“It is well to observe the force and virtue and consequence of inventions, and these are nowhere to be seen nowhere more conspicuously than in those three which were unknown to the ancients, and of which the origins, though recent, are obscure and inglorious; namely, printing, gunpowder, and the magnet. For these three have changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world.” Francis Bacon, 1620
My previous article in Just Thinking examined Curtis Chang’s rich retelling of church history through the lives of Augustine and Aquinas. Interestingly and related, three books on the Bible and its history have been recently released to much publicity by major New York publishing houses: Benson Bobrick’s Wide As the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired (Simon & Schuster, April 2001); Bruce Feiler’s Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses (William Morrow & Company, March 2001); and Alister McGrath’s In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture (Doubleday, May 2001). McGrath’s manuscript caught my attention because he is professor of historical theology at Oxford University, a respected evangelical scholar, and has lectured in forums hosted by RZIM. (Readers of Amy Orr-Ewing’s article may also appreciate that she studied under him while at Oxford.)
Professor McGrath’s book proves to be as winsome and engaging as his lectures. In the Beginning traverses many twists and turns in the road; as such, I shall merely cover the first leg of the journey and let readers discover what unfolds beyond the bend. Lest one wonder about the significance of this seemingly narrow topic, scholars agree that the works of William Shakespeare and the translation of the King James Bible have been the “two greatest influences on the shaping of the English language.”
Indeed, we discover that the story of the King James Bible is intertwined with the story of the English language—from its disregard to its growing respect. “One of the most remarkable facts of English history during the Middle Ages,” McGrath notes, “is that its ruling elite chose not to use their native language of English, except when dealing with social inferiors.” Latin and French were spoken by academics and clerics, and these languages were considered to be the only proper means of communication for the church. Hence, “It is little wonder that Christianity seemed to many fourteenth-century English people to be a religion whose business was conducted entirely in one of two foreign languages.” But alas, these words were wielded as weapons to keep the laity from being able to read the Scriptures, for fear that the clergy would lose its privileged position. In fact, according to a decree by the archbishop of Canterbury in 1407, it was not only illegal to translate the Bible into English, but even for it “to be read [in English] in part or in whole, in public or in private.”
The determination of John Wycliffe (1330-84) to put the Scriptures into the hands of the people was one of the reasons this decree was set forth. As McGrath writes, “Wycliffe … threatened to destroy the whole edifice of clerical domination in matters of theology and church life. The translation of the Bible into English would be a social leveler on a hitherto unknown scale. All would be able to read Christendom’s sacred text, and judge both the lifestyle and teachings of the medieval Church on its basis. The very ideas sent shock waves throughout the complacent Church establishment of the day.” Indeed, listen to Wycliffe’s chief opponent, Henry Knighton: “Wycliffe translated the gospel, which Christ had entrusted to clerics and doctors of the church, so that they might administer it conveniently to the laity, and to lesser people according to the needs of the time…. Wycliffe translated it from Latin into the English—not the angelic!—language. As a result, what was previously known only by learned clerics and those of good understanding had become common, and available to the laity—in fact, even to women who can read. As a result, the pearls of the gospel have been scattered and spread before swine”(italics mine!).
Yet two seismic movements would further Wycliffe’s vision: the Renaissance and the Reformation. The former gave rise to individualism and mobility (hence the sharing of ideas throughout Europe and England); the latter, to theological discussion among the laity and the growing demand that the Scriptures should be translated in languages of the people. Regarding the English language, the reign of Henry V (1413-22) and the Hundred Years War with France spawned a newfound pride in the national tongue. As for the Reformation, Martin Luther’s posting of the Ninety-Five Theses (1517) against indulgences was unquestionably the event that set everything into motion. But since his jeremiad was posted in Latin, it received little attention among the larger public. However, in 1520 he wrote the first of three pamphlets—The Appeal to the German Nobility—in German to his countrymen, arguing that every person should have the right to read the Bible for himself. Luther arrived at this conviction upon his own reading of the Psalms and Romans, whereupon he came to the magnanimous realization that the church had misunderstood the gospel. Righteousness could not be obtained through the purchase of indulgences or one’s good work. Rather, righteousness is given to us by God through his Son, Jesus Christ. Otherwise, how could this righteousness be “good news” (Romans 1:17)? After all, we are desperate sinners who can in no way earn God’s favor. As Luther reflected, “From that moment, the whole face of Scripture appeared to me in a different light.”
In 1526 William Tyndale produced the first English translation of the New Testament, which was smuggled into England from Germany under the threat of punishment. His search for a publisher proved especially dangerous, for who could be trusted with the grave knowledge of Tyndale’s work? As McGrath quips regarding a prospective publisher: “[He] was certainly a religious moderate, by the standards of the age, in that he just burned books, rather than people.” The phrases and metaphors Tyndale rendered reverberate in our ears today : “the powers that be”; “a law unto themselves”; “the salt of the earth”. He also gave us new words which had no English equivalent: Passover (from the Hebrew Pesah), atonement, and Jehovah (from the four Hebrew letters for God—YHWH—which Jews would never utter aloud out of reverence for Him. Yet, it should be noted that “Jehovah” is now recognized as a mispronunciation; the transliteration is actually Yahweh and Jews to this day say Adonai instead.) Sadly, Tyndale’s labor was met with contempt by the powers within the church, and he lost his life at the hands of his despisers. However, his translation was the forerunner to the King James Bible and “must be regarded as the landmark in the history of the English Bible”
How was the King James Bible received in its day, and how did it come to have such an enormous impact upon the English language? As Wycliffe or Luther might have said, “Read the story yourself.” And along the way, the historic markers may stop you in your tracks and cause you to utter a prayer of gratitude for those who literally gave their lives to give us God’s Word.
Danielle DuRant is research assistant at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries