Bishops' Bible

The Bishops' Bible was an English translation of the Bible produced under the authority of the established Church of England in 1568. It was substantially revised in 1572, and this revised edition was to be prescribed as the base text for the Authorized King James Version of 1611.


The thorough Calvinism of the Geneva Bible (not so much displayed in the translation, which was acknowledged to be an excellent one, but in the marginal notes), offended the high-church party of the Church of England, to which almost all of its bishops subscribed. They associated Calvinism with Presbyterianism, which sought to replace government of the church by bishops (Episcopalian) with government by lay elders. However, they were aware that the Great Bible of 1539 – which was the only version then legally authorized for use in Anglican worship – was severely deficient; in that much of the Old Testament was translated from the Latin Vulgate, rather than from the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. In an attempt to replace the objectionable Geneva translation, they circulated one of their own, which became known as the Bishops' Bible.

The promoter of the exercise, and the leading figure in translating was Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury. It was at his instigation that the various sections translated by Parker and his fellow bishops were followed by their initials in the early editions. For instance, at the end of the book of Deuteronomy, we find the initials "W.E.," which, according to a letter Parker wrote to Sir William Cecil, stands for William Alley, Bishop of Exeter. Parker tells Cecil that this system was "to make [the translators] more diligent, as answerable for their doings. Unfortunately, Parker failed to commission anyone to act as supervisory editor for the work completed by the various translators - and was too busy to do so himself, and accordingly translation practice varies greatly from book to book. Hence, in most of the Hebrew Bible (as is standard in English Versions) the tetragrammaton YHWH is represented by " the Lord", and the Hebrew "Elohim" is represented by "God". But in the Psalms the practice is the opposite way around. The books that Parker himself worked on are fairly sparingly edited from the text of the Great Bible, while those undertaken by Grindal of London emerged much closer to the Geneva text.

The bishops deputed to revise the Apocrypha appear have delivered very little, as the text in these books reproduce that of the Great Bible largely unchanged. As the Apocrypha of the Great Bible was translated from the Latin Vulgate, the Bishops Bible cannot strictly claim to have been entirely translated from the original tongues.

The Bishops' Bible was first published in 1568, but was then re-issued in an extensively revised form in 1572. In the revision a number of changes were made to the New Testament in the direction of more "ecclesiastical" language (e.g. introducing the term "charity" into I Corinthians 13), but otherwise to correct the text more in line with that found in the Geneva Bible; and in the Old Testament, the Psalms from the Great Bible were printed alongside those in the new translation – which had proved impossible to sing. From 1577 the new psalm translation was dropped altogether; while further incremental changes were made to the text of the New Testament in subsequent editions. The Bible had the authority of the royal warrant, and was the second version appointed to be read aloud in church services (cf. Great Bible, King James Bible). However, it failed to displace the Geneva Bible from its popular esteem. The version was more grandiloquent than the Geneva Bible, but was harder to understand. It was also physically enormous, with many full-page illustrations – the second edition being bigger than either the earlier Great Bible or the subsequent King James Bible. It lacked most of the notes and cross-references in the Geneva Bible, which contained much controversial theology, but which were helpful to people among whom the Bible was just beginning to circulate in the vernacular. The last edition of the complete Bible was issued in 1602, but the New Testament was reissued until at least 1617. William Fulke published several parallel editions up to 1633, with the New Testament of the Bishops' Bible alongside the Rheims New Testament, specifically to controvert the latter's polemical annotations. The Bishops' Bible or its New Testament went through over 50 editions, whereas the Geneva Bible was reprinted more than 150 times.


The translators of the King James Version were instructed to take the 1602 edition of the Bishops' Bible as their basis, although several other existing translations were taken into account. After it was published in 1611, the King James Version soon took the Bishops' Bible's place as the de facto standard of the Church of England. Later judgments of the Bishops' Bible have not been favorable; David Daniell, in his important edition of William Tyndale's New Testament, states that the Bishops' Bible "was, and is, not loved. Where it reprints Geneva it is acceptable, but most of the original work is incompetent, both in its scholarship and its verbosity".

Unlike Tyndale's translations and the Geneva Bible, the Bishops' Bible has rarely been reprinted. The most available reprinting of its New Testament portion (minus its marginal notes) can be found in the fourth column of the New Testament Octapla edited by Luther Weigle, chairman of the translation committee that produced the Revised Standard Version.

The Bishops' Bible is also known as the "Treacle Bible" because of its translation of Jeremiah 8:22 which reads "Is there not treacle at Gilead?" (This rendering is actually found in several earlier versions too.) In the Authorized Version of 1611, "treacle" was changed to "balm".


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