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The Bible in English

Category Articles
Date December 9, 2004

The Calvin Theological Journal appears twice a year (Calvin Theological Seminary, 3233 Burton Street SE, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49546-4387, USA: edited by Lyle D. Bierma, for $23 a year. It can be ordered on line http://www.calvinseminary.edu/pubs/journal.php

In the current November 2004 edition is the following review which many will find fascinating. It is reprinted here by permission.

The Bible in English: its History and Influence by David Daniell. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. Pp. xx + 899. $40.00 hardcover.

David Daniell’s The Bible in English cannot be called a definitive work, but it certainly is massive. Daniell discusses ancient biblical texts and editions, translation theory and practice, specific Bible versions, Bible printing and binding, distribution and economics, the influence of the Bible on literature and national life in the British Isles and America (by which he means the United States), Psalm singing, Puritans, and contemporary Christian music. Add to that forty-seven pages of notes, and one has a hefty book.

Some histories of the English Bible describe pre-1611 translations as more-or-less preliminary versions and treat them rather perfunctorily. The build-up is to 1604 when the decision was made to create a new translation, which was later billed as the incomparable King James Bible or the Authorized Version. In such histories, one can expect separate chapters on King James’ role, the translators, their translation principles, the wonderful language they employed, and the long-lasting influence of this Bible.

Daniell’s approach and emphasis are often different. As he has shown in previous works, his translation hero is William Tyndale. In describing the splendid aptness of the English “plain style,” he credits Tyndale more than the KJV translators. He devotes considerable attention to Tyndale in the chronological sequence of translations, but, more importantly, he continues to use Tyndale as a touchstone for all later versions. He demonstrates how later translators borrowed heavily from Tyndale (and when they did not, they should have!).

When discussing religious history, Daniell also spars with several opponents. The most significant disagreement is with Eamon Duffy and other scholars, who have portrayed late medieval England as a flourishing Roman Catholic country that remained largely intact in the sixteenth century. Daniell, on the other hand, proposes that the Catholic faith was not healthy, but “unique in Northern Europe in its narrowness and terrifying restrictions” (110) and that Reformed influences had taken hold firmly in the country. Daniell also takes issue with scholars of (cultural) history who have widely ignored the presence and influence of the Bible in English translation. “To the knowledgeable, reading such history is like looking at Stalinist photographs from Moscow in the 1950s: something that had formerly been present had been airbrushed out” (129).

Other disputes are interesting but probably less important. Daniell does not like contemporary Christian music, American worship styles, and those folks who revere the KJV. He mocks scholars and readers who count the KJV as the only permissible version for very dubious reasons, summed up by the opinion that “if the English of the Saint James Bible was good enough for Jesus, it is good enough for me “(429). There still are such believers, but, I surmise, in ever-smaller numbers and probably not worth all the attention paid by Daniell.

Daniell’s evaluation of specific versions is worthy of note. Let me cite a few appraisals. Tyndale’s translation (as noted above) elicits virtually unstinting praise. The next great translation was the Geneva Bible (1557 and 1560). Although frequently ignored in modern scholarship, Daniell devotes two chapters to the Geneva Bible. Part of its greatness comes from its reliance on Tyndale, but the translators themselves were great biblical scholars and fine stylists. The (in) famous footnotes to the text are defended by Daniell. Although a small number of the notes may have been hyper-Calvinistic, most of them simply explained biblical truths as held by all adherents of the Protestant Reformation. The influence of the Geneva Bible was vast, with the production of 140 editions in one century. It was the Bible of Shakespeare and other literary authors, and of the early Puritans in both England and America. The Bishops Bible (1568) on the other hand, was largely a political product, and its Hebrew work “a botch” (435).

Daniell does, of course, deal at length with the KJV (chaps. 25-36). He admires some of its merit (mostly when they followed Tyndale and the Geneva Bible) but sometimes damns with faint praise in that the revisers “have many a good moment” (430). Or again, compared to the Geneva Bible, the KJV was “often badly unhelpful” (347). He sums up his evaluation as follows: ‘The work, undertaken without enthusiasm, limped forward, dragging with it the fetters of the poorest previous English version, the Bishop’s Bible. Yet, the hand of God must be seen: some fine work was done; and Tyndale’s New Testament and the Genevan Old Testament, in spite of official impediments, did shine through” (436).

