Short History of the Bible in English up to the Translation of the Authorized (King James) Bible -- By: Russell Morton

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 44:0 (NA 2012)
Article: Short History of the Bible in English up to the Translation of the Authorized (King James) Bible
Author: Russell Morton

Short History of the Bible in English up to the Translation of the Authorized (King James) Bible

Russell Morton*

The Authorized or King James Bible

In 1611 one could scarcely imagine that a Bible translation, organized in some haste, dependent on earlier translations, and commissioned by a king of questionable piety would become the gold standard by which future English translations would be judged, for both its eloquence and usefulness to the church. The Authorized, or King James Bible, which was never officially authorized, nor did King James 1 of England participate in the translation, has not only been the source of comfort and inspiration to countless Protestant English-speaking Christians, but also stands with Chaucer and Shakespeare as one of the pillars of English prose and poetry. How did this begin? The Authorized Version was not the first translation of the Bible into English. Neither is it necessarily the most accurate translation, for that distinction belongs to Tyndale and the translators of the Geneva Bible. What it did do was combine both the scholarship of the previous century with a sense of language that enabled the 1611 translation to attain its singular influence in the English-speaking world.


The King James Bible was not the first translation of Scripture into English. Even in the early Middle Ages, portions of Scripture were translated into the vernacular, such as the translation of Psalms into Anglo Saxon, attributed to Alfred the Great of Wessex (871–899).1 These early translations of portions of scripture, such as Psalms or the Gospels, prepared the way for the more ambitious project of translating the whole scripture into English during the turbulent 14th century.2 This was the period both of the Hundred Years War with France (1339–1453), the Avignon Papacy (1308–1378), when the popes lived in Avignon in southern France rather than in Rome, and the Great Schism of 1379–1414, when rival popes at Rome and Avignon claimed obedience of Western Europe’s Christian population.

Wycliffite Bible (1380–84?, Later version 1388?)

In this environment, it is no wonder that many would call for reform both of church and the incipient state. One product of the reforming impulse would be translations of the Bible into the vernacular. What is remarkable is that in the last quarter of the 14th century the task of translating the Bible in England was undertaken by a circle of Oxford scholars associated with the person of John Wycliffe (or Wyclif,...

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