The year 1611. England.
As in Europe Catholics had clashed with Protestants who had clashed with Radical Reformers. England was unique among all the European countries, however. Where Scandinavia and the German speaking kingdoms of the Holy Roman Empire had sided with Luther, and Switzerland and surrounding areas along with Scotland in the north had firmly embraced Calvinism, King Henry VIII of England had departed from the church of Rome for personal and political reasons rather than spiritual. After the reign of his successor, Bloody Mary, it was Queen Elizabeth I who created a hybrid church, Protestant in ideology but keeping with the smoke and incense, bells and whistles of the Catholic style of worship. During her reign and the reign of her successor, King James VI and I, this balance seem to satisfy the populace--for a time.
King James you may have heard of, as his name graces a famous translation of the Bible in English. King James' Bible or the King James Bible or the Authorized Version is a standard text for many Christians in the English-speaking world. There are even those that say it is the only translation you should ever use. They are wrong, but that fact does not change the fascinating story of King James himself or of the King James Version of the Bible.
It's easy to point out the flaws of the King James Bible (KJV). But I still have a little place in my heart for the old thing. It is one of the translations I grew up reading, so I think there's a little sentimentality there, but there's also the part of me that loves the literature of the English language. This translation first saw the light of day when Shakespeare was getting long in the tooth and just before John Milton began writing his first tracts and sonnets. It's from that era between these two great poets, and has a rhythm and poetry all it's own. Also it mistranslates "wild ox" as "unicorn". There are a lot of downsides to the KJV, let's be honest.
But when I say it mistranslates, what did it mistranslate from? Well, buddy. Buckle-up. Because you see, I was homeschooled. It was a Christian curriculum I had, and the way it was set up I could pick a major for my high school studies. I picked the Bible. That's right. I majored in "the Bible" in high school. And over the last few days I've been giving myself the Wikipedia refresher course in "Where did the King James Bible come from?" And now I am going to tell you.
What is the Bible? Around 200 BC in Egypt a group of Jewish scholars translated their most important laws, poetry, philosophy, and history from their native Hebrew language into Greek. This produced a book known as the Septuagint. Keep in mind there was no printing press in those days and everything had to be written down by hand. So from one copy of the Septuagint to the other there were a few variations. This Septuagint became super popular in the Jewish community in the early days of the Roman Empire as Greek was commonly spoken by just about everybody whereas Hebrew had already become a specialized language. The Septuagint became the go-to source for members of the early Christian cults of the 1st century CE which were breaking off from the Jewish community to quote from and recite in their devotions and meetings. Over the centuries these Christians started to add some texts to this collection which came from their own sources. In the year 325 the Roman Emperor Constantine had converted to Christianity and wanted to know more about it's teachings. He found a diverse set of beliefs and groups teaching a whole bunch of different stuff, which didn't really set to well with him. So, he sent invitations to a bunch of different leaders of Christian groups throughout his empire and was like "hey get your asses together and make an official decision on what we believe". They all met in the city of Nicea and basically...invented Christianity. Around that same time, Emperor Constantine ordered 50 copies of the Scriptures to be produced and sent around so everybody would have a Bible to read and ... wait a minute...a Bible? did they just invent...? Yes, that's right. They invented the Bible that day by slapping 27 of their favorite Christian texts onto the Septuagint. Kinda sorta. And we have a couple of those Bibles still today, the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaitcus. Maybe. They might just be some nice copies of the Bible from that century that have survived. Nobody really knows. But what's really interesting to me anyway is that these oldest copies of the complete Bible don't have quite the same text as what we are used to calling "the Bible". Some books got kicked out, while some parts got added in. That's to be expected in an era before the printing press. Always remember that printing press. Now around 380 a fellow named Jerome got a commission to translate this "Bible" into a nice new Latin translation as folks in the Western part of the Empire were Latin speakers and the Greek was giving them a headache. Jerome's Latin translation was a big hit and soon called the Vulgate, not because it was vulgar but because the word vulgate in Latin means "most common". This Vulgate edition of the Bible was such a huge hit that it became the basis for all the singing, reading, studying and use in church services in the western part of Europe.
Sidebar: the Hebrew Bible (in Hebrew) was standardized around the 600s CE by a group of Jewish scholars called the Masoretes. As far as I've read this is the text used by Jews today, though I think they also consult the Dead Sea Scrolls as well. What are the Dead Sea Scrolls? They are pre-Septuagint copies of the Jewish scriptures written in Hebrew and Aramaic. They are the oldest incomplete manuscripts of Biblical material we have, dating to around 200 BCE. They were discovered in the 20th century and are still rocking the world of scholarship.
Other sidebar: Have you noticed the Bible is split up into chapters and verses? Like John 3:16? What is that? Well, originally there were no chapters and verses. This got really confusing because the Bible is long. Around the year 1200 it got so annoying that a teacher at the University of Paris named Stephen Langton came up with a system for finding everything. There were some other systems but his stuck.
Yet another sidebar: Churches in the eastern part of the Roman Empire spoke Greek so they just kept using the Septuagint and Greek New Testament. They never adopted the Vulgate and so their canon is a little different. In 1054 the church in Rome demanded it have all the authority and the Eastern churches were like "no way" and they broke up becoming the Eastern Orthodox Churches of today. There's also the Coptic churches in Ethiopia who have been doing their own thing for a while and have their own standard that they go by.
