From the time Jesus died, A.D. 30, to 1611 there were 1,581 years of time where English speaking Christians were using some other Bible or text as their guide and understanding of God and Christ. I want to share with you a timeline of our Bible, beginning in the first century and it gives us a glimpse into what the early Christians depended upon for their Bible. Remember, until 1455 A.D. there are no printing presses and all of this work is being written and copied on to papyrus, or vellum (animal skins processed so that they may be written upon, also known as parchment) with pen and hand.
The First Century
The New Testament writings were completed in the first century (all 27 books we have today were originally written in Koine Greek, which was the common language of the first century. These manuscripts were written by the authors we know as Paul, Matthew, Peter, John, etc.) And we know that these letters were passed from city to city and shared with the believers as they were read in the public places. (Colossians 4:16)
As Christianity spread westward there was a need for translations of the New Testament writings from the original Greek into Latin which was the more prevalent language of North Africa, Italy, and throughout the Roman Empire.
According to John Piper for 300 years many different books competed for Apostolicity. There were three main criterion that the church looked for in the Apostolicity of a book:
- Was it written by an apostle?
- Was it written in the company of an apostle?
- Was it presumably written with the apostle’s help and endorsement?1
The 27 books of the New Testament that comprise the canon were first listed by Irenaeus in 180 A.D. and were affirmed by the Synod of Hippo in 393 A.D. The church didn’t create the canon of scripture; rather it recognized the canon that had been unofficially yet universally accepted by the church and the believers or Christians for over 300 years.
The Bishop of Alexandria, Athenasius, recognized the 27 books that we now have as our New Testament Canon.
Jerome was commissioned by Pope Damasus I to make a revision of old Latin translations of the Bible that were considered inferior. They were viewed as inferior because they had been translated by translators who did not have a good command of the Greek language. In a letter to Pope Damasus, Jerome explained the problem and proposed a solution: “If we are to pin our faith to the Latin texts, it is for our opponents to tell us which; for there are almost as many forms of texts as there are copies. If, on the other hand, we are to glean the truth from a comparison of many, why not go back to the original Greek and correct the mistakes introduced by inaccurate translators, and the blundering alterations of confident but ignorant critics, and, further, all that has been inserted or changed by copyists more asleep than awake?”2 When Jerome’s work was finished in 405 A.D. he had translated into Latin all 39 books of the Old Testament Septuagint, the four Gospels of the New Testament, (according to scholars these are the only books translated in the Vulgate that can be ascribed to Jerome with any certainty), and two books, (Tobit and Judith), of the Apocrypha. (It was Jerome who first proposed that the Apocrypha books be read only for edification and not for canonical doctrine. However, it would be over one thousand years later before they were removed from the Septuagint and the Old Testament Bible). The remainder of the books from the New Testament and the Apocrypha are older Latin versions. All of these books were circulated separately until bound in a single volume in the mid-6th century. A total of 80 books in a Bible called the “Vulgate,” which means “a commonly recognized text or edition.” This Latin Bible was recognized by the medieval church and later by the Council of Trent (1546) to be the “old and popular edition.” The Council decreed that it was to be the official Bible of the Roman Church.
In the 1380’s John Wycliffe, his assistant, and other scribes produced the first hand written English Bible manuscripts. These manuscripts were translated from the Vulgate which was the only source text available to Wycliffe. Wycliffe believed that since the Vulgate was written in Latin, which was a language unknown to 99 percent of the people in England, that it should be translated into understandable English that the majority of the people could read. “The Scriptures,” Wycliffe stated, “are the property of the people, and one which no party should be allowed to wrest from them. Christ and his apostles converted much people by uncovering of Scripture, and this in the tongue which was most known to them. Why then may not the modern disciples of Christ gather up the fragments of the same bread? The faith of Christ ought therefore to be recounted to the people in both languages, Latin and English.”3 However the church clergy and authorities felt differently. They thought they were the sole arbiters of the scriptures between God and man. And when Wycliffe and his assistants translated the Latin Vulgate into English they viewed it as a heretical. The church clergy said of Wycliffe: “This pestilent and wretched John Wycliffe, that son of the old serpent, endeavour[ing] by every means to attack the very faith and sacred doctrine of Holy Church, translated from Latin into English the Gospel, [indeed all of the Scriptures,] that Christ gave to the clergy and doctors of the Church. So that by his means it has become vulgar and more open to laymen and women who can read than it usually is to quite learned clergy of good intelligence. And so the pearl of the Gospel, [indeed of the Scriptures in toto,] is scattered abroad and trodden underfoot by swine.” (Church Chronicle, 1395). 4 So about 1,000 years lapsed with little change to the Bible until Wycliffe translated the Vulgate into English 1380.
