TODAY, English-speaking Christians may take the King James Bible
and modern English translations for granted. But they shouldn't.
The translation of the Bible into English out of Greek, Hebrew,
and Latin was a virtual revolution. Many of the early Bible
translators were great reformers who laid down their lives to give
the Scriptures to the public.
These reformers played a pivotal role in a convulsive struggle
that revolutionized nearly everything that mattered in Renaissance
England: church, throne, literature, arts, and sciences.
Before these Bibles were published, the idea of making the
Scriptures available to the common people was anathema to the
leaders of both church and state. They thought that putting the
Scriptures into ordinary language would desecrate the Word of God
and encourage heresy and rebellion.
John Wycliffe, a late-14th-century theologian at Oxford
University, found this intolerable. He agonized over the people's
ignorance of the essentials of religion and of the Bible.
So he sent a corps of "poor preachers" throughout the
countryside explaining the Gospel simply and clearly to the common
people. And he and his followers translated the whole Bible from
Latin into Middle English.
Wycliffe paid a price, however. He was condemned by the church
and imprisoned for heresy. Yet his followers carried his mission
forward boldly, revising his translation and dispersing copies of
it all over England. Even so, the popular craving for the
Scriptures was far from satisfied by this underground Bible market.
The fall of Constantinople in 1453 sent Hebrew and Greek
scholars westward for asylum, unlocking those languages for Bible
scholars in Western Europe and England. Gutenberg's printing press
provided the vehicle for producing Bibles for mass distribution.
And Martin Luther completed his monumental translation of the
entire Bible into German from the original Hebrew and Greek in 1521.
In England, Luther's thinking had an immediate impact. William
Tyndale, a scholar of Greek, began a fresh translation of the New
Testament into English from the original texts.
Finding no support for his work in England, where King Henry
VIII believed the Bible would stir up rebellion, he fled to Europe
to confer with Luther and complete his text. Dogged by spies who
followed him from city to city, Tyndale nevertheless completed and
published his New Testament in 1525, smuggling large quantities of
the text into England.
Tyndale's Bible meant nothing but trouble for Henry, since
multitudes of English people defied his authority by reading the
new translation. So when the reformer was at last arrested and
sentenced to death in Germany in 1535, Henry did nothing to rescue
him. Tyndale's final words as he burned at the stake were, "Lord,
open the king of England's eyes!"
Meanwhile, Henry, having just declared his independence from the
Roman Catholic Church, wanted to produce a Bible for which he alone
could take credit. …