Classic pre-18th Century Bibles
Be sure to check back again as more links are being added whenever I find them.
The extremely difficult to find first Bible ever printed in the English language
In 1382 John Wycliffe produced the first entire Bible ever available in the English language. This was a hand printed bible since the printing press had not yet been invented. It was translated from the Latin Bible which up to that time had been the only Bible available. It was in an early version of what is known as Middle English and is quite difficult to read, but is nonetheless a milestone in English Bible history. This is known as the Early Wycliffe Bible. He was thanked for his monumental effort by being fired from his position of privilege as an Oxford University professor, and died 2 years later a broken, sick, penniless man. John Wycliffe is frequently referred to as the morning-star of the protestant reformation. It is also said that he laid the egg for the reformation, and Martin Luther hatched it. In 1395 John Purvey, a close associate of John Wycliffe updated the earlier work and published a second edition of this Bible. This edition was less literal than the earlier and used a more readable prose style. It is still, however, written in the difficult to read early Middle English. This bible gained wider acceptance by the people than the earlier edition. This is known as the Later Wycliffe Bible. Mr. Purvey was thanked for his dedicated effort by being imprisoned until he recanted his “sin” of making the Bible accessible to the masses in English. Upon his release from prison, he was watched and hounded at every step by church authorities until he eventually disappeared into obscurity and died an unknown man.
In 1535 Oxford University published a diglot (2 version) containing both the early 1382 and later 1395 versions of these Bibles in parallel columns printed on the recently invented printing press. The type on this machine printed version is far more readable than in the earlier hand printed versions, but is still written in the difficult to read early Middle English. These were both 80 book bibles containing what is now referred to as the "Apocrypha". This work has been placed in the public domain in the United States and is available in 4 separate downloads free of charge at archive.org
Mr. Terry Noble has recently done an absolutely superb job of consolidating these two into one single Modernized Wycliffe Bible, using the best of both, and updating the difficult to read early Middle English to modern spelling, which makes it far more readable. Mr. Noble's work contains only the present 66 books and he has made it available for download free of charge at ibiblio.org which is maintained by the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill.
The first New Testament ever translated into the English language directly from original Greek manuscripts
In 1516 Desiderius Erasmus, an Oxford and Cambridge educated scholar, compiled the first complete New Testament in Greek assembled directly from Greek manuscripts since St. Jerome’s work in the fourth century. He compiled his "Novum Instrumentum Omne" primarily from a collection of Greek manuscripts of the Byzantine text-type, which represents around 80% of all New Testament Greek manuscripts. This is what has come to be called the "Textus Receptus" or received text.
In 1526 William Tyndale, also an Oxford and Cambridge educated scholar and master linguist fluent in 8 languages, completed the first translation of the complete new testament into English directly from Greek, using the newly completed "Textus Receptus". Mr. Tyndale continued refining his new testament translation and published his final revision in 1534. Mr. Tyndale was the first person to include paragraph breaks into his new testament translation, which greatly improved readability. These were also in Middle English, but by this time the language had evolved into a more refined language, more similar to what we use today, and is far easier to read than the early Middle English used by Mr. Wycliffe. These have been placed into the public domain in the United States and are available for download free of charge at archive.org.
The first portion of any part of the Old Testament ever translated into the English language directly from original Hebrew manuscripts
After completing the first of his new testament translations Mr. Tyndale began translating the old testament into English from original Hebrew manuscripts. He completed and published his translation of the first 5 books of the old testament in 1530. This is known as the Tyndale Pentateuch. He somewhat later also translated the book of Jonah before his work was abruptly ended. He was thanked for all of his effort by being arrested, thrown into prison, and eventually strangled to death and his dead body being burned at the stake. These 5 old testament books plus the book of Jonah have been placed into the public domain in the United States and are available for download free of charge at nnu.edu which is maintained by Northwest Nazarene University.
The first truly Protestant study Bible and the first complete reformation era Bible
In the later half of the 16th century Geneva Switzerland had become a center for textual scholarship in Europe, both scriptual and secular, and had become the home of many English Protestant reformers escaping the persecution of Queen Mary I (Bloody Mary) of England and from elsewhere throughout Europe.
