18 October 2023

Other English-language bibles in the 1600s and 1700s.

No doubt you’ve heard of the King James Version. But KJV fans and worshipers tend to be oblivious to the fact there were other English-language translations of the bible in that day. The KJV was one of many.

The KJV came out ahead of the pack, not because it was better than the rest—it was just as good as the rest—but because James Stuart, king of Scotland and England, suppressed the other existing translations… for political reasons. Y’see the Geneva Bible—the most popular translation of the day, the bible of William Shakespeare and the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock—flat-out said in its notes Christians should resist tyrants. Unwelcome words to Stuart, who grew up in France and kinda coveted the French kings’ absolute dictatorships. Stuart’s son Charles was later overthrown and beheaded by Parliament for trying to create that kind of monarchy.

The KJV is debatably an improvement on its predecessors—the Tyndale Bible, Matthew’s Bible, the Bishops Bible, and the Geneva Bible among them. But KJV fans take it as a given these were inferior bibles, and haven’t a clue how good and valuable a bible the Geneva Bible was in its day. Usually because they’ve never even heard of it. Many KJV fans like Jack T. Chick like to pretend it never existed. The KJV fans never looked into its history, never took a peek at the previous English translations, and just assumed newer must mean better… until we start talking about present-day translations, and then suddenly newer isn’t better.

Naturally KJV fans know nothing about the KJV’s English-language successors. At least not till the 1881 Revised Version (adapted for the United States as the 1901 American Standard Version), which again, fans dismiss as irrelevant because it doesn’t base the New Testament on the Textus Receptus; as if the KJV translators bothered to look at the Textus most of the time; and as if they actually know why the Textus would be better than current Greek bibles. (It’s not, though.)

Usually they also don’t know about the KJV’s own revisions. They all know it was published in 1611; they don’t know the translators made more than 300 corrections to the text before its second printing in 1613. And that doesn’t even count the spelling. Spelling wasn’t standardized yet, so anyone could spell anything any which way, so long that people understood what they meant. So silent letters got dropped (“owne” became “own,” or “diddest” became “didst,” or “goe” became “go”) and minor grammatical and verbal changes were made (“you” became “ye” 82 times, “lift” became “lifted” 51 times, and so forth; “cheweth cud” became “cheweth the cud,” Lv 11.3 or “reign therefore” became “therefore reign.” Ro 6.12).

Minor changes, but lots of people felt free to make minor changes thereafter. Noah Webster produced an edition of the KJV in 1833 which Americanized the spelling. C.I. Scofield’s 1909 reference bible replaces hundreds of words from the KJV with what Scofield felt were much better translations.

These changes kinda let us in on the biggest problem with the KJV: It’s written in old-timey English. Not just old-timey English from our point of view; it was old-timey for 1611. The KJV’s translators—as they say in their preface!—didn’t actually want to create a whole new translation; they only wanted to fix existing ones. They considered themselves part of the translation tradition which extended all the way back to William Tyndale in 1522. But they hadn’t adjusted for the way language evolved over that century. Only poets and Quakers were referring to one another as “thee” and “thou” anymore, yet the KJV is full of these out-of-date pronouns. Vocabulary and styles were changing. Bibles always need to be translated to fit the way people currently speak—not demand people first learn how people used to speak. That may be fine for literature classes, but sucks in evangelism.

The other issue back then was the discovery of new ancient manuscripts. The Textus Receptus, the Greek New Testament the early English translations were based on, is full of errors. (That’s on purpose. Its editors wanted to include every word found in every available Greek manuscript. So of course that’d include any errors which crept into any bibles over the past 15 centuries.) But in 1627, King Charles Stuart 1 was given the Codex Alexandrinus by St. Cyril Lucaris, patriarch of Alexandria—a near-complete parchment copy of the Septuagint and New Testament, dating from the 400s, although some traditions claim it was copied earlier. It went to the British Museum; it’s been there ever since; English and Scottish scholars had full access to it. Totally could fix all the errors the Textus had put in the KJV.

So when the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell took over England in 1649, Parliament eventually created a commission to work on updating the bible. Unfortunately nothing ever came of it. Why not? Cromwell expelled them in 1653 for not holding new elections. New bibles had to wait.

In the meanwhile, Puritans created paraphrases—bibles and New Testaments where they translated the KJV into present-day English. (With big long book titles, which is what people did back then.) Like John Dale’s Bible Explained in 1652. Or Henry Hammond’s A Paraphrase and Annotations upon All the Books of the New Testament, Briefly Explaining All the Difficult Places Thereof in 1675. Or Richard Baxter’s New Testament with Paraphrase and Notes in 1685. Or Daniel Whitby’s A Paraphrase and Commentary upon All the Epistles of the New Testament in 1700. Or the volumes of John Guyse’s The Practical Expositor, or an Exposition of the New Testament, in the Form of a Paraphrase, with Occasional Notes in 1739-52—which John Wesley later used for his 1755 Explanatory Notes on the New Testament.

