BIBLE DIGEST - Number 73                                                                              August 1997

Allon Maxwell

Christianity came to England from Rome, in the 6th century. The Bible that the missionaries brought with them, was the LATIN VULGATE.

At first, English converts depended on the monks, to read and teach from this version. It was not long before the need was felt for translations of the Bible into English. Until the time of TYNDALE (See below) all English translations were done from the Latin Vulgate.


The best known of these are briefly described below. (It is probably worth noting, in passing, that the earliest of these "English Versions" would be virtually unrecognisable as "English", to people of this century!)


So far as is known, the earliest English translation work was done by CAEDMON, during the 7th century. 

However, this was apparently a metrical version of only parts of the Old and New testaments.


Another early translator was BEDE, (d.AD 735) who is said to have translated the Gospels into English.


King Alfred the Great (reigned 871-899) included parts of the Ten Commandments translated into English, in his laws. He also translated the Psalms.


(Also known as the Book of Durham, or the Gospels of St Cuthbert)

The Lindisfarne Gospels date from about AD 950.


Aelfric, abbot of Eynsham (c. 955-1020) made idiomatic translations of various parts of the Bible.


William Shoreham's translations of the Psalms date from the late 1300s. His translations were metrical, and are also called Psalters.


Richard Rolle also made Psalters from the Psalms, about the same time as Shoreham. Rolle's work also included a verse by verse commentary. 

His work and Shoreham's were both popular when John Wycliffe was a young man.

2. JOHN WYCLIFFE (c. 1329-1384)

John Wycliffe was the first to translate the entire Bible into English, from the Latin Vulgate. He completed the New Testament about 1380 and the Old Testament in 1382.

Wycliffe concentrated mainly on the New Testament. The major part of the Old Testament work was done by an associate, Nicholas Hereford.

Wycliffe's work incurred such enmity from the established Church, that they dug up his body several decades after his death, held a "trial", and condemned him to be burned. His ashes were then scattered into the Swift River!

John Purvey (c. 1353-1428) a close associate of Wycliffe, continued his work by producing a revision of his translation in 1388.


Towards the end of the 15th century there was a resurgence of the study of Greek. By 1500, Greek was being taught at Oxford.

When Tyndale graduated from Oxford in 1515, he had studied the Scriptures in both Greek and Hebrew. He formed a heart's desire to translate the Bible into English, from the original languages.

Due to Church opposition he was forced to relocate to Hamburg in Germany, where he completed his translation of the New Testament in 1525. Bibles arrived in England in 1526, where they were gladly received by the common people, and burned by the Church! 

Tyndale continued to work abroad, revising and reissuing his translation until his arrest and imprisonment in 1535. After over a year in prison, he was first strangled, and then burned at the stake, in 1536

After finishing the New Testament, Tyndale began work on the Old Testament, but was martyred before he could complete it. At the time of his death, he had completed the Pentateuch, Jonah, and some of the historical books.

4. MILES COVERDALE (1488-1569)

Miles Coverdale was an assistant to Tyndale. He had worked with Tyndale, on the translation of the Pentateuch. During Tyndale's imprisonment, he continued the work of translating the entire Old Testament, This was completed in 1537.

By the time this translation was issued, Henry V111 had broken all ties with the Roman Church. He was ready to tolerate an English translation. He endorsed Coverdale's Bible without knowing that it was essentially the work of Tyndale, which he had previously condemned!


Thomas Matthew was actually a pseudonym for John Rogers (c.1500-1555). He was a friend of Tyndale. Roger's used the work of Tyndale and Coverdale, to produce a complete English translation of Old and New Testaments. This was published in the same year as Coverdale's Bible, and also received Royal approval.

Matthew's Bible was also called "The Great Bible" because of its size and costliness. It was the first English Bible authorised for public use.

However, by 1543, Henry's attitude to English versions of the Bible had reversed, and Legislation was passed banning the use of any English Translation. Persecution followed, and Bibles were again confiscated and burned by the Authorities. This persecution continued under the Catholic Queen Mary, who was determined to suppress Protestantism, and restore Catholicism as the official religion of England.

Rogers was executed. Coverdale was arrested, but released, and fled to Geneva which had become a sanctuary for English Protestants.


The English exiles in Geneva, commissioned William Whittingham (c. 1524-1579) to make an English translation for them. It also included many notes which reflected the teachings of the Reformer John Calvin, who was prominent in Geneva at that time.

It became very popular because of its small size and moderate price. 


Whilst the Geneva Bible was popular amongst Calvinists, it was not acceptable to many leading Churchmen in England because of its Calvinistic notes. However, these Churchmen recognised that the Great Bible was inferior in scholarship and style, compared with the Geneva translation. They initiated a revision of the Great Bible, which was published in 1568.

This remained the "official' version of the Church, until it was superseded by the King James Version of 1611.


For centuries the Roman Church had resisted the publication of the Bible in the language of the common people. However the increasing number of Protestant versions and revisions, eventually forced the hand of the Catholic Church. A translation of the New Testament, from the Latin Vulgate, was produced at the College of Rheims in 1582. In 1609-10 the College at Douai issued a translation of the Old Testament.

This continued to be the official English Catholic Bible until this century (although there were severe restrictions placed on Catholics, as to what parts of it they were permitted to read!)


This translation was initiated by King James. He wanted a more accurate translation than those which had appeared before that time. 

He wanted to replace the Bishop's Bible, which was not really popular. The Geneva Bible was rejected because he considered its notes seditious. He also wanted a version free of marginal notes, which would be acceptable to all the English Churches.

The resultant work was first published in 1611. It became the Universally accepted version for the English speaking world, and remained so for 350 years.

However, the KJV has not been without "emendment" and "editorial adjustment"! A new edition in 1613 contained over 400 such "variations. Countless others have been added over the centuries since. It has been said that the 20th century King James reader would be very surprised by the differences compared with the 1611 edition. 


This information is compiled from the two main sources listed below :-

Philip W. Comfort, "The Complete Guide To Bible Versions",

Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
Wheaton, Illinois, 1996

Neil R. Lightfoot "How We Got The Bible"

Second Edition 1988,
Baker Bookhouse,
Grand Rapids Michigan.