Bible Translations

This question arises from time to time. “Why does the ‘Catholic’ Bible have more books than the Bible?” Some Catholics ask the question, but many Protestants also ask it.

For centuries, among English-speaking Protestants, “the” Bible meant the King James Version of the Bible, and the King James Version still is very popular.

Understanding the origins of the King James Version answers the question. King Henry VIII, by royal authority, separated the Church in England from the papacy. His daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, completed the process, not without great oppression and much bloodshed, but by 1600, English Protestantism, or Anglicanism, had taken over England’s political authority and its academic life.

Elizabeth I died in 1603. Succeeding her was a distant cousin who became King James I, a Protestant.

For centuries, the entire Church, in England but also everywhere, had regarded what was known as the Vulgate as the accepted translation of the ancient Scriptures, originally written in Hebrew or Greek. Popes and ecumenical councils approved it time and again.

A few attempts had been made over the years to translate the Bible into English, but these versions did not enjoy universal approval in England.

By the time James I came to the throne, English Protestantism, or Anglicanism, which was the only legal expression of Protestantism in the country, professed to base itself upon Scripture, but it had no Bible in English. They needed an English Bible.

Translations cost money, since persons involved in the translating process had to be paid. Furthermore, it would not have been worth the effort if a new translation became just another version to be accepted or not accepted.

So King James I entered the scene. He controlled the national treasury, and as head of the church established by Henry VIII, the only church legal in England, he could supply the funds, and he could mandate or forbid use of any version of the Scripture. The king sponsored the process of translation. Scholars were engaged.

Catholic authority was spurned, so the Vulgate was off limits.

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Some test had to be found to decide which books would be included in the new translation. Much emphasis was placed on a list of Old Testament books adopted by Jewish rabbis and scholars not long after Jesus. It excluded books that had been written in Greek rather than in Hebrew, along with anything composed outside the Holy Land.

Generally, this list prevailed. Catholic-approved books, not on the list, were rejected. So, the “Catholic” Bible has more books than the King James Version.

At the same time, the king, and his advisers in this project, directed translators to use English terms that supported theological positions of the Anglican Church. It sounds very devious, but while it was manipulating the Word of God for a given purpose, it also must be said that a clear understanding of ancient Hebrew or Greek words was not always available.

Around 1610, the project was completed. The king approved it, and it accordingly became the official Bible of the Church of England — and the only legitimate Bible in England.

Today in the United States, many Protestants who are not Episcopalians historically use, privately or in worship, the King James Version.

Central to the question still is who has the right to say what should be in the Bible. Catholics have Church authority. Others must debate the question, using various standards. Some modern translations, ecumenical or Protestant, adopt the Catholic list. Others do not.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion writes from Indiana.