I should point out these paraphrases aren’t like the Living Bible or The Voice, in which the writers take creative license with the text; nor like the 2015 Amplified Bible, in which they try to shoehorn popular Evangelical doctrines and beliefs into it. They weren’t really trying to create new bible versions. They were trying to interpret it for their readers. Like when an expositor is analyzing a new bible verse, and briefly puts it in her own words: She’s just trying to make it more understandable.

More serious textual updates.

But it wasn’t until after the Restoration, when England and Scotland permitted a bit more religious freedom for its scholars to deviate from strict Puritanism, that people actually tackled translating the bible. Rarely the full bible, since classical education of the day commonly taught people Greek and Latin, but not Hebrew. But most scholars felt adequate enough in ancient and first-century Greek to try their hand at the New Testament. And to try translating other Greek New Testaments than the Textus Receptus—more and more ancient Greek manuscripts had been published, so they tried translating them for a change.

From 1709 to 1719, Dr. Edward Wells published An Help for the More Easy and Clear Understanding of the Holy Scriptures, a multi-volume bible commentary which didn’t just paraphrase the bible; he included a copy of the Greek New Testament, plus a critically corrected copy of the King James Version—updated for the English of his day.

Wells’ Greek text was taken from John Mill’s 1707 Novum Testamentum Græcum, a critical study of Robert Estienne’s 1550 edition of the Textus Receptus, which Mill compared with the Codex Alexandrinus. (See, someone was studying it!) Mill noted more than 30,000 differences between the hundred or so Greek New Testaments then known of. The book was mighty controversial for a time, because certain other scholars felt it was absolutely wrong to point out these differences, lest people lose faith in the bible—a mindset you’re still gonna find today, especially among the KJV-Only crowd.

KJV-Only advocate Jack T. Chick straight-up claims any other bible manuscripts than the Textus come from Satan, so you’d better ditch every other Greek text, and every other translation. “The Attack,” 19

But hey, if we’re trying to get an accurate idea of what the apostles originally wrote, we gotta study these differences, make educated choices, and publish our results—exactly as today’s critical Greek New Testaments do.

Wells was followed by Daniel Mace’s 1729 The New Testament in Greek and English, Containing the Original Text Corrected from the Authority of the Most Authentic Manuscripts. Here he corrected the KJV to make it conform to better copies of the Greek text, plus to keep the language current.

But more and more guys weren’t even bothering to fix the King James Version. They were doing entirely new translations from scratch, straight from Hebrew and Greek texts. Mathematician and scientist William Whiston, best known among Christians nowadays for translating the works of Flavius Josephus, published the Primitive New Testament in 1745, based on two texts from the 600s, the Codex Bezae and Codex Claromontanus. Other guys took their own stabs at translating the New Testament themselves:

Other guys who took a stab at translating the New Testament themselves were:

  • Philip Doddridge, 1738-50, The Family Expositor, or, a Paraphrase and Version of the New Testament, with Critical Notes.
  • James Macknight, 1763, A New Literal Translation of All the Apostolical Epistles, from the Original Greek with a Commentary, and Notes, Philological, Critical, Explanatory, and Practical, to Which Is Added a History of the Life of the Apostle Paul.
  • Anthony Purver, 1764, A New and Literal Translation of All the Books of the Old and New Testament with Notes, Critical and Explanatory.
  • Richard Wynne, 1764, The New Testament, Carefully Collated with the Greek and Corrected, Divided and Pointed, and Illustrated with Notes Critical and Explanatory.
  • Edward Harwood, 1768, A Liberal Translation of the New Testament, Being an Attempt to Translate the Sacred Writings with the Same Freedom, Spirit, and Elegance with Which Other English Translations from the Greek Classics Have Lately Been Translated.
  • John Worsley, 1770, The New Testament or New Covenant of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Translated from the Greek According to the Present Idiom of the English Tongue.
  • George Campbell, 1789, The Four Gospels, Translated from the Greek, with Preliminary Dissertations, and Notes Critical and Explanatory.
  • John Wesley, 1790, The New Testament with an Analysis of the Several Books and Chapters.
  • William Newcome, 1796, An Attempt Toward Revising our English Translation of the Greek Scriptures, or the New Covenant of Jesus Christ, Toward Illustrating the Sense by Philological and Explanatory Notes.
  • Nathaniel Scarlett, 1798, A Translation of the New Testament from the Original Greek.

