This morning in church our eyes saw, we looked upon and our hands handled the written Word of life. The Bible.
Not just any Bible. Some of the most significant first-edition English Bibles: Tyndale New Testament, 1526. Matthew’s Bible, 1537. Great Bible, 1539. Geneva Bible, 1560. Bishops’ Bible, 1568. Three of the 200 extant copies of the King James Bible, 1611.
Dave Parsons, who founded Truth Remains, displayed samples from his own collection of 16th-17th century English Bibles. He described how in 1526, on the run from Church and Crown and under a death sentence, William Tyndale translated the New Testament from its original Greek into the language “every plow boy” in England could understand. From Germany, he smuggled copies back into his homeland.
For his courageous act, providing the first Bible in the “heart language” of a people, Tyndale was strangled to death by representatives of the Pope and Henry the 8th, then burned at the stake.
His last words were, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” Six years later King Henry had broken with the Church himself and allowed the translation of the Old Testament, begun by Tyndale and completed by John Rogers, to be circulated in England.
Later “Bloody” Mary Tudor hunted Rogers down and imprisoned him. While he was in prison, his wife gave birth to their youngest baby, whom he saw for the first time in her arms as he was dragged through the streets of London to the stake. Offered freedom if he would recant his belief in the words of Scripture, Rogers declared, “That which I have preached I will seal with my blood.” He had written to his congregation, “No matter what they do to me or you, God’s truth will prevail.”
Also on display this morning was Foxe’s sobering Book of Martyrs, which lists hundreds, maybe thousands, of those, who, like Tyndale and Rogers all the way back to the original disciples of Jesus Christ, were killed for believing the truth in that Book.
A small volume of Tyndale’s New Testament was enclosed in a clear box. It was open, as near as I could make out, to the Prologue of the Gospel of Matthew:
I was impressed by the fact that there is no such thing as “just any Bible.” In our own home we have not only several versions of the Bible, from King James to Living to Chronological, but Bible translations in Spanish and Japanese. I don’t take our possession of so many riches lightly.
But personally I was most intrigued by the fact that one of the 1611 King James versions displayed this morning had (in addition to water damage) extensive notes in the margins of the gospels–in brown ink and a very fine hand. Sherlock would deduce that such a large Bible was not a personal copy but would have belonged in a church, possibly chained to the pulpit. A literate person who would write in a Bible (I had no idea anyone dared do that back then) notes that are clearly pedagogical and exegetical would be the pastor of the church, studying the Word in order to preach it.
But what pastor? WHO? A name we would have heard of, like Edwards or Spurgeon? Do we have his sermons online?
And how did this copy get from England in 1611 to California in 2014? Was it brought to the colonies in 1620 and held aloft during the pilgrims’ grateful prayers at Plymouth Rock? Was it in the hand of Gen. Washington when he took the presidential oath of office?
Sherlock would say it was not that famous or it would be in a shrine somewhere. It belonged to the pastor’s family and was perhaps kept in the family for generations. But his line died out. Or the descendants who didn’t remember him preferred money over truth. So the ancient, stained tome ended up in a used bookstore for rare books. (There is a 2-inch by 2-inch corner cut cleanly out of the upper right hand of the last page of the Old Testament. What would Sherlock make of that?)
Now, like the English translation itself, this King James Bible has passed into the hands of the common people.