from the 1611 and 1769 text below (examples from Wikipedia).

1 Cor. 13:1-3 (1611) 1 Though I speake with the tongues of men & of Angels, and haue not charity, I am become as sounding brasse or a tinkling cymbal. 2 And though I haue the gift of prophesie, and vnderstand all mysteries and all knowledge: and though I haue all faith, so that I could remooue mountaines, and haue no charitie, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestowe all my goods to feede the poore, and though I giue my body to bee burned, and haue not charitie, it profiteth me nothing.

1 Cor. 13:1-3 (1769) 1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

The KJV eventually became the dominant English text. Wong notes that Blayney’s edition became dominant shortly after publication:

Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, almost all printings of the KJB have derived from the 1769 Oxford text—generally without Blayney’s variant notes and cross references, and commonly excluding the Apocrypha.8

3. The 20th and 21st centuries (1901–2011)

Around the turn of the 19th century, a consensus began to develop that the archaic language of the KJV needed updating. This produced a number of different attempts to either 1) revise the KJV itself, or 2) produce a new translation using more contemporary English. Some of the more prominent attempts under each of these categories are listed below:

  • Proposed revisions of the KJV
    1. British Revised Version (RV; 1881–1885)
    2. American Standard Version (ASV; 1901)
    3. Revised Standard Version (RSV; 1952)
    4. New King James Version (NKJV; 1982)
  • Fresh translations
    1. Jerusalem Bible (1966)
    2. New American Bible and New English Bible (1970)
    3. New American Standard Bible (1971)
    4. Good News Bible (Today’s English Version; 1976)
    5. New International Version (1978; minor update 1984)
    6. New Jerusalem Bible (1985)
    7. New Revised Standard Version (1990)
    8. Update to the NASB (1995)
    9. English Standard Version (2001)
    10. Today’s New International Version (2005)
    11. NET Bible (2005)
    12. New International Version (2011 update)

3.1. The New International Version (1956–2011)

At this point, we will refer to a handout titled “Controversies relating to the NIV: Summary” which I wrote on Sept 7, 2009.

3.2. Other modern translations

For some brief background on the ESV and HCSB, see William Combs’ article in the bibliography, particularly pp. 11–15 and 21–22.


Portions of these notes were drawn from my class notes taken during two courses (Church History 1 and Church History 2) with Dr. Brenton Cook at Bob Jones University during 2008–2009.

Additional Resources

Online media

The material in this lecture is designed to be supplemented by an interactive timeline project which I’ve worked on as a hobby since mid-2011. Many of the events described here will show up in there, with links to additional reading on Wikipedia.

Select Bibliography

Brake, Donald L. A Visual History of the English Bible: The Tumultuous Tale of the World’s Bestselling Book. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008.

McGrath, Alister E. In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture. 1st ed. New York: Doubleday, 2001.

Nicolson, Adam. God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible. 1st ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.

Norton, David. A Textual History of the King James Bible.Cambridge: University Press, 2004.

Wong, Simon. “Which King James Bible Are We Referring To?” Bible Translator 62, no. 1 (January 2011): 1–11. http://www.ubs-translations.org/fileadmin/publications/tbt/technical/BT-62-1-Wong.pdf

  1. Epistle Dedicatory, King James Bible.

  2. Alban was martyred in England sometime between A.D. 209 and 259.

  3. Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the Present Day. Vol. 2. 1st ed. HarperOne, 1985., 152.

  4. Walleshinsky, David (1975). The People’s Almanac. Doubleday & Company Inc., p. 235

  5. Wong, Simon. “Which King James Bible Are We Referring To?” Bible Translator 62, no. 1 (January 2011): 4.

  6. Ibid., 5.

  7. Ibid., 6.

  8. Ibid., 7.

History of the KJV-Only movement within Fundamentalism »