I have recently been reading a brilliant book called The Book of Books by writer and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg on the King James Bible (KJV). It attempts to show how in the four hundred years it has been around, from 1611 when it was first published, to 2011 when Bragg’s book was published, it has had a great impact upon our culture, politics and history, both within and beyond the English speaking world. In this article I wish to concentrate on the run-up to the writing of the KJV.
In the first part of the book, Bragg focuses on the enormous effort it took to translate the Bible into English (the KJV was not the first translation of the Bible into the common tongue). Much of the reason for this was that for a long time church authorities deemed it was only permissible to have the Bible in a Latin translation and that to have an English version of the Bible was sacrilege. Latin had become a holy language and this conveniently meant that the common man and common woman could not read and understand the Bible for themselves.
It enabled priests, bishops and cardinals to interpret the Bible however they liked without fear of criticism. And at a time when the Bible was considered by all to be the source of divine truth, it meant that clergymen had an enormous amount of power over their congregations. If they said the Bible said something the people would likely have wholeheartedly believed it the Bible did say that, even if it didn’t.
With an English version of the Bible though, the people would be able to judge for themselves what the divine word of God was trying to say, and so those trying to translate the Bible into the common tongue threatened the power of the clergy. As a result, many translators were killed for their efforts. Bragg centres in on story of William Tyndale, who in the early 1500s managed to translate the New Testament and the first five books of the Old Testament, (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) as well as others, into English.
In John Foxe’s well-known Book of Martyrs, Tyndale is described as, “a man without any spot or blemish of rancour or violence, full of mercy and compassion, so that no man living was able to reprove him of any sin or crime.”
Tyndale was eventually captured by “officers of the Holy Roman Emperor”, found guilty of heresy and strangled to death on 6th October 1536 for daring to make the Bible accessible to the commoners.
But his sacrifice was by no means in vain. His translation of the New Testament and translations of parts of the Old Testament came to form the foundations, “the character and the beauty of the King James Bible”, due to the elegance and plain style of his work – a style which came to define the King James Bible as well. For this reason he is considered one of the key figures in the creation of the KJV, despite his life ending over seventy years before its creation.
Image: By NYC Wanderer (Kevin Eng) (originally posted to Flickr as Gutenberg Bible) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons