Miles Coverdale (1488-1569) had been an Augustinian monk. But in 1528 he became a Lutheran Pastor. He wanted to see the Bible, the complete Bible, in English and began translating in 1534. He relied on the works of earlier translators like Tyndale. One of the more interesting aspects of his efforts to get the Bible printed was his political sense. He won favor with influential men like Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More, and wrote an elaborate dedication to King Henry VIII. He also had the support of Henry’s wife, the evangelically minded Anne Boleyn, and mentioned her in his dedication. Coverdale set a standard for all future Protestant English Bibles by relegating the Apocryphal books of the Old Testament to the end, with a note that these did not have the authority of the canonical books. In the end Coverdale’s Bible met a sad political fate. When King Henry divorced Anne, it became apparent than He would never authorize Coverdale’s Bible. Thus it would never achieve the widespread use that later translations would gain. Want to know more about the history of the English Bible? I recommend A Visual History of the English Bible by Donald Brake.
The decades leading up to 1861 included extensive and ever more heated debates about the meaning of the Bible with respect to slavery. Public debates were held, articles were written in periodicals, tracts were distributed, all to shape public opinion for or against slavery. Even secular writers were inclined to support their arguments by referring to the Bible. Mark Noll summarized the issues in his book, America’s God, “Despite the protests of many at the time, the question was never just the nature of the Bible as such but always and everywhere the nature of the Bible-as-read in the history of a Protestant (and white) America, where during the previous century a massively democratized effort had been carried out to convert the new nation for Christ.” (395) Though the issues have changed this continues to be the nature of America. We are a religious nation that wants to justify our social and political positions with sanctions from the Bible. The current culture wars over abortion and homosexual marriage, for example, are heavily involved with the “Bible-as-read” by people deeply concerned about these and like issues.
A friend who read the previous post called my attention to a NY Times article from Dec. 22, 2011. It is called “The Book of Books: What Literature Owes the Bible.” It is a thoughtful piece worth a look. From Dostoyevsky to Faulkner, Dante to Melville, their insights are biblically connected. It is possible to say that their literature could not have been written, at least not as it was, without the Bible. Yet, our current educational system neglects the book of books. How sad. Perhaps there is afoot in the land a new appreciation for the Bible as/and literature. Regardless of one’s personal convictions, this would be a good thing.
Some years ago when I was enrolled in a graduate English course on the writings of Hawthorne and Melville, I was shocked by how little my fellow graduate students knew about the content of the Bible. These were English majors, a discipline that should know how pervasive the Bible is in the vast literature written in English. When we came to the famous opening sentence of Moby-Dick (“Call me Ishmael”) the class did not recognize the biblical allusion, nor did they see how pervasive biblical references are throughout that book. To see this vividly just find a copy of A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature, by David Lyle Jeffrey, General Editor. Open it to any of its over 900 pages, and you will be greeted by the rich influences of the Bible on literature written in English. Not only will you learn about English literature, but also about the Bible.
Preceding the King James Bible by 51 years, the Geneva Bible was the book brought to America by early settlers, especially the tens of thousands of Puritans that landed on these shores in the 17th century. The fact that King James sponsored the Authorized Version was enough in itself to keep Puritans away from that translation. King James was a mortal enemy to those who were discontent with the English church, and sought to purify it. The Geneva Bible (1560) was what today we would call a study Bible. It was packed with marginal notes reflecting the beliefs of the Protestant Reformation, especially as articulated by those Christians called Reformed. The King James version would eventually surpass the Geneva Bible in popularity, but that would come later. No translation from the Hebrew Old Testament, or the Greek New Testament is perfect. Translation is not an exact science. People today who think the King James Version is the only worthy translation need to look again at history.
The Bible has shaped American history and experience more than any other book. It is virtually omnipresent in either the foreground or background of American life. It is the most studied book in America, and there can be no adequate account of our national life that ignores its influence. But this influence varies in degree and type because the book must be, and always is, interpreted. Everyone’s impression of the Bible’s content is through the filter of the Bible-as-interpreted. In this blog I will explore the Bible’s influence from Puritanism to Post-modernism. Since I am beginning this in an election year, I will be watching for, and commenting on, the Bible in contemporary politics. Come back often, and join the conversation.