The English exiles began working on a brand new translation of the Bible, one translated directly from original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, one for the average person to read and study in detail, a true study bible. This Geneva Bible contained lengthy explanatory prologues to every book, as well as extensive explanatory notes to individual verses throughout and extensive cross references. This was the first Bible in English that could truly be called a Protestant Bible. This was also the first Bible to break scripture into the numbered verses so familiar to us today, for ease of cross referencing. The New Testament was first printed in 1557, the entire Bible in 1560. This was a true international Bible, simple and direct in phrasing, yet highly accurate, and went through over one hundred and fifty (150) editions, the last and most advanced being in 1599. This was also an 80 book bible, as were all of the bibles at this time, and was written in Elizabethan English, the English of Shakespeare and Chaucer, somewhat similar to our English today. This was the bible that the Pilgrims brought with them to America.
Both the first and last edition of these masterpieces have been placed into the public domain in the United States and are available for download free of charge at archive.org.
Mr. Steve Zychal has recently done an absolutely superb job of updating the spelling (using the most advanced 1599 edition) to modern standards and incorporating the explanatory notes from both the 1560 and 1599 editions into one Modernized Geneva Bible. The result is very readable and very comprehensive. Mr. Zychal's work is available for viewing and downloading at his website, Geneva Bible.org.
Another very good freshening up of the 1599 edition, going by the name of the Patriot's Edition, is available for free download at archieve.org.
The first Catholic Bible in the English language
In the sixteenth century the Catholic Church finally abandoned its attempt to keep the Bible exclusively in Latin. The Church commissioned a translation of the New Testament into English from the 5th century Latin Vulgate of St. Jerome by a group of Church scholars who met at Rheims, France. They completed their work in 1582 and the result became known as the Rheims New Testament.
They also commissioned a like translation of the Old Testament by a similar group working at the University of Douay in Douay, France. This group completed their work as a two volume translation of the Old Testament in 1609 and 1610 which became known as the Douay Old Testament. The resulting 3 volume set became known as the Douay-Rheims Bible. All three volumes were a quite literal translation of the Latin of St. Jerome, and were difficult to understand in many places. This remained the Catholic Bible in English until 1763.
This original Douay Rheims Bible may be downloaded free of charge from archive.org as a 250kb PDF.
In 1763 Bishop Richard Challoner prepared an extensive revision to the original Douay Rheims Bible of 1610 which is now known as the 1763 Challoner revision. This revision removed most of the controversial annotations and the text was substantially reworded to improve readability. This revision remained the standard Catholic Bible in English until 1941.
The original 1611 King James Version
In 1603 Prince James VI of Scotland succeeded Queen Elizabeth I as King of England and was crowned King James I. This was a time of religious turmoil in England as well as the rest of Europe. One of the things that King James I disliked about the Geneva Bible were the extensive notes, many of which challenged the authority of both the Catholic Church and the Church of England. In January of 1604 King James assembled a group of religious leaders to discuss resolution of the sharp religious conflicts within England. This meeting eventually led to the establishment of panels of 54 of the best Hebrew, Greek, and religious scholars of the day at Oxford, Cambridge and London that produced the most widely printed Bible in history, the well known King James Version.
King James ordered that this not be a new translation, but a revision of the heavily Latinized Bishops Bible of 1568 and have almost no explanatory notes. Evidence of this Latinized origin can be seen throughout the King James, in the tone and sentence structure. Although obligated to follow the King’s orders, the committee also drew very heavily from Tyndale, Geneva, and even the Catholic Douay-Rheims. The King James Version has retained its reputation as one of the most popular of the Bible translations, even to this day, in spite of its sometimes awkward and difficult to follow Latinized sentence structure. The King James Version was first printed in 1611, in large size pulpit format. The first smaller size Bibles, for individualized study, were first printed around 1613. These were all 80 book bibles, containing what we now refer to as the “Apocrypha”.
