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History of the English Bible

Approximate Reading Time, 11 minutes.

The Bible is and always has been the most important book in history. It was the first book in print and, at around 5 billion copies, the most sold and distributed book in existence. More manuscripts remain from antiquity than any other piece of literature. Some Bibles have been extensively illustrated with the finest works of art, while others have been very plain. Some have been expensive, others affordable and even free. When the Bible was first printed it served as a catalyst to increase literacy throughout the Western world. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Bible was the first and only book that many people owned. The text has been translated into countless languages and rearranged in a variety of ways over many centuries.

This is what makes Bible history so captivating.

The Gutenberg Bible – Not English, but the 1st printed Bible!

Johann Gutenberg, who lived from about 1400 to about 1468, is credited for inventing the process of making uniform and interchangeable metal types and for solving the many problems of finding the right materials and methods for printing. The Gutenberg Bible, with its noble Gothic type richly impressed on the page, is recognized as a masterpiece of fine printing and craftsmanship and is all the more remarkable because it was undoubtedly one of the very first books to emerge from the printing press. The text of the Gutenberg Bible is the Latin translation known as the “Vulgate,” which was made by St. Jerome in the fourth century. The Bible is printed throughout in double columns, for the most part, with forty-two lines to a page.

The Wycliffe Bible

For over a thousand years, the text of the Bible was primarily in Latin. John Wycliffe (1330-1384) and his following of academics from Oxford translated the Bible into English from the Vulgate by around 1384. Wycliffe condemned the practices of the medieval Church, citing many of the same abuses that would later be addressed by other reformers. Wycliffe believed every Christian should study the Bible. When he met with opposition to the translation he replied “Christ and his apostles taught the people in that tongue that was best known to them. Why should men not do so now?” For one to have a personal relationship with God, Wycliffe believed that need to be described in the Bible. Wycliffe also believed that it was necessary in order to truly reform the Church. So one must be able to read the Bible to understand Biblical times. All of his writings were eventually ordered to be burned, he was declared a heretic, and his corpse was exhumed and burned. Any produced English translation of the Bible without permission from ecclesiastical authority was thereafter forbidden. Learn more about the Wycliffe Bible.

The Tyndale Bible

William Tyndale (1494-1536) began to craft a new English translation of the Bible in 1524. Armed with Erasmus’ Greek New Testament and Luther’s German text, he completed his English translation of the New Testament in just one year. The printing shop was raided, forcing him to began anew and he released a smaller version in 1526. While working on his Old Testament translation, Tyndale was betrayed and arrested. He was convicted of heresy, strangled, and burned at the stake. His last words were: “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.” Within a year his prayers were answered. His colleague Miles Coverdale (1488-1568) completed the first English translation of the Bible in 1535. Learn more about the Tyndale Bible.

The English “Great Bible

English Bible

The “Great Bible” of 1539 was the first authorized edition of the Bible in English, authorized by King Henry VIII of England to be read aloud in the church services of the Church of England. The Great Bible was prepared by Myles Coverdale, working under commission of Thomas, Lord Cromwell, Secretary to Henry VIII and Vicar General. In 1538, Cromwell directed the clergy to provide “one book of the Bible of the largest volume in English, and the same set up in some convenient place within the said church that ye have care of, whereas your parishioners may most commodiously resort to the same and read it.” Although called the Great Bible because of its large size, it is known by several other names as well: the Cromwell Bible, since Thomas Cromwell directed its publication; Whitchurch’s Bible after its first English printer; the Chained Bible, since it was chained to prevent removal from the church. Learn more about the “Great Bible”.

The Geneva English Bible

Queen Mary, took the throne on July 19, 1553. “Bloody Mary” sought to return England to Catholicism and was not afraid to prosecute protestants in order to do it. That resulted in small settlement of exiles in Geneva, Switzerland. The Geneva Bible is considered by many as the most influential English Bible of the 16th and 17th centuries. Translated by the best Protestant scholars of the day, the Geneva Bible was highly regarded. It’s thought to be the Bible Puritans brought with them to America on the Mayflower, and it was the first Bible to use chapters and numbered verses, as well as including marginal notes. It’s no surprise that it became the most popular version of its time. A group of fine scholars translated the text from the original Hebrew and Greek. Boasting wide margins, clear Roman font, and a much smaller quarto size, the Geneva Bible was well received by the people. Learn more about the Geneva Bible.

The Bishops’ English Bible

The Bishops’ Bible was produced under the authority of the established Church of England in 1568. It was substantially revised in 1572, and the 1602 edition was prescribed as the base text for the King James Bible completed in 1611. The thorough Calvinism of the Geneva Bible offended the Church of England, to which almost all of its bishops subscribed. They associated Calvinism with Presbyterianism, which sought to replace government of the church by bishops with government by lay elders. However, they were aware that the Great Bible of 1539 , which was the only version then legally authorized for use in Anglican worship, was severely deficient, in that much of the Old Testament and Apocrypha was translated from the Latin Vulgate, rather than from the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Learn more about the Bishops’ Bible.

