What would you do?
Imagine looking out a window and seeing two shotgun-toting uniformed policemen walking toward your home. Anticipating the knock, you cautiously open the front door. Besides a shotgun, one of the intense patrolmen is holding unfolded papers. He shows you an officially signed and stamped document and explains that they hold a warrant to search for and seize all copies of the Bible. “Why?” you ask. The men hostilely state, “The Bible is a seditious book: it is illegal to own copies, and you will be committing a crime if you read it!”
Sound far-fetched? History shows us otherwise.
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the printing of the book commonly known in America as the King James Bible. In the United Kingdom, this English-language translation is known as the Authorized Version—a more descriptive title embedded with centuries of history, full of intrigue, intertwined with scenes of book burnings, bloody violence and sadistic martyrdom.
How well do you know the history of what led to the making of the King James Bible? Only a few know the real history. Believe us, the history leading up to the publication of the King James Bible is worth knowing—lest history repeat itself!
Christ Emphasized Scripture Reading
To get the full impact of this history, we must go back to the first century.
Jesus Christ had been born into a world wracked by religious confusion. Malachi, one of the final prophets to Israel, laid the blame for that religious mess at the feet of a corrupt priesthood guilty of leading the reinstated Jewish nation away from God and His revealed way of life (Malachi 2:8). The Jewish religion had become a mishmash of man-made traditions mixed with Greek philosophy and paganism.
Malachi also prophesied that Christ would come with a commission to deliver a message: the gospel of the Kingdom of God (Malachi 3:1). Jesus Christ was not commissioned to fix the Jews’ religion—and the religious elite did not want their religion fixed. In fact, the religious leadership and the majority of the people hated Jesus’s message. When Jesus taught publicly, the Pharisees and Sadducees often openly challenged and debated with Him.
To answer their false charges and expose their phony doctrines, Christ always pointed to the Scriptures. The four Gospels list at least 12 references where Christ answered a challenge by asking, Have you not read the Scripture? (Matthew 12:3, 5; 19:4; 21:16, 42; 22:31; Mark 2:25; 12:10, 26; Luke 4:16; 6:3; John 5:39). Christ taught only those truths laid out in the Scriptures.
Though historical records of the fledgling New Testament Church are scanty, we know from the Bible that Christ’s established tradition—personal Scripture reading and study—was maintained by Church leadership. How was that possible? The majority of the earliest Christians would not have had personal copies of the Scriptures since each copy had to be written out by hand, making it very expensive to own.
Yet, this did not present a problem for God’s dedicated people. The earliest Christian converts were Jews and still had open access to the temple and synagogues, which maintained Scripture libraries. The Bible records that Peter and Paul went to the temple even after the Church was established in Jerusalem. Luke gives us the perfect example of this scenario in Acts 17:10-11: The Bereans heard Paul preach in their local synagogue, and then they searched the Scriptures daily, whether those things were so.
Church Ravaged by Persecution
In a private meeting with the disciples on the Mount of Olives, Jesus Christ revealed the time order of key world events leading to His Second Coming and the establishment of the Kingdom of God. This incredible prophecy covering 2,000 years is located in Matthew 24. Corollary accounts are found in Daniel and Revelation. Christ gravely warned that His little flock (Luke 12:32) would suffer vicious attack and undergo violent persecution from false ministers claiming to know and preach for Jesus Christ (Matthew 24:4). These evil men would deceive many members by supplanting Christ’s message with a false message about Him (verse 5).
Paul refers to his war against these false ministers in the first century in 2 Corinthians 11:2-4, 13-15 and Galatians 1:6-9.
Now, here is a truth that few understand. This persecution begun in the first century will grow into raging intensity just before Christ’s return. This is critical understanding. We must be warned.
Here is how it all began. While the earliest persecution of God’s Church came from the Jews, the most deadly came from the ranks of Simon Magus’s church. Luke records this evil man’s first attempt to gain high office in God’s Church in Acts 8. Even though his attempt was spurned and thwarted by Peter, historians Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Eusebius record that in a.d. 45, Simon successfully laid the foundation for a competing church organization in Rome. He called his mix of Babylonian pagan customs and selected distorted Christian teachings “Christian” and set out to destroy the organization that denied him an apostleship. Simon’s ultimate goal was to dominate all religion and government, giving his church world rule. However, Simon’s church—along with Christ’s little flock—suffered slaughter at the hands of Roman emperors for nearly three centuries.
