How a radical text became the Good Book

The Bible is a cornerstone of British life. A copy is presented to every new monarch. Many swear on it in court. For centuries it was the only book that many families owned. For Christians it is a source of wisdom and a symbol of authority.

Yet the book has a turbulent past. In the 15th Century to read it in English carried a death sentence. People still argue about which translation should be read. How did the Bible become one of our best-selling – and most controversial – books ever?

1st Century AD

Christianity is born


The Apostle Peter

One of the earliest depictions of the Apostle Peter, who founded the Roman church.

After Jesus died, his disciples began spreading his teachings. Within a century, Christianity had emerged as a new religion.

Jesus did not write down his teachings. His disciples set about spreading his message by word of mouth. James formed a Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem. Peter and Paul went to Rome. Thomas is said to have travelled to India. In the decades after Jesus' death, many accounts of his life – known as gospels – were written in different places, and in different languages, including Greek.

Why didn't Christianity die out in the 1st Century?What do we know about the historical Jesus?Why do we celebrate Christmas on 25 December?

καὶ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς Πορευθέντες εἰς τὸν κόσμον ἅπαντα κηρύξατε τὸ εὐαγγέλιον πάσῃ τῇ κτίσει

Mark 16:15 - He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation"

Christianity arrives in Britain

© Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Hinton St Mary mosaic

This Roman mosaic at Hinton St Mary in Dorset is claimed to be one of the oldest depictions of Christ anywhere in the world.

In 43AD, the Romans invaded Britain. Roman traders probably introduced Christianity, along with other Mediterranean traditions.

Christians brought individual texts or gospels with them, and read or chanted them when they worshipped. Locals might have admired the solemnity and ceremony, but might not have understood the Greek or Latin until it was explained. It was far from clear that Christianity would one day become Britain’s official religion. And while it slowly drove out competitors in what is now Ireland, Scotland and Wales, it almost vanished from England when the Anglo-Saxons invaded in the fifth century.

Should David be the patron saint of Britain? How did Saint Patrick become a global saint?The Hinton St Mary mosaic

2nd-4th Century AD

The first New Testament is written


Codex Sinaiticus

The Codex Sinaiticus is the oldest surviving Christian New Testament.

It took decades to agree a definitive account of Jesus’ life and teachings. The Bible we know emerged after power struggles among early Christians.

By around 180 AD, the Roman Church had declared Matthew, Mark, Luke and John the only official gospels. In 397, the Council of Carthage agreed which Old and New Testament texts were divine scriptures. Even then, different translations existed. It was still rare for these texts to be bound together in a single volume. In Britannia, most scripture texts would have been single biblical books, or other groupings.

What do the lost gospels tell us about the real Jesus?

Traduttore traditore

Italian proverb meaning ‘The translator is traitor’

597 AD

Augustine of Canterbury leads a Christian mission to the Anglo-Saxons

The Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

Page from the St Augustine gospels

A page from St Augustine's Gospels, which is one of the oldest surviving European books.

Augustine was a missionary sent by Pope Gregory I ('the Great') to bring the kingdom of Kent into the fold of the Roman church.

King Æthelberht of Kent converted to Christianity, and allowed missionaries from the Roman Church to preach freely in his kingdom. This began a resurgence of Christianity in what would become England. Within a few decades there were dozens of monasteries, where monks copied the Bible by hand. Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. He brought his own copy of the gospels with him, and this is still used when a new archbishop is sworn in.

The St Augustine GospelsWhy is Canterbury the religious capital of England?How did St Andrew's bones arrive in Scotland?

700 AD

Lindisfarne Gospels written

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Watch Dr Janina Ramirez on the Lindisfarne Gospels. Saints and Sinners (BBC Four, 2015)

Around the start of the 8th Century, on the island of Lindisfarne, a monk named Eadfrith copied all four gospels of the New Testament by hand.

