In our last article we considered Wycliffe and his translation through to the time of the Council of Constance, 1414-1418, at which Council Hus was burnt at the stake as a heretic and Wycliffe was posthumously judged to be a heretic and his body exhumed and burnt in Lutterworth, England. We will now look at the period from that Conference through to the time of Henry VIII – the period from 1400 to 1547. As we do this we must keep our attention on the hand of God working in these events so that His Word might go out into all the world. Until the Bible was available in the common language the majority of European people had their minds shackled in the superstition and blasphemous teachings of the “Man of Sin”.

As we commence looking at the developments of this period it may be best to have a visual outline of some of the historic events that were steps that led to the printing of the King James Bible (refer chart overleaf).

The Council of Constance 1414–1418

To grasp the situation of the period we must look firstly at the state of the Papacy – it was morally and structurally utterly corrupt and deficient. The Council of Constance, which was mentioned in the last article, was called at the instigation of Sigismund, the King of Germany, and not by the Papacy itself. Having the Church divided between three popes all claiming to be sitting in the chair of ‘St Peter’ was bringing ridicule upon the Church, and making Catholic Europe dysfunctional as countries supported different popes for their guidance politically and spiritually. This period was called The Western or Papal Schism, with the three popes being Benedict XIII in Avignon, Gregory XII in Rome and John XXIII in Pisa. So, as mentioned, it was a temporal monarch, the King of Germany, that had to say to the Church, ‘Enough is enough!’ It seems amazing that at this Council the Church could so clearly anathematise Wycliffe and Hus as heretics, but could not resolve their internal problem as to who was really the ‘Vicar of Christ on earth’!! This does not say much for Papal Infallibility! The three were finally replaced by a newcomer, Martin V, as Pope and they were declared “Anti popes”. The following comments about Pope John XXIII indicate the moral state of the Church: “Undeniably secular and ambitious, his moral life was not above reproach, and his unscrupulous methods in no wise accorded with the requirements of his high office.”

Obviously the Church had sunk to one of its lowest ebbs morally, functionally and ‘spiritually’, if one could use such a term of the ‘Harlot System’ so totally condemned in Revelation. Being obviously rotten to the core it was ready to be challenged, and if it did not reform itself from within then it would provoke a reformation in religious matters from without. And the best way that could be done was to give people the Bible in their own language so they could evaluate the Church’s doctrinal claims. We shall see as we proceed that there were those who soon recognised that the prophecies of Daniel 7, 2 Thessalonians and Revelation were clearly speaking of this apostate Roman Church.

How did people hear the Word of God in past ages?

One of the unique facts of our age is that we all have in our homes a Bible, or possibly several different versions of the Bible, that we can readily pick up and read. It does not take much investigation to realise what a unique privilege we have which most generations in history did not experience. How then did people in previous ages hear the Word of God?

In Israel Moses commanded that the Law was to be read every seven years at the Feast of Tabernacles: “Gather the people together, men, and women, and children, and thy stranger that is within thy gates, that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear the Lord your God, and observe to do all the words of this law” (Deut 31:10–13). In Jehoshaphat’s day he sent out the Levites and priests and they “had the book of the law of the Lord with them, and went about throughout all the cities of Judah, and taught the people” (2 Chron 17:9). In the days of Nehemiah, Ezra “opened the book” and then the Levites “read in the book in the law of Goddistinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading” (Neh 8:5- 8). People were expected to retain in their memory what they heard and continually think upon it. This is what David is referring to when he spoke of the man whose “delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night” (Psalm 1:2). For a man to meditate on the Word of God he needed to retain it in his memory so that at any time he could recall it and mentally ‘talk it over with himself’ as the word “meditate” indicates.

In New Testament times the Word of God was read in the synagogue each sabbath (Acts 15:21; 13:27). Jesus himself demonstrated this: “as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read” (Luke 4:16). From one sabbath to the next the people remembered what was read so that they could think upon it and discuss it during the week.

Have you ever considered that when quotations were made from the Old Testament either by the Lord, or in the speeches in Acts and the Epistles, in most instances the place being cited is not given? From this we can only conclude that when the Scripture was read it was committed to memory. It had to be so as they didn’t have a Bible sitting on their lap in the talks as we have today. Thus we see the deeper meaning of David’s words – “I will meditate in thy precepts, and have respect unto thy ways. I will delight myself in thy statutes: I will not forget thy word” (Psa 119:15-16).

Maybe it is time to take serious stock of our mental discipline with the Word of our God. Do we ever commit the Word of God to memory? – or do we think it a thing impossible to do? Today we have concordances to look up quotations, electronic versions on our computer with powerful search engines to scroll through material and a multitude of other ‘tools’ that have possibly left us bereft of having the Bible “written in our hearts”. Brother Carter in Delight in God’s Law speaks of the Waldenses of the 1200–1300s, a Protestant group living in exile in the Italian Alps, who were condemned by the Catholic Church as heretics and burnt or slain. One of their grosser ‘sins’ was that they memorised very large sections of the Bible, the New Testament in many cases, and then taught their family to do likewise. Brother Carter in the same article wrote: “One may be left wondering whetherour modern facilities for Bible study may not have some compensating losses. We may read widely but lack intensive study. We may avoid some losses by exercising our memories by learning say a chapter a week for a period. It can be done.”

