n William Tyndale's version (1525), as in most subsequent versions, the Gospel of John begins, In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God: and the word was God. And in the beginning, the Word was in Hebrew, and then in Greek, and then in Latin, and then it was cobbled together into the English version we now know as the King James, or Authorized Version of 1611. But if 1611 seems to us like a long time ago, it is a relatively recent date in the Bible's long and tortuous journey from Jerome's Latin Vulgate of 405 to our own language. Benson Bobrick's book is about that journey.
Today we take for granted that the holy scriptures of a religious faith should be in the vernacular of the faithful. But as early as a documented case in 1233, the first question ever asked by an Inquisitor of a Ôheretic' was whether he knew any part of the Bible in his own tongue. It was the job of the Church to select what portions of the Bible should be known to the laity and how those passages would be interpreted. For with ready access to any document and the ability to read it, human beings begin to ask questions, and inevitably to interpret what they read. And that confers a certain freedom that brings with it an implicit challenge to established authority. The Inquisitors were rightly concerned about who had been reading what.
The story is as much a political and social history as it is a religious and linguistic one. One of the biggest and most persistent struggles was between those of Puritan inclination and those with more traditional views. The Pilgrims who came to American shores were of course Puritans, and their influence in our own history and thinking is difficult to overstate. Bobrick explains how the quest for freedom of religious belief led almost inevitably to the quest for personal freedom. And it is on this basis that he makes his claim, difficult to refute, that the translation of the Bible into the English language was of greater historical significance than its rendering into any other vernacular. For the English Bible had given its readers the idea of the equality of man. . . . It was the idea of the sacred and equal importance of every man, as made in the image of God. Bobrick skillfully manages to entice the reader to accompany him on what turns out to be a fascinating and often surprising journey.
Carl Smith teaches at the Blair School of Music of Vanderbilt University.