By the middle of the eighteenth century a wide variety of misprint errors, selling variations for proper names, variations in punctuation, italics, etc. had appeared in print. In 1769 Oxford University took on the task of updating the spelling and punctuation of the original 1611 version, correcting the accumulation of printing errors, and some changes in the italics and marginal notes. This became known as the Oxford Standard Text of the King James Version. This is the text contained in almost all of the King James Bibles that are sold in bookstores today. This was also an 80 book bible, although today it is universally produced in the 66 book format, omitting the “Apocrypha”.
The original 1611 King James Version may be downloaded free of charge from archive.org.
The second century A.D. Aramaic Peshitta
Peshitta is the name given to the New Testament recorded in the Eastern Syriac language. The name itself means simple, common or straight. Manuscripts of the Peshitta are quite ancient, some dating to the second century A.D., and by the fifth century A.D. copies of the Peshitta were widely distributed and commonly accepted throughout the countries of the region that we now call the Middle East. Syriac is one of the dialects of Aramaic, the language in which Jesus almost unquestionably spoke. Aramaic was the evolution of the ancient Hebrew language in the time of Jesus, and was the language spoken by the Jews of His time. Since most of Jesus’ teaching was directed to the Jews, it is only natural that He would have spoken to them in Aramaic, even if He did speak other languages as well.
There is considerable controversy over whether this Syriac or Greek was the original language in which the words of Jesus were recorded. The majority opinion of most scholars is that the Syriac was a translation of the Greek, but there is a significant following supporting the belief that the Syriac was the original language. It is entirely reasonable that the books of Matthew and Hebrews, being written primarily for the Jews, may very well have been written originally in Syriac. There is also good reason to believe that the epistles of John, Jude, and James, being written by Jews, also could have been written originally in Syriac. Even if the Syriac was secondary to the Greek, it would have been first translated during the second century, at a time and place where both languages were very common and well understood, and it records the words of Jesus in His own language.
The Peshitta was translated into English in 1852 by Dr. James Murdock. This English translation can be viewed at AramaicNewTestament.org.
The third century B.C. Greek Septuagint Old Testament
Some time during the third century B.C. the Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament (Tanakh) were translated into Greek at Alexandria Egypt. This is the earliest known translation of the Hebrew scriptures into any other language, pre-dating the Latin translation of St. Jerome by some 600 years, and has become known as the Septuagint. The Hebrew source manuscripts from which this translation were made pre-date the now almost universally accepted Masoretic Text by over 800 years. The name Septuagint, which means seventy, derives from the ancient legend that the Greek translation was produced by a group of approximately 70 Jewish scholars during the reign of the Greek King of Egypt Ptolemy II Philadelphus.
Even though there has been much controversy regarding the accuracy of this Greek translation, the Septuagint remains of particular importance in two respects. First of all, it has remained the standard Old Testament text for the various Orthodox churches since the split between the Catholic and Orthodox churches in 1054. Also, the Tanakh manuscripts from which the Septuagint was produced are among the oldest known Hebrew manuscripts, dating from around the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls. These manuscripts would have been very close to the Tanakh that Jesus knew.
Sir Lancelot C. L. Brenton was ordained by the Church of England in 1830 but left shortly thereafter to found his own independent chapel. He completed the second known translation of the Greek Septuagint into English in 1851, the first having been completed by Charles Thomson 43 years earlier. Brenton’s translation has become the standard English text of the Septuagint. Although this is a translation of a translation (Hebrew-Greek-English) it traces its origins to one of the earliest known sources of the Hebrew manuscripts. Sir Brenton's English translation of this classic can be viewed on the website linked below.
Ecclesiastical History 325 A.D. by Eusebius Pamphili A.D. 260/265–339/340
This is not a bible, but I have included it here because it is an invaluable reference work to the early pre-Constantine centuries of the Christian Church. Aside from the book of Acts, this is the best and practically the only extant reference work on that period of early Church history. Eusebius was a Greek historian of Christianity, and was also bishop of Caesarea in what is now northern Israel from about 314 A.D. until his death. An excellent quality copy is available for download at the site linked below.