Fascinating Stories about the Bible

by William E. Paul
During the long course of translating, printing and distributing the Bible over the past five hundred years, many interesting, and even fascinating stories and incidents have transpired. Some are amusing, some even bizarre, and many tell of some unusual or intriguing circumstance connected with the Bible. In some cases there is a gripping story or strange twist behind a particular Bible, involving a famous person or an historical figure. The following accounts are only a few of the many that could be told. May they help us to better appreciate that wonderful book we call The Holy Bible.

The diligent work of William Tyndale, translator of the first printed English New Testament, was met with extreme opposition as he attempted to circulate his translation throughout England. By 1529, only a few years after its completion, Tyndale’s brother John, was actively engaged in distributing the banned New Testament, was arrested for his involvement in this concerted effort to disseminate the historical copy of the Scriptures. Upon being apprehended, John Tyndale was shamefully paraded through the streets of London, mounted on his horse, backwards, with copies of his brother’s New Testament translation draped around him and a sign hanging from his neck declaring, “I have sinned against the king.”1

While the issuance of or preference for a particular Bible translation is hardly a factor in today’s political arena, that has not always been the case. More than once a Bible translation was burned by members of the establishment, out of disdain for what was regarded as an unauthorized endeavor. That all seems nothing short of amazing when compared with today’s general apathy toward the Bible by governmental authorities. But near the end of the sixteenth century the strife between Catholic and Protestant factions in England sparked a dramatic dialogue between English authorities and an heiress to the English throne. According to her “last words,” reported to have been spoken by Mary, Queen of Scots, as she was about to be executed, one historian records, “On the night before her execution at Fotheringay Castle in 1587 she swore her innocence, taking a solemn oath on a copy of the Rhemes New Testament (official Catholic Bible of the day). The Earl of Kent, who was present, declared the oath invalid because the Bible was not the proper translation. Her spirited reply is said to have been, ‘Does your lordship think my oath would be any better if I swore on your translation, in which I do not believe?’” 2

In the seventeenth century the venerable King James Version, which was destined to become the universally accepted Bible for English speaking Protestants for the next three hundred years, met with bitter criticism immediately upon its completion. Just as other translations had faced their detractors, both before and after the King James Version, this renowned patriarch of Bible translations incurred vicious attacks from its very inception. Cries of heresy and accusations of a corrupt text arose, even from among scholarly church leaders. One such person, Dr. Hugh Broughton, a distinguished scholar himself, sent the following critique to an attendant of King James I, “The late Bible…was sent to me to censure (i.e., critique); which bred in me a sadness that will grieve me while I breathe, it is so ill done. Tell His Majesty that I had rather be rent in pieces with wild horses, than any such translation by my consent should be urged upon poor churches…the new edition crosseth me. I require it to be burnt.”3 Broughton even authored a book against it titled A Censure of the Late Translation for Our Churches. (In fairness, however, some historians point out that Broughton may have been a little disgruntled over not being appointed to the panel of translators).

The story of the English Bible coming to America is fascinating indeed to those interested in American religious history. It is reported by one researcher that the first English Bible to be used on the shores of the American continent was the Bishop’s Bible (translated in England in 1568). It is said that chaplains accompanying Sir Francis Drake used that version during Anglican Church services in California in 1579.4

But the Geneva Bible (translated in 1560, by a group of English scholars who had settled in Geneva, Switzerland) holds a special distinction in the annals of American history. It was this translation that was brought to America aboard the Mayflower in 1620 by the Puritans. The very copy which had belonged to Governor William Bradford is now housed in the museum of The Pilgrim Society of Plymouth, Massachusetts.5

The first Bible translation printed in America, however, was not even in the English language. It was printed in the Natick dialect of the Algonquin Indians of Massachusetts. John Eliot, celebrated missionary to the Northeast Indians, served as translator of this pioneer American Bible. It was printed at Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1663 with the able assistance of an Indian interpreter and printer named James Printer. The last person capable of reading this Bible, whose language is now extinct, was an elderly Indian named James Trumball, who died in 1897.6

Some of the early Bible translators were also dedicated religious reformers, who used their translations to help promote the cause they so ardently advocated. Among the most notable were John Wycliffe, the first man to translate the Bible into an early form of the English language in 1380-1384. Martin Luther translated the Bible into German in 1522-1534, and it became a prominent factor in the Protestant Reformation in Europe. William Tyndale’s translation, the first printed English New Testament in 1526, was instrumental in stirring up religious fervor in England. While it never realized a very wide circulation, John Wesley, father of the Methodist movement, made a translation of the New Testament in 1745. And Alexander Campbell, an early preacher among churches of Christ in America, produced a new translation in 1826. It seems significant that each of these men, whose leadership had a profound effect upon the Christianity of their day, both in Europe and America, also found the time to produce a translation of the Scriptures.

