The Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. calls the King James Bible “the most influential and widely read Bible for more than 350 years.” That version of the Christian holy book – sometimes called the KJV – was originally published in 1611. It includes sayings that are well known among English speakers, such as “Let there be light,” and, “Beware of false prophets.”
But a Canadian writer says even people who know the King James Bible or its sayings likely do not know how it came to be. Ruth Magnussun Davis says its roots are in a little-known book called the Matthew Bible. She says the name hid the fact that the Matthew Bible’s main author was a disputed reformer named William Tyndale.
“That beautiful poetic language in the New Testament is mostly William Tyndale’s. It’s his voice speaking to us down the centuries.”
Davis recently published a book called The Matthew Bible: That Which We First Received. She says after she learned about the Matthew Bible, she wanted to tell others.
“I came to faith later in life and I left my law practice to work with the Matthew Bible when I realized how beautiful it was… It’s a gentler, sweeter, and richer, and clearer Bible than the later ones.”
The story begins
Davis says that, in a way, the story of the Matthew Bible begins in England in the 1400s. At that time, the Roman Catholic Church ruled the country and the lives of those who lived there. But very few people could read or understand the Latin Bible the Catholic Church used.
In answer, several experts wanted to translate the Bible into English so everyday people could understand it.
But Church officials objected. Strongly. They passed laws saying that anyone who translated the Bible into English without official permission could be burned.
In the early 1500s, one man began translating it anyway. His name was William Tyndale. He was a priest – a Catholic religious official – but he also questioned some of the Church’s ideas. Tyndale believed that the Bible should guide Church teachings, and that believers should be able to read it in their own language. The BBC history website notes that “these sorts of ideas were closely associated with Martin Luther and other controversial Protestant religious reformers.”
To avoid punishment, Tyndale soon fled to the European continent.
There, says Davis, Tyndale completed the first English version of the New Testament – the part of the Christian Bible that tells about the life and teaching of Jesus.
“It was smuggled back into England. And pirate printers began making their own versions. And it was a very popular book. However, King Henry VIII promptly outlawed it and he banned all of William Tyndale’s writings. And the authorities on the continent were seeking Tyndale, they wanted to capture him. And he did all this translation work while he was a fugitive, on the run from the authorities. Working in hiding and in great poverty.”
In addition to the New Testament, Tyndale was able to translate some of the Old Testament – the part of the Christian Bible mostly relating to the ancient people of Israel.
But then a friend betrayed him to the authorities. Tyndale was arrested for the crime of heresy – speaking out against accepted religious teaching. In 1536, officials strangled Tyndale and burned his body.
The Matthew Bible is born
But the story does not end there. Two men connected with Tyndale continued his efforts. One, named Myles Coverdale, completed Tynsdale’s translation of the Old Testament. He added a translation of the New Testament and published the first full English Bible in 1535.
Another man, named John Rogers, used Tyndale’s and Coverdale’s work to make another version of an English Bible. Then Rogers added his own notes, comments, study aid, and a kind of Bible dictionary, says Ruth Magnussun Davis. Davis argues it was, the first English study Bible.
John Rogers’ version was printed in Antwerp and then shipped to England. The title page claimed it had been written by someone called Thomas Matthew, likely to disguise Tyndale’s involvement.
What’s more, the Bible was dedicated to King Henry VIII, the same king who had outlawed all of Tyndale’s writing.
Nobody knows why John Rogers chose the name Thomas Matthew says Davis.
The work became known as the Matthew Bible.
By this time, King Henry VIII had decided he wanted to give the English people a Bible in their own language. He approved both the Coverdale Bible and the Matthew Bible for the church.
"The world's most beloved Bible"
Here the story of the men behind the Matthew Bible takes two very different turns. John Rogers went on to continue to challenge the authority of the Catholic Church. He was sentenced to death and, in 1555, burned at the stake.
Coverdale, however, became friendly with King Henry VIII and some of his top officials. When Catholics objected to some of the notes and comments in the Matthew Bible, Coverdale was asked to revise it. The new version was called the Great Bible – but it was really the Matthew Bible under a new name, says Davis.
Two more major revisions followed. They were called the Geneva Bible and the Bishops’ Bible. But both were criticized because of the authors’ religious and political points of view.
So King James I of England called for a committee to get together and agree on a translation. In the early 1600s, that committee produced the King James Bible. That text has been “the world’s most loved Bible for centuries,” says Davis. More than 80 percent of it are the words of William Tyndale, taken from the Matthew Bible.
"Bought with blood"
Davis says that several things make the first Matthew Bible special.
“For one thing, it’s the only English bible that’s bought with blood. William Tynsdale and John Rogers paid for their work with their lives. They worked for no reward, for no money, for no fame, but solely for the love of God’s word.”
Yet perhaps most important for Davis is the kind, merciful language of the Matthew Bible. In some places, she says, the Matthew Bible offers a different meaning than the King James and other Bibles modern Christians may know. For example, Davis points to a passage from the book of Proverbs about raising children.
The King James Bible urges parents to punish their child and not to stop, even if the child cries. If you stop, the King James Bible says, the child will not learn.
But the Matthew Bible is closer to the original Hebrew, Davis says. In Coverdale’s translation, the passage says to punish the child, but not too severely: “For great wrath brings harm.”
In other words, Davis says, a child will learn only hate and despair from needlessly severe treatment. You can teach him more later, when he has had time to grow.
Davis says comparing the translations of the Bible helped her understand her religion and grow more deeply in faith.
“When I came to faith late in life, I wasn't expecting the harshness that I thought that I saw, and then when I found the Matthew Bible, and I found William Tyndale, and he’s so full of love, it's like, wow, I’ve come home!”
I’m Caty Weaver.
And I'm Jonathan Evans.
Kelly Jean Kelly wrote this story for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
[Editor's note: This story has been updated to credit Coverdale, not Tyndale, with the passage about punishing the child, but not too severely.]
Words in This Story
prophet - n. a member of some religions who delivers messages that are believed to have come from God
faith - n. belief in the existence of God : strong religious feelings or beliefs
practice - n. to have a professional medical or legal business
translate - v. to change words from one language into another language
associated - adj. to think of one person or thing when you think of another person or thing
controversial - adj. relating to or causing much discussion, disagreement, or argument
smuggle - v. to take or bring something secretly
authorities - n. people who have power to make decisions and enforce rules and laws
revise - v. to make changes especially to correct or improve
reward - n. money or another kind of payment that is given or received for something that has been done
merciful - adj. treating people with kindness and forgiveness
wrath - n. extreme anger
despair - n. the feeling of no longer having any hope
harshness - n. having the quality of being severe or cruel