The Lindisfarne Gospels is the oldest surviving collection of the four New Testament gospels written in Britain. The text blends different artistic styles, reflecting how the older Celtic church and the new Roman Church of Augustine were vying for power. Like all gospels of the era it was written in Latin. Around 970AD, a commentator added an Anglo-Saxon translation. These notes are the oldest surviving version of any gospel in a British language.

British Library: The Lindisfarne Gospels

Around 700AD

The first English translations of the Bible



A scribe - probably Bede - writing. From 'Life and Miracles of St. Cuthbert' (12th Century).

The Latin of biblical texts bore little relation to the Anglo-Saxon language. Translations were needed to train English monks.

One such monk, Bede, translated many works including John's gospel. He also wrote ‘An Ecclesiastical History of the English People’ which helped forge an English identity. Yet his history is selective. He reports Augustine’s mission but ignores St Patrick and portrays Celtic Christians as ignorant worshippers whose misunderstandings might corrupt the faith. Bede therefore helped ally English Christianity to Rome. At this time many Latin words entered English, including priest, paper and school.

In Our Time: The Venerable BedeHow do you become a Saint?

The Church regulated lives by controlling what people did during the day and what they did in bed.

Dr Sarah Foot describes how, in the early middle ages, the medieval church came to dominate lives


Wycliffe’s English Bible

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Watch Professor Robert Bartlett on John Wycliffe. Inside the Medieval Mind (2008), BBC Four

By the 14th Century, the Church was a powerful pillar of British society. Church teaching dictated how people lived their lives.

Lay people only heard the Bible in Latin so relied on priests to interpret God's words and biblical stories. Scholar John Wycliffe believed the official Church abused this power, for example by promising salvation to those who donated money. He believed individuals should be able to read scripture and decide for themselves how to live well. He helped translate the whole Bible into English. Afraid of losing control, the Church, declared him a heretic. Owning his Bible became punishable by death.

When did the Christian Church start worrying about sex?In Our Time: Wyclif and the LollardsLollards derived their name from the Dutch 'to mutter'

…the Evening Star of scholasticism and the Morning Star of the reformation.

Historian Keith Richards describes John Wycliffe


The Gutenberg Bible


Gutenberg Bible

Gutenberg's first printed Bible included space for scribes to add hand-drawn illuminations.

For centuries, every account of Christ’s life was copied by hand. The printing press changed the relationship between Christians and the scriptures.

In the 1450s, German Johannes Gutenberg created the first printed Bible. A scribe working by hand might take years to copy one book. Gutenberg printed around 180 Latin Bibles in three years. At first Gutenberg’s clients were mostly the clergy. Bibles in other languages soon followed, meaning thousands could now read them for the first time. The church could no longer control who read the scriptures and in what language, though in England it tried to ban existing translations.

British Library: Explore a Gutenberg BibleGutenberg Bible sells for $5m


The Protestant reformation begins


Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1483-1546), engraved by W Holl.

On 31 October 1517, German priest Martin Luther nailed a scathing criticism of the Church authorities to a prominent church door in Wittenberg.

Luther came to argue that many church teachings - such as the belief in purgatory, and the veneration of the Pope as God’s representative - had no origin in the Bible. His radical reading of the scriptures split the Roman Church in two. A new branch of Christianity, Protestantism, spread around Europe: one that no longer took its authority from the Pope. In England, Henry VIII rejected Rome’s authority in a series of disputes between 1529 and 1534 .

Who was Martin Luther?An overview of the ReformationBBC Bitesize: The Reformation

1523 - 1536

Tyndale’s English Bible starts a revolution

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Melvyn Bragg on the way the Catholic Church controlled access to scripture. The Most Dangerous Man in Britain (BBC Two, 2013)

Like Wycliffe and Luther, William Tyndale believed everyone should have access to the scriptures in their own language. Henry VIII disagreed.