Then, a surprising historic event freed Simon’s church from fear of death. After his victory at Milvian Bridge, Constantine the Great converted to Simon’s church—by this time called the Universal, or Catholic, Church—and legalized it throughout the realm with the Edict of Milan in 313. This was a marriage of convenience. Constantine needed a means to unite all the squabbling peoples of Europe. He saw Simon’s brand of Christianity as the means.
When Constantine stopped all government-sponsored persecution of the Universal Church, he created a beast that would grow to incredible strength and power that at times would rival even the most powerful caesar.
Having new life and vigor breathed into it, the Catholic Church—described as a Babylonian queen in Isaiah 47 and the mother of harlots in Revelation 17—palmed itself off as the promised Kingdom of God. Seeking to spiritually legitimize its existence, it made its purported gospel about the person of Christ appear as the truth. As a matter of policy in order to establish its own authority over the people and to conceal the truth of its origin, the Universal Church cast the Bible aside, stating it was “not sufficient for doctrine.” This spiritually adulterous church became the persecutor, demanding that all religious groups bow to its government.
The true Church of God refused to submit to this false religious authority, and stepped alone onto the blood-stained stage of martyrdom.
The history of the Universal Church’s Satan-inspired war to snuff out true Christians is discussed in Revelation 2:8-29 and 12:6, 13, 17. Other details are given in Daniel 7:23-25. Revelation 12:6 discusses the continual attempt at the genocide of God’s Church for 1,260 years beginning with Justinian’s Imperial Restoration in a.d. 554 and ending with the crushing defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Paris in 1814. Verse 13 discusses Satan’s personal attempt to crush God’s Church in the 20th century. And verse 17 refers to a coming future martyrdom of God’s people by Simon Magus’s church.
Copies of Scripture Outlawed
It is important to note that the founding documents leading to the making of the King James Bible were written during the 1,260 years. This was a time of great social upheaval. The war over the Bible was a major part of the unrest. As Revelation 12:6 tells us, God’s people, branded as Judaizing heretics by the church centered in Rome, had to flee or constantly remain on the move in order to survive martyrdom. Beginning with their escape from the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in a.d. 70, they followed the trail of their ancient relatives—the lost tribes of Israel—by moving north and west of Jerusalem into the safety of European wilderness.
The Catholic chronicles of the infamous inquisitions that brought death to multiple thousands in Europe give us their epithetic names and locations. God’s people were called Albigenses, Bogomils, Cathars, Lollards, Paulicians and Waldenses, to name a few. Knowing these names, we can trace the movements of God’s people through Europe into England and finally to the American colonies. It is beyond the scope of this article to trace and discuss all of their locations. However, in the early decades of the 1300s, two true ministers of God moved the work of the Church into England. What happened at that time set fire to a movement that energetically set out to make copies of the Bible available to every Englishman in his own tongue.
Just prior to that time though, in about 1170, a wealthy French merchant named Peter Waldo converted to the true Church of God. After seeing a close friend die suddenly, he reflected on his own life. Realizing that his wealth actually kept him separated from God, he invested a considerable sum of money to translate the Bible into his native tongue and then gave the rest of his fortune to the needy. As a merchant, he had some contact with the people of God. He was aware of their doctrines. He made a diligent search of the Scriptures to learn the truth about life and death. Amazed at what he read, he recognized the tiny group of people he had come in contact with was the true Church. He joined company with them and was baptized.
Using his secular education and good business sense, Waldo helped organize the little Church plagued by persecution. He became the leading minister and preached the original gospel message as given by Jesus Christ. For the first time in centuries, many began to hear and learn the clear and simple doctrines of the Bible. As membership grew, the money and workers became available to make and distribute copies of the Bible, as well as other doctrinal tracts, produced by hand. In time, armed with the proper knowledge, large numbers of people in southern France joined ranks with the Church of God.
