THE AV 1611: Purified Seven Times

By Dr. Laurence M. Vance

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"The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times." (Psalm 12:6)

As any student of English Bible history knows, the Authorized Version of 1611 was not the first Bible to be translated into English. But even though hundreds of complete Bibles, New Testaments, and Scripture portions have been translated into English since 1611, it is obvious that the Authorized Version is the last English Bible; that is, the last English Bible that God "authorized."

Because the Authorized Version is the "last" English Bible, and because its defenders believe it to contain the very words of God, various schemes have been contrived to make the English Bibles up to and including the Authorized Version fit the description in Psalm 12:6 of the words of the Lord being "purified seven times." The problem is that the Authorized Version is not the seventh English Bible -- it is the tenth one.

Although there were some attempts during the Old and Middle English period to translate portions of the Bible into English, the first complete Bible or New Testament in English did not appear until the fourteenth century.

John Wycliffe (c.1320-1384) is credited with being the first to translate the entire Bible into English. It is to be remembered that no Greek or Hebrew texts, versions, or editions were yet fabricated. Wycliffe did his translating primarily from the only Bible then in use: the Latin Vulgate. He is often called the "Morning Star of the Reformation" for his opposition to ecclesiastical abuses and the Papacy. Wycliffe's New Testament translation was completed in 1380, and the entire Bible in 1382.

William Tyndale (c. 1494-1536) has the distinction of being the first to translate the New Testament from Greek into English. He early distinguished himself as a scholar both at Cambridge and Oxford, and was fluent in several languages. Tyndale soon advanced both his desire and his demise, as seen in his reply to a critic: "I defy the pope and all his laws; if God spare my life, ere many years I will cause the boy that driveth the plough in England to know more of the Scriptures than thou doest." The Bible was still forbidden in the vernacular, so after settling in London for several months while attempting to gain approval for his translation efforts, Tyndale concluded: "Not only that there was no room in my lord of Londons palace to translate the New Testament, but also that there was no place to do it in all England, as experience doth now openly declare."

Accordingly, Tyndale left England in 1524 and completed his translation of the New Testament in Germany. The moving factor in his translation of the New Testament was that he "perceived by experience, how that it was impossible to establish the lay people in any truth, except the scripture were plainly laid before their eyes in their mother tongue, that they might see the process, order and meaning of the text." The printing of his New Testament was completed in Worms and smuggled into England, where it was an instant success. Tyndale then turned his attention to the Old Testament. He never finished it, however, for on May 21, 1535, Tyndale was treacherously kidnaped and imprisoned in Belgium. On October 6, 1536, he was tried as a heretic and condemned to death. He was strangled and burned, but not before he uttered the immortal prayer of "Lord, open the King of England's eyes."

Although Tyndale's English Bible was the first to be translated directly from the original languages, it was just the New Testament. It was Myles Coverdale (1488-1569) who was the first to publish a complete English Bible. In 1533, King Henry VIII established the Church of England, and, in 1534, the Upper House of Convocation of Canterbury petitioned King Henry to decree "that the holy scripture should be translated into the vulgar English tongue by certain good learned men, to be nominated by His Majesty, and should be delivered to the people for their instruction." Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540) and Archbishop Cranmer (1489-1556) were likewise convinced of the desirability of having the Bible translated into English. Coverdale's Bible was printed in October of 1535. He based his work on the Zurich Bible of Zwingli, the Vulgate, the Latin text of Paginius, Luther's Bible, and the previous work of William Tyndale, especially in the New Testament.

Although Coverdale's second edition of 1537 contained the license of the king, the first Bible to obtain such license was published earlier the same year. The Matthew Bible was more of a revision than a translation. Thomas Matthew was just a pseudonym for John Rogers (c. 1500-1555), a friend of Tyndale, to whom he had turned over his unpublished manuscripts on the translation of the Old Testament. Rogers used Tyndale's New Testament and the completed parts of his Old Testament. For the rest of the Bible, he relied on Coverdale. The whole of this material was slightly revised and accompanied by introductions and chapter summaries. Cranmer commented in a letter to Cromwell that he liked it "better than any other translation heretofore made." And so it happened that Tyndale's translation, which was proscribed just a few years earlier, was circulating with the King's permission and authority both in the Coverdale and Matthew Bibles.

