Challenges in Printing Early English Bibles
Ray L. Huntington, W. Jeffrey Marsh, Andrew C. Skinner, and David M. Whitchurch, “Challenges in Printing Early English Bibles,” Religious Educator 5, no. 1 (2004): 15–29.
Ray L. Huntington, W. Jeffrey Marsh, Andrew C. Skinner, and David M. Whitchurch
Ray L. Huntington was associate chair of the Department of Ancient Scripture at BYU when this was published.
W. Jeffrey Marsh was an associate professor of ancient scripture at BYU when this was published
Andrew C. Skinner was dean of Religious Education at BYU when this was published.
David M. Whitchurch was an associate professor of ancient scripture at BYU when this was published.
1530 Tyndale Bible. Courtesy American Bible Society, October 2002
The Bible has had a tremendous impact on societies the world over and has been heralded as the most influential book ever published. The Bible not only records history but has a history of its own. Its preservation through the centuries and publication in modern times are nothing short of miraculous. In part, that is why Latter-day Saints revere this sacred text. The Prophet Joseph Smith was once asked, “Wherein do you differ from other sects?” He responded, “In that we believe the Bible.” Latter-day Saints accept the Bible and study it as one of the standard works of sacred scripture governing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Unfortunately, printers’ mistakes, errors caused by faulty or weak translation, or errors caused by copyists failing to faithfully transmit ancient records from one generation to the next have all had an impact on the conveyance of God’s word to mortals. Some copying and printing errors were occasionally made but were corrected in subsequent editions. Others were not. The preservation and publication history of the English Bible can help us to appreciate and better understand the revealed word of God and how it has been preserved and handed down through the ages—despite the errors.
Some Bibles gained notoriety as a result of the printing errors and eccentric or incorrect translations of words or phrases they contained. In this article, we discuss some of the challenges associated with the typesetting and printing of early English Bibles as well as a few of the interesting errors preserved in their various editions. The accompanying images are photographs taken by the authors from sixteenth-, seventeenth-, and eighteenth-century English Bibles from Bible collections housed in the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., the New York Public Library, the archives of the American Bible Society of New York, the Houghton Library of Harvard University in Boston, and the Bible collection of the Harold B. Lee Library of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.
In discussing the English Bible, some background information about the history of early English Bibles is important. A good deal of the credit for the quality of prose and clarity of expression found in early English Bibles is due to William Tyndale, who suffered martyrdom to put the English Bible in the hands of lay people. He was the first to translate much of the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek texts into a form of English resembling our own. The basic structure of Tyndale’s translations (1526, 1530, 1534) has endured in many subsequent versions and translations. “Tyndale’s version is important not only because it was a pioneer effort in translating the Scriptures from the original languages into English, but also because of the great influence it had upon later translations.” For example, the recent work of scholars at Brigham Young University who compared the King James Version of the Bible with Tyndale’s English Bible has shown “that nearly 84 percent of the New Testament and close to 76 percent of the portions of the Old Testament that Tyndale translated have been transmitted to the KJV just as he left them.” Truly, Tyndale was an intellectual and spiritual giant. He has been called “one of history’s greatest heroes,” whose influence on the history of the English language was significant (even if “virtually unknown to the general populace”). However, it is important to note that the English language changed considerably since the time of William Tyndale, and this evolution both affected and was affected by each new printing of the Bible. The following chart will help identify the Bibles growing out of Tyndale’s work that are mentioned in this article.
The invention of printing was a monumental, even singular, development in the history of civilization. Modern revelation indicates that records have been kept from the earliest times of scriptural history. Adam and Eve and their posterity were blessed by the Lord with a knowledge of how to read and write: “And a book of remembrance was kept, in the which was recorded, in the language of Adam, for it was given unto as many as called upon God to write by the spirit of inspiration” (Moses 6:5). Many sacred texts have been written, but none have experienced the widespread distribution of the Bible. President Joseph Fielding Smith indicated that the discovery of printing, the invention of movable type, a knowledge of papermaking, and the creation of suitable ink for printing have had the greatest impact on the dissemination of God’s word to mankind: experienced the widespread distribution of the Bible. President Joseph
It is declared by many scholars that the discovery, or invention, of printing is the greatest of all inventions. Whether or not this be true, it must be conceded that printing has had a most powerful effect upon the civilization of the world. While the idea is erroneous that in ancient times very few of the people were educated enough to read and write, the incentive for knowledge increased with leaps and bounds after the invention of printing. . . .