In 1178, an angry pope summoned Waldo to Rome. Waldo brought with him a copy of the Bible that had been translated into Provençal, the local language of southern France. He humbly made the case for the common people’s need for Scripture that they could read in their own language. A decision as to what to do about Waldo’s movement—referred to in Catholic history as the “Poor Men of Lyons” and later known as the Waldenses—was delayed until the Third Lateran Council of 1179. At that time, Waldo’s representatives were castigated for not only preaching without permission, but for translating the parts of the Bible that the Catholic Church deemed as heretical! The war between the churches was still on!
God’s ministers did not stop preaching or distributing copies of the Bible. In fact, they declared that the Bible alone was the “sole rule of life and faith.” They fully rejected all doctrine not supported by the Bible.
Pope Innocent iii, the father of Catholic inquisitions, came down hard on them. In 1209, he instituted the Albigensian Crusade. In 1211, more than 80 of Peter Waldo’s followers were burned as heretics in Strasbourg. The Bible and handwritten doctrinal tracts were burned in huge bonfires along with them. Yet the true Church courageously continued its work.
Innocent iii would not be crossed without returning retaliation. He organized the Fourth Lateran Council, in part, to go after Waldo’s growing influence. Derek Wilson, in his book The People’s Bible, states that in 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council declared: “The secret mysteries of the faith ought not to be explained to all men in all places …. For such is the depth of divine Scripture that, not only the simple and illiterate, but even the prudent and learned are not fully sufficient to try to understand it.” This was a direct reference to Peter Waldo and the Church of God. The pope wanted no Bible reading outside the priesthood.
Wielding incredible power across nations, the church declared that Bible reading by laymen was a crime punishable by death. It was also made illegal to translate any passage of the Bible into the vernacular. Owning even a small portion of Scripture brought the white-hot brand of heresy. Trapped in the purge of inquisition, many men, women and children died in the flames while tethered to a stake.
It is interesting to note that Catholic England was the only European country to actually ban Bible translation.
Wycliffe and the Lollards
To escape extinction, the tiny church fled into hiding in the Piedmont Valley of northwest Italy. And, as prophesied in Revelation 12:6, within 100 years of the onset of the Albigensian Crusade, Catholic dominance of medieval England and Europe began to ebb. Midway through the 14th century, dissatisfaction with the oppressive high taxation of the church stirred within the hearts of the English nobility. The development of English education created institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge. Well-educated men were injected into the worn-out, centuries-old Catholic feudal society. University-trained theologians became expert linguists in Greek and Hebrew as well as Latin. Knowledge of the Bible grew rapidly since the study of the Scriptures became part of university curriculum. It was not at all surprising, then, that scholars uncovered that Catholic doctrine did not square with the Bible.
Leading academics, like John Wycliffe, began to publicly attack the corruption of the Catholic clergy. Besides being a priest, Wycliffe was well educated in math, natural science and ecclesiastical law. Yet his life’s passion was knowing the Bible. He made it the focus of his graduate work. By 1377, Wycliffe’s stirring lectures and sermons had become enormously popular with the nobles and common people. He was gifted with a brilliant and inquiring mind and a willingness to clearly debate what he was learning from Scripture. As a result, he became the Catholic elite’s number-one enemy in England. His knowledge of Scripture and his popularity put him in constant danger of execution.
Yet Wycliffe was spared in 1378. The Catholic Church slit its own throat with the Great Schism. As three popes vied for power, the church’s credibility was destroyed, and men began to look elsewhere for leadership. John Wycliffe willingly stepped into the spotlight. He clearly and constantly showed that the Catholic Church was in conflict with Christianity’s foundational document, the Bible. Wycliffe skillfully set out to remove the papacy’s chain on Scripture by making it available to all the people of England—in their own language.
In 1380, Wycliffe and a group of scholars began to translate the Latin Bible into English. In addition, garnered with the full protection of the English nobility and Parliament, Wycliffe published many tracts that exposed the unbiblical teachings of the Catholic Church and the clergy’s corrupt practices. Wycliffe wrote, “[A]ll Christians, and lay lords in particular, ought to know holy writ and to defend it.” He proclaimed the right to make the Bible available for everyone.
Rome, however, found a way to slow down Wycliffe’s effort. It accused him of starting the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt. It said that Wycliffe’s open challenge of spiritual authority was the reason for the breakdown of law and order. His enemies called for his execution, yet they could not touch him because of the nobles.
