The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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A Bible for the English

In the Beginning The story of the King James Bible By Alister McGrath, Hodder & Stoughton, £ 7.99

Alister McGrath’s book begins with the claim that the two greatest influences on the development of the English language were William Shakespeare and the English Bible which was published in 1611. It is difficult to imagine now, especially for those who have been nurtured on the King James edition or the Authorized Version, that the mere fact of owning and reading the Bible in English was evidence of heresy. The Bible was read in the Vulgate, that is in the Latin translation from Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.

It was Martin Luther’s Reformation and his own translation of the New Testament and the first five books of the Old Testament into German and Erasmus’s new Latin translation that acted as the motor for the first English Bible. The movement was aided, of course, by the invention of printing and the circulation of printed books.

The first significant step towards a printed English Bible was taken by William Tyndale, whose translation of the New Testament was published in 1526 at Worms. It was smuggled into England almost immediately. The unnamed translator — though the authorship of Tyndale is not in dispute — wanted to render the New Testament in “proper English”. The translation was perceived by Catholics as a threat and with good reason. To take just one example from the many cited by McGrath. The Greek word ekklesia was traditionally translated as church; Tyndale translated it as congregation. Consequently, “many New Testament references that could have been taken as endorsing the institution of the Church were now to be understood as referring to local congregations of believers.”

But more than its contribution to the theological battle was the contribution made to the English language through his translation. Tyndale coined phrases like “the powers that be”(Romans 13); “my brother’s keeper” (Genesis 4); “the salt of the earth”’ (Matthew 5). It was Tyndale who invented the term Passover to refer to the Jewish festival known in Hebrew as Pesah. Tyndale was murdered but his translation of the New Testament created a pressure for a vernacular Bible in England. The first complete English Bible appeared in 1535 and was the work of Miles Coverdale and was based largely on existing translations. Tyndale’s translation was an important influence on Coverdale. Coverdale’s Bible was a major landmark on the road to the King James Bible.

The proposal for a new Bible translation came from John Reynolds at the Hampton Court Conference (1604) summoned by James I. The proposal had the blessings of James who directed that the “best-learned in both universities” — Oxford and Cambridge — should begin work on a new translation of the Bible. More than 50 hands were used to make the translation and to “English” the Bible.

McGrath brings out the history and the process of the Authorized Version in great detail and with enviable lucidity. This is a book that both scholars and the lay man can enjoy. As McGrath points out, most readers of the King James version are often not aware that they are actually reading a translation.

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