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Biblical origins

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible. As a result there is quite a lot of interest in the media on both sides of the Atlantic in the history of the “Authorized” Version as it is also known. Later this year I will be focusing the anniversary in a Church History training track at Together on a Mission, the last of our annual Newfrontiers leaders’ conferences in their present form.

I have called this year’s track “The Reformation and the Bible” and I have invited Mike Ovey, the Principal of Oak Hill Theological College and co-author of Pierced for our transgressions, to kick it off with what promises to be an excellent seminar entitled “Scripture and the Reformers: Use, Abuse or Obey.” Ray Lowe who is well known and much loved in Newfrontiers circles, will cover the second track with an examination of the English Reformation. I will round off the track with a look at the history of the English Bible.
The history of the English Bible has long been an interest of mine. My Ph.D was an examination of the relationship between the printing press and the new theology of the Reformers, with particular reference to the Low Countries. Antwerp was a hugely important northern European publishing centre and, despite Charles V’s aggressive opposition to Luther, its publishers disseminated Reformation pamphlets, books and Bibles by the bucket load both for the home and for the export (England, France, Italy and Spain) markets.
The KJV became the dominant version of the Bible in English from the eighteenth century onwards. However, we must be careful not to exaggerate its significance or distort its history. David Daniel (The Bible in English) makes a number of important points. To begin with, the KJV should not be called the “Authorized” Version since it was never authorized. In addition, the KJV was not universally loved when it was first published. Only over the next hundred years did it gradually gain the ascendency over other translations and this was largely for commercial reasons and not because it was inherently superior to other translations. True, it is beautiful and has become an important part of our literary heritage. Some of the best known phrases in the English language (eg “my brother’s keeper,” “skin of my teeth,” “signs of the times,” “wages of sin” and many more besides) are derived from the KJV. However, the KJV is itself derivative. The above phrases along with another 83% of the KJV New Testament are derived from the translation of William Tyndale.
Tyndale is one of the least known but most important figures in the history of the English speaking world. I have called my seminar at Together on a Mission “Blood and fire: the making of the English Bible” because it is Tyndale not King James and his committee who should receive the credit for putting the Bible into English. It is not committees, bishops or ungodly kings who change the world. It is ordinary men and women of faith, courage, vision and obedience. Tyndale was the first person to translate the New Testament from Greek into English. When criticized by a Catholic opponent for making accessible to common folk theological ideas which only trained scholars should grapple with he retorted “If God spare my life… I will cause a boy that driveth the plow shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.” He left his homeland in 1524 because Henry VIII and his bishops were so opposed to the idea of an English Bible. The production of his first New Testament in Cologne in 1525 ended in disaster when he was betrayed,  the print shop was raided and his work was destroyed. All that remains to us is a prologue and the first 22 chapters of Matthew’s Gospel. The following year he published a complete New Testament, translated from Erasmus’ Greek New Testament of 1516. In 1534 he published a revised and improved version of his New Testament. In the meantime, he was also working on an Old Testament translation. He got as far as the Pentateuch, Joshua to 2 Chronicles and Jonah before he was finally betrayed, imprisoned, tried and executed in 1536. As a cleric he was entitled to be strangled before his body was burnt!
Tyndale was a genius. He knew 8 languages – Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German, French, Spanish, Italian and English. He gave us the most important book ever published in the English language.  He gave us a book that has, quite literally, changed the world. He did so at enormous personal cost. For the last 12 years of his life he was either on the run or imprisoned. He died at the age of 42. He never married and his body was never buried. Last week I bought myself a copy of Tyndale’s 1526 New Testament published in facsimile by the British Library. When I hold it or show it to friends I am mindful that I am handling history. It helps to keep me on track. When I read my Bible or preach from it can be easy for me to take for granted what previous generations paid a huge price to make available to me. Tyndale sharpens my mind and keeps me focused!

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