"Until the early middle years of the 16th century, when King Henry VIII began to quarrel with Rome about the dialectics of divorce and decapitation, a short and swift route to torture and death was the attempt to print the Bible in English." So writes the world-famous atheist, Christopher Hitchens, in this month's edition of Vanity Fair. His article celebrates the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, which indelibly shaped English language and literature:
Four hundred years ago, just as William Shakespeare was reaching the height of his powers and showing the new scope and variety of the English language, and just as “England” itself was becoming more of a nation-state and less an offshore dependency of Europe, an extraordinary committee of clergymen and scholars completed the task of rendering the Old and New Testaments into English, and claimed that the result was the “Authorized” or “King James” version. This was a fairly conservative attempt to stabilize the Crown and the kingdom, heal the breach between competing English and Scottish Christian sects, and bind the majesty of the King to his devout people. “The powers that be,” it had Saint Paul saying in his Epistle to the Romans, “are ordained of God.” This and other phrasings, not all of them so authoritarian and conformist, continue to echo in our language: “When I was a child, I spake as a child”; “Eat, drink, and be merry”; “From strength to strength”; “Grind the faces of the poor”; “salt of the earth”; “Our Father, which art in heaven.” It’s near impossible to imagine our idiom and vernacular, let alone our liturgy, without them. Not many committees in history have come up with such crystalline prose.
Though Hitchens developed an interesting personal reflection for Vanity Fair, there are other resources online that give a more thorough background about the tumultuous history of the English Bible. Last week, Nancy Leigh DeMoss ran a series on Revive Our Hearts about the history of translating and printing the English Bible that provides a fuller picture of what happened 400 years ago. The "People of the Book" program looks at the history of the Latin Vulgate translation. "A Light in the Dark" profiles the work of John Wycliffe and his martyrdom for translating the Scriptures from Latin into English. "Receiving the Bible for the First Time" profiles William Tyndale and his work translating from the original languages of Hebrew and Greek into English. And "Worshiping the God of the Book" looks at the development of the King James Version. If you're not familiar with this history, I highly recommend you read/listen to her series because it will make you appreciate the Bible you have even more.
If you want to continue studying the history of the English Bible, check out Desiring God's site. John Piper gave a message to young adults about William Tyndale back in 2008. Two years earlier, he spoke about Tyndale at his annual pastors conference. Both are illuminating to hear.
Photo as credited in Vanity Fair: The title page of the New Testament in the first edition of the King James Bible, published by Robert Barker (“Printer to the King’s most Excellent Maiestie”) in 1611.