Gutenberg, the ‘Man of the Millennium – 1455

With the foregoing in mind we come to Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz in Germany and his invention of mechanical movable type and the printing press. His invention has been widely regarded as the most important step forward in the last millennium. The first book Gutenberg printed was the Bible, the Latin Vulgate, in 1455. It should be acknowledged that printing using movable type had been invented in China in 1041. However Gutenberg was the first in Europe to achieve this. It is difficult to establish the exact number of Bibles still printed each year but statistics from Wycliffe International, the Society of Gideons, and the International Bible Society suggest above 62,000,000 are printed annually. Bibles are virtually available in all languages today so that most people can, if they wish, read of the wonderful works of God in their native tongue (Acts 2:8,11).

Printing, like many technological advances, has both positive and negative uses. It has greatly benefited education and the dissemination of necessary or useful information in today’s world. However, it has also been extensively used to satisfy the carnal mind through the printing of magazines, novels, and advertising literature of an ungodly nature. Disciples of Christ can so easily be distracted from the sober issues of life set out in God’s Word by allowing their minds to be exercised with things that replace having God’s ways written in their hearts. It is always wise to ask ourselves the question, “Is what I am reading of real value in developing in me the man of God?” In God’s providence printing was invented, so allowing God’s Word to be made available to all at an affordable price in the common language. Do we appreciate this blessing, thank God daily for it, and give serious time to reading and meditating on God’s Word? Paul’s guidance to Timothy was, “Till I come, give attendance to reading.”

The fall of Constantinople – 1453

This monumental event in history brought to an end the Eastern Roman Empire and caused a loss of power for the Eastern Orthodox Church. But more importantly we will look at the effect this event had on advancing the translation of the Bible into English. In 1054 came The Great Schism when the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) excommunicated the Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church who resided in Constantinople and officiated in the Hagia Sophia (Greek = ‘Holy Wisdom’) Cathedral. The Eastern Orthodox Church had many Greek manuscripts of the Scriptures and their worship was normally conducted in Greek. Obviously these Greek manuscripts were copies closer to the original of the New Testament, which had been written in Greek, than the Latin translation in the Latin Vulgate. Many of the scholars associated with the Eastern Church were skilful Greek students, not only in reading the Scriptures but also in the Greek classics which they had in their possession.

In 1453 Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmed II, who subsequently ordered the Hagia Sophia to be converted into a mosque. In order to save many of the valuable Greek manuscripts, both of the Bible and Greek classics, scholars took them into the West. This move to the West caused Greek culture and learning to infiltrate the universities of Europe and England. The effect of this has a very important bearing upon how we obtained our English Bible, and in particular the King James Authorised Version, as we will see. But let us now have a brief look at the Holy Roman Empire and what was happening in the West.

The Holy Roman Empire, Spain and England

We may not at first appreciate the great influence exerted by Spain in driving England into Protestantism, which in turn drove events so that the Authorised Bible was published at the instruction of King James in 1611. Maximilian l of the Habsburg Dynasty was the Holy Roman Emperor from 1493 to 1519. Those familiar with Elpis Israel will remember the section where Brother Thomas, in dealing with Revelation 16:13 and the Frog as a heraldic symbol, has a drawing of the shield of Clovis. Those who have visited the cenotaph tomb for Maximilian l in Innsbruck, Austria, will recall the 23 bronze statues around the cenotaph and among them Clovis, King of the Franks, with his shield with three fleurs-de-lis and three frogs on it. The influence of the Catholic Habsburg dynasty was widespread across the whole of Europe.

Maximilian married his son Philip to the then Crown Princess Joanna of Castile (an area of Spain) in 1498, and thereby established the Habsburg Dynasty in Spain. Philip died before his father Maximilian and so Philip’s son Charles succeeded Maximilian as Holy Roman Emperor in 1519, and thus ruled both the Holy Roman Empire and the Spanish Empire simultaneously through to 1556.

It was in this period that Spain began to expand its territory and wealth through Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America in 1492. Gold, spices and many other items began to flow from the West Indies across the Atlantic into Spain and from there into Europe, thus strengthening the financial power of Spain for a time. Such a strong power was certainly one to be united with in the world of that day. So England under the Tudor Kings moved to make itself a friend of that power. And what better way than through intermarriage! The chart above will assist in understanding the intermarriage web woven between Spain and England.

Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon

As mentioned, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian had his son Philip marry into the royal family of Spain, marrying Joanna of Castile. Now Joanna had a sister, Catherine of Aragon, who was therefore the aunt of Charles (Philip and Joanna’s son). This is the Charles who became King of Spain and also Holy Roman Emperor.

