A Bible! A Bible!
January 1987

“A Bible! A Bible!” Ensign, Jan. 1987, 22

“A Bible! A Bible!”

How the Lord’s word has gone forth “unto the ends of the earth.”

Consider for a moment the blessing of having the scriptures so readily available. Today Bibles are plentiful. Most of us have at least one written in our own language that we can read and study with little effort. But Bibles have not always been so readily available. In 2 Kings 22 and 23, written some time around 620 B.C., is the account of temple workmen finding an abandoned copy of the law of God. This discovery seemed to have been a surprise; copies of the scriptures were apparently hard to come by then. King Josiah read these writings, discovered that many religious practices of his people did not conform with the recorded commandments, and decided to make changes. He reemphasized the Passover feast, and conditions improved for a time in Jerusalem.

A few years later, Lehi and his family were commanded to leave Jerusalem and take with them a copy of the scriptures. Book of Mormon readers remember the efforts of Nephi and his brothers to obtain from Laban the plates of brass, which contained a record similar to our Old Testament down to that time (600 B.C.). Laban did not want to part with his copy of the scripture even after he had been handsomely paid for it, but the Lord’s interest was so keen on the matter that he explained to Nephi that it was “better that one man [Laban] should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.” (1 Ne. 4:13.) As the account in 1 Nephi 4–5 implies, copies of the scriptures in any form were scarce.

King Benjamin, recognizing the importance of written scriptures, told his sons that without the brass plates the people would have suffered in spiritual ignorance, “for it were not possible that our father, Lehi, could have remembered all these things, to have taught them to his children, except it were for the help of these plates.” (Mosiah 1:4.)

In contrast, those who came with Mulek from Jerusalem to America about 589 B.C. did not bring any scriptures, and consequently they slipped into mental and spiritual darkness. (See Omni 1:14–17.) While it is possible that the Mulekites failed to take the scriptures with them primarily out of neglect, it is more likely there were few copies of the scriptures around to take. (See 1 Ne. 4–5.)

In about 520 B.C., Ezra the scribe, after bringing the people of Judah back to the land of Judea from their seventy-year captivity in Babylon, gathered them together so he could read the Old Testament to them. He translated as he read because the scriptures were written in Hebrew and the younger Jews spoke only Aramaic, the language of Babylon. Probably for the first time in their lives the Jews heard and understood the scriptures in their own tongue, and they wept and rejoiced. (See Neh. 8.)

These examples lead us to believe that having the scriptures readily available and in our own language is a blessing that most people in bygone days have not enjoyed. And yet the Bible is not only recorded on paper for reading, but also on tape for hearing, in braille for feeling, and even on microfilm. It has been translated into thousands of languages and is available in book form in a multitude of sizes and bindings.

The Lord said to Nephi that in our day, the last days, many would say, “A Bible! A Bible! We have got a Bible, and there cannot be anymore Bible.” To them, the Lord responded: “What do the Gentiles mean? Do they remember the travails, and the labors, and the pains of the [Jewish prophets], and their diligence unto me, in bringing forth salvation unto [them]?” (2 Ne. 29:3–4.)

The question seems to be, Do we appreciate what it means to have our own personal copy of the Bible?

The Latin Vulgate

The original languages of the Bible were Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. In A.D. 382, Pope Damascus persuaded Eusebius Sofronius Hieronymus (commonly known as St. Jerome), perhaps the most capable Bible scholar of the time, to translate the scriptures into Latin. This translation, called the Vulgate because it was in the “vulgar” or common tongue of the Latin people, was used in European countries where Catholicism was the dominant religion. Even with all his efforts and learning, however, Jerome could not avoid making some errors and misinterpretations. But of even greater importance, over the next thousand years more changes crept into the many versions of the Vulgate that were made.1

A Bible in English

During the Middle Ages, few northern Europeans understood the Latin scriptures, and copies of the Bible were scarce. Sometimes even the local priests knew little of the Bible. The type of church service did not contribute to much reading, anyway, as the emphasis was on celebrating the mass rather than preaching the word of God. Many of the poor people could not read at all; thus, concentrated, sustained, and regular study of the Bible was out of the question for most people.

Still, through the centuries, many wondered why the scriptures could not be translated into different languages so everyone could read and benefit. The ancient Hebrews had been taught by the prophets in their own language, and the Greeks had been taught by Paul in their native tongue. Why could it not be so with the English, the French, the Germans?