In the early days of our nation great American statesmen displayed a remarkable interest in Bible translations. Benjamin Franklin, of Declaration of Independence fame, once felt the need for a revision of the King James Version Bible. He wrote to a printer suggesting that a modern speech translation in English be produced as an alternative to the Authorized Version, which even then was fast becoming obsolete in much of its terminology. He even submitted a sampling of his suggested translation of a few verses from the book of Job. Unfortunately, it is not known whether or not his suggestion was acted upon, or if it was, what translation resulted from it. 7

Another statesman of that era, the third President of the United States Thomas Jefferson, actually put together somewhat of a “Bible” of his own. He did none of the translating but rather took excerpts from the Four Gospels containing the life and teaching of Jesus, pasting them in a scrapbook. The excerpts were clipped from New Testaments in Greek, Latin, French and English (KJV), then mounted side by side and the entire volume bound in red leather with gold-stamped letters on the cover. The portions Jefferson selected omitted all references to the supernatural elements of Jesus’ life and miraculous ministry, apparently due to his belief that only the ethical teaching of Jesus was valid. The original copy is now located in the Library of Congress. Several reprint facsimile editions have been produced this century and may still be available today.8

A major factor that has influenced the production of various translations has been the translators’ concern for accuracy in rendering the original language text into current terminology. A case in point is the rendering of the Greek word which most versions translate as “baptize.” Nathaniel Scarlett’s New Testament, published in London in 1798, is regarded as the first one to use the word “immerse” in place of “baptize.” Since that time a number of translations have followed the practice of translating the Greek verb (“immerse”) instead of merely transliterating it (“baptize”). Not realizing the persistence of Bible translators in such matters, Simms, after citing nine “immersionist” translations, commented on the 1928 edition of George LeFevre’s “immersion” New Testament, “We have possibly seen our last ‘immersion’ version.”9 A quick glance at the English translations of the past sixty years shows, however, that perhaps a dozen more have used “immerse” instead of “baptize” since then, and no doubt many more will do so in the future.

The first English Bible with, an American imprint, as far as can be conclusively determined, was the 1782 edition of the King James Version produced by Robert Aikten, a Philadelphia book publisher. Its most unique feature was that it was (and still is) the only Bible ever actually recommended to the American reading public by the United States government. In 1781, when Aitken announced his intention to publish this edition, he petitioned the United States Congress to give its support to the project. After investigating the matter, Congress responded to Aitken’s request by authorizing him to include in the Preface of the Bible the following words: “They (referring to Congress) recommend this edition of the Bible to the inhabitants of the United States.”10 How governmental attitudes toward the Bible have changed over the past 200 + years!
Charles Thomson was elected secretary of the Continental Congress and later served as first secretary of the United States Congress. Upon his retirement in 1789 he devoted himself with fervor to extensive Biblical studies. The culmination of his exacting work was the first English translation ever made from a Greek Septuagint text of the Old Testament. This important translation, made in 1808, was begun through the motivating influence of one of Thomson’s esteemed friends, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote him urging that he undertake the task.11

Normally, you would think that the person who attempted to translate the Bible would have the highest moral character. Certainly, you would expect him or her to be above reproach in reputation as well as being a Biblical scholar of some rank. But such was not the case with one Abner Kneeland. It seems the American court system did not so regard him in 1836, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court upheld the conviction of Kneeland on charges of blasphemy, growing out of his “unorthodox” views on religious matters. Even the fact the Kneeland had produced a translation of the New Testament (containing both Greek and English) in 1822 seemed to have had little bearing on the decision of the court. He was duly sentenced to serve three months in prison for his “crime.”12

The name of Nathan Hale is well known to Junior High students taking the required course in U.S. History. What is not generally known, however, is that the famous, oft-quoted (“I regret I have but one life to lose for my country”) American patriot once applied for a copyright on a New Testament translation (a KJV conformed to Griesbach’s text), which was published anonymously in 1828. Since the name of the translator appeared nowhere in the book, it was thought for some time that it was the work of Hale himself. It was not until considerably later, after further investigation had been made, that the true identity of the real translator was discovered. It turned out to be the work of a Harvard University professor (1831-1839), James G. Palfrey. Apparently he was a friend of Hale, in whose name the copyright papers had been filed.13

