Baptists and Bible Translation: Toward a Deeper Understanding

By Sheeley, Steven M. | Baptist History and Heritage, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Baptists and Bible Translation: Toward a Deeper Understanding


Sheeley, Steven M., Baptist History and Heritage


Reading and studying the Bible fueled the Reformation. Protestants found new light in the pages of scripture to answer the deep theological questions at the heart of their unease with the Roman Catholic Church. (1)

Breaking from the Church also meant breaking from the Church's translation of the Bible: Jerome's Vulgate. Translating the Bible into the vernacular enabled these protesting Christians to read and hear the words of scripture in their own languages and to wrestle control of those words from an educated clergy. (2) Freedom to read, study, and interpret the words of scripture went hand in hand with the burgeoning political and social quest to decide for oneself or one's family how to worship God and to serve the, monarch. The words of the Bible were powerful agents for reform, or outright rebellion.

Baptists, that unmanageable subset of Protestant Christians, have styled themselves as "people of the Book." (3) Many of the theological ideas closely held by Baptists began with serious discussions of New Testament passages and their implications for proper church polity and practice. The English Bible was particularly important to those discussions, because many of the roots of modern Baptists can be traced back through English-speaking Protestants, and the core Baptist movement took place primarily in England and America. The Bible, especially the magisterial King James (or Authorized) Version (KJV), provided the words of scripture for most of those who accepted the Baptist label or would later be considered Baptists. For many, these words published in 1611 remain tantamount to the very words of God. The KJV translation thrives at an almost visceral level in many Baptist worship services and homes.

Perhaps the understanding that reading and studying the Bible for oneself was vital to one's coming to a saving faith compelled Baptist missionaries to be among the pioneers in translating scripture into other, and more exotic, vernaculars. Baptists who accepted the missionary calling understood the importance of hearing and reading scripture in one's own language, and Bible translation quickly became a task central to their mission.

This article serves as an introduction to an entire issue devoted to exploring the relationship between Baptists and translating the Bible. As such, it offers a brief historical overview and provides a context for deeper excursions into aspects of that relationship. I am thankful for those people whose linguistic gifts allow them to work simultaneously in multiple languages, some ancient and some modern, and I hope that this introduction adequately expresses my thanks for their labors in the service of God and humanity.

In the Beginning: Baptists as Consumers

The subject of Baptist beginnings has provided considerable opportunities for discussion. (4) But those origins seem to have attached themselves to using existing translations rather than creating new translations. (5) Once established, early Baptists appear to have preferred to study and interpret the words of scripture rather than to devote significant time and financial resources to producing vernacular translations of the Bible. Several influential translations into English were already available for their use, including those of John Wycliffe (1380s), William Tyndale (1525), Myles Coverdale (1535), and John Rogers (Matthew's Bible, 1537). The Geneva Bible (1560) and the Bishops' Bible (1568) were also important translations available during this formative time period. (6)

Many of these translations contained marginal notes that questioned the monarch's claim to rule by divine calling. Some of those same versions contained translations and notes heavily biased toward the teachings of Calvin and his followers, and many Protestants (including the Puritans) had become convinced by the early seventeenth century that the words of scripture ought to be freed from most, if not all, marginal notes. …

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