Although the Coverdale and Matthew Bibles were "set forth with the King's most gracious license," the Great Bible was the first "authorized" Bible. Cromwell delegated to Myles Coverdale the work of revising the Matthew Bible and its controversial notes. In 1538, an injunction by Cromwell directed the clergy to provide "one book of the bible of the largest volume in English, and the same set up in some convenient place within the said church that ye have care of, whereas your parishioners may most commodiously resort to the same and read it." The completed Bible appeared in April of 1539. Although called the Great Bible because of its large size, it was referred to by several other designations as well. It was called the Cromwell Bible, since he did the most to prepare for its publication. It was also termed the Cranmer Bible, after the often reprinted preface by Cranmer beginning with the 1540 second edition. Several editions were printed by Whitechurch, and hence it was also labeled the Whitechurch Bible. In accordance with Cromwell's injunction, copies of the Great Bible were placed in every church. This led to it being called the Chained Bible, since it was chained in "some convenient place within the said church."

At the same time as Coverdale was preparing the Great Bible, Richard Taverner (1505-1577) undertook an independent revision of Matthew's Bible. It appeared under the title of: "The Most Sacred Bible whiche is the holy scripture, conteyning the old and new testament, translated into English, and newly recognized with great diligence after most faythful exemplars by Rychard Taverner." He was a competent Greek scholar and made some slight changes in the text and notes of the Matthew Bible. His work was eclipsed by the Great Bible and had but minor influence on later translations.

During the reign of the Catholic queen, Mary Tudor (1553-1558), many English Reformers, among them Myles Coverdale, fled to Geneva. It was here in 1557 that William Whittingham (1524-1579), the brother-in-law of John Calvin, and successor of John Knox at the English church in Geneva, translated the New Testament in what was to become the Geneva Bible. When Elizabeth, the sister of Mary, assumed the throne in 1558, many exiles returned to England. But Whittingham and some others remained in Geneva and continued to work on a more comprehensive and complete revision of the entire Bible that superseded the 1557 New Testament -- the Geneva Bible of 1560.

The superiority of the Geneva Bible over the Great Bible was readily apparent. It was the notes, however, that made it unacceptable for official use in England. Archbishop Matthew Parker soon took steps to make a revision of the Great Bible that would replace both it and the Geneva Bible. The Bible was divided into parts and distributed to scholars for revision. Parker served as the editor and most of his revisors were bishops, hence the Bishops' Bible. The first Bible to be translated by a committee, it was published in 1568.

The Douay-Rheims Bible was the first Roman Catholic translation of the Bible in English. When English Romanists fled England for the Continent under the reign of Elizabeth, many settled in France. In 1568, an English college was established by William Allen (1532-1594) at Douay. The college moved for a time to Rheims in 1578 under Richard Bristow (1538-1581). It was here that Gregory Martin (d. 1582) began translating the Bible into English from the Latin Vulgate. This was precipitated by Allen's recognition that Catholics had an unfair disadvantage compared with Bible-reading Protestants because of their use of Latin and the fact that "all the English versions are most corrupt." The Catholic New Testament was finished in 1582, but the complete Old Testament did not appear until 1610.

After the death of Elizabeth in 1603, James I, who was at that time James VI of Scotland, became the king of England. One of the first things done by the new king was the calling of the Hampton Court Conference in January of 1604 "for the hearing, and for the determining, things pretended to be amiss in the church." Here were assembled bishops, clergyman, and professors, along with four Puritan divines, to consider the complaints of the Puritans. Although Bible revision was not on the agenda, the Puritan president of Corpus Christi College, John Reynolds, "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."