The Douay-Rheims English Bible

Numerous English translations of the Bible were available by 1578, but none were acceptable to Roman Catholics. A New Testament would be produced in order to enable Catholics to refute heretical ideas from neighbors who knew their Bible inside and out, and also to discourage adherents from reading any other English translation that might be readily available. Gregory Martin began the work of translating the text of the Vulgate into English in 1578 at the Roman Catholic College at Rheims. The entire Bible would be completed by 1610 at Douay (hence the Douai-Rheims translation). At the Council of Trent a few decades prior, the Latin Vulgate was declared the only authentical Catholic text. The Bible was thus a translation of a translation. The Bible has wide margins and the notes are clear. Learn more about the Douay-Rheims Bible.

The King James English Bible

Despite the popularity of the Geneva Bible among England’s laypeople, many Anglican clergy objected to it because of its study notes and departure from tradition. They wanted something more akin to the Bishop’s Bible in its intended use, size, and style, but with a more accurate translation. The King James Version Bible was authorized by King James I and is sometimes referred to as the “Authorized Version”. University scholars worked in teams to translate directly from the Greek and Hebrew. Their work was reviewed by church leaders and ratified by the king himself. Though translation notes and cross references remained, all commentary was removed. The result was not only reliable, but beautifully written. The KJV New Testament was translated from the Textus Receptus. However, the majority of the book of Revelation seems to have been translated from the Latin Vulgate. The KJV Old Testament was translated from the Masoretic Hebrew text, and the Apocrypha was translated from the Greek Septuagint. Learn more about the King James Bible.

The Vinegar Bible

The Vinegar Bible is a version of the King James Bible printed in 1717 by John Baskett who had attained the title of “printer to the King’s most excellent majesty” in 1709. John Baskett was to become a powerful character in the world of printing. Born in 1645 in Salisbury, he was the son of a gentleman, Roger Baskett. On 4 December 1682 he was apprenticed to the London stationer Edward Dorrell and after being released from his indentures in 1690 he began to secure his own business. He and his supporters wanted to improve both the quality and the appearance of the Bibles being printed. The idea was to produce a folio edition of the King James Bible that would reflect the decisions made by the original translators that had somehow become lost in the intervening years. Learn more about the Vinegar Bible.

The Macklin Bible

The Macklin Bible is one of the largest and most beautifully illustrated English-language Bibles ever printed. Thomas Macklin was an English publisher who gained notoriety in 1788 when he opened his “Poet’s Gallery” to exhibit and reproduce work from prominent English artists. He soon began including biblical art and announced plans to create an illustrated Bible. He completed the seven-volume Bible in 1800, with the financial support of hundreds of subscribers, including King George III. Over a dozen artists contributed work for the Bible, including Henry Fuseli and Angelica Kauffman. Volumes one through six contain the Old Testament and New Testament. Volume seven, containing the Apocrypha, was published separately. Learn more about the Macklin Bible.

Harper’s Illuminated Bible

English Bible

Considered the most lavishly illustrated Bible printed in America, this Bible was originally sold in a series of 54 issues at 25 cents each. While large Bibles such as this were considered “family Bibles,” this particular one does not contain any dedication entry or birth, marriage, or death notes. Designed for group Bible study, these editions came in large volumes, complete with pictures, maps, and glossaries. The engraver Joseph Adams (1803-1880) began the most innovative of all American Bibles. He convinced the Harper and Brothers publishers to take on ‘the most splendidly elegant edition of the Sacred Record ever issued.’ The finished product includes over 1600 historical engravings and in-line illustrations. Learn more about Harper’s Illuminated Bible.

Family English Bibles

Family Bibles, the one-stop-shop for Bible reading and Bible study, increased in popularity throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The family was considered a little church and the father was responsible for leading his family in Bible study and worship. Additional study aids were incorporated including an overview of denominations and notes to help explain the Scriptures. These Bibles had beautifully decorated covers, with gold gilt page edges, and metal closing clasps. Ornate family Bibles became so common that they could be purchased from a Sears catalog! By the 1880s the large family Bible had become a library unto itself – weighing up to 18 pounds! In addition to the Scriptural text, these Bibles contain numerous illustrations by the famous Gustave Doré—some of which are color—as well as detailed maps. A chronological index, concise harmony of the gospels, and a Biblical Cyclopedia could be bound in as well. These family Bibles were available in Protestant and Roman Catholic versions. Bible salesmen were given the task of going door to door to advertise and secure the sale of a family Bible that could be tailored to meet the customer’s request. Learn more about Family Bibles.

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