A 10-Minute History of the English Bible

Small Talk — 2014 National Conference

Look at the Book: Reading the Bible for Yourself

One of the many intriguing things about Albert Einstein is what he called his gedanken, or thought experiments. The most famous one, some of you may know, is where he invites us to imagine what it would be like to travel on the beam of light. Today, as part of my talk on the history of the English Bible, I’m going to ask you to participate with me in two thought experiments.

The Best-Selling Book of All Time

In the first experiment, I’d like you to try to imagine all the copies of The Lord of the Rings ever produced sitting here on the stage behind me, something like over 150 million copies. That’s a big number to try to imagine. Now, to that 150 million copies of The Lord of the Rings, add all the copies of The Hobbit ever sold. That’s something around 100 million plus. And keep going. Bring out all the copies of Mere Christianity, all the copies of The Chronicles of Narnia, and all the copies of The Screwtape Letters. Now put on all the copies of Anne of Green Gables, the Goosebumps books, and the complete Diary of Wimpy Kid series.

Unless you’re opposed to them on principle, throw on all seven of the Harry Potter books. If you’d like, you can put them on their own pile to the side. Throw with them The Da Vinci Code and the Twilight series, just to get a big pile. Finally, on our enormous pile on stage, in our thought experiment, throw on all the copies of The Little Prince, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Purpose-Driven Life, all the Chicken Soup books, and every copy of The Bridges of Madison County.

You know where I’m going. The Bible has sold more copies than all of these books we have combined in this great imaginary pile in our thought experiment. Far more. One estimate, and estimates are hard to come by, suggests that 5 billion copies of the Bible were printed in just the last century. And that each year, 100 million copies are added to that pile. No matter what the estimate, experts all agree that the Bible is the bestselling book of all time, and the English Bible in all of its various versions, is its best-selling version.

A World with No English Bible

I’d like to turn now to our second Einstein, gedanken thought experience. As hard as it was to imagine all those millions and millions of books here on stage, I think the second experiment is going to be harder for you. I’d like you to imagine all these copies gone, all the copies of the English Bible that are bigger than what we had on stage, suddenly gone. Imagine yourself as an English-speaking Christian, without an English version of the Bible. Imagine a world with no, “For God’s soul loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16); a world without, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1); a world with no, “In the beginning, God created the heavens in the earth” (Genesis 1:1); a world with no, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3).

Imagine a world where all the verses central to your beliefs, all the verses you have held onto in your darkest hours, all the verses which have guided the most important decisions in your life, don’t exist in your language, and that means for you, they don’t exist. In one sense, I find that impossible to do. Imagine yourself as an English-speaking Christian without an English version of the Bible. It’s almost impossible to imagine that world.

In another way, it’s very easy to imagine, because for over 1,000 years, from roughly 600 AD to 1600 AD, this was the actual case. This was the case of Christians in England, who had a Bible in Latin, but not a Bible in English, and the real story of how we got the English Bible, how it came to be, the story of how we got, “For God so love the world,” and how we got, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” is as amazing, as moving, as miraculous, as any of those books that we piled on stage in that first thought experiment. And in this 10-minute talk, I’m just going to scratch the surface.

Eight Events in the History of the English Bible

In this brief time I have, I’m going to do two things. First, I’m going to point you to a few resources, if you want to explore this topic further, and then I’m going to offer my own top eight events in the history of the English Bible. I had a Letterman top 10, then I had to cut two.

First, here are the resources. If you go over to the bookstore, I’m going to be reading from two passages in this talk. First, I want to point to In The Beginning by Alister McGrath, and second, William Tyndale by David Daniell. They’re over in the bookstore, and there are plenty of them left. Also, I want to point you to a free audio file. This is one I discovered, to my joy, as I was preparing. It’s a wonderful address by Pastor Piper called Always Singing One Note. You can listen to it online at the Desiring God website.

Here is my top-eight list of events in the history of the English Bible.

1. The Latin Vulgate

383, the Latin Vulgate. This is St. Jerome’s translation of the entire Bible, both the Old and New Testament, from Hebrew and Greek into Latin, the Vulgate. This will be the Bible for the next 1,300 years. It’s ironic that the term Vulgate comes from the Latin term vulgare, which means “common speech of the people.” For hundreds of years, the Catholic Church ignored repeated pleas for a translation into English, the language of millions of people in Britain, and insisted that the Latin Vulgate would be the only version available.

