The history of the Bible in English and America’s Christian roots

Part 2 of an interview with Rod Gragg,
Author of The Word: The History of
the Bible and How It Came to Us

The Word: The History of The Bible and How it Came to Us (WND Books) offers a fresh and intriguing history of the Bible, written with the same compelling narrative writing and in-depth research that has earned award-winning historian and author Rod Gragg acclaim for his works on the Holocaust, the Civil War, the faith of America’s founders, and other historical topics. He now focuses on the history of the Bible with the practiced craft of a historian and the respect of a believer who adheres to the inspiration of Scripture.

The Word provides a sweeping panorama of biblical revelation, preservation and transmission as well as the background story of those who devoted their lives to translate and spread the Word of God.  Written in a style that is engaging and approachable for all readers, not just historians and Biblical scholars, The Word follows the history of Christianity, and unfolds its unforgettable story from ancient cuneiform to contemporary English-language translations. The Word is also enhanced by more than 75 relevant illustrations and photographs.

Q: The history covered in The Word extends from the invention of writing to modern-day English translations of the Bible. What are some of the inventions or technological advancements that helped most with the spread of the Bible?

Throughout the ages, believers have been quick to apply technology to sharing the Bible. The book reports the impact on Bible publishing by the Gutenberg moveable type press, for instance, which was invented in Europe about fifty years before Columbus landed in America. The first true book printed on it was the Bible (the Gutenberg Bible), and that was just the beginning. It revolutionized printing and made mass-produced Bibles affordable on the eve of the Reformation, which reemphasized a Bible-based faith. It was like the perfect storm, and it resulted in an explosion of Bibles in common languages.

The Word makes note of one often overlooked technological development that had a major impact on the spread of the Bible—that was the extensive network of roads built by the Roman Empire. Alexander the Great had spread the Greek language through much of the world with his conquests in the fourth century BC, so there was a common form of mass communications as well by the first century AD. The combination of Roman roads and the Greek language was another perfect storm, propelling the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout much of the world during the era of the early church.

Q: As modern-day Americans, we may take our English-language translation of the Bible for granted. Some people had to pay with their lives in order for us to have the Bible in English, didn’t they?

That’s correct. I devoted an entire chapter to William Tyndale because his is such an extraordinary story. He was responsible for the first mass-produced Bible in English and paid for it with his life. Church officials in England tried to suppress it but couldn’t, though they did manage to burn one shipment of Bibles outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. When I’ve visited there, I tried to imagine that scene—burning Bibles outside the church. Tyndale’s famous dying words were “Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes!” And his prayer was answered: the same monarch who had persecuted him later authorized publication of an English-language Bible that was greatly inspired by Tyndale’s translation.

And there’s John Rogers, a close friend and associate of Tyndale’s. He followed-up on Tyndale’s work and translated the Matthew Bible. He was later executed, leaving behind a wife and ten children.

Q: Your book follows the Bible from antiquity through its English translations—who were the most important translators responsible for the English Bible we have today?

John Wycliffe kindled the flame with his English-translation more than a century before William Tyndale did his work. The Tyndale Bible was coming off the press in Germany in 1525, when authorities stopped the presses. However, Tyndale did not give up, and managed to get a pocket-size New Testament published and into England in 1526. He worked with the original languages and use of the English language was elegant. Many of the phrases remain part of the English language today, although most people don’t where they came from. Phrases such as “the apple of his eye,” “eat, drink and be merry,” and of course, “the truth shall make you free.” His work was very important and significantly influenced English translations that followed.

His colleague, Miles Coverdale, published a complete English-language Bible in 1535. It was based on Tyndale’s New Testament, and included an Old Testament based on a variety of earlier works. That was followed by the Matthew Bible, which was published by Tyndale’s friend John Rogers, who used Tyndale’s revision of the New Testament and his Old Testament work. In 1539, King Henry VIII, who detested Tyndale, officially authorized a pulpit Bible for the churches in England that was ironically influenced by the Tyndale Bible. It was published by Miles Coverdale and was known as the Great Bible.

