Where Was The English Bible Before 1611?
The easy answer to the question above is that the Bible in English was a work in progress.
The final expression of God’s inerrant words in the English language is in the Authorized Version 1st published in 1611.
Until that time, this final expression did not exist as a finished product. Rather, it existed in component parts (i.e. words). Many of the words were from the previous English Bibles that had been harvested since the year 1525 when William Tyndale published the first printed edition of the New Testament in English.
Lest someone object to this observation, consider the fact that even the Scripture itself didn’t come in one delivery. It came over a period of about 1,500 years with somewhere in the vicinity of 40 authors.
The King James translators actually started construction with The Bishops Bible as a base and incorporated other biblical building material.
Previous English Bibles Used In Its Construction
Other English Bibles that were delivered to the job site included Tyndale, Matthews, Coverdale, The Great, Geneva, and Bishops.
Author Lawrence Vance says:
“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,[a.k.a. Great Bible] Geneva.’
These previous English Bibles are part of the form and substance that provided the English building material (words) for The Authorized Version.
But they didn’t limit themselves to these. They also used Greek and Hebrew editions as well as foreign language versions:
Many foreign language Bibles and Testaments were examined.
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 this means is that all those previous English Bibles (although good) needed to be improved upon. That’s why no one is using them today.
It was a translators intention not only to improve presentation of God’s words in English but also to improve the presentation of God’s words that had previously appeared in other Reformation era Bibles.
Here’s what they said:
"Yet for all that, as nothing is begun and perfited at the same time, and the later thoughts are thought to be the wiser: so, if we building upon their foundation that went before us, and being holpen by their labours, doe endevour to make that better which they left so good; no man, we are sure, hath cause to mislike us; they, we persuade our selves, if they were alive, would thanke us.
Truly (good Christian Reader) wee never thought from the beginning, that we should neede to make a new Translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one, (for then the imputation of Sixtus had bene true in some sort, that our people had bene fed with gall of Dragons in stead of wine, with whey in stead of milke:) but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principall good one, not justly to be excepted against; that hath bene our indeavour, that our marke.
. . .we are so far off from condemning any of their labours that travelled before us in this kind, EITHER IN THIS LAND OR BEYOND THE 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 ever renowned 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.
. . . we do not deny, nay, we affirm and avow, that the very meanest translation of the Bible in English set forth by men of our profession. . . containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God: as the King's speech which he uttered in Parliament, being translated into French, Dutch, Italian, and Latin, is still the King's speech, though it be not interpreted by every translator with the like grace, nor peradventure so fitly for phrase, nor so expressly for sense, every where. . . .
. . . nothing is begun and perfected at the same time. . . so, if WE BUILDING UPON THEIR FOUNDATION THAT WENT BEFORE US, AND BEING HOLPEN BY THEIR LABOURS, do endeavour to make that better which they left so good; no man, we are sure, hath cause to mislike us; they, we persuade ourselves, if they were alive, would thank us. . . .
"we never thought from the beginning that we should need to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one; (for then the imputation of Sixtus had been true in some sort, that our people had been fed with gall of dragons instead of wine, with whey instead of milk;) but TO MAKE A GOOD ONE BETTER, OR OUT OF MANY GOOD ONES ONE PRINCIPAL GOOD ONE, NOT JUSTLY TO BE EXCEPTED AGAINST; THAT HATH BEEN OUR ENDEAVOUR, THAT OUR MARK."
What About The Printed English Bibles Before 1611?
They don’t all say and mean the same thing although they come from the same basic texts. The King James Bible itself is a revision of the Bishops Bible. Each translator was provided with a copy of the 1604 Bishops.
Here’s my view:
The testimony of history shows that the compilation of Scripture in the various languages of the world is a process and not a one-time event. In other words, the Lord didn’t present his final version in any particular language on the first pass.
Using English as an example we see that the first New Testament translated from a Greek text was produced in 1525. Coverdale’s complete first edition of the Bible in English was published in 1535.
Where would you find “the Scripture” in English 1525?
If you could get a hold of a Tyndale New Testament you would have the New Testament Scripture as God provided it at that time.
In 1535, you could you would have “the Scripture” as God provided it at that time in the form of the Coverdale Bible and Tyndale’s NT.
In 1537 you could add Matthews Bible to the list. Likewise, the Great Bible in 1539 and forward.
In 1560, you could get a better presentation of “the Scripture” that God provided in the English language from the Geneva Bible.
Some people call this a process of purification and cite Psalm 12:7 and maybe that’s so but the fact is that God did not produce a final version or presentation of his word in English until 1611.
How do we know? The witness of its blessing in history.
It’s like a lot of things concerning the Scriptures. Sometimes you can’t tell wh
at’s going on until you look back. And we’re in a position to be able to do so.
My view is that the English Bibles previous to the Authorized Version were a work in progress and can rightly be referred to as the Scriptures as given by God for that time.
He has moved on and if you’re looking for “the Scripture” now in English it’s found in the King James Bible. In effect, the Lord moved the locus of “the Scripture” from the previous English Bibles and finally was located on the pages of the King James Bible.
Eventually believers followed suit.
Like the translators said in the preface:
"Truly (good Christian reader) we never thought from the beginning, that we should need to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one, ... but to make a good one better."
IT’S BEEN THE BEST ONE FOR OVER 400 YEARS.
AND IT STILL IS.