In the Bigynnyng: A Brief History of the English Bible

In the beginning there was a 4th-century Latin translation of the Hebrew Bible, but over the millennia a myriad English translations 'moved vpon the water'

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
“Creation of Adam” by Michelangelo at the Sistine Chapel in Rome (c. 1508-1512).
“Creation of Adam” by Michelangelo at the Sistine Chapel in Rome (c. 1508-1512).
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

In the beginning, there was no English version of the Hebrew Bible. As Christianity was born and the Church evolved, for centuries on end, it used a Latin translation of the Bible done by St. Jerome in the 4th century. The Vulgate was the only version of the Bible the Church of Rome sanctioned, and so it was in the churches of medieval England as well.

This began to change in the 14th century, a turbulent time in English history, which saw the Great Famine and intense social upheaval. And to top this off in Europe, the Church was in the middle of a schism.

>> How a literature professor found himself translating the entire Bible from scratch

The linguistic make up of England was very different back then: The Church clergy and civil administration communicated in Latin; the nobles – the descendants of the Normans who conquered the island in 1066 – spoke French; and at the bottom of the social heap were the poor, unlettered masses, who spoke Middle English – a version of Anglo-Saxon heavily influenced by French.

This was the state of the nation when John Wycliffe, a professor at the University of Oxford, dissented with Church policy and called for a translation of the Bible into English, so the masses could receive the word of God directly, rather than through the clergy: “Those Heretics who pretend that the laity need not know God’s law but that the knowledge which priests have had imparted to them by word of mouth is sufficient, do not deserve to be listened to. For Holy Scriptures is the faith of the Church, and the more widely its true meaning becomes known the better it will be. Therefore since the laity should know the faith, it should be taught in whatever language is most easily comprehended.”

Wycliffe together with his associates produced the first (Middle-) English translation of the Bible, publishing it in stages, from about 1382 to 1395. He personally translated a number of books of the New Testament, while others translated the rest and the books of the Hebrew Bible. The translation was not done directly from Hebrew (or Greek in the case of the Books of the New Testament) but rather from the Latin of the Vulgate. Their opening of the Book of Genesis read: “In the bigynnyng God made of nouyt heuene and erthe Forsothe the erthe was idel and voide, and derknessis weren on the face of depthe; and the Spiryt of the Lord was borun on the watris.” – Wycliffe

No Jews to consult with

During the 15th century, no new English translations appeared, possibly because the penalty for distributing an English translation was death. But across the Channel in Europe, the first translations into French, Italian, Dutch and Spanish were made.

Then in the early 16th century, a maverick chaplain and scholar, William Tyndale, appeared on the scene. Educated in Oxford and Cambridge, and rubbing his fellow clergymen like a hair shirt, Tyndale was a gifted linguist, and just the right man to translate the Bible into English precisely at the time of the Protestant Reformation. A contemporary of Martin Luther, the Catholic monk who would found Lutheranism, and who was at the time himself translating the Bible into German, Tyndale began his own translation into English. Unlike Wycliffe & Co., he translated directly from the Hebrew.

In pursuit of accuracy, Tyndale traveled to Germany to consult with rabbis over the precise meaning of the Hebrew of the Bible. There were no Jews in England to consult with, since they had all been expelled from the country by King Edward I in 1290. The influence of Tyndale’s translation on all subsequent English translations of the Bible and on the English language itself cannot be overstated. It is in Tyndale’s Bible that we first find the name “Passover” for the holiday Jews call Pesach; it was he who coined the word “scapegoat”; and many biblical verses that are now idiomatic in English are his own translation – notably, “my brother’s keeper,” “the powers that be,” “the salt of the earth,” among many others.

"The Seventh Day of Creation," from The Nuremberg Chronicle (1493).Credit: Hartmann Schedel

“In the begynnynge God created heaven and erth. The erth was voyde and emptie ad darcknesse was vpon the depe and the spirite of god moved vpon the water.” – Tyndale

Tyndale would be burned at the stake in 1536, though less because he had popularized the Bible and more because he opposed allowing King Henry VIII to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. In fact, a year before Tyndale’s death, while he was in custody on heresy charges, his assistant Myles Coverdale published his own English translation – the first complete English version of the Bible ever actually printed: Wycliffe’s Bible appeared in about 1382 to 1395 before the printing press was invented, which was in about 1440.