The Word also charts the remarkable story behind the Geneva Bible (brought to American by the Pilgrims) and the Bishops’ Bible (authorized by Queen Elizabeth I). Eventually, the Bishops’ Bible was replaced by another authorized edition: the King James Bible. 

Q: You write about the immense popularity of the King James Bible. However, King James was not very friendly to those who proposed what became the King James Version, was he?

No, he did not like the English Puritans, and they’re the ones who asked for a new English translation of the Bible that resulted in what’s known as the King James Bible. The Puritan movement arose among the faculty and student body at Cambridge University in the 16th century, and while they did not want to break away from the Church of England, they did want to reform it from what they believed were unbiblical practices. They thought that they might have friend on the throne when James I succeeded Queen Elizabeth, but they soon learned otherwise. King James was anything but a Puritan.

He did agree to meet with Puritan leaders at what became known as the Hampton Court Conference in 1604. They asked for numerous reforms to the Church, and he rejected all of them. However, he did agree with their request for a new English translation of the Bible, but for his own reasons. Out of that came the King James Bible which, of course, would become the most beloved English language Bible in history. It could have become known as the Puritan Bible (it was their idea after all), but since James I authorized it, it became famous as the King James Bible.

Q: How did a biblical worldview shape the culture, law and government of Colonial America? Was the intention of the founding fathers for the United States to be a Christian nation?

It’s no accident that the Declaration of Independence, our founding national mission statement, begins by stating that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness.” The original English colonies were founded in the wake of a sweeping revival of Christianity in England (the English Reformation), and the English colonists who established the 13 colonies brought those core values with them when they settled in America. There was a great amount of theological diversity: Congregationalists in New England; Baptists in Rhode Island; Dutch Reformed in New York; Presbyterians in New Jersey; Lutherans in Delaware; Quakers in Pennsylvania; Catholics in Maryland; Anglicans in Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia; and Jewish communities in New York, Philadelphia and Charleston. A lot of diversity, but they were all people of the Book, and the Judeo-Christian or biblical worldview was firmly the foundation on which American culture, law and government developed.

As for whether the founders intended to establish a Christian nation, it’s clear that they did not intend to establish a theocracy (a national, government-run denomination like the Church of England), but they did intend to establish government, laws and culture based on the Judeo-Christian worldview, on biblical principles. The evidence for that is overwhelming and unescapable. John Adams, who was instrumental in the crafting of the Declaration of Independence went on record, to explain that the only principles that united the founding fathers in achieving independence were what he called “the general principles of Christianity.”

During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress repeatedly proclaimed national days of “fasting, prayer and humiliation” as well as days of national thanksgiving. They also established a national seal that features the all-seeing eye of God with the statement “He has approved our beginnings.”

At the first presidential inauguration, George Washington set a precedent by adding the words, “so help me God” to the oath of office, then concluded the official ceremony by bending down and kissing the open Bible. All of this and more are in the concluding chapters which trace the impact of the Bible on the birth of the American nation.

Q: There’s a little-known story in your book about Congress and the Bible. How did the United States Congress come to endorse what became known as the “Congressional Bible?”

It is a little-known story, and it reveals the importance of the Bible in early America. In 1777, during the Revolutionary War, a group of clergymen alerted the Congress to a shortage of Bibles in the new United States due to interruption of trade with Britain. Congress responded by voting to authorize a version of the Bible and import 20,000 copies from a printer in Holland or Scotland for use in America. But, before Congress could appropriate the money to do so, the British army captured Philadelphia (which was the nation’s capital at the time) and Congress had to evacuate.

Afterwards, Congress did not have the money to print the Bibles, so it did not appropriate any funds. However, a Philadelphia printer named Robert Aitken published the first complete English-language Bible printed in America, and after the war, Congress officially endorsed it. So, the Aitken Bible became known as “the Congressional Bible.”

Q: What do you think is the most important thing for readers to glean from The Word: The History of the Bible and How It Came to Us?

I think that it’s astounding when you think about it: the Bible is composed of 66 books compiled over the course of 1,500 years or more in three ancient languages by a diverse body of some forty writers (scribes, kings, prophets, poets, fishermen and others), yet compiled throughout the ages, it has a single unified theme that can be summarized in a one verse: John 3:16—“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, and whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

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