Revision of “Holy Word” Through the Centuries

Four hundred years ago, in 1611, King James of England commissioned fifty-four scholars to write a new English translation of the Bible using Medieval Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, and instructed the scholars to paraphrase the original texts and avoid literalism.  The scholars were also instructed to use as their literary model the poetic style of the contemporary William Shakespeare as closely as possible. 

The reason for this project was an attempt to resolve the many disputes about doctrine that prevailed due to all the contradictions that existed in various “holy” editions such as the Great Bible, the Geneva Bible, the Bishops Bible, etc.  The scholars’ completed work was destined to become the most popular version of “scripture” in history.

But controversy and disagreement over what constituted “holy word” could not be so easily resolved.  There remained the dispute as to which old writings should have been considered worthy enough to include as doctrinal in the King’s version.  In layout, the King James version followed the Protestant example and separated the Apocrypha into an appendix.  Thus the inconsistencies would continue with some Bibles containing the Apocrypha in the appendix and others keeping the book as part of the holy word.  Catholic canon, for example, include some books, and some Protestant versions also include at least three books that are also recognized in Eastern Orthodox tradition, but which are not recognized by the Vatican.  Why God does not bother to clarify his word to everyone has never been explained by any of the many Christian divisions. 

The Tyndale influence:   Around 1520, ninety-one years before the King James version of the Bible was published, William  Tyndale, an Oxford scholar, had a burning aspiration.  He wanted to translate the New Testament so, as he said, “every plough-boy might read it.”  Tyndale hoped to gain approval and sponsorship for this project from the bishop of London, Cuthbert Tonsall, but the bishop was much more concerned with political maneuverings.  Tyndale was strongly influenced by the troublesome Martin Luther, and the ecclesiastical authorities had made note of that fact.  Tyndale thus became aware that his ambition to translate the New Testament in plough-boy English was putting him in danger.  Fortunately, a wealthy cloth merchant believed such a translation was admirable and provided Tyndale with the means to travel to Germany.  There Tyndale visited with Martin Luther, and enrolled at the Wittenberg University.  The printing of his translation was begun at Cologne in 1525, but it was stopped by an injunction obtained by Johann Dobeneck, a former dean at St. Mary’s Church in Frankfurt.

Tyndale then carried his project to Worms where 6000 copies were printed between 1525 and 1535.  Copies were smuggled into England, but Archbishop Worhan and the aforementioned Bishop Tonsall got word of the shipment and had the books seized and burned.  Attempts were also made to seize Tyndale, but he fled to Marburg and the protection of the landgrave of Hesse, a hub of Protestant Reformation.  Later, however, officers of the emperor captured Tyndale at Antwerp in May 1535.  He was imprisoned at Vilvorde, Belgium, and although Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, attempted to save him, Tyndale was tried for “heresy,” degraded from holy orders, and on October 6th he was strangled in the name of Jesus and his body burned. 

But the intercourse of religion and politics was as tangled and devious in the 16th century as it is today in the USA.  Back in England, Thomas Cranmer, who had been nominated to the vacant archbishopric of Canterbury by King Henry VIII, encouraged the King to approve an English translation of the Bible.  Commissioned to do the work was a man named Miles Coverdale.  In a sense, he vindicated Tyndale, for Coverdale’s “translation” was practically a word-for-word copy of Tyndale’s work.  That “translation” was published in 1535.  Thus William Tyndale’s influence upon English literature endured, chiefly through the use made of his translations used in the later King James version of the Bible, 1611.   Indeed, it has been estimated that over sixty percent of the English version of the New Testament was reclaimed from Tyndale’s work. 

As for Archbishop Cranmer, who had been nominated to that post by King Henry, his policies leaned increasingly toward Reformation.  He forswore allegiance to the pope, had the pope’s name stricken from every prayer-book, pronounced the king as the new head of the English church, and abolished many festivals of the Roman Church.

Much later in 1553, however, Mary Tutor ascended the throne (Mary I, daughter of Henry VIII by his first wife), and began her reign by restoring the authority of the pope and abolishing the religious innovations of her father.  Because papal jurisdiction had been re-established by Mary, Archbishop Cranmer’s attempt to allow the common people to read the Bible for themselves met with charges of heresy.  Thus he was tried as a heretic, publicly degraded of his archbishopric and excommunicated, and then burned to death by the self-appointed representatives of God. 

Earlier examples of revision:   Back even further, c. 392, “saint” Jerome began to render the Bible—Old and New Testaments—into Latin spoken by the people.  This version is known as the Vulgate.  Having assembled the Vulgate from Greek and Hebrew into Latin to be used exclusively by the Catholic Church, any coded meaning in the original verses then became nearly impossible for the common people to discover.

“Saint” Jerome felt so obligated to his task that he set about touching up the original unsatisfactory ending to the book of Mark (written c. 55-60, and re-edited c. 70-80) by appending it with two variations that had circulated among the people from the early second century.  The so-called long version is not much appreciated by the Catholic Church, the reason being that Mary Magdalene is presented as the first person to witness the risen Jesus.  In the earlier book of Mark it was implied that the first witness of the miracle of resurrection was meant to be the head of his church.  Such a situation contradicted the church claim that Peter (Simon/Cephas) was designated by Jesus to establish his church.  So the second short version does not have Mary Magdalene being the first to witness Jesus’ resurrection, and says only in 16:9, “But all the things that had been commanded they related briefly to those around Peter.  Further, after these things, Jesus himself sent out through them from the east to the west the holy incorruptible (Pauline) proclamation of everlasting salvation.”

The two arbitrary conclusions of the book of Mark provided by Jerome have inspired “faith” divergences that would have amazed Jerome.  Probably the most repulsive to him would be the misinterpretation of five words used in verse 18 of the last chapter:  “They shall take up serpents…”  and elevate that idea into a practice of handling venomous snakes as a testament of their faith and devotion. 

 The revisionist merry-go-round of religion and history has been an endless indulgence.  In the 14th century John Wycliffe decided that Jerome’s revision needed revision. This was the timeframe of the English poets Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland whose writings impressed the commoners as well as the literary crowd with their strong imagery.  An interesting sidelight of Wycliffe’s attempted updating of the Vulgate was that his work was not appreciated by the self-proclaimed “true believers.”  After Wycliffe’s death the indignant doctrinaires exhumed his body and burned it for his imagined breach of Jerome’s holy word.

Unfortunately, revision of holy word remains a runaway merry-go-round, and today we are presented with the Revised Standard Version of holy word, and Paul’s quotes and many more lines have been re-adjusted to support the needs of those who seek temporal power.

There have been many more tamperings with “holy” scripture than these few examples.  It is certain, therefore, that we retain little of any true divinity that might have been in scriptures which have been repeatedly re-designed for prejudicial indulgence.

King James Bible in the 21st Century:   Despite the countless revisions imposed upon “holy word” for around 2000 years, the 400-year old King James edit job still tops the popularity poll.  And now the US Senate, which apparently has no pressing national problems to legislate, is asked to consider a resolution for the national celebration of the 400 years of its influence on the nation.  The resolution falsely avers that the “…teaching of Scriptures have inspired concepts of civil government contained in our founding documents and subsequent laws.”   The alleged purpose for this resolution, according to its sponsors Robert Aderholt (R. Ala.) and Nick Rahal (D. W. Va), is to express “…gratitude for the influence it has bestowed upon the United States.”   That happens to be a religious endorsement, which is totally disallowed by constitutional mandate!   But then that little technicality of our democratic government is never respected by religious zealots.

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