Volume LVIIIAugust 2011Number 3

Volume of the Sacred Law is 400 Years Old!
by Dr. Glenys A. Waldman, Senior Research Librarian, The Masonic Library and Museum of Pennsylvania

Title page of the first King James version.

The King James version of the Bible celebrates its 400th anniversary in 2011! Although others are accepted, the King James version has been the traditional volume of the Sacred Law on the altar in open lodges throughout the United States. Upon attaining the sublime Degree of a Master Mason, throughout history, many brothers have also been presented with a "Masonic Bible." This is a complete edition of the King James version with additional pages bound in it which relate biblical passages with Masonic topics. The book, sold by The Masonic Library and Museum for presentation to Pennsylvania Masons, includes the complete text of "The Exemplar," essays and other "helps," as well as pages for keeping the owner's Masonic record - all with gilded edges, in a sparkling, gold-stamped, blue binding.

The colorful history of Bible translations is long, complicated and even violent. The King James version, first published in 1611, was compiled by a hand-picked committee of 47 learned men - the best biblical scholars and linguists of their day - from Oxford and Cambridge Universities, who translated from the original Hebrew and Greek. This Bible was by no means prepared "in isolation;" these men had access to many previous editions in many languages. Some of those previous translations were done at quite a cost to the translators because the Catholic Church considered such "tampering" with what they held to be the Word of God to be heresy.

John Wycliffe (mid-1320s-1384) was an early advocate for translation of the Bible into the common language. He translated directly from the (Latin) Vulgate into (what we now call Middle) English, completing his work in 1382. It is thought that he personally translated the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and it is possible he translated the whole New Testament, while his associates translated the Old Testament. Wycliffe's Bible seems to have been completed by 1384, but not without arguments with the authorities. Wycliffe died that Dec. 31 in his own bed, but was not permitted to rest in peace! So embroiled in controversy was he, that his remains were exhumed and burned. The Bible survived, however, and was updated by Wycliffe's assistant, John Purvey, and others, in 1388 and 1395.

The next great translator into English was William Tyndale (1494?-1536). While studying at Oxford, and later at Cambridge, Tyndale became very interested in the ideas of John Wycliffe. He became convinced that the church had become corrupt and selfish. Like Wycliffe and Martin Luther (with whom he later consulted), Tyndale thought it was important for people to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. He illegally acquired a copy of Luther's German New Testament in the year it was published - 1522. Inspired by Luther's work, Tyndale wished to do the same in English. He told Cuthbert Tunstall, the Bishop of London, of his plans. Tunstall rejected Tyndale's offer, so Tyndale wisely moved to the Continent, living at first in Hamburg where he completed his New Testament in 1524. Tyndale was the first to translate from Hebrew and Greek into English. The first version of Tyndale's English New Testament was printed in 1525 in Cologne. Tyndale moved the publishing process to Worms, where the first recorded complete edition of his New Testament was published in 1526. Two later versions, both revised by Tyndale himself, were published in 1534 and 1536. During the next few years, 18,000 copies of the New Testament were printed and smuggled into England.

Tyndale never published a complete Bible. The tragic reason: Tyndale changed words and terms that appeared in the Catholic Bibles if he thought his translations were better. For example "church," "priest," "do penance" and "charity," became "congregation," "senior" (changed to "elder" in the revised edition of 1534), "repent" and "love." (A.C. Partridge, English Biblical Translation [London: André Deutsch Limited, 1973], 38-39, 52-52). The Catholic Church took great offense at these changes because they challenged many of the systems and doctrines that were its foundation. Thus, in 1530, King Henry VIII (June 28, 1491 - Jan. 28, 1547; reigned April 21, 1509 until his death) gave orders that all English Bibles were to be destroyed. People caught distributing the Tyndale Bible in England were burned at the stake. This attempt to destroy Tyndale's Bible was very successful: it seems only two copies have survived. In 1535, William Tyndale was betrayed by Henry Phillips, arrested in Antwerp and imprisoned in a castle near Brussels. Found guilty of heresy, on Oct. 6, 1536, he was strangled and burned at the stake by the crown authorities. Prior to his execution, Tyndale had finished translating the entire New Testament and roughly half of the Old Testament. Of the latter, the Pentateuch (the first five Books of the Jewish and Christian scriptures: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy), Jonah and a revised version of the book of Genesis were published during his lifetime. After his death, however, Tyndale's works were revised and reprinted many times. Furthermore, much of his work can be seen in more modern Bibles, especially in the King James version. Many of the simplest, best-known phrases are pure Tyndale, one being "knock and it shall be opened unto you" (Matthew 7:7).

James VI of Scotland (June 19, 1566 - March 27, 1625, reigned July 24, 1567 until his death) became James I of England and Ireland (reigned March 24, 1603 until his death) - the first king of both England and Scotland. As the closest living relative of the unmarried and childless Elizabeth I, James succeeded her because he was descended from one of Henry VIII's sisters.

Near the top of the new king's agenda was the convocation of Hampton Court Conference in January 1604 "for the hearing, and for the determining, things pretended to be amiss in the church." Bishops, clergymen, professors and four Puritan divines assembled to consider the complaints of the Puritans. Although Bible revision was not on the agenda, John Reynolds, the Puritan president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, "moved his Majesty, that there might be a new translation of the Bible, because those which were allowed in the reigns of Henry the eighth, and Edward the sixth, were corrupt and not answerable to the truth of the Original." King James himself had complained that he "could never yet see a Bible well translated in English; but I think that, of all, that of Geneva is the worst. I wish some special pains were taken for an uniform translation, which should be done by the best learned men in both Universities [Oxford and Cambridge], then reviewed by the Bishops, presented to the Privy Council, lastly ratified by the Royal authority, to be read in the whole Church, and none other." Thus the resolution: "That a translation be made of the whole Bible, as consonant as can be to the original Hebrew and Greek; and this to be set out and printed, without any marginal notes, and only to be used in all churches of England in time of divine service."

Tyndale's Influence on English

In translating the Bible, Tyndale introduced new words into the English language, and many were subsequently used in the King James Bible:

  • Jehovah (from a transliterated Hebrew construction in the Old Testament; composed from the tetragrammaton YHWH.
  • Passover (as the name for the Jewish holiday, Pesach or Pesah)
  • scapegoat (the goat that bears the sins and iniquities of the people in Leviticus, Chapter 16)
  • Tyndale is said to have coined the word atonement (linking the words "At One" to describe Christ's work of restoring a good relationship - a reconciliation - between God and people). However, the word was probably in use by at least 1513, before Tyndale's translation.
As well as individual words, Tyndale also coined such familiar phrases as:
  • lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil
  • knock and it shall be opened unto you
  • twinkling of an eye
  • a moment in time
  • seek and you shall find
  • ask and it shall be given you
  • judge not that you not be judged
  • let there be light
  • the powers that be
  • my brother's keeper
  • the salt of the earth
  • it came to pass
  • gave up the ghost
  • the signs of the times
  • the spirit is willing
  • live and move and have our being
  • fight the good fight
Above: The beginning of the Gospel of John, from William Tyndale's 1525 translation of the New Testament. Much information, and the pictures come from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Tyndale; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Bible); http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:KJV-King-James-Version-Bible-first-edition-title-page-1611.jpg, and an article taken from the book, "A Brief History of English Bible Translations" by Dr. Laurence M. Vance (http://www.av1611.org/kjv/kjvhist.html).

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