The next step was the actual selection of the men who were to perform the work. In July of 1604, James wrote to Bishop Bancroft that he had "appointed certain learned men, to the number of four and fifty, for the translating of the Bible." Although fifty-four men were nominated, only forty-seven were known to have taken part in the work of translation. The completed Bible, known as the King James Version or the Authorized Version, was issued in 1611, and remains the Bible read, preached, believed, and acknowledged as the authority by all Bible believers today.

Wycliffe, Tyndale, Coverdale, Matthew, Great, Taverner, Geneva, Bishops', Douay-Rheims, and King James -- ten English Bibles. As mentioned previously, various schemes have been contrived to make the English Bibles up to and including the Authorized Version fit the description in Psalm 12:6 of the words of the Lord being "purified seven times." The problem with this noble goal is that it entails the elimination of three versions. But which three? Wycliffe's Bible is sometimes omitted because it was translated from the Latin instead of the original Hebrew and Greek. Tyndale's Bible is sometimes omitted because it was not a complete Bible -- just a New Testament and portions of the Old Testament. Coverdale's and Matthew's Bibles could conceivably be omitted because they rely so much on Tyndale. Taverner's Bible is sometimes omitted because it was a revision of Matthew's Bible and had little influence on later English versions. The Geneva Bible could conceivably be omitted because King James considered it to be the worst of the English versions. The Douay-Rheims, because it is a Roman Catholic version, is always omitted from the list.

This leaves the Great Bible, the Bishops' Bible, and the King James Bible -- three out of the ten. It appears that Bible believers have manipulated the history of the English Bible to prove a bogus theory.

Or have they?

The answer is yes and no. As will presently be proved, the theory is not bogus at all -- even if some zealous brethren have been careless in the way they went about proving it.

The definitive list of Bibles that makes the Authorized Version the seventh Bible, thus fitting the description in Psalm 12:6 of the words of the Lord being "purified seven times," is not to be found in the opinions of the many writers on the history of the English Bible. To the contrary, the definitive list is to be found in the often-overlooked details concerning the translating of the Authorized Version.

To begin with, the translators of the Authorized Version did acknowledge that they had a multitude of sources from which to draw from: "Neither did we think much to consult the Translators or Commentators, Chaldee, Hebrew, Syrian, Greek, or Latin, no nor the Spanish, French, Italian, or Dutch." The Greek editions of Erasmus, Stephanus, and Beza were all accessible, as were the Complutensian and Antwerp Polyglots, and the Latin translations of Pagninus, Tremellius, and Beza. What we want, however, is a reference to English Bibles.

The translators also acknowledged that they had at their disposal all the previous English translations of the sixteenth century: "We are so far off from condemning any of their labors that travailed before us in this kind, either in this land or beyond sea, either in King Henry's time, or King Edward's (if there were any translation, or correction of a translation in his time) or Queen Elizabeth's of everrenowned memory, that we acknowledge them to have been raised up of God, for the building and furnishing of his Church, and that they deserve to be had of us and of posterity in everlasting remembrance." Although this statement of the translators refers to English Bibles, it is not specific as to exactly which versions.

The information we need is to be found, not in the translators' "The Epistle Dedicatory" or their "The Translators to the Reader," but in the "Rules to be Observed in the Translation of the Bible." These general rules, fifteen in number, were advanced for the guidance of the translators. The first and fourteenth, because they directly relate to the subject at hand, are here given in full: "1. The ordinary Bible read in the Church, commonly called the Bishops Bible, to be followed, and as little altered as the Truth of the original will permit." "14. These translations to be used when they agree better with the Text than the Bishops Bible: Tindoll's, Matthews, Coverdale's, Whitchurch's, Geneva."

And thus we have our answer. The seven English versions that make the English Bibles up to and including the Authorized Version fit the description in Psalm 12:6 of the words of the Lord being "purified seven times" are Tyndale's, Matthew's, Coverdale's, the Great Bible (printed by Whitechurch), the Geneva Bible, the Bishops' Bible, and the King James Bible.

The Wycliffe, Taverner, and Douay-Rheims Bibles, whatever merits any of them may have, are not part of the purified line God "authorized," of which the King James Authorized Version is God's last one -- purified seven times.