The words of the LORD are pure words. —Psalm 12:6a

Faithful Translations: English

In a previous post we’ve considered principles that we can use to identify whether a translation of the scriptures is pure and faithful. In this post we’ll use these principles to determine which translation is God’s pure and perfect words in English.

There are hundreds of translations into Modern English, and attempting to examine all of them would be tedious indeed, if many of them were not disqualified up front. And this is the unfortunate case. As we’ve considered before, the first prerequisite for the production of a pure translation would be to start with a pure source. However, most English translations have been produced in the last 150 years, and almost all of these have been made from an admittedly corrupt text, rather than that pure text received by the church from its forefathers. We thus need only examine here those translations which used the Received Text as their source.

Tyndale Bible #

The first such translation into Modern English is the Tyndale New Testament, produced by William Tyndale and first published around 1525. His aim, in his own words, was stated thus:

I defy the Pope and all his laws: and if God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scriptures than thou [an educated man of the clergy] dost.

Though God did spare his life for a time, it was not long enough for him to complete a translation of the entire Bible. Possessing an English translation of the scriptures was at that time illegal, and Tyndale’s was especially despised because he refused to translate certain words in a manner aligning with Roman Catholic doctrine. For his work and “heresy” he was publicly burned at the stake by Catholic officials.

It is clear that Satan’s strategy at this point in history was to attempt to prevent the Bible from being translated into English at all. And his means was through the leaders and institutions of what called itself the “church”!

For his own part, Tyndale was a “radical Protestant” (in the words of his detractors), making him a highly polarized individual during a time of strong polarization. One result of this is that he included many notes in his translation, which were also very disturbing to Catholic bishops, and to Henry VIII and the Anglican bishops upon the official separation from Rome in 1534. However, Tyndale’s goal was not merely to promote Protestantism and the English Reformation. He is universally acknowledged to have been a very gifted translator, and his ultimate aim was to faithfully convey God’s word into the English language. So, although the “Tyndale Bible” is incomplete, comprising only the New Testament and about half of the Old Testament, the giving of his life for it was not in vain, as it has had a profound impact on later English translations. Being unfinished itself, however, the Tyndale Bible is clearly not the final work.

Coverdale Bible #

So it was that in 1535, Myles Coverdale became the first to produce a complete Modern English translation of the Bible. The New Testament and parts of the Old Testament were based on Tyndale’s translation, with the rest of the Old Testament being translated by Coverdale himself. He had only an intermediate knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, and so in this he worked primarily from German Bibles and Latin sources.

Coverdale’s Bible was able to receive official approval from the English Crown, which then represented the official head of the English church. However, in order to obtain this, the fact of Tyndale’s contribution had to be carefully hidden or downplayed. In addition, Coverdale translated the Apocrypha to be included in the printing of his Bible (though in an interstitial between the Old and New Testaments, and not as part of either). We thus see that Satan’s new strategy appeared to be the dilution of the true scriptures with uninspired works.

We can thank Coverdale for creating the first full translation of the Bible into English. However, being the work of only one man, and without a full knowledge of the source languages, the English Bible was clearly not yet perfect. This is further made manifest by Coverdale’s later work on subsequent translations.

Matthew Bible #

Tyndale and Coverdale’s work was also reprinted in the Matthew Bible, which was published by John Rogers under the pseudonym Thomas Matthew in 1537. (At the time it was still necessary to conceal or downplay the participation of Tyndale in any translation, which may be the reason for Rogers’s use of a pseudonym.) The primary contribution of Rogers himself was the translation of the apocryphal Prayer of Manasses. Thus, the Matthew Bible differs from the Coverdale Bible mainly in that it is thought to use more of Tyndale’s work in the Old Testament. (Coverdale apparently used only Tyndale’s published work, while Rogers also incorporated portions of the Old Testament not published by Tyndale before his death.)

As such, the Matthew Bible suffers from the same issues as the Coverdale Bible: it was printed with the Apocrypha, and was the work of only a few translators, working mostly independently, and not all of whom had a perfect understanding of the source languages. Many, however, consider it the real primary version of the English Bible, as it welded together the best work of Tyndale and Coverdale.

Like the Coverdale Bible, the Matthew Bible was able to receive the approval of the English Crown. However, in order to make the translation more palatable to the Anglican clergy, Tyndale’s translations had to be softened so as to better align with the prevailing doctrines. So it would seem that Satan had then begun not only to dilute the scriptures, but also to corrupt them by having church doctrine dictate what was in the Bible, rather than the Bible dictating the church’s doctrine.

In 1539, what was essentially a knock-off of the Matthew Bible, known as Travner’s Bible, was published. In this minor revision, Richard Travner made many alterations to the original Matthew Bible, but they have had very little, if any, influence on later translations.

Great Bible #

In 1530, after Henry VIII first issued the proclamation banning Tyndale’s works, he promised that an officially authorized translation of the Bible would be prepared by learned and catholic scholars. The bishops employed in making this translation failed to deliver in a timely manner, however, which prompted the preparation of the Great Bible in 1539. It was given by decree that a large copy of the Bible should be placed in every church building, where the congregation could freely read it. This version of the scriptures thus came to be called the Great Bible, due to its large size.

