We celebrate and honor this profound anniversary as we approach Christmas.

Last Sunday I reprinted the inspiring story told by gifted English writer, Adam Nicholson, in the December issue of National Geographic. Today I’m posting my Short History of the Bible Written nearly 10 years ago. I trust it will be revealing and beneficial for many.

A Short History of the Bible

By Richard D. Johnson, © 2002 offers thousands of choices to shoppers for “Holy Bibles”. What’s going on here? Marketing? Well yes, but there is something else. Something fundamentally wrong is driving this plethora of contemporary Bibles. A force is drawing Biblical scholars to present a Bible more accommodating to the World.

Let me provide you, in a few paragraphs, a historical context for these “modern or contemporary Bibles” and present the compelling need for updating the classic and traditional King James or Authorized Version of the Bible. These updates are the 21st Century King James Version and the Third Millennium Bible.

400 AD

Almost exactly 1600 years ago and about 1200 years before the King James commission, Jerome translated the (newly canonized) Greek text of the Bible into Latin. This Latin “Vulgate” became the Bible used almost exclusively by theWesternChurchfor nearly 1000 years.

Thirteenth Century

Thomas Aquinas in c1270, while not working on the Bible, nevertheless, profoundly influenced Western Civilization and intellectual controversy until this day. He achieved his goal of Christianizing Western (Greek) Philosophy. It is commonly summarized:  “I am, therefore I think.” Thus, thinking (and all other human activity as well) is subject to a sovereign God, the Creator. “In the beginning, God” and “In the beginning was the Word” both proclaim God as THE FIRST PRINCIPLE.

Fourteenth Century

John Wycliffe, an English theologian (priest), represents the earliest stirrings towards reformation. He spent much of his productive adult life (1349-1384) as a fugitive copying the Vulgate into English thereby giving “common” readers a way directly to God without the interdictory authority of the Church. He was supported financially by reform minded merchants.

Fifteenth Century

The Gutenberg Bible, a printing of the Latin Vulgate, was offered in 1455

Sixteenth Century

Martin Luther, on October 31, 1517, set off the Reformation. John Calvin (1536) and William Tyndale were his contemporaries. We shall focus on Tyndale here. Persecuted in his native England, this profound and prolific scholar went to Germany and then Holland from 1520-1536. In Germany, he helped Luther translate a German Bible from the Greek text. Then from the Greek, he translated his English New Testament. His English translation was finished and printed in Holland. For many years, the Tyndale Bible was smuggled into England where it was received with passion and hunger. (Today’s story in China gives a contemporary look at this hunger.) Sir Thomas More ordered the death of Tyndale. But ironically More was beheaded at the direction of King Henry VIII ofEngland, in 1535, a year before Tyndale was burned at the stake.

Seventeenth and eighteenth Centuries

In response to the petition of more than 1000 Puritan ministers, the new King, James I commissioned a new English Bible in 1604. Richard Bancroft, Bishop of London, was put in charge of the project. He appointed the scholars; assigned groups to specific sections; and laid out 15 translation rules. Working from the best Greek Bible manuscripts (Erasmus’ 5th Edition through Stephanus); with copies of the Tyndale and Bishops Bibles in hand, they completed their work in 1611. For the next 30 years, as this King James Bible was reprinted, it was updated to eliminate typographical errors. It took until about 1660 for this Bible to become known as the Authorized Version because of its general acceptance.

The Authorized Version was updated in 1789 because of many changes in word meaning. In 1826, The Apocrypha were removed because of pressure from certain (particularly anti-Catholic) elements.

Let me say something about these “Received Texts.” There were and are more than five thousands of these Greek manuscripts. They are almost exactly the same. Scholars generally date them from the eighth century. However, the KJ21 and TMB Publishers have found credible evidence dating some manuscripts to the second and third centuries. (Keep in mind, the New Testament was canonized in 367.) Today, there are some 5300 of these Received Texts. They are also known as the Byzantine texts. We assume, like other historical documents, earlier copies of these Received Text were discarded and destroyed after they became badly worn through use.

In 1637, the brilliant French mathematician and philosopher, René DesCartes published a work, A Discourse on Method, destined to turn civilization on its ear. DesCartes declared, “cogito ergo sum” (“. . . I think, therefore I am . . .”) The Enlightenment—the Age of Reason —Modernism— was born. Before the end of the seventeenth century, Reason was accepted within the European academy as the first principle. THE FIRST PRINCPLE! What was a theologian to do? He had a Bible that gave him real problems. It began by declaring God the first principle. The solution became the development of an intellectual discipline called Higher Criticism in the eighteenth century. Brilliant scholars, in France and particularly in Germany, parsed the Bible to build a case that the Bible was not inspired revelation at all but the work of educated scholars of their day. These Higher Critics decided the Old Testament was largely written in the fourth and fifth centuries BC. They also decided the New Testament was likely written in the second century AD (or CE, as any enlightened scholar would surely say) from collected stories and scraps of this and that.

Nineteenth and twentieth Centuries

In the early 1840’s two manuscripts from the fourth century were discovered. One was found on a shelf of a sub-basement of the Vatican and the other in a wastebasket in a long unused part of a monastery in the Sinai. This was followed by the discovery of other old manuscript fragments in Alexandria, Egypt. These manuscripts are commonly known as the Alexandriantexts. Today’s clergy have typically been taught that these manuscripts are more accurate because they are said to be 400 years older than the Byzantine text. It is far more plausible that they exist because they were faulty and discarded, therefore never worn out. They do differ profoundly from the Byzantine. But, they also differ from each other —more than 3000 places in the New Testament alone.

