Everyone knows that before the publication of the King James Bible (Authorised Version) in 1611, many people, such as Wycliffe and Tyndale, got into serious trouble with the authorities for publishing their own English translations of the Bible. Many people today believe that the authorities just didn’t want people to learn what was actually in the Bible. That is the accusation, and it is partly true, but it isn’t the whole story.
In those days, university lectures were in Latin, scientific papers were in Latin, and theologians wrote in Latin. For example, Luther posted his 95 theses in Latin, and Isaac Newton wrote his foundational scientific work, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, in Latin. Latin was the common scientific and theological language across Europe. University students had to know Latin or they couldn’t understand their professors’ lectures or write their term papers. This meant there were technical terms that had no equivalents in vernacular languages, such as English. There were English translations of the Bible older than the King James Version, such as the Great Bible, the Coverdale Bible, and the Bishop’s Bible, but they all had their drawbacks. Theologians, Protestant and Catholic alike, used Jerome’s Latin translation from Hebrew and Greek, the Vulgate, as their authoritative Bible.
The was a general feeling was that the Bible was for scholars, and that ordinary people could learn what they needed to know in church. Therefore theologians couldn’t see a pressing need for an English-language Bible translation, since it would be difficult at best and misleading at worst.
If you are translating the New Testament into English, which words do you use?
Translating Ecclesiastical Terms
Let’s take the Greek word πρεσβυτερος as an example. If we substitute the Greek letters with the corresponding letters of our alphabet, it comes out presbyteros. That word came down to us from Greek as presbyter and became prester then priest with time. Modern translators generally translate πρεσβυτερος as elder and ἱερευς as priest, which muddies the waters, since a ἱερευς is a temple functionary, not clergy. That seems harmless enough today, but since the Church of England calls their clergy priests, dissidents back then could misinterpret the word elder to invalidate the Church of England and the authority of the king.
Translating Theological Terms
Since the language of universities, seminaries, and scholars was Latin, no one had come up with English words for theological concepts. Incarnation, for example, is a Latin word, which was not in use in English in those days. Common people would not understand it. The translator would have to come up with an English language equivalent. Anyone who translates from one language to another knows that there is never a one-to-one correspondence between words of two different languages. The word in your translation always brings in unwanted alternate meanings and connotations, and leaves out others that are necessary. Translating a text, particularly one as crucial as Holy Scripture, guarantees misunderstanding and even deliberate misinterpretation. Theologians of the day opposed English translations for the simple reason that they cannot be accurate. Even today, preachers often “go back to the Greek” to interpret passages in the Testament, but since they aren’t always expert in Greek, they sometimes get it wrong even then.
Today, Wycliffe and Tyndale are considered martyrs for translating the Bible into English, but the real story is more complicated than I can explain here. Here is a brief summary:
Wycliffe was a Catholic priest who advocated ideas that foreshadowed the Protestant Reformation. He was skeptical of the legitimacy of the papacy and criticized corruption and immorality among monastics and clergy, which right there was enough to get him into serious trouble, since those ideas were politically and socially unhelpful to the church and the government. He felt that the sacraments performed by immoral priests were invalid, which is a form of Donatism. (Donatism seems obvious, but it is considered a heresy because of its severe problematic ramifications.)
Wycliffe, and others under his supervision, translated the Bible into English from the Vulgate, the Latin translation used by scholars. He died of a stroke while celebrating the mass. Decades later, he was found guilty of heresy by the Catholic Council of Constance.
Tyndale was a Catholic priest, and the first person to translate the Bible from the biblical languages into English. The annotations in his translation and his writings were influenced by the budding Protestant Reformation and thus undermined the authority of the Catholic Church in England. He was both critical and helpful to Henry VIII, on the one hand criticizing his authority to grant himself an annulment, and on the other hand giving him a rationale for breaking the Church of England away from the Catholic Church. He was executed for heresy, but his translation formed the basis of most of the King James Version.
Even the Calvinists understood that translating the Bible into English was problematical. They ambushed King James with a petition asking for a theologically neutral English translation of the Scriptures that everyone could use. To their surprise, the king readily agreed. In fact, he managed the translation project himself. The result was called the Authorised Version, because it was authorized for use in churches. (In the United States, we call it the King James Version.) Every parish was required by law to have at least one copy on public display. Since churches were open twenty-four hours a day, anyone could come in and read the Bible at any time, night and day. Books were very expensive since back then, it could take months to print a single copy. Since replacing a stolen Bible could bankrupt a parish, they often chained the Bible to the lectern to prevent theft.
But how did the translators get around the problem of all those words that couldn’t be translated? First, they avoided words that could be used to subvert the church. They translated επισκοπος as bishop, πρεσβυτερος as priest, and εκκλησια as church, the terms used in the church. Second, they avoided theological inaccuracies by lifting theological terms from Latin and putting them in the English text. Latin words such as sanctificatio, incarnatio, and justificatio came into the English language for the first time when the translators put them in the King James Bible.
Not Quite a Happy Ending
This solution satisfied both the church and the theologians, but it had an unavoidable side effect. It created a lot of English words that had, for most English-speaking people at the time, no meaning at all. The words sanctification and justification, for example, sounded like so much blah-blah-blah. They became fill-in-the-blank words that even today are sometimes creatively defined to fit innovative theologies.
Today, a translation of the Bible is still problematical, which is why we have so many of them, but even if you make a really bad one with evil intent, you won’t lose your head over it.