Rather ironically, the Great Bible would be prepared by Myles Coverdale, and like the Matthew and Coverdale Bibles, would be largely based on Tyndale’s work. However, Tyndale’s translation had again to be altered in order to please the Anglican bishops. The New Testament was also altered to incorporate various phrases not found in the Received Text, but present in Jerome’s Latin Vulgate.

Thus, Satan continued to work to corrupt the English scriptures. It would also happen that the Great Bible would not be truly accessible to the common people. At first all were allowed to read it freely, but those copies belonging to the churches were chained to the pulpits, and its large size made it unaffordable for all but the rich. Eventually the reading of it by all but the rich and learned was actually outlawed for a time.

The Great Bible was thus in many ways a political pawn, and one which in the end satisfied no one. Clearly, God was not finished with the English scriptures yet, and Satan still hoped to prevent a pure version from ever being produced.

Geneva Bible #

In 1553 Queen Mary would come to the throne, and all versions but the Great Bible would be suppressed. During this period of persecution, some Protestant scholars fled from England to safer places, such as Geneva, Switzerland. One such man was William Whittingham, and in 1560 he published a new translation, the Geneva Bible. This work was overseen by Whittingham, but was the result of collaboration between several different men, including Myles Coverdale.

The Geneva Bible was the first to divide the chapters into verses, and in many ways was the first study Bible. It included copious notes, which reflected the translators’ strong Puritan and Calvinist bent. Unfortunately, these notes and the other included study aides have always outshone the text itself, and become the translation’s signature feature. Indeed, the text is inseparable from the notes, since the translators chose to use some simpler but imprecise words in the text, while expounding the finer points in the notes, rather than using English words that were more perfectly equivalent. The translation would also once again be printed with the Apocrypha.

The Geneva Bible soon surpassed the Great Bible in use, and became the preference of many Englishmen. The language in the translation is about 80% like that of Tyndale’s, and through it Tyndale’s vision was once again coming to be realized. Freed from the fetters imposed on the Great Bible by the English crown, the word of God would begin indeed to bear precious fruit among the English people.

We must take care, however, to note that the translation was once again the work of only a few men, that these were somewhat monolithic and dogmatic in their views, and that they were working at another period of very high polarity. The concern of potential bias within the translation is thus quite justified, especially considering the inextricable notes. God’s word was clearly getting purer, but was not yet perfect.

Bishops’ Bible #

The Anglican bishops recognized that the Great Bible was indeed deficient, having been partly translated from the Latin Vulgate rather than Hebrew and Greek. However, neither they nor the English crown would accept the Geneva Bible because of its notes, and so in 1568 they undertook a new translation, the Bishops’ Bible, to combat the Geneva.

Using the Great Bible as its basis, the work was initiated by Matthew Parker, the Archbishop of Canterbury, but employed several different bishops working independently on different portions of the text. There was apparently very little editorial coordination, with the result that translation practices varied throughout the book. Some portions, especially the Apocrypha, were very little revised from the text of the Great Bible. On the other end of the spectrum, some portions read much more like the Geneva Bible. In 1572 the entire text was revised to be more like the Geneva.

The Bishop’s Bible was intended to be more readable, but it failed in this, and failed also to effectively replace the Geneva. It is perhaps the most unloved of English translations, and its scholarship has also been called “incompetent.” Thus, what was, perhaps, a desperate attempt by Satan to stifle the pure words of God in English, would do little to stem the growing tide.

King James Bible #

Famously printed in 1611, the King James Bible was the final and culminating translation of the period. It was the result of some of the Puritan bishops within the Church of England seeking for the new king, James I, to commission a new translation of the scriptures to correct issues in the earlier versions. Their request was granted, with the stipulation that the Bishops’ Bible would be the starting point for the new text, that the translation would contain no notes, and that certain words would be translated in the traditional manner, not altered to fit Puritan biases.

The work began in 1604, and involved 47 translators working in six committees. All six of the prior English translations that we have considered were taken into account, as well as the original text and translations in various other languages. Once completed, the drafts from each of the committees were then compared and revised to produce a harmonious finished text. The result was a beautiful and scholarly translation whose language is as much as 80% similar to that of Tyndale’s work. Like those translations before it, the King James was originally printed with the Apocrypha included between the Old and New Testaments, although the translators did not believe that this was scripture, and so made it clear that it was not actually a part of the Bible, and was only included for historical reasons. It would invariably be excluded from later editions.

The strength of the King James Bible is in the number and scholarship of the translators, and the fact that they came from varying doctrinal backgrounds, from Puritans to High Churchmen. There was thus little room for bias to creep in, since each party sought to keep the other from soiling the translation with their own peculiar doctrines. This was also aided by the openness of the translation process, which permitted all to see the work as it progressed. The result has been that the King James Bible continues to appeal to those of all stripes within the church.

