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The Printed Bible’s Transformation

Watch Week Seven Day Three

Central to the Protestant Reformation was the idea of the ultimate authority of Scripture. Above any earthly ruler, leader, or church council, the Word of God was authoritative. Believing this, as Reformers looked to the pages of the Bible, they found insights that unleashed reform movements throughout Europe and challenged the teachings and behavior of the Catholic Church. In short, the reading of Scripture was an incredibly important catalyst in the Protestant Reformation.
The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw key developments in the translation and printing of the Bible in Europe. These developments enabled and furthered the work of the Reformation. Today, we will explore just a few of those significant steps along the way.

Erasmus’ Greek Publication of the New Testament

Erasmus was a humanist scholar living in the Netherlands. The humanist movement, remember, was a “literary movement that sought to return to the sources of classical literature, and to imitate its style.” Scholars looked to the writings of antiquity in their studies. The humanist movement within Christian circles meant a return to the original language of the New Testament. Scholars compared the original text of the Greek manuscripts with the Latin Vulgate (the official translation used by the Catholic Church) and raised questions about the Latin translation. Scholars like Erasmus believed that returning to the original language would help enable reform. In 1516, Erasmus published his Greek New Testament. In the preface, he called for the translation of the Bible into the common languages of the day. Soon after, translations were published in German, French, and English.

William Tyndale’s English Translation

William Tyndale was passionate to see the Bible translated into English so ordinary people could have access to Scripture and read it, not just priests. At the time, he faced great opposition in England and was not allowed to print the New Testament there. He left England and ended up printing his version of the New Testament while living in Germany. But Tyndale smuggled copies back into England. His version of the Bible was banned and copies were burned. In 1536, Tyndale was captured by church officials. After spending time in prison, Tyndale was executed. At his death, he said, “Lord, open king of England’s eyes.” It was his dying hope that the king would one day allow the English Bible in his country. His hope was realized when King Henry VIII, as part of the English Reformation, called for an English translation to be placed in all parish churches. This was a dramatic turn of events considering the opposition Tyndale and others had faced. Scholar Gordon Campbell observes, “The Reformation has been accompanied by a revolution, one in which a book that had been imprisoned in Latin had become accessible in the everyday language of the English people.”

The Geneva Bible in 1560

As we studied yesterday, following the reign of Edward in England, his Catholic half-sister Mary of Tudor (or Bloody Mary) took the throne. She stopped the printing of the English Bible and banned these Bibles from being used in worship. Some Protestants fled England. One man, William Whittingham, fled to Geneva. He was one of the key architects and translators behind the Geneva Bible. This version of the Bible “was the first English Bible to adopt verse numbers,” and it was designed to be used for “private study.” This later became the Bible used by Puritans in both England and America.

The King James Bible in 1611

As the name implies, the King James Bible was commissioned by King James I, who became king of England after the death of Elizabeth I. James was also king of Scotland. James continued Elizabeth’s policy of a “middle way,” but he was less successful. While listening to the arguments and concerns of the Puritans at a gathering that came to be known as the Hampton Court Conference, James agreed to the request for a new translation of the Bible. This was the only suggestion from the Puritans that James agreed to. The Puritans desired a new translation because they were unhappy with the current translation of the Bible being used in churches in England (the Bishop’s Bible). Seven years later, in 1611, the first edition of the King James Bible was published.

Scholar Gordon Campbell calls the King James Version of the Bible “the most important book in the English language.” In part, Campbell makes this claim because of the King James Version’s “long history at the center of the religious culture of the English-speaking world.”
Today, at least some part of the Bible has been translated into three thousand languages for 70 percent of the world’s population. But there are still 1 billion “Bibleless” people, and four thousand languages to go.


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