One of the first in the 16th century to make an effort to translate the Bible into English was William Tyndale of Oxford University. Accused of heresy and rejected by the bishop of London for his translating, he went to Antwerp to finish his edition in 1537. There he became associated with the Lutherans and died a Protestant martyr’s death. His Bible was smuggled back into England where it had a profound impact on later translating efforts.
Henry VIII, the instigator of the Anglican Reformation, was initially not in favor of new translations of the Bible. He banned the Tyndale Bible and opposed the Lutherans abroad and the Lollards (followers of John Wycliffe) at home. But once the rupture with Rome occurred he was more receptive to the notion.
Henry’s ministers Cromwell and Cranmer cooperated to bring the “Great Bible” to all English churches, rescuing it from Inquisition censure in France, where it was initially being printed. The main translator for this version was John Rogers, a friend of Tyndale, and so the Great Bible contains some of Tyndale’s unpublished notes and Protestant sentiments.
Though it was eventually displaced by the KJV, its Psalter was retained in the Book of Common Prayer, the daily liturgy of the Anglican Church. After 1542 Henry VIII took a dimmer view of Bible availability and public reading, an attitude that prevailed until the reign of James I in the early 1600s.
Émigrés from Switzerland put together the Geneva Bible during the reign of Elizabeth, and it became the reference translation for the likes of Shakespeare, John Bunyan, and the Puritans. Though lay people—even King James—grew up on the Geneva Bible, the ruling elites were not comfortable with its destabilizing notes and Calvinistic tone.
In 1569, a revision of it was carried out by Anglican bishops, and hence received its name, the Bishops’ Bible. Though it was now the official version of the Anglican Church, many of the bishops who had worked on its revision continued to use the Geneva Bible.
King James was neither pleased with the Bishops’ Bible nor sympathetic to the Bible of the Puritans, the Geneva Bible. He wanted a Bible that all his subjects would “bound unto it, and none other.” So a new Bible translation project was commissioned, this time without notes unfavorable toward kings and rulers and relying on the best of all the English Bibles of the previous century.
The task was given to 54 men—though this number is in question—in 1604. Puritans and Anglicans worked side by side, along with linguists, theologians, laymen, and clergy. Their aim was to derive a Bible that the common citizen could use in every context.
The Greek text was the Textus Receptus, the standard New Testament edition pioneered by Erasmus, Stephanus, and Beza; and the Hebrew text was probably from the Complutensian Polyglot (1514–17), a scholarly effort originating in Spain.
King James was unable to finance the work out of his immediate revenue, so compensation was given through ecclesial positions. Room and board for the translators were provided by the three sponsoring institutions, Oxford, Cambridge, and Westminster. The job of printing went to Robert Barker in 1611, whose family retained the license to print for two generations.
Although it claims to have the endorsement of the king and his council, no record of this direct mandate comes from royal sources. Although it is often referred to as the “Authorized Version,” this term more accurately speaks of the approval of the Church of England and thus the indirect support of the king.
Other Bibles continued to be used and cited in the English-speaking world, but by 1640 the KJV had over 40 editions and was considered as the superior Bible. By 1662, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer used only it, except for the Psalms. It became so sacrosanct that corrections of its obvious typographical and translation errors were considered by its users as blasphemous.
Often called the “noblest monument of English prose,” it has had untold impact on the English language and literature, spawning countless proverbs and images. Increasingly in modern times, however, its vocabulary is more and more archaic, so that in 1988 its American sales were surpassed by the New International Version of the Bible.
Meanwhile the Catholics were critical of the new Bible translations and the Protestant government policies in general. Forced to flee, many took refuge across the English Channel in the Spanish Netherlands (present-day France), where they established seminaries for secretly sending back to England hundreds of newly ordained priests.
There at Douai and Reims they reworked Jerome’s Vulgate Latin Bible into English, and it was called the Douai-Reims Bible (1582–1609). It was directed by an Oxford-trained scholar, Gregory Martin, under the direction of William (later cardinal) Allen.
His New Testament appeared in Reims in 1582 and the Old Testament at Douai in 1609. Later generations of Catholics embraced it over all others, although its heavy use of Latinism is criticized as excessive and sometimes unintelligible.
The notes of the Douai-Reims are heavily Catholic. The preface insists that vernacular translations are not necessary and that the Latin Vulgate is superior to the Greek manuscripts (thus, the commonly accepted Textus Receptus pioneered by Erasmus is inferior). Its publication along with the KJV set the stage for continuing controversies between Catholics and Protestants over which was the better translation.
The Douai-Reims did not attain widespread acceptance of its Protestant counterpart, due in part to the official Catholic teaching discouraging the public from reading the Bible. A new version of the Douai-Reims appeared in 1749–63 under the supervision of Bishop Richard Challoner of London. The Challoner Bible then was used by Catholics for the next 200 years.