Mrs. Lubbers is a wife and mother in the Protestant Reformed Church of South Holland, Illinois.
Growing up in the 1950s, I thought the King James Version of the Bible was delivered directly from the hand of God. I was more than a little disappointed when the minister would exegete Scripture, instructing how a certain word or verse in the KJV could better be translated such and such. To find out that the KJV was a translation from Greek and Hebrew manuscripts and other earlier translations cast an aura of suspicion around an otherwise perfectly elegant book. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls by a couple of shepherd urchins did little to allay my fears that sooner or later something was going to crop up to destroy the credibility of the KJV.
Books about the history of the KJV or earlier translations were not readily available fifty years ago. It was not until the early 1970s that popular accounts about men who were important to the development of the English Bible appeared on the publishing horizon: Devil in Print, Ink on His Fingers, The Bible Smuggler, and The Beggars’ Bible. These, however, were fictionalized accounts and necessarily lacked the authenticity and weight of careful research. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs took up an important place on our shelf at home, but it was used mostly for research. Although books about Martin Luther and John Calvin were more accessible (Bainton’s Here I Stand comes to mind), most of the books featured their lives rather than the specific work that went into translating the Bible. Anything published about the contribution of Johann Gutenberg and the companion art of printing to the spread of the Bible was almost non-existent. Men like William Tyndale, who put their lives on the line for the cause of reaching the “plowboy in the field,” occupied but a paragraph or two in a tattered Church History textbook. Yet, it is important for us as Reformed people to remember how God preserved His inerrant Word through the passing years by means of devoted and brilliant men. And the history, well told, is thrilling.
With the publication of his new book, Wide as the Waters, author Benson Bobrick has done just that. In a very readable volume, liberally seasoned with interesting and carefully researched anecdotes, Bobrick takes a fresh approach to relating the history of the English Bible. Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired (Simon & Schuster, 379 pages, $26.00) is a titan of a work, complete with appendices, notes, comparative translations (riveting reading for Bible lovers all by itself), and a hefty bibliography.
The text itself, a mere five chapters comprising fewer than 300 pages, reads as smoothly and easily as a novel. Beginning with Wycliffe’s translation from St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate in the late fourteenth century, Bobrick traces the development of the English Bible through the work of Tyndale, Coverdale, the Geneva Bible, the Bishops’ Bible, and lesser known translations, culminating in the outstanding work of the KJV in 1611. In delightful prose, Bobrick shows how the KJV deliberately stood on the shoulders of these earlier translations. Bobrick, quoting one Samuel Ward at the Synod of Dordt, writes: “Caution was given that an entirely new version was not to be furnished, but an old version, long received by the Church, to be purged from all blemishes and faults” (p. 237).
The source of the title for Bobrick’s book, Wide as the Waters, is touching. Thirty years after Wycliffe’s death, the Roman Catholic Council of Constance ordered his bones to be exhumed and burned on a little bridge over a tributary of the Avon River. From that vindictive incident came the prophecy (p. 73):
The Avon to the Severn runs
The Severn to the sea,
And Wycliffe’s dust shall spread abroad
Wide as the waters be.
Little did his enemies know how his work and influence would spread throughout the entire world—wide as the waters be.
The work of Wycliffe furthered by William Tyndale is a fascinating chapter in Bobrick’s book. Here is a brilliant and fearless man defying the authority of the then-known church and advancing the cause of the gospel against all foes and detractors. Tyndale’s translation of the Bible in tandem with the invention of printing—what Bobrick fetchingly calls “the handmaid of the Reformation” (p. 86)—drove him out of England and sent the forces of Henry VIII hunting him throughout Europe like a wild beast. How Tyndale, in God’s divine plan, duped his enemies and smuggled into England copy after copy of the Bible in the English vernacular (with scathing notes against the pope penned in the margins) is the stuff blockbusters are made of. From Bobrick we learn that Tyndale was a gifted debater in defense of the truth, and that it is from Tyndale’s translations that we have received many familiar phrases: “a man after his own heart,” “apple of his eye,” “flowing with milk and honey,” “to fall by the sword,” and the adjective “beautiful” (p. 119).
The chapter on King James the man, the 54 translators he selected for his magnum opus, and the division of the work in translating the Bible is compelling reading. Bobrick is to be commended for giving the reader a biography of as many translators as is possible, and for putting them into a historical context. The men become real flesh and blood men who labored diligently and with a will on the great work which King James had assigned.
We meet Dean Launcelot Andrewes, who headed the Westminster group. Bobrick writes: he was “an immensely learned man who, it was said, ‘might have been interpreter general at Babel…the world wanted [lacked] learning to know how learned he was.’ …A remarkable linguist, he eventually mastered fifteen languages, including Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, and Chaldee; had an encyclopedic memory…and was sought after by fellow scholars from all over the world…. He was also a preacher of great power—’an angel in the pulpit’…”(pp. 218, 219).