Doddridge, Campbell, and Macknight’s translations were also assembled into a New Testament translation published in 1818.

Oh, and the Douay-Rheims Bible.

The KJV-Only fans love to make it sound like the Roman Catholic Church was dead set against English translations of the bible, and any time someone tried to make an English bible it was the Catholics going after ’em, hammer and tongs. Totally false, of course. The Catholics were fine with translating the bible into English. Even had a number of their own translations.

What the Catholics weren’t fine with, were the translations of people they considered heretics. You might recall for the first several centuries after the Protestant Reformation, they considered Protestants to be heretic, so naturally they wouldn’t approve of their bibles any more than we Evangelicals would approve of the Jehovah’s Witnesses translation. William Tyndale was anti-Catholic, so of course they didn’t approve of his bible. The Church of Scotland was Protestant, so of course they didn’t approve of the Geneva Bible. King Henry Tudor (Henry 8) of England split his church from the Roman Church, so of course they wouldn’t approve of any of the Church of England’s translations thereafter. It took centuries—and a church council—before Catholics were able to officially work with Protestant translators.

Anyway, since English-speaking Protestants were translating bibles, Catholics figured they needed to rebut some of the uniquely Protestant doctrines in their notes, and some of the uniquely Protestant ways they’d interpret bible. So they produced their own English-language bible. One based on the Vulgate, not the Hebrew and Greek texts—but Catholic scholars recognize the value of the original languages, so the notes in their translation—which often took up more space than the bible itself!—regularly compared their translation of the Vulgate to the Hebrew and Greek texts.

The bible was translated by members of the English College of the University of Douai in France. In 1582 they produced a New Testament; in 1609 they produced a volume of Genesis to Job; and in 1610 a volume of Psalms to 2 Maccabees. The bible was published in Reims, France. Using the old-timey spellings, this is why it’s called the Douay-Rheims Bible.

English-speakers probably became more familiar with the DRB thanks to William Fulke. In 1589, he published a parallel New Testament, with the Bishops Bible in one column and the DRB in the other. It was probably the safest way for Catholics to have their bible in England at the time—you could always claim, “Oh, I’m just comparing it to the Church of England’s bible. For research.” Yeah, whatever.

The DRB was republished a number of times, though the Old Testament was only republished once in 1635. The biggest complaint about the early editions was they were awfully Latin. Some of the words were actually left in Latin, untranslated, ’cause the translators didn’t care for the English words for those things, and figured good Catholics would know the Latin. Or they used Latin cognates, or used Latin word-forms, because the translators wanted it to really feel like a Latin bible. Fr’instance Ephesians 3.6, which the KJV renders yea—

that the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel:

in the early editions of the DRB (I updated the spelling) reads,

The gentiles to be co-heirs and con-corporate and com-participant of his promise in Christ Jesus by the gospel:

Probably the most significant updates to the text came as the result of Bishop Richard Challoner of England, who thoroughly revised it, with the help of Father Francis Blyth, between 1749 and 1777. Challoner used to be Protestant, and was a big fan of the King James Version, so he borrowed extensively from that translation, while keeping the DRB appropriately Roman Catholic. Here’s how they fixed Ephesians 3.6.

That the gentiles should be fellow heirs and of the same body: and co-partners of his promise in Christ Jesus, by the gospel:

Challoner’s updated New Testament was published in 1749. The whole bible was then published in 1750, which updated the New Testament further. The 1752 edition made a few more changes. The translation notes and commentary were greatly shrank, which meant they could actually publish the DRB in one volume.

The DRB was further updated from 1783 to 1810 by Father Bernard MacMahon of Ireland, but most of the copies of the DRB on the internet tend to follow Challoner’s editions. It’s why so many Catholic quotations of the bible appear at first to be in the King James Version… but as they go on, you notice the slight differences; namely the Latin spellings of Old Testament names, or the Catholic names for certain Old Testament books (like 1–4 Kings for 1–2 Samuel and 1–2 Kings, or Canticles for Song of Songs. Took me the longest time to realize the book of Osee is simply what they call Hosea).

English-speaking Catholics today have multiple translations, but for the longest time the Douay-Rheims was it, and it still has its fans. They’re nowhere near as fervent and bibliolatrous as the King James Only folks, because they consider the church, not the bible, to have the final say when it comes to tradition and doctrine. (Whereas Christians should recognize it’s Jesus, not the bible, who has the final say… but that’s a whole other discussion.)