Wycliffe left Oxford, but did not stop his work. He and his associates worked to make copies of the English Bible. During the last few years of his life, he was able to get the Bible into the hands of preachers who could spread the Scriptures to the common people.
Who were these preachers?
Though historians often state that Wycliffe founded the movement called the Lollards, the Lollards had existed long before Wycliffe. Walter and Raymond Lollard, brothers and true ministers of Jesus Christ, had moved to England from Germany around 1315. Coming from Waldensian strongholds that had been heavily persecuted in central Europe, Walter was a leading minister in the Church of God. We are not sure if Walter’s surname was Lollard or if it was branded on him as an epithet by his enemies. In the Netherlands, the Waldenses were called Lollards, a name taken from the Flemish word lollen, or lullen, meaning to speak softly or mumble. It was a practice of the true Church of God to memorize sections of the Bible since it had become a crime to own a copy.
Working tirelessly together for years, these brothers preached the unshackled Word of God throughout much of England. The fruit of their preaching was tremendous—England was on fire for God’s truth. Just as Jesus Christ had done centuries earlier, they advocated proof of their preaching by personal Bible study. Throughout the island, personal copies of the Scriptures were in demand. The growing Church of God, because of the efforts of Wycliffe and his band of sympathetic scholars, was able to widely distribute the English-language transcripts of the Bible. Eventually Wycliffe, his associates and the Church of God were declared heretics. Tragically, many of them were martyred. History must never forget what they accomplished.
It is interesting to note that Wycliffe himself escaped martyrdom when he died of a stroke in 1384. Yet in 1428, in a weird and absurd ceremony, Wycliffe’s bones were exhumed and burned by the Catholic clergy, and his ashes were tossed into a nearby stream—in an effort to stop the movement for vernacular Bibles. That ridiculous effort failed.
The 1500s Revolution
By the 1500s, the Renaissance had swept across Europe. The dark mental oppression of the Catholic clergy was broken by the light of education in art, literature, math and science. The invention of the printing press in 1450 made the production and distribution of educational materials readily available for a public eager to gather them up.
The first book published by printing press inventor Johann Gutenberg was a Latin-language Bible. The Bible was the hottest-selling item in Europe at this time. Making it forbidden had made it even more popular!
Early in the 16th century, Disiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), a Dutch scholar, became an international celebrity. A founding father of the Renaissance, he is best known for his 1508 book In Praise of Folly, a satire on society. He did not spare the practices of the church and clergy. Having a rich knowledge of Greek, Erasmus grew to prominence lecturing at Cambridge. One of his most important works was an updated Latin version of the New Testament called Novum Instrumentum (1516). He studied the best early Greek texts he could find in order to make a Latin text that was more accurate than the Vulgate. Though his project was considered sacrilege to Catholic authorities—who would dare tamper with the Vulgate?—his goal was to direct scholars to the Bible in order to cleanse the Catholic Church of error. He greatly disturbed Catholic authorities by editing out of his translation the Vulgate’s proof of the trinity (1 John 5:7-8), which was not found in the earliest Greek texts. Erasmus’s New Testament had its greatest impact at Cambridge, at that time considered the intellectual home of the English Reformation.
Then, in 1517, Martin Luther, a member of the theology faculty at Wittenberg University, began to speak out against papal indulgences. He invited scholars across Europe to join him in the study of what the Bible had to say about church corruption. For Luther, the Bible was a rival to the authority of the pope. Rome called for him to recant. He refused and widely circulated numerous books explaining his beliefs throughout Europe and England. His writings found special residence at Cambridge. Martin Luther produced a German-language Pentateuch in 1523 and a German-language New Testament in 1529.
When Luther’s books were banned at Cambridge, revolutionary-thinking students such as William Tyndale, a priest, theologian and gifted linguist, fled the university. Sympathetic to Luther’s views, Tyndale intended to translate the Bible into English from fresh sources following in the tradition of Erasmus. When denied approval by English Catholic Church authorities, he found financial support for his translation project through well-known Lollard Humphrey Monmouth, a wealthy cloth merchant, who provided him with food and shelter.