Though the King James Bible did not initially sell well, it would eventually dwarf not only all prior translations, but every other English book. The reason for its slow start may be partly that it was, as famously declared on the frontispiece, “appointed to be read in churches.” Thus, it was initially printed only in large format, not a size amenable to use as a personal copy. Also, due to the popularity of the Geneva Bible, many of those who could afford a copy of scripture already owned one, and many of those of Puritan persuasion would be hesitant to adopt one which had anything to do with the English crown. The line of thought which prompted some hesitancy to invest in a copy of the new translation may also, perhaps, be partly understood through the words of the translators:

We never thought from the beginning that we should need to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one, … but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one, not justly to be excepted against; that hath been our endeavour, that our mark.

When one already has “a good translation,” practicing urgency in acquiring a better one may not be seen as a necessity, nor even a virtue. Nonetheless, history has shown that the translators did indeed meet their mark of making “one principal good one.”

The King James Bible would eventually become the most widely read and printed book in the world—and indeed, the most influential. It stands as the foundation of Modern English, and has contributed more idioms to it than any other single source, including Shakespeare. It is widely praised as a literary work, and its poetic beauty is renown. It has borne fruit in the church for over 400 years, and continues to do so today.

That all of this could be the result of only the efforts of mere men defies reason, and fails to give due glory to the God who has promised to preserve his pure words in the mouth of his people. There can be no doubt that in this seventh translation Tyndale’s vision was finally realized in full, and that God had produced for the English-speaking world a pure and faithful translation of his words, that every poor plow-boy might know the word of God. And the world has never been the same.

Psalms 12:5 For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, now will I arise, saith the LORD; I will set him in safety from him that puffeth at him.
6 The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times.
7 Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever.

The King James Bible was so successful in fact, that it has remained unchallenged as the translation of the Received Text into English, even today. There have been, especially in the last few decades, various new editions and revisions produced, as well as new translations based explicitly upon it, all hoping to claim the title of being the “modern King James/Authorized version”. These will be discussed in a later post. For now, just consider the alternative translations of the Received Text, not based on the King James, that have been produced in the more than 400 years since its creation:

Quaker Bible #

The Quaker Bible was labor of 30 years by the self-taught translator, and Quaker, Anthony Purver. The first edition was published in 1764, and a second edition, never published, was prepared by Purver before his death. In sharp contrast to the King James, to which it was presented as an alternative, the Quaker Bible was a failure, and never sold in any volume.

Young’s Literal Translation #

Translated by Robert Young and published in 1862, Young’s Literal Translation differs from most others in that it takes an absolutely literal approach, as implied by the name. One result is that the original tenses are rigidly preserved, despite the fact that this can make the translation very awkward to read. Such a focus on the preservation of the tenses would seem also, at times, to take precedence over the formal equivalence of the words themselves.

Julia E. Smith Parker Translation #

Another literal translation was produced by Julia Evelina Smith Parker in 1876. Smith, the daughter of a Congregationalist minister, and having a working knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, refused any help with the translation, saying “I do not see that anybody can know more about it than I do.” The literalness of the translation once again proves awkward, even more so than Young’s does, and at times even nonsensical.

Darby Bible #

John Nelson Darby created several translations of the Bible into various languages, with his English New Testament being first published 1867. The English Old Testament was translated after his death by some of his students, based on his French and German translations. He was the primary scholar behind these translations, but not the only translator involved. He also relied on the work of other scholars and textual critics. The result was not intended to be read aloud, but only for use in private study (Darby used the KJB in his own ministry). It was meant to be a modern and “more accurate” translation of the scriptures, for those who want to study them more deeply but do not know the source languages. However, this and Darby’s reliance on the work of textual critics such as Samuel Prideaux Tregelles indicates that he did not believe in the purity of the Received Text, and so corrupted it with Alexandrian readings.

Green’s Literal Translation #

First published in 1985, this translation was the work of Jay P. Green, Sr. Perhaps more intelligible than the other literal translations considered above, Green’s is amusing in that it is actually less literal than the King James Bible in its translation of second-person pronouns, using “you” instead of “thee” and “thou”. This fact makes it hard for us to take the translation’s claim of literalness seriously.

Conclusion #

To say that the King James Bible, as a translation of the Received Text, has been without serious competition, would be an understatement. Even when the translations produced form corrupted texts are factored in, the King James remains as the most read, printed, and translated of them all. Its multi-centennial endurance, its persistence in bearing fruit, demonstrate that it is not a fad or passing fancy, nor is God’s word stuck in an ancient language out of reach of his people. It still lives, and it continues to work to purify minds and hearts even as it, and the One who gave it, is pure. We cannot but say with the Psalmist, as Tyndale must now in the presence of God:

Princes have persecuted me without a cause: but my heart standeth in awe of thy word. — Psalms 119:161

What about the NIV? Or the NASB? Or the CEB, ESV, RSV, or any of the other hundreds of modern translations? As we said at the start of this post, none of these are translated from the pure, preserved words of the LORD. Instead they are translated from a text based on manuscripts that are not pure or preserved. Therefore, sadly, none of them are faithful to God’s inspired words, and so they do not warrant consideration here. Refer back to the discussion in our post regarding purity for more information.


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