2. The Illuminated Manuscripts

In the 800s and 900s, there were the illuminated manuscripts. Until the invention of the printing press in 1455, every copy of the Bible was copied by hand, mostly by monks in a monastery, in a scriptorium, with the latest high-tech quill pens and specially treated animal skins. If you’ve seen one of these, they’re beautiful; but if you’ve seen one, they’re in Latin, not in English. An English version is going to take another 600 years.

3. The Wycliffe Bible

1382, the Wycliffe Bible. John Wycliffe lived in the 1300s. Many of you know his story. He was a reformer of the church before the Reformation, often called the Morning Star of the Reformation. He preached reform, and he preached on the importance of every Christian reading and knowing the Bible. His crowning achievement, with his team, was a translation of the entire Bible into English. Now, in middle English, it would not be very readable for us, and it was a word-for-word translation from the Latin into English, so it’s a translation of a translation. Anyway, they were handwritten, as there was no printing press at this time.

4. The Gutenberg Bible

1445, the Gutenberg Bible. And you know this one was the first printed book and the first printed copy of the entire Bible. Forty-nine copies exist today, some have more and some have less, depending how they come. Twenty-one are complete. If you’ve looked at it, it’s in Latin. This is St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate.

5. The Erastus Greek New Testament

Here’s one that you may not know. In 1516, Erasmus produces the Erasmus Greek New Testament. He produces a printing-press, reliable Greek New Testament. Its significance is that it’s cheap now, and it’s reliable. This is what Luther will use, and this is what Tyndale will use.

6. The Tyndale Bible

1526, the Tyndale Bible. I told you I’d read from David Daniell’s opening. Here’s what he says:

William Tyndale gave us our English Bible. The sages assembled by King James to prepare the authorized version in 1611, so often praised, and actually took over, Tyndale’s work. Very many of the treasures which have enriched the lives and language of English speakers since the 1930s were from Tyndale. A list of common phrases like “the salt of the earth,” “let there be light,” and “the spirit is willing,” come from him. Haunting phrases like those in the prodigal son, “Thy brother was dead and is yet alive,” or Gospel phrases, “There were shepherds biding in the fields,” come from him.

These are all Tyndale’s, and if you’re only going to look at one story, this is the one to have.

7. The Geneva Bible

1560, the Geneva Bible. This should be one dear and dear to your heart. It was made by reformers in Geneva, who had fled Queen Mary’s persecution in England. This is the first study Bible. This is a book not just to be read but studied. It’s the first one with verses. It’s the first one with cross indexes. It’s got maps. It’s got the kind of things that suggest it’s not just to be read by every Christian Christian, but studied by every Christian.

8. The King James Bible

And finally, in 1611, we have the publication of the King James Bible. I’m going to read a short passage from In The Beginning:

The King James Bible was a landmark in the history of the English language, and an inspiration to poets, dramatists, artists, and politicians. The influence of this work has been incalculable. For many years, it was the only translation of the English Bible available, and if families could afford only one book (and maybe some of you remember this time when you were younger) it was the King James Bible, a book in whose page’s parents would record the births of their children, and find solace at their deaths. Countless youngsters learned to read by sounding out the words they found in the only book their family possessed, the King James Bible.

Many learned biblical passages by heart, and found that their written and spoken English was shaped by the language and imagery of this book. The lives of countless men and women since then, have been changed and molded by this King James Bible. Refugees from England fleeing religious persecution in the 17th century brought copies with them. It would be their encouragement on the long and dangerous voyage to the Americas, and their guide as they settled in the New World.

In conclusion, I’ve just skimmed the surface of this incredible story, the history of the English Bible. I think it’s made a wonderful little side note to our conference theme, “Look in the Book.” I hope that it will inspire you to explore this fascinating history on your own. I want to invite you, by the way, there’s a lovely collection of Bibles in the exhibit hall just on the other side. There’s an illuminated manuscript, there’s a page from the Gutenberg, there’s a copy of Tyndale’s New Testament, and there’s a copy of the Geneva Bible. There’s also a very early addition of the King James Bible. I’d like you to come by, turn the pages, and look up a verse, because this story — this amazing, miraculous story of the history of the English Bible — is all of our stories.