Word spread rapidly through academic circles that Tyndale had begun his translation. Tyndale was a linguistic genius. He was proficient in eight languages. Although he used Erasmus’s Greek New Testament as a foundation, his translation was thoroughly original. His intensive labor produced an English translation that was so astoundingly clear that common people could easily read and understand it. He had a true gift for transmitting the original meaning from one language to another. Much of his New Testament translation still appears as originally written in today’s King James Bible.
To complete his work, Tyndale had to go into hiding. His life was in constant danger. To get his Bible printed, he had to stay one step ahead of authorities working to stop him. In 1526, Tyndale’s New Testament was finally printed in Worms, Germany. Smuggled into England, the beautiful text, once in the hands of the people, became a sensation. Encouraged by such glowing success, Tyndale produced corrected versions of his New Testament and began working on the Old Testament.
Authorities could not short-circuit the demand for Tyndale’s work. They resorted to buying copies simply to burn them. The battle over the Bible became very bloody. Many, including Tyndale, who was betrayed by a friend, lost their lives fighting for the right to have the Bible in their native tongue. Tyndale was never able to finish the Old Testament. The calculated ecclesiastical destruction of Tyndale’s first translation of the New Testament was so thorough that only three copies survive. One is housed in the British National Library.
From Henry VIII to James VI
Eventually the Bible war in England became tangled with Henry viii’s battle to divorce his first wife. The severing of the English church from Rome had little to do with the Protestant Reformation fomenting in Europe. Henry wanted out of his marriage so he could produce a legal heir to the throne. If it meant that he become the head of the English church, so be it.
After winning his fight with Rome, the proud king soon realized that he faced an incredible dilemma. The nation was bitterly divided between Catholics and Protestants. He recognized that even the newly established English church was splintering into religious factions. By 1530, it had become clear that the English clergy could not prevent the spread of Tyndale’s translations and Luther’s tracts. Henry’s leading counselors urged him to produce a new official Bible to attempt to reunite the nation.
Henry laid the task at the feet of the English bishops. Yet because of deep disagreement with the project, the bishops delayed to start work on a new translation. By 1535 nothing had been done. So began a history of back-and-forth wrangling over the Bible within the English church. Multiple versions of the English Bible were produced by different feuding factions. Several translations incorporated glosses espousing the doctrinal viewpoints of the translators. So ensued a new kind of war, not one of Bible translation but one of Bible interpretation.
By the time James i (James vi of Scotland) came to the throne, two bloodstained centuries of war over Bible translation had taken place. As James ascended the throne, essentially that war was over. People were free to own and read the Scriptures. Now came the need to strip the English Bible of all interpretation. He especially wanted to get rid of the very popular translation known as the Geneva Bible. Full of Calvinist teaching, it stood contrary to his belief in absolute monarchy.
At the surprising suggestion of Puritan leaders (dyed-in-the-wool Calvinists), James personally convened the Hampton Court Conference on Jan. 1, 1604, to officially start the massive translation project. He set strict translation guidelines to ensure translator objectivity and that only the purest translation of the Scriptures was brought into English.
The Bible was divided among six teams of scholars; two each were set up at Westminster, Oxford and Cambridge. Not only did they use the best Hebrew and Greek texts, they took advantage of every available version to compare the variant readings. The basic text was completed in four years. Then the translation was subjected to two additional years of further checking. Then, to ensure the very best translation, in 1610 another team, two men from each of the original six teams, completed a final check.
After nine months of grueling proof, the authorized Bible was printed in 1611. Its contribution to Western society is without question. It has molded and shaped our thinking.
Many have died to give us the right to own, read and study this incredible book. Do we highly value that right? If we don’t, we could easily lose it. There is a coming, prophesied clash in religion (see Revelation 12:17 and 13:8). The Bible is certain to figure prominently in that war.
Considering that dark future, and after having 400 years of history with this book, we must ask ourselves a vital question: Do we see this as the revealed, sacred Word of a living God, or as a mere cultural icon—the work of men’s hands? If we see it as a cultural icon only, then it will soon take a place alongside the pretty things stacked on museum shelves, taken from other no-longer-existent nations that have been lost to history. Britain and America became great nations as this book grew to become the bestseller of all time. If we forget this book, could history forget us?
If, on the other hand, we see this remarkable translation of the Bible as God’s own words, then we will take it off our bookshelves, open it and search for the solutions to the problems that are about to overwhelm us.
God help us come to the right answer.