Most of Daniell’s discussion deals with the spread and influence of the KJV, which he credits mostly to commercial forces. Again, a few facts will illustrate this influence. Between 1660 and 1710 there were no new translations in England, but the KJV went through 237 editions and in effect buried the Geneva Bible. In the next fifty years another 200 editions were published. (Edition in most cases meant a reprinting of the 1611 KJV.)

The numbers for America are even more staggering. By 1810, there had been over one thousand printings. In the early nineteenth century; Matthew Carey was the supreme Bible printer; he published sixty editions in many different formats, many lavishly illustrated. Later, the American Bible Society became the premiere publisher; for example, between 1829 and 1831 they distributed half a million Bibles. Publishers tried to outdo each other with special editions. The Harper’s Illuminated Bible, with sixteen hundred engravings, weighed in at thirteen pounds. Among the influences that the Bible had, Daniell includes the impact on all kinds of literature and on the Great Awakening. Another fascinating influence is the role of the Bible in the faith of southern slaves, especially as it found its way into their spirituals. Although Daniell cites the impressive numbers and admits that the Bible had a great impact on American life, he is also skeptical: “The Bible was revered as a commodity; a bought thing, rather than received with spiritual hunger for the soul’s salvation” (657).

Chapters 37-39 cover more recent times when the KJV finally had to face competition. The English Revised Version (1870-1885) was especially important for two reasons: (1) its use of new biblical textual scholarship and (2) its “challenge to the hegemony of the KJV” The new version predictably called forth severe reactions; J.W. Burgon called it “tasteless, unlovely; harsh, unidiomatic, servile without being really faithful” (700). Nevertheless, its initial sales were enormous.

Daniell deals more briefly with later translations. The American Standard Version (1901) was produced mostly as a reaction to the English Revised Version because the British had slighted both American translators and American idiom. Its influence was not widespread. (Calvin Theological Journal readers may be interested to know that for many years the largest purchaser was the Christian Reformed Church because it approved only the KJV and the ASV.) Daniell approves of the Revised Standard Version (1952) and the New Revised Standard Version (1990), though I think that he underestimates the sales of the latter; Daniell wonders if the New International Version was necessary and credits its popularity especially to “niche marketing.” His evaluation is vintage Daniell:

“Hostile commentators with electron microscopes detected in [the] NIV a theological tincture invisible to the naked eye, but in fact there is little in [the] NIV to frighten the horses. Its devoted sectarian use across the world, even to the point, distressingly, of bigotry; must be because true believers are restrained from looking at other versions. To be ‘washed in the blood of the Lamb’ in some communities one must, if not holding a large floppy-backed KJV, be seen to use [the] NW.” (757)Daniell has least regard for Eugene Peterson’s The Message, with its “vacuous uplift” (762).

Daniell’s closing seems strange. He explicates the parable of the prayers of the Pharisee and the Publican, with its harsh censure of the Pharisee. Daniell then seems to draw the conclusion that many (most?) modern translations minimize or cover up this censure (773-74). I’m afraid I don’t follow the logic.

I began by commenting on the massive proportions of The Bible in English. Much of what Daniell has to say is worthwhile and often fascinating, but a stronger editorial hand would have pruned more rigorously and would have persuaded Daniell that not all his research notes needed to be included in this book. The discussion on the Puritans’ healthy outlook on sex may be true, but why is it discussed here? The same goes for his strictures against contemporary church music, the over-detailed discussion of Jonathan Swift, the “exposure” of the Book of Mormon, extended treatment of the Pre-Raphaelites, and many other floating paragraphs.

Even though the author is at times too loquacious, the book is excellent. It is a treasure of information about Bible translation and especially about the Bible in English translation and its remarkable influence. The author writes vigorously (at times pugnaciously – he dismisses one scholarly opinion with “Fiddlesticks!” (826, n. 70) and never makes us lose sight of the fact that the (English) Bible is the priceless gift of God’s Word.

(A final complaint concerns the publisher’s decision about the bibliography – “Place of publication is London unless otherwise stated.” Moreover, publishers’ names are not listed either. A dense decision.)

Harry Boonstra, Theological Librarian Emeritus at Calvin College and Seminary.

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