Henry VII first arranged for Catherine to marry his eldest son Arthur, with the political aim of strengthening an affinity with Spain. The marriage of Prince Arthur to Catherine of Aragon took place in 1501 when both were 15 years of age. Arthur however, was frail and died six months into the marriage. After Arthur’s death Catherine was subsequently married to his brother Henry in 1509 – the year of his accession to the throne as King Henry VIII of England. He was 18 and she 24. Catherine was one of the most beautiful women in Europe, it is reported, and moreover one of the most astute and intelligent. In 1507, at the age of 22, she also held the position of Ambassador to the Spanish Court in England, becoming the first female ambassador in European history. The marriage was designed to bring an affinity between England and Spain under the umbrella of the Pope and Roman Catholic authority. Man proposes – God disposes, as we shall see!

The marriage of Henry and Catherine depended upon the Pope granting a dispensation for the marriage, because Catholic Canon Law forbade a man to marry his brother’s widow, and in this case Catherine was the widow of Arthur, Henry’s brother. The Pope granted the dispensation and now, with the marriage approved, the serious business of providing a male heir was high on the agenda of King Henry. Things did not go as planned. Catherine gave birth to four sons, but they all died at birth. She did have one daughter, Mary, who later reigned over England as Queen Mary. Because of the deaths of his four sons Henry came to believe that he was receiving judgment from God because he had married his brother’s widow.

We will leave this marriage that was coming to grief for the moment and consider what was happening in Western Universities now that Greek had been seriously introduced into education there through the fall of Constantinople.

Spain, England and the Holy Roman Empire united by marriage

The family tree (see across) shows the very close connection that developed by marriage between Spain and England. The umbrella under which all this took place was the Papacy and the Roman Catholic Church.

Erasmus – the astute Greek scholar

Erasmus (1466–1536) was Flemish, from northern Belgium. He was orphaned and had been brought up in a monastery but acquired an intense dislike for monks and their lifestyle. So when opportunity arose he left the monastery and studied in Paris and then Oxford. He was influenced strongly by humanism, a form of cultural and educational reform taken up by scholars, writers, and civic leaders who are today known as humanists. This thinking developed through the influence of the Greek scholars who had come from the East, and was a response to the challenge of medieval scholastic education with its jargon and strict formal practice. We could summarise the form of structured teaching of the Latin studies of the Bible in universities by using the words of Christ to the scribes and Pharisees: “This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.”

Until this new form of thinking entered the universities, woe betide any student who questioned the interpretation of the Bible according to the tradition of the Catholic Church. Erasmus’ skill was to mockingly challenge the formalism of the Roman Church, though he himself did not initiate the Reformation. Such scholars as Luther and Tyndale were influenced by his works. One of his writings published in 1511 was Praise of Folly in which he satirically attacks the traditions of European society, of the Catholic Church, as well as monasticism and popular superstitions. Another book he wrote was called Handbook of the Christian Soldier (1503) and was translated into English a few years later by the young scholar William Tyndale. Such writings as these made Erasmus one of the most published writers of the time.

However his monumental work, which was so important in the translation of the Bible into English, was his critical analysis of the Greek texts of the New Testament and the compilation of a reliable text which was printed in 1516. This great step forward enabled students to obtain a copy and analyse the Bible message itself, rather than just follow the Church’s traditional interpretation of the meaning of passages from the Latin Vulgate. For example, Erasmus noted that the text, “Upon this Rock I will build my church”, did not refer to the Pope only, but to all Christians! This was really alarming Bible interpretation as far as the Church was concerned, for Erasmus was encouraging students to think the text through and not just accept the Church’s traditional teaching.

Erasmus lived through the Reformation period and he consistently criticized some fundamentalCatholic beliefs. In relation to clerical abuses in the Church, Erasmus remained committed to reforming the Church from within. His ‘middle road’ approach disappointed and even angered many Protestants, such as Martin Luther, as well as conservative Catholics. But the fact remained – he had put out a Greek New Testament and thus opened up the way for translation from the original language of the New Testament into the common tongue of the people, an enormous leap forward towards our King James Version.

Some Reflections

It may seem in this article that we have digressed into history rather than following through how the King James Version came about. However what we have tried to show is that the old system of the Catholic Church with its pompous, decadent and immoral ways was becoming more and more exposed as it was challenged. The fall of Constantinople caused the Greek text to arrive in the West – a wonderful step towards an accurate translation of the Word of God. Universities were affected by a spirit of enquiry and independent thinking, and scholars were adopting these methods to examine the old traditions and interpretations that had been held sacrosanct for centuries. And into this mix Henry VIII was now on the throne of England and soon to be at loggerheads with Spain, the Pope, and a number of his wives. Yet through all this, events were steadily being shaped by God leading to the publication of the most widely read and respected version of the Bible – our King James Version. We will look particularly at the role of Henry VIII and the work of Tyndale and others in the next article.