Let us now look at the momentous events that gave us the Bible in English—one of the most important of the instruments that helped to bring about the restoration of the gospel.

John Wycliffe (1320–84)

Although others had translated portions of the Bible into English, Oxford scholar John Wycliffe was the first to make the entire Bible available in an English translation. His efforts to translate and distribute the Bible have earned him the title “Morning Star of the Reformation.”

A Bible in English had been Wycliffe’s goal for years. Every leisure moment during his life was spent translating the scriptures into English. He said: “See [pointing to a table], it is there I sit not only by day, but often far into the night. Just a few lines only will sometimes cost me hours and days of study before I can satisfy myself as to the correct rendering. … If God spare my life another year, I hope to put the entire Bible in English into the hands of the copyists.”2

Because Wycliffe had extensive knowledge of Latin, but not of Hebrew or Greek, he made his translation of the Bible from the Latin Vulgate and not from the original languages of the scriptures.

Handwritten Bibles

Since Wycliffe lived before the invention of movable-type printing, his translation was available in handwritten form only. This made copies very expensive. One historian reports that “a copy of the Bible cost from 40–60 pounds for the writing only. It took an expert copyist about 10 months to complete it.”3

Since few could afford to own a hand-made Bible, Wycliffe and his followers traveled the countryside with Bible manuscripts for the people to read. Sometimes the people would borrow or rent the scriptures for a day, or even for an hour, because they could not afford to buy a copy. It is said that a load of hay was the going price to rent a Bible for an hour.4

Early copies of Wycliffe’s Bible were written on large sheets of paper, but when authorities threatened to prosecute and even burn at the stake those who possessed them, Wycliffe made smaller copies so they could be more easily concealed.5 The preface to the Wycliffe Bible contains a prayer that shows the spirit and circumstances under which Wycliffe and his associates labored: “God grant to us all, grace to know well and keep well the holy writ, and suffer joyfully some pains for it at the last.”6 Often when a brave soul was burned at the stake, he or she would go to the flames with a piece of the Bible dangling from a cord about his or her neck.

Although Wycliffe suffered ostracism and persecution for his work, he escaped martyrdom, died a natural death in 1384 at the age of sixty-four, and was buried at Lutterworth, England.

It is clear that Wycliffe’s Bible, with its gracefully simple and direct language, was intended for the plain folk and not for scholars. He was not content merely to have the Bible translated; he wanted it to be understood, and he wanted multiple copies. It is reported that more than 150 copies of his small-sized, handwritten Bible survive today. When we consider that authorities burned as many copies as they could lay their hands upon, the survivors are evidence of the extensive circulation of the books and the value placed upon them by their owners.

William Tyndale (1492–1536)

A century passed between John Wycliffe’s death and the coming of William Tyndale, the next great biblical translator. During that time John Gutenberg invented movable-type printing and printed the Latin Vulgate Bible. It took Gutenberg and his associates about seven or eight years to print the first copy7 and more than twenty years from their first experimentation with movable type and better kinds of paper and ink. Some reports say that Gutenberg died penniless and in debt, having devoted his life to developing a process that would change the course of the world forever.

It was into this changed world that William Tyndale, destined to become the “father” of our present English Bible, was born. As had Wycliffe, he became a scholar at Oxford. Trained in Latin, Hebrew, and Greek, Tyndale saw the need for and was able to make an English translation of the Bible directly from the Hebrew and Greek texts.

Tyndale was a popular teacher who often turned to his Hebrew and Greek texts to refute his opponents, showing that in some instances the Latin Vulgate Bible they used had been translated incorrectly. But he noticed that after he had taught a group and moved on, the priests would come and turn those people away from what he had taught them. The people generally did not have the scriptures in their own tongue and were at the mercy of the priests for their knowledge of religion.

Seeing that his teachings were being overturned, Tyndale decided to arm the common people with a Bible they could read, reasoning, “If [English] Christians possessed the Holy Scriptures in their own tongue, they could of themselves withstand these attacks. Without the Bible it is impossible to establish the people in truth. … Christians must read the New Testament [for themselves] in their own tongue.”8 He also said, “I had perceived by experience how that it was impossible to establish the lay people in any truth, except the scripture were plainly laid before their eyes in their mother tongue, that they might see the process, order and the meaning of the text.”9

Once, when engaged in earnest debate with a learned clergyman over giving the common people a Bible they could understand, Tyndale said, “If God spare my life, I will take care that ere many years the boy that driveth the plow shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.”10 With such bold expression, clergy and state officials continued their persecution against Tyndale.