In the 1300s there was a guy in England named John Wycliffe. Wycliffe had come to believe that when Constantine and those guys were inventing Christianity, they added in a bunch of stuff that shouldn't be in there. Also he believed that over the centuries added on to Christianity was all this superstitious and fear-mongering stuff that didn't belong and got in the way of teaching people right from wrong and all that. He also believed that people should be able to hear the Bible in their own language and not Latin which they couldn't understand anyway. I mean imagine that, you want the people you're preaching to to actually understand what your saying. Seems like a no brainer to me. But John Wycliffe got horribly murdered by the Catholic Church for his work, and his followers (known as Lollards) went underground for fear of being killed too. I like Wycliffe because he was kind of this punk bastard who just totally flipped off the Man and did his own thing. Respect, Johnny. He's also pertinent to this essay as ideas similar to his about the Bible became more and more popular in the 1400s and his translation of the Bible is one of the earliest in English.
Wycliffe wasn't the only guy who wanted to get the teachings of the Bible out to people in their native languages. In the 1500s there was this priest named Martin Luther over in the German part of the Holy Roman Empire who also spoke out against the corruption and abuses in the church. He translated the Bible into German. But you know what he had that Wycliffe didn't? A fucking printing press, that's what. Every copy of his Bible was standardized. He could print a page, then another page and another 1000 and they would all be the same. 100% identical. This was absolutely revolutionary. I could go on but this would become a major teaching of many different Protestant churches, that Scripture should be the guide for the lives of believers over traditions, councils, and hierarchical decrees. Curiously, the Catholic Church did not come up with an officially official canon until 1546--I think largely because they never had to think too hard about it before Martin Luther came up with his standardized print version in 1534. Not only had Luther stated that the Bible is a higher authority than the Pope and priests and things, but he was able to provide a version of the Bible which did not fluctuate from copy to copy as hand written manuscripts do.
In 1539 King Henry VIII had commissioned and released the Great Bible, the first authorized English translation of the Church of England. His successor, Mary I Tudor tried to revert the country back to Catholicism by brute force in the 1550s. During this time Bible scholars fled England for the more tolerant Geneva, Switzerland. There they completed a new translation of the Bible into English from better sources than the Great Bible. Published first in 1560, then later in England itself in 1575, this "Geneva Bible" became a big hit. I mean like...super huge.
But King James' hated it. Every edition came with notes and annotations printed in the margins that he felt were too Calvinistic. He was the King of both England and Scotland, which put him in the awkward position of trying to keep two churches happy, the Church of Scotland (solidly Calvinist) and the Church of England (hybrid of Catholic and Protestant). James' had a fine line to walk. If he endorsed any one faction more than another the truce between the parties could be breached. The Geneva Bible, though extremely popular among the people, went a step too far in a direction James dare not venture. To unify his kingdoms and the churches in 1604 he called for a new translation to be produced.
The crown brought together all the best scholars who could read the original languages of the Bible. They translated the King James' Version from editions of the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint for the Old Testament. For the New Testament they translated from the same Greek editions that Martin Luther had used for his German translation.
And that is where the King James' Bible comes from. It was printed for the first time in 1611.
Initially the KJV didn't catch on. The Geneva Bible remained more in use, especially among the Puritans. After James died his son, Charles I, came to power and wasn't so popular as he thought he was. His policies and the demands of the Puritans ran at constant loggerheads eventually breaking out into civil war. Charles was executed in 1649 and the Commonwealth was declared. The leading general of the republican armies, Oliver Cromwell, was appointed -- not king-- but Lord Protector of a kind of theocratic republic. The Puritans ruled with an iron fist under the direction of Cromwell and his army which preferred the Geneva Bible to James'. The radical Puritans who left England in this time to cross the Atlantic and found the Plymouth colony also used the Geneva Bible. The soldiers of Cromwell's New Model Army even used pocket versions of the Bible with selections from the Geneva translation. Can you imagine living in a world where books went from being these giant tomes locked away in a monastery to being these portable dealios in your pocket? Oh wait...yeah. Smart phones.
In the 1660s with the Commonwealth a failure, and the monarchy restored, the Geneva Bible fell out of favor. As the 18th century bloomed, King James' Version of the Bible would come to reign supreme. It was the Bible of the British Empire. It became the book of the American frontiers where there was little time for frontiersman to read, but learn to read they did because they were called to read the Bible by their religions. The family Bible became a place to record births and deaths and marriages, a record for each family in empty rural places far from any city hall.
It's the version you'll find tucked in hotel rooms across America in 2017. The kind that sits pristine on the shelves of middles class American homes, sadly untouched, unloved and unread.
I say sadly as in my estimation, the stuff written in the Bible is pure mythology. It is a no good guide history and it's morals are questionable. But I have come to this opinion by reading it and by knowing its story, which to me is pretty fascinating. Like the contents of the Bible this story too is a high epic fantasy adventure. Except there were real people with real problems who wrote all this stuff down. I think about all the scribes who lost their eyesight making handwritten copies over the course of the Roman Empire and middle ages. I think of Gutenberg and his printing press and the media revolution it sparked. I think about all the people burned at the stake and shot on the battlefield for just trying to read the Scripture of their own religion. I think about the mostly forgotten names of all the scholars that put great brain strain into getting the wording of this to them most important of religious documents just right. I think about King James himself and the fact that he could never have guessed at what would become of his translation. The stuff in the Bible isn't real, but the story of how it has come down to us involves real people. Which is why it's a real shame people who claim to believe in it don't take the time to read it. It's like all the work of these people who struggled to make the world better the best way they knew how don't mean anything to these people who can't even take 10 minutes a day to work through the Bible in a year. I know it's long, but come on man. I did it and I don't even believe in it. Well, not now that I have read it anyway.
So now that you know some stuff about some things that I wrote about you have arrived at the end. I do hope people reading this go and read the Bible in whatever translation they like best, especially non-believers like me because it's hilarious and weird and kind of evil sometimes and has a lot of cultural influence. I will close with my favorite verse.
"Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest." Ecclesiates 9:10