Tyndale began a new English translation of the Bible. Where Wycliffe had used a later Latin source, Tyndale worked from older Hebrew and Greek scriptures. Yet Tyndale also drew on Anglo-Saxon idiom, keen that everyone from noble to ploughboy would understand his text. Tyndale used the printing press to spread his translation and could produce biblical texts faster than the Church could burn them. But his work was seen as a direct challenge to King and Church. He was executed in 1536.

Who was William Tyndale?

Fall flat on his face… From time to time… Rise and shine… Sign of the times

Many phrases from Tyndale’s Bible have become integral parts of the English language

Henry VIII’s English Bible

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King Henry VIII

King Henry VIII ordered a copy of his new English translation of the Bible to be placed in every parish.

Henry VIII was happy to see Tyndale executed for creating an English Bible. Yet just two years later, he ordered a new translation.

Henry’s change of heart began when he broke with Rome and declared himself head of the Church of England. His English Bible – commissioned by Thomas Cromwell – was intended as a statement of his authority. The title page shows Henry directly beneath God, with the Archbishop of Canterbury to the side. Henry ordered every parish church to display a copy. For the first time, any English man or woman who could read could study the Bible in their own language.

Who was the real Thomas Cromwell?


Catholicism returns to England


Mary and Elizabeth

Mary and Elizabeth: two sisters divided in their religious views.

When Henry VIII's only son died, his Catholic daughter Mary became Queen. Translating the Bible became dangerous once again.

Mary did not outlaw her father's Bible. However, one of her first acts as monarch was to execute reformers such as Thomas Cranmer who had been responsible for its translation. During her Counter-Reformation, hundreds of English Protestants were burned. Some scholars fled to Geneva, where a group began an important new English translation, which became known as the Geneva Bible. When Mary died, her successor Elizabeth I made Britain a Protestant country again.

Who was Mary I?The Counter-Reformation in England

The Bible and Holy Scriptures... With most profitable annotations upon all the hard places, and other things of greate importance.

The Geneva Bible came with footnotes and was the first English Bible intended to be studied at home


Scotland's Reformation


James VI of Scotland

James VI of Scotland (who became James I of England) believed everyone should have a Bible.

Like England, Scotland underwent a difficult Reformation in the sixteenth century. New Protestant ideas divided the Scottish church.

James V tried to ban Luther's teachings, but once again the censors stood no chance against the new printing presses. In 1560, an act of Parliament officially made Scotland a Protestant country, albeit one ruled by Catholic Mary Queen of Scots. Mary's son and successor, Protestant James VI, believed everyone should have a Bible. The popular Geneva translation - written in London English rather than Scottish English - played an important role in bringing the two cultures closer together.

Scotland's ReformationWilliam Morgan translates the Bible into Welsh


Shakespeare's Bibles

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William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare's works are filled with Biblical references.

Once it was safe for English people to own English Bibles, many households wanted them. Bibles shrank from lectern size to books that could be held.

English people were becoming more familiar with the scriptures. Playwright William Shakespeare would have heard the official Bishops' Bible read aloud in Church, and would have read the Geneva Bible in private. He could rely on his audiences understanding the wide range of Biblical references in his plays. In turn, Shakespeare's writing has helped ensure that many Biblical stories and verses have become an integral part of English culture.

Find out more about William Shakespeare

For with that judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure you meet, it shall be measured unto you again.

The title of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure was inspired by the Bible


King James's Bible

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Melvyn Bragg on the massive influence of the King James Bible. The Book that Changed the World (BBC Two, 2011)

By the 17th Century there were several English Bibles. Puritans and more conservative Protestants struggled to control which was read.

Puritans wanted to take the Church of England even further from Rome, arguing texts preferred by conservatives were corrupt. James I (VI of Scotland) convened scholars to create a new translation using Hebrew and Greek sources alongside existing English Bibles. The result was a triumph of English literature. The King James Bible became the standard for two centuries, and many still regard it as the finest edition. Yet James’s project failed to unite Britain. Civil war followed soon afterwards.