Seeing that he was opposed on every hand, Tyndale fled to various places in England to avoid arrest and possible death. He appealed to the Bishop of London for official permission to translate the Bible into English but was denied. It soon became apparent that there was no place in England to make an English translation of the Bible from the original tongues, so in 1524 Tyndale went to Germany. There he lived very modestly and in seclusion. Soon he completed his translation of the New Testament and asked for publication of three thousand copies.

Because English-language Bibles could not openly be marketed in England, the first copies were smuggled into the British Isles from Belgium. When British government and church authorities learned that Tyndale’s New Testament was being sold locally, they were furious. The Bishop of London called the translation “a pestiferous and most pernicious poison.”11 The various bishops subscribed money to buy all available copies and conducted public burnings of Tyndale’s Bible. This exercise was so thorough that only three copies of this first Tyndale New Testament are known to be in existence today.

Following publication of his translation of the New Testament, Tyndale commenced a translation of the Old Testament. The persecutions continued, and Tyndale was betrayed by a supposed friend, kidnapped, and put into prison near Brussels, where he suffered mentally and physically for eighteen months until 6 October 1536, when he was taken from his cell and tied to a stake. There he uttered a loud prayer: “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!”12 referring to King Henry VIII who had ignored efforts to grant his personal and religious freedom. Tyndale was then strangled to death and burned.

The Reformation—A New Attitude about the Bible

As more and more people came to own and study the English translations of Wycliffe and Tyndale, the Bible became an increasingly powerful influence. Even in England, Tyndale’s work became more accepted, and shortly after he died, copies of his Bible even found their way into the household of King Henry VIII.

For the next seventy years, the political and religious complexion of England seesawed from Protestantism to Catholicism and back to Protestantism with each change of monarch. Henry VIII had established the Church of England with himself, as king, the earthly leader and “defender of the faith.” After Henry’s death in 1547, his ten-year-old son, Edward VI, was king for a few years and Protestantism prospered. But Mary, Edward’s successor, tried to restore Catholicism to England, and she ordered circulation of all English translations of the Bible to cease. Elizabeth I followed Mary, bringing with her a return to Protestantism. With the change in emphasis throughout the Protestant world, the preaching of the Bible became a major feature of church service. This influenced the architecture of church buildings, and the pulpit replaced the altar, upon which the mass was celebrated, as the focus of attention.

The King James Version

When James I followed Elizabeth to the throne in 1603, Tyndale had been dead sixty-seven years and there had been several revisions of the English Bible. The principal versions were the Coverdale Bible (named after its translator), the Great Bible (named for its size), the Geneva Bible (named for its place of printing), and the Bishop’s Bible (authorized by the Church of England clergy). All drew heavily from Tyndale’s translation, but each favored different religious points of view. The Geneva Bible contained footnotes and marginal notes favoring Puritanism but was antagonistic toward the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, the Church of England, and the universities.

The Geneva Bible was the version used by Shakespeare and the Pilgrim fathers; it also came to America on the Mayflower. It was the first to use italics for words not in the manuscripts, to print each verse as a separate paragraph for convenience of concordances, and to use a ¶ sign to designate main concepts.13

The Geneva Bible was very popular with the people but was annoying to the bishops of the Church of England. The Bishop’s Bible was the clergy’s answer to the Geneva Bible, but it was so biased that it left the Puritans unhappy. No Bible translation was accepted by everyone.

As a consequence, in January 1604, King James I convened a conference to settle differences between these groups. A proposal was made for a new translation to be authorized by King James as the official Bible of England.

This new translation was eventually made by committees of scholars assigned to various parts of the Bible. The translation came off the press in 1611 and was called the Authorized Version in Britain and the King James Version in America, the latter reflecting the political differences of the American colonies and England.

Although the King James Version is the hallmark of English Bibles, it is in reality a revision of earlier English translations. In a lengthy introduction to the first edition, the translators explained that “we shouldn’t need to make a new translation nor yet to make of a bad one a good one—but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, [to make] one principal good one.”14 About 92 percent of Tyndale has survived in the King James Version. And Tyndale borrowed much from Wycliffe.

Not all editions of the King James Version have been identical to the first edition. For example, the number of words in italics (words not found in the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts) increased considerably through the years until about 1870. The 1611 book of Matthew contained 43 italicized words; the present edition has at least 583.15 There have also been modernizations in spelling, punctuation, and pronoun usage.