1516 Publication of Greek NT
The first Greek New Testament was published in 1516 by Erasmus. Prior to that, all copying was done by hand. For 1500 years of the church era this copying was done by monks, scribes, and scholars who preserved these manuscripts with great care and love for the Word of God. Erasmus had no more than six Greek manuscripts from which to complete his work compared to today when we have thousands. These manuscripts were part of what is called the “Byzantine text family” (more on that later).
It was from this 1516 Greek New Testament that Tyndale published the first English Bible from the Greek rather than the Vulgate Latin Bible as Wycliffe had. This was in 1526. This work cost Tyndale his life as he was executed at the stake in 1536 for his work of translating. The Bishop of London seized all 3,000 copies of his work and burned them and only two copies remain today.5
After the Tyndale there were several other bibles, Coverdale Bible, Matthews Bible, the Great Bible, the Geneva Bible, and the Bishop’s Bible. Keep in mind, all of these were before the 1611 Authorized KJV. If the Authorized KJV is the only inspired version then what do we do with these “other” Bibles? Were they not the divinely inspired Word of God? I believe any reasonably thinking person would conclude that they were inspired, else God was unfair to people who lived prior to 1611.
Geneva Bible (1560)
The Geneva Bible (GB) was the standard Bible for the next seventy five years, and it became the Bible most people used in the common Christian household. Despite the efforts of some, such as Archbishop Matthew Parker (1504-75) who vied to have official status granted to the Bishop’s Bible of 1568, seventy editions of the GB were published during the reign of Elizabeth I and 150 editions were printed between 1560 and 1644, though the GB never became the authorized version. Even John Whitgift, who ordered that only the Bishop’s Bible be allowed for use in churches “found himself using the Geneva Bible in his heated controversy with the Puritan writer Thomas Cartwright.” A simple comparison of editions published from 1560 to 1611 demonstrates its popularity: Even after 1611, when the KJV was released, over sixty editions of the GB were published. Under the persecution of Archbishop Laud (1633-45), eight editions were smuggled into England. And between 1642 and 1715 five or more editions of the KJV used the Geneva annotations! John Knox adopted the GB also and the Scottish divines followed (Thomas Bassandyne and Alexander Arbuthnot), seeing to it that every able household had a copy. To be sure, the 1579 Scottish edition of the GB was the first Bible to be printed in Scotland. It is believed that as late as 1674 the GB was still being used in Scottish churches. The popularity of the Geneva Bible did not differ in England as exemplified in its use by William Shakespeare (d. 1616), Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), and John Bunyan (1628-88). Even those Puritans who came to America made the GB their chosen translation (no little protest against King James I). Therefore, McGrath is not exaggerating when he writes, “England was a Protestant nation, and the Geneva Bible was its sacred book.”6
In the next post I will cover why King James decided not to accept the Geneva Bible as the “Authorized” Bible.
1.Why We Believe the Bible. (2008). Retrieved July 20, 2016, from http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/why-we-believe-the-bible-part-1
2.405 Jerome Completes the Vulgate. (n.d.). Retrieved July 20, 2016, from http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-28/405-jerome-completes-vulgate.html
3.How did we get our first English Bible? (n.d.). Retrieved July 20, 2016, from http://www.christianitytoday.com/biblestudies/bible-answers/theology/our-first-english-bible.html
4.How did we get our first English Bible? (n.d.). Retrieved July 20, 2016, from http://www.christianitytoday.com/biblestudies/bible-answers/theology/our-first-english-bible.html
5.HISTORY OF BIBLE TRANSLATIONS. (n.d.). Retrieved June 03, 2016, from http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?historyid=ac66
6. Founders. (n.d.). Retrieved July 20, 2016, from http://founders.org/fj86/the-geneva-bible-and-its-influence-on-the-king-james-bible/