Bobrick introduces us to the child prodigy John Bois. “By the age of six he could read the Old Testament in Hebrew, and by thirteen he was competent in New Testament and classical Greek. At fourteen, he entered St. John’s College, studied hard, often from four in the morning until eight at night, and in one week advanced from the first to the second level in Greek (a course of study that normally took a year). In the next month, he advanced from the second level to the third, which normally took two years” (p. 232). Bois worked on the Apocrypha—ahead of schedule. Bobrick tells us the human interest story that translator Bois was fastidious about his health and had “almost an Hebrew alphabet of teeth” when he died (pp. 233, 234).
And so the chapter proceeds. We learn that the translators commissioned by King James were no second-rate scholars. One, a prominent man named John Overall, was so fluent in Greek and Latin “that he once admitted it was sometimes difficult for him to speak English at any length” (p. 223). Bobrick gives personalities to many of the distinguished scholars on King James’ translating committee along with their impressive list of credentials. The author informs us that all the translators were ordained men except one. We meet them all, including the man (Andrew Downes) who deemed his stipend to be insufficient and refused to go on until he was compensated more generously (p. 245). We get to know the men who were close readers of texts, those who were “subtle weighers of words” (p. 246), the classical scholars, the men with miraculous memories, and the wits. Bobrick opens the door a crack to let us see their individual temperaments, abilities, and, yes, their faults and foibles. Each translator had his individual strengths; nevertheless, all had a penchant for following the king’s orders and Bishop Bancroft’s fifteen principles for translation (this list is found on p. 389).
The brightest and best, men most apt in languages, those with sterling character, and men dedicated to the work were conscripted for this awesome task. Checks and balances were in place as the different companies carefully referenced and comprehensively researched each other’s work (Appendix Five: Richard Bancroft’s “Rules to Be Observed in the Translation of the Bible”). “In working over their material, the translators consulted every known text, commentary, and translation, ancient or modern…” (p. 238). ” ‘ If you ask what they had before them, truly it was the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, the Greek of the New. These are the two golden pipes, or rather conduits, wherethrough the olive branches empty themselves into the gold'” (p. 249).
King James, himself fluent in several languages and a serious student of the Bible, took great interest in the work personally and was especially partial to the translation of the 150 Psalms of David. The work took six years, the men laboring faithfully from 1604 to the completion of the KJV in 1611. Bobrick writes:
When it was done, it surpassed all others in the majesty and music of its words. If Tyndale had managed to render the original Hebrew and Greek into the sound and sense of living English, those who followed him could do no better than amplify his strain. The King James translators were the last of that line, but some of their adjustments had the Midas touch. Sometimes they changed only a word or two, or merely the order of the words for rhythmic or dramatic effect; sometimes whole chapters were markedly transformed. (pp. 239, 240).
Bobrick praises the King James men for their “finely tuned ear” to hear the “just and enduring phrases” (p. 243). In another section he gives a blizzard of examples of the critical choices in words which the translators of the KJV made, concluding with, “In retrospect, almost all the choices seem unerringly right.”
In the end, the King James Version was such a book that “if everything else in our language should perish it would alone suffice to show the whole extent of its beauty and power” (p. 259).
It is not a stretch to conclude from this chapter by Bobrick that although the English went to Scotland to get a king, they, in God’s good design, received a gift far greater.
Bobrick’s main thesis, that the development of the Bible in the vernacular so diminished the authority of clergy and governments that it paved the way for constitutional change in England as well as triggered the American Revolution, in no way impedes his gripping history of the English Bible.
Kudos to Benson Bobrick for his definitive book on this subject. Here is a book you will read thoughtfully, and refer to again and again in the years to come. Thanks be to God who raises up men of courage and conviction—and immeasurable talent—in the history of the church. We all are beneficiaries of their expertise.
Although the KJV remains an international best seller, it has taken its share of criticism in recent decades. Even within the PR churches, where its use is regulated, there are those who take exception to the exalted language and obscurities of the KJV. “It is not the language of the people” is the voiced concern. That concern was already noticed in 1611. Bobrick tells us that words like “verily” and “it came to pass” were already outdated in 1611, but they were deliberately retained because of their “antique rightness” for which the KJV has always been prized (p. 255).
Is it possible that we of the twenty-first century are accessories to “dumbing down” the language and can no longer appreciate its power and eloquence? Can it be that we no longer have “finely tuned ears” as did the King James men?
We must continue to use language which is well written and well spoken. We must seek out exact translations and precise word choices, especially when God’s Word is at stake.
The King’s English.