The name Noah Webster stands out predominantly in the literary history of our nation. What person doesn’t say “according to Webster when appealing to the correct definition or spelling of an English word? The reason is because of this man’s two principal books setting the standard for the English language in our early history. He authored The American Spelling Book (1783) and The American Dictionary (1806), making his name the authoritative “last word” for correct spelling and word meanings, and establishing the foundation for American grammar and lexicography. But, what is less known is that Webster’s painstaking study of spelling and word meaning led him to be very concerned over the numerous obsolete words and phrases he found in the King James Version Bible of his day. These, along with a number of grammatical and printer’s errors he had observed in the then current editions of the King James Version, led him to undertake a revision of that Bible in 1833. In removing or correcting some 150 such defects, Webster declared his translation to be “the most important enterprise of my life.” And this from the man whom most people know only for his dictionary! But surprisingly, Webster’s Bible translation (actually revision) met with discouraging indifference from the general public. This became a source of keen disappointment to the man whose name became synonymous with “dictionary” nearly 170 years later. In fact, his Bible was produced to sell for $3 when published in 1833, but because of such poor sales, Webster instructed the publisher to reduce the price to $2 in 1836 and eventually to $1.50.14 Of course, today a copy would bring as much as 100 times its original price!

To most people the realm of translating the Bible belongs exclusively to men. But, over a dozen women could be cited as either producing a translation, directing a translation project or serving on a translation committee, with most doing a very commendable job.

Julia E. Smith, however, holds the distinction of being the only woman ever to have translated the entire Bible from Hebrew and Greek into the English language by herself! After seven years of arduous labor she completed the task in the mid-1800s, only to see the manuscript remain stored in her house for twenty-four more years. It was finally published in 1876 by the American Book Company of Hartford, CT, with the cost being met by Smith herself, even though a banker had told her she was wasting her money. She replied to him, “I will receive more satisfaction using my money to produce a Bible than buying a dress with it.” (Either book publishing was very inexpensive or dresses were exorbitantly costly in her day!) Being an early advocate of “women’s rights,” Smith possessed the utmost confidence in her ability to produce a viable translation worthy of use by everyone. After stating “I have great confidence in myself,” she then boldly asserted about the language of Old Testament Hebrew, “I do not see how anybody can know more about it than I do.” Shortly after the Bible was published, it was examined by Harvard professor Edward James, who exclaimed, “I am astonished that you could get the translation so correct without consulting some learned man.” (We can only imagine how Julia took such a chauvinist remark). Less than a year before her Bible was published, a letter from Julia and her sister Abby, written to a friend July 20, 1875, summed up Smith’s suffragist motivation for accomplishing an achievement of such magnitude, “We thought it might help our cause to have known that a woman could do more than any man has ever done.” (She probably hadn’t known about Anthony Purver, 1764, Robert Young, 1863, and possibly a couple of others who antedated her work by producing complete Bibles from the original languages).15

The first major Bible translation to challenge the preeminent position of the King James Version was the English Revised Version (1881-1885). English speaking believers the world over seemed to be waiting eagerly for just such a revision. Two hundred and seventy years had passed since the KJV was produced. Finally, after years of careful work by noted scholars (some say there will never be another assemblage of such renowned Biblical scholars for any project) the New Testament portion was completed in England in 1881. Upon its reaching America the first 118,000 words of the text were telegraphed from New York to Chicago to initiate the project of publishing the entire New Testament. The balance of the text was sent by carrier, arriving in Chicago on the night of May 21, 1881. The next day the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Times newspapers carried the complete text of the New Testament in the English Revised Version, certainly the greatest single publication feat in Bible translation history.16

Countless other stories of how the Bible was translated, printed and distributed and the often daring and courageous efforts of intelligent and dedicated men and women could be told. May we all appreciate and esteem those who have spent their time, money and their very lives in making the Scriptures accessible and understandable to the rest of us. May we not only acquire and cherish the Bible for what it has meant to countless millions, but read and study it for what it can do in the lives of people living today…yes, even to us!
1. Wilson, Derek, The People and the Book (Barrie and Jenkins Publishers, London, England,
1976) page 50.
2. Dearden, Robert R., The Guiding Light on the Great Highway (John C. Winston Co., Philadelphia, PA, 1929) page 223.
3. Bruce, F. F., History of the English Bible (Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 1978) page 107.
4. An Outline of Christianity (New York, 1926, Vol. III) page 260, as quoted in Simms, P. Marion, The Bible in America (Wilson-Crickson, New York, NY, 1936) pages 72-73.
5. Simms, page 90.
6. Simms, pages 190-191; Dearden, page 262.
7. Simms, pages 230-231.
8. Simms, pages 264-265.
9. Simms, pages 247, 255.
10.  Simms, pages 125-127.
11.  Simms, pages 143-144.
12.  Simms. pages 116-119, 152-153.
13.  Simms, page 153.
14.  Simms, page 146; Pope, Hugh, English Versions of the Bible (B. Herder Book Company, St. Louis, MO, 1952) page 547; Hills, Margaret T., The English Bible in America (American Bible Society, New York, NY, 1962) page 123.
15. Simms, pages 149-150; Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, The Woman’s Bible (Coalition on Women and Religion, Seattle, WA, n.d.) pages 150-152.
16.  Simms, pages 212-213.