Coverdale adopted parts of Tyndale’s translation and added missing books that he himself had translated from Luther’s German translation. King Henry VIII permitted the Coverdale Bible to be circulated in England even before Tyndale’s execution. Tyndale, sadly unaware of this, is said to have uttered just before he died: “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.”

“In ye begynnynge God created heauen & earth: and ye earth was voyde and emptie, and darcknes was vpon the depe, & ye sprete of God moued vpo the water.” – Coverdale

A year later in 1537, the Matthew Bible appeared, so-called because its publisher, John Rogers, used the pseudonym Thomas Matthew. It was essentially Tyndale’s New Testament with Coverdale’s Old Testament. King Henry VIII then commissioned Coverdale to come up with an official English translation, resulting in the Great Bible of 1539.

“In the begynnynge God created heauen and earthe. The earth was voyde and emptye: and darcknes was vpon the face of the depe: and the sprete of God moued vpon the face of the waters.” – Great Bible

The Matthew Bible, the Coverdale Bible, and the Great Bible enjoyed a period of popularity during the reign of Henry VIII and also of his son Edward VI, but when Edward’s sister Mary Tudor became queen, she violently reversed her father’s religious reformation and reinstated Catholicism as the official religion. During her reign, these Bible translations – as well as hundreds of Protestants themselves – were burned. John Rogers, publisher of the Matthew Bible, also had the distinction of becoming the first martyr to her zeal.

Some surviving Protestant scholars preempted “Bloody Mary” by fleeing overseas to Switzerland, which was undergoing its own reformation, under the leadership of John Calvin. One of these expatriate Englishmen, William Whittingham, Calvin’s brother-in-law, working with other English scholars, completed the first version of the Bible to be translated in its entirety from Hebrew. Their publication is known as the Geneva Bible, and was the most commonly used English Bible in the next century.

In 1558, Mary Tudor died and was succeeded by Queen Elizabeth I, who reversed her predecessor’s reform and firmly established the English Protestant Church, which would become the Church of England. Ten years later, in 1568, the Bishop’s Bible was published by the Church of England. It is a revision of the Great Bible, which itself was a revision of Tyndale’s translation.

In 1603, Queen Elizabeth I died, and James VI King of Scotland became James I King of England. Less than a year into his reign, in January 1604 he summoned the leaders of the Church of England to Hampton Court to discuss the kingdom’s religious matters. It was here that it was decided that a new and official English translation should be produced under the king’s patronage. It would be known as the King James Bible, or the Authorized Version.

William Blake's "The Ancient of Days."

No less than 47 scholars worked on the translation in Cambridge, Oxford and at Westminster Abbey, essentially revising the revisions made of Tyndale’s translation. It was published in 1611, though this edition would be revised several times over the next decades, mostly to correct minor errors, spelling and punctuation.

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” – King James Version

After its publication, the KJV quickly became the English Bible, since it was the only one sanctioned to be read in churches, and it still is the most popular translation to date. Which hasn’t stopped new renderings – hundreds of them – from appearing. Some notable examples include Charles Thomson’s Bible (1808) the first full English translation of the Hebrew Bible’s Greek translation, the Septuagint, which differs significantly from the traditional Masoretic text and is thus a different, at times more archaic, version of the Bible.

“In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth. And the earth was invisible and unfurnished and there was darkness over this abyss; and a breath of God was brought on above the water.” – Thomson

Isaac Leeser’s “The Holy Scriptures,” published in Philadelphia (1853) was the first English translation of the Bible rendered by a Jew, though whether this was an actual translation or just a revision of the King James Bible is debatable.

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God was waving over the face of the waters.” – Leeser

Helen Spurrell has the distinction of being the first woman to translate the Hebrew Bible, teaching herself the biblical language in her 50s. Her translation was published in 1885.

Despite these attempts to improve the product, the KJV continued to reign supreme. Yet, toward the end of the 19th century, the notion began to dawn that this venerated version was showing its age.

For one thing, the English language had changed quite a bit since the early 17th century. Some of the words used in the KJV no longer mean what they did at the time, causing verses to be misunderstood. For example, where the KJV translated Numbers 6:3 as “neither shall he drink any liquor of grapes” – “liquor” meant grape juice. But by the 19th century it connoted an alcoholic beverage, as it does today. Or the word “harness,” as in “Let not him that girdeth on his harness boast himself as he that putteth it off” (1 Kings 20:11). It meant “armor” during the era of the KJV, but lost that meaning by the 19th century.