Religious differences spark Civil War in EnglandAre you a Roundhead or a Cavalier?

A native speaker of English who has not read a word of the King James Bible is verging on the barbarian.

Richard Dawkins


Sunday Schools help bring the Bible to the masses

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Robert Raikes

Publisher and philanthropist Robert Raikes is credited with starting the Sunday School movement.

Until the 18th Century, most education cost money. The Sunday School movement gave many poorer people a chance to learn to read.

The primary textbook used in Sunday Schools was the Bible. In 1811, 500,000 children were attending Sunday School. By 1888 three in every four children in England and Wales were going. The Sunday School movement was one reason why the Victorians became the most Biblically literate people in British history. Many Victorians – even those who considered themselves atheists – could quote extensively from the Good Book. As the British Empire expanded, the King James Bible spread around the world.

How Sunday School shaped Britain


A Bible for every soldier


War bible

A copy of the Gospel of St John issued to soldiers in the First World War.

The 19th Century saw groups such as the British and Foreign Bible Society and the Gideons form to distribute the scriptures as widely as possible.

Thanks to such organisations, a copy of the New Testament was issued to every member of the British Armed Services at the start of World War One. Bibles were designed to fit in the pocket of a soldier's uniform, and most soldiers carried them. Many bodies that were recovered after the first day of the Somme were found with Bibles in their hands.

Bible Society: The Bible and World War OneWhy did chaplains end up on the front line in WW1?WW1: The global conflict that defined a century

If they didn't read the scripture, nonetheless it was an important source of consolation simply to have it.

Dr Michael Snape, University of Birmingham


Good News for the world

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Girl reading Good News Bible

The Good News Bible and Jerusalem Bible are often used to introduce children to scripture.

There have been many editions of the Bible since King James. Some prefer contemporary translations. Others prefer traditional language.

Today, the Good News Bible is one of the most popular editions. A primary motive for the translation was to create a text in simple English, that would be easy for non-native speakers to read. It was translated on a ‘thought-for-thought’ rather than a ‘word-by-word’ basis. For Catholics, the Jerusalem Bible has a similar function. These Bibles are often given to children when they first read the scriptures.

Read the Good News Bible online

In the beginning, when God created the universe, the earth was formless and desolate.

Genesis 1:1 as given in the Good News Bible

1970s and 1980s

School lessons reflect a changing Britain

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Asian schoolchildren in 1970s

Britain's changing population was reflected in new ways of teaching in schools.

The religious landscape in Britain changed after the Second World War. School curricula evolved to reflect this.

'Religious Education' replaced 'Religious Instruction'. The emphasis of lessons changed, from fostering a society based on Christian values to helping children explore and develop their own views. In the 1970s, other world religions and humanist values were increasingly taught alongside Christianity. Confessionalism - the belief that here was no room for different interpretations within religious teaching - was discouraged. For the first time, teaching of the Bible went into decline.

21st Century

The Bible becomes less familiar

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Mohammad Sarwar MP

Mohammad Sarwar (left) became the first MP to swear his oath of allegiance on the Koran in 1997.

For most of the two thousand years after Jesus’s death, the Bible became increasingly important in British culture. Now this trend has changed.

In court, witnesses no longer have to swear on a Bible. In 1997, Muhammad Sarwar became the first MP to swear his oath of allegiance on the Koran. In 2014, the Bible Society reported many children were unfamiliar with Bible stories, claiming many teachers did not feel confident teaching sacred texts favouring any one religion. Many have lamented this change. The Bible’s importance is undisputed. And it still provokes debate almost two thousand years later. Few, if any, books can claim that.

Bible Society calls for more sacred texts in schools

You get the Bible, you get the complete works of Shakespeare, and you get one other book.

The Bible is still offered to castaways on Radio 4's Desert Island Discs