The King James Version of the Bible is recognized world-wide for its beauty of expression and general accuracy, given the limitations of the manuscripts from which it was translated. It is the version the English-speaking members of The Church of Latter-day Saints have used since the beginning of the dispensation of the fulness of times.

The Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible

With the restoration of divine priesthood authority and the reestablishment of the Church of Jesus Christ through the Prophet Joseph Smith, there came also the restoration of ancient scriptures. Not only were we to have a Bible, but also a Book of Mormon and other sacred records. The revelations received by the Prophet Joseph Smith made clear that the King James Version, great as it was, did not contain all that the ancient manuscripts had once contained. Many plain and precious things had been lost. (See 1 Ne. 13.) It was not so much a matter of translation of languages, but also a faulty transmission of the text. The King James Version is thus a remarkable vestige of an even more remarkable record of the gospel that was preached anciently.

With the Restoration, another revision of the English Bible was in order, not by a scholar but by a prophet. And it would come not from an ancient manuscript but from direct revelation of the same Lord from whom the Bible had originated. It was to be done at the Lord’s commission rather than at the request of an earthly monarch or pope. This revision was to be an inspired version of the King James Bible, a divine restoration of ancient biblical knowledge. It is known today as the Inspired Version, or more properly, as the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible. It should be seen in perspective as another step in the struggle to give mankind a Bible that not only can be read, but also can be understood. The Prophet Joseph Smith made his translation during the years 1830 to 1844.

The LDS Edition of the Scriptures

In order to provide a Bible that would be the most helpful to members of the Church, the First Presidency in 1971 authorized a project to produce some study aids for the King James Version. This effort bore fruit in 1979 with a Bible that consists of (1) the text of the King James Version; (2) cross-references to latter-day scriptures—Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price; (3) excerpts from Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible; (4) explanatory footnotes showing alternate readings from Greek and Hebrew; (5) footnotes showing clarifications of obsolete words and idioms in the English language; (6) new interpretive chapter headings; (7) a topical guide; (8) a Bible dictionary; and (9) a selection of maps.

Brought together in the LDS edition of the King James Bible is some of the best material available today from both secular scholarship and latter-day revelation. The genius of the LDS edition is to present this wealth of information about the Bible and latter-day revelation in a reference system that permits the reader to learn quickly what the scriptures say about a large number of subjects vital to eternal life.

In 1980 President Spencer W. Kimball invited us to become acquainted with the LDS edition of the Bible: “We now have a wonderful new edition of the King James Version of the Holy Bible with a topical index and a whole new reference system. … all of which should encourage further involvement with the scriptures, as individuals and as families.” (Ensign, Aug. 1980, p. 3.)

As the Lord promised centuries ago, his word has gone forth “unto the ends of the earth, for a standard unto my people.” (2 Ne. 29:2.)


  1. F. F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments, (London: Fleming H. Revel Co., 1955), pp. 191–200; also Frederic Kenyon, Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), pp. 141–43, 242–44.

  2. Bayly, The Story of Our English Bible and What It Cost (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1886), pp. 37–38.

  3. Ibid., p. 58.

  4. Geddes MacGregor, A Literary History of the Bible (New York: Abingdon Press, 1968), p. 80.

  5. Josiah H. Penniman, A Book About the English Bible (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1931), p. 341.

  6. MacGregor, p. 80.

  7. Bayly, pp. 61–62.

  8. Ibid., p. 90.

  9. See Harold L. Phillips, Translators and Translations (Anderson, Indiana: The Warner Press, 1958), p. 22. Tyndale’s original spelling has been modernized.

  10. Penniman, p. 348.

  11. MacGregor, pp. 113–14.

  12. The English Hexapla (London: Samuel Bagster and Sons, 1846), p. 18. Spelling has been modernized.

  13. MacGregor, pp. 143–45; also S. L. Greendale, ed., The Cambridge History of the Bible: The West from the Reformation to the Present Day (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963), p. 156.

  14. Penniman, p. 394.

  15. P. Marion Sims, The Bible in America (New York: Wilson-Erickson, 1936), p. 97.

  • Robert J. Matthews, dean of Religious Instruction at Brigham Young University, is president of the BYU Eighth Stake.

Photography by Marty Mayo

Illustrated by Robert Barrett