A second reason had to do with advances in biblical research. The systematic comparison of ancient manuscripts of the New Testament in the 19th century had led to a more accurate reconstruction of the ancient Greek text, while advances in the study of Semitic languages such as Arabic, Akkadian and Aramaic had begun to shed new light on the meaning of some original Hebrew verses.

“Creation of Adam in the Paradise,” by Jan Brueghel the Younger (17th century).Credit: Jan Brueghel the Younger

Recognizing the need for an update, the Church of England commissioned 50 scholars to revise the KJV, resulting in the Revised Version in 1885. This was followed by the American Standard Version, a similar revision of the KJV, published in 1901.

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was waste and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep: and the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” – Revised KJV

Meanwhile, Jews also felt they needed their own updated and authoritative version of the Bible in English. In 1892 the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis set up a committee of Jewish scholars to create a Jewish translation. Published in 1917, the Jewish Publication Society Bible was quite scholarly, but essentially just another revision of the KJV and the American Standard Version.

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.” – Jewish Publication Society Bible

A major problem with the modernized revisions of the Bible was that what they may have gained in accuracy, they lost in the beauty of the prose. This led to a flood of new revisions and translations throughout the 20th century. The International Council of Religious Education in the U.S. set up a committee of 32 scholars to revise the American Standard Version and to restore some of the elegance of the King James Bible. This work resulted in the Revised Standard Version, which was published in 1952.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was waste and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep: and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” – Revised Standard Version

The Revised Standard Version created quite a scandal at the time because it chose to translate Isaiah 7:14 as, “Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanu-el”: “Young woman” – not “virgin,” as the KJV has it. The Hebrew word alma can mean either. But the Revised Standard Version’s rendering of that word as “young woman” was widely seen as heretical, since the verse is believed to be a prophecy of Jesus’ virgin birth. As could be expected, several other revised editions came out that altered the translation of Isaiah 7:14 and other offending changes. Notable among these is the New American Standard Bible (1971).

Back at the Jewish Publication Society, in the late 1960s, a decision was made to update their 1917 translation, not with a revision of the KJV but with an entirely new translation. Several committees were set up, each translating a different section of the Bible. Some of the greatest Jewish American scholars of the day took part in the task, including such luminaries as Ephraim Avigdor Speiser, Harold Louis Ginsberg, Jonas Greenfield and Nahum Sarna. The work was completed in 1985, when the New Jewish Publication Society of America Tanakh was published.

“When God began to create heaven and earth — the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water.” – New Jewish Publication Society of America Tanakh

A flood of Christian English translations have been published since the middle of the 20th century. Most are revisions of the KJV; some are translations of the entire Bible from scratch. Some notable examples include: the Amplified Bible (1965), the Jerusalem Bible (1966), the New American Bible (1970), the Good News Bible (1976), the New International Version (1978), the New Jerusalem Bible (1985), the New English Bible (1989), the New Revised Standard Version (1989), the New International Reader’s Version (1997), New Jerusalem Bible (1985) – and the New English Translation (2005), which translated the opening of Genesis:

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was without shape and empty, and darkness was over the surface of the watery deep, but the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the water.” – New English Translation

Most recently, Prof. Robert Alter has completed his much-awaited translation of the Hebrew Bible, which will be published by W. W. Norton later this month. Alter, whose translation sets out to capture the literary aspect of the Hebrew Bible, translated the first line of Genesis as follows:

“When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters.” – Alter

Click the alert icon to follow topics:



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

Subscribe today and save 40%

Already signed up? LOG IN


Trump and Netanyahu at the White House in Washington, in 2020.

Three Years Later, Israelis Find Out What Trump Really Thought of Netanyahu

German soldier.

The Rival Jewish Spies Who Almost Changed the Course of WWII

Rio. Not all Jewish men wear black hats.

What Does a Jew Look Like? The Brits Don't Seem to Know

Galon. “I’m coming to accomplish a specific mission: to increase Meretz’s strength and ensure that the party will not tread water around the electoral threshold. If Meretz will be large enough, it will be the basis for a Jewish-Arab partnership.” Daniel Tchetchik

'I Have No Illusions About Ending the Occupation, but the Government Needs the Left'

Soldiers using warfare devices made by the Israeli defense electronics company Elbit Systems.

Russia-Ukraine War Catapults Israeli Arms Industry to Global Stage

Flame and smoke rise during an Israeli air strike, amid Israel-Gaza fighting, in Gaza City August 6, 2022.

Israel Should End Gaza Operation Now, if It Can