For more than 100 years,Englandlagged in the field of Higher Criticism. Starting in 1850, this changed with the emergence of the “Brilliant Triumvirate of Cambridge”

—J. B. Lightfoot, B. F. Wescott, & F. J. A. Hort. When, in 1881, a “revision of the Authorized Version” or The English Revised Version was commissioned atCambridgeUniversity, Wescott and Hort were basically put in charge. But, before I address this translation effort, let me revisit the progress of the Age of Reason.

By the nineteenth century, throughout the Academy, thinking (or the desire) had largely taken hold that there had not been a Divine Creation at all. These ideas were very much like a bag of cats without the bag. There was simply no central philosophical structure holding them together. Charles Darwin wonderfully solved the problem for them in 1859, publishing his Origin of Species. Philosophy and Science had their cats bagged. But Theology still had its Authorized Version, which, if one stood on it as his rock, gave no room to accept “Darwinism.” Wescott and Hort had motive and opportunity.  

The commission was to update the Authorized Version by ridding it of obsolete words and by correcting “plain and clear errors.” The translators and their leaders, Wescott and Hort, were given eight rules including this: “to introduce as few alterations as possible into the text of the A.V. consistent with faithfulness.” Wescott and Hort, however, used their newly published “Critical Text,” a synthesis of the Alexandrian text group as the basis for revision.

More insidious, in my view, was the germination of a concept known today as functional or dynamic equivalence. When a troubling word had several Hebrew (or Greek) connotations or meaning, they used the opportunity to shade words a little differently to accommodate the Age of Reason and Darwinism.

An example is the Hebrew word nephesh (neh’-fesh) in Genesis 2:7 where “ . . . breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” By ignoring the context (—the breath of life,) they could—and did—substitute the more malleable word: “being.”

It would be one thing if it ended there. This “sprout” has multiplied and spread and is now a large field of noxious weeds. Modern and contemporary translations in this passage use variously: living person, began to live, started breathing, and (incredibly) living creature. No threat to Mr. Darwin or Mr. DesCartes here! To quantify the issue of this single example, in the New International Version the word soul has been replaced by another word 397 times. 397 times!

The English Revised Version of 1885 was Americanized with the 1901 introduction of the American Standard Version. The Revised Standard Version was published in 1952. It was the last of these “modern” English Bibles proceeding directly from the “work” of Wescott and Hort. The American Standard Version was updated in 1971—the NASV. Coinciding nicely with the post-modernist period, the contemporary Bibles appeared with the publishing of the complete Living Bible in 1971. This “Bible” had, at least, the intellectual honesty to call itself only a paraphrase. Not so the NIV which was proclaimed the best and most accurate translation using modern scholarship. Fact is, it:

  1. Used the Alexandrian text.
  2. Used dynamic equivalency throughout. Not just shading meanings, but changing whole sentence structures.
  3. And finally, the elimination of Biblical English.

The least damage this combination has done is to rob the Holy Bible of any hint of poetry and beauty. It’s like leveling the Canadian Rockies into a Red RiverValleyor making a wedding cake into a pancake. Who would want the NIV’s 23rd Psalm read at their mother’s or their child’s funeral. I think no one. This is the least damage.

The NIV is representative of modern and contemporary English Bibles; those offered after the DesCartes Enlightenment and Darwinian Naturalism. The soft putty of these Bibles is reworked every few years to accommodate post-modernist deconstruction of Western Civilization, some new “ism,” or the latest “Re-imagining of God”. As you may know, the International Committee on Bible Translations has recently (apparently happily) introduced the Today’s New International Version.

The current crop of “inclusive” texts have been labeled heretical by no less authority than the editorial board of Touchstone Magazine who had been quite accepting of the RSV and NASV.

The traditional Bibles precede DesCartes. For English speaking Protestants, this is the Authorized Version and its successors the 21st Century King James Version and the Third Millennium Bible. For English speaking Roman Catholics, it was the Douay-Rheims translation and now the Third Millennium Bible, a translation for all Christendom.

These traditional Bibles stand on three Pillars:

  1. The Byzantine text; 
  2. Direct translation;  
  3. Biblical English.

The two updates do not retranslate any part of the A.V., they simply update obsolete words and punctuation. In addition, the TMB restores the Apocrypha exactly as in the 1611 A.V. making it ideal for all English speaking Christendom.

This short history does not address the reality of marketing and profit driving the introduction of new versions today. These thousands of different Bible options from and is enough to give one pause. For example, these—age and gender and marital status etc.—“life application” Bibles seem to encourage self-centeredness; “It’s about me.” Every Bible should encourage us to seek and Glorify God, not self. The 21st Century King James and the Third Millennium Bibles do just that with faithfulness and beauty.

Note – While this was not footnoted, I was informed factually primarily by:

  • The Cambridge History of the Bible, Volume 3, Edited by S. L. Greenslade  
  • The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, Edited by John McManners
  • The Word of God in English by Leland Ryken
  • Touch Not The Unclean Thing by David H Sorenson  
  • In the Beginning by Alister McGrath
  • Wide as the Waters by Benson Bobrick   
  • A New Hearing for the Authorized Version by Theodore P. Letus, the editor of The Majority Text
  • The Updaters to the Reader ~ Preface: The Third Millennium Bible  
  • Bible Word Comparison by William D. Prindle   
  • Conversations with Updaters and executives at Deuel Enterprises, Inc.

© 2002 Richard D. Johnson

About Richard Johnson

Richard Johnson: a mature Christian who understands the sweep of history, the unique role of America and these times clearly and precisely.
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