When you are three generations deep in church ministry, you are sure to possess Bibles of all versions, sizes, and levels of wear and tear. My first was a small, white leatherette King James Version. It was lightweight, bendable, and it rode our yellow Thomas school bus to Anderson Elementary, Dillard Junior High and Bartlett Yancey High. It’s edges are now dry and yellowing, but I still feel a sense of awe when I touch the pages. This is my story, my history.
While most of you know this already, allow me a few highlights of the journey this Book has taken. While scholars do not agree on every historical detail, all agree on the enduring, transformative power of it.
From the oral traditions of the Hebrews to the Biblical scrolls and the apostolic letters, the gospel has withstood generations of adversity. Following the atrocious persecutions of Christians during the first and second centuries, the Edict of Milan was signed by Constantine and Lucinius around 313, proclaiming religious freedom in the Roman Empire. Despite unprecedented hardships, the church increased dramatically and by 324, Constantine the Great had converted to Christianity.
In an effort to unify the early Christian communities (and perhaps wield some control over the new religion), Constantine commissioned the Council of Nicaea in 325. All 1,800 Bishops were invited to address some of the key issues of discrepancy. Out of this meeting came the familiar ‘Nicene Creed’ and the eventual compilation of the books that we know as the Holy Bible.
By approximately 500 A.D, the entire Bible had been translated from Greek into more than 500 languages. By 600 A.D., priests of the organized Church decided that they, alone, should interpret the scriptures, enabling them to manipulate what the people believed. Since only priests were educated in Latin, they declared the scriptures in any other language illegal and punishable by execution. This allowed them to sell indulgences and to absolve sins in exchange for money. The church had officially entered the Dark Ages.
Throughout this period there emerged remnants of the true Christian faith, groups who opposed the organized Church and who worked in secret to return the language manuscripts to the people. In 1385, Oxford scholar, professor, and theologian John Wycliffe translated the scriptures from Latin to produce the first English Bible. These were handwritten transcripts, painstakingly produced.
In Germany, more than a century later, Martin Luther railed against the sale of indulgences by the Church, insisting that true justification came only by faith. On October 31, 1517, he delivered his famous Ninety-Five Theses, which condemned the deceptive doctrines. Excommunicated from the Church, he completed a German translation of the Bible shortly afterward, written in a vernacular that was easy for the people to understand.
William Tyndale produced the first English translation from the Hebrew and ancient Greek texts. Because of the invention of the printing press, His translations were widely distributed and played a key role in the Reformation. He was arrested for heresy in 1535 and executed the following year. Our own King James Version drew significantly from Tyndale’s work.
In the 1450s, The Gutenberg Bible became the world’s first major book ever produced on a printing press. In 1847, James Lenox of New York City purchased one of the Bibles, making it the first to arrive in our United States. It is said that the officers at the U.S. Customs House removed their hats upon seeing it.
The third official English translation of the Bible was commissioned by King James VI of Scotland and I of England in 1604. Forty-seven scholars translated the Old Testament from Hebrew and the New Testament from Greek, resulting in our familiar King James Version.
The passage from the oral traditions of the early Hebrews to the white leather versions of our youth has been long, yet this remains our starting point. For it is through this inspired, spoken, written, translated, printed Word that we know Him. This story is our story. This is chapter one; ground zero for what we believe.
The price of a complete Gutenberg Bible today is estimated to be between 25 and 35 million dollars. Considering the incalculable cost, that is a bargain.