Printing with movable type is of comparatively recent times. Printing from blocks and clay tablets was practiced in China and other lands before the Christian Era. The great discovery was that of forming each letter separately, so as to make possible the rearranging and forming of the words, lines and pages of a printed book, thus avoiding the cutting of new blocks for each page. The claim of Johannes Gutenberg to the invention of this kind of type is generally conceded, although there has been some dispute in relation to this matter. Printing dates from about 1438. In the middle of the fifteenth century there were several books printed by means of movable type, and before 1500 printing presses had been set up in some 220 different places in Europe. . . .
The art of printing would have been greatly hampered had it not been for the discovery of how to make paper. The making of paper dates from, at least, the twelfth century, and from very early times papyrus . . .and the costly parchments and tables of wood and stone could not be continued in the time of printing with any degree of success. It was about the time of the invention of printing that the perfecting of paper making out of rags was accomplished. This discovery did away with the expensive means of making books by hand which was the custom in the days when scribes had to write each volume with a pen.
To appreciate and understand the challenges of printing the English Bible, we must understand a few things about the printing process. Gutenberg did not just invent movable type; he also created an entirely new system of printing that included the manufacture of a new form of paper and suitable ink. Also fundamental to the printing press was the production of letters for typesetting. The process began by crafting individual letters out of a hard metal. Each crafted letter was then used to punch a reverse image into a softer metal, often brass. The interchangeable reverse-image letters were then attached to a mold, where molten lead was poured into its cavity. The resulting letter, with its shank, could then be quickly removed. The whole process was designed in a way that hundreds of letters could be made by one person in a relatively short period of time. At some point in time, the letters of the alphabet were placed in individual boxes within various trays for convenience. Capital letters went into the upper-case tray and small letters into the lower tray (hence the terms upper and lower case). In addition to being made for single letters of the alphabet, casts were made for abbreviations, italicized letters, spaces, punctuation marks, new paragraph markers, and numerous letter combinations such as fi, se, sh, th, and so on. By the time a typesetter had completed the task of assembling the letters and punctuation marks for printing, there would be multiple trays and as many as 250 boxes to draw from—a daunting task for anyone to keep straight. When a page of type was broken down, some letters closely resembling one another, such as q and p, ended up in the wrong compartment. This naturally meant that the next page of type set up would have typographical mistakes from the faulty redistribution of the type in the upper and lower cases. Moreover, typesetting mistakes could have resulted from something as minor as a compositor placing his hand in the wrong letter compartment. Even so, with such an array of letters and punctuation marks to choose from, the compositor had the challenge of selecting them in the correct order and placing them in such a way (backward and right to left) that when the printing was completed, the printed matter could be accurately read.
Typesetters and printers faced a number of challenges while working on any given project. For example, the compositor had the responsibility to make certain that the letters fit within a limited amount of space. Early printed manuscripts indicate that many compositors were given latitude in revising a manuscript in order to print the text within the space allotted. With the high cost of vellum (thin sheets made of animal hide), abbreviations became plentiful as compositors crammed as much text as they could onto each page. This practice allowed the compositor to make a line of print the desired length regardless of where it ended, including midword at times. Thus, printing became an art that allowed the compositor great latitude throughout the publication process.
Another challenge for printers was setting type from handwritten manuscript pages. For example, John H. Gilbert, the principal compositor of the Book of Mormon, commented that the manuscript he was given to work from was one flowing stream of dictation, “closely written and legible, but not a punctuation mark from beginning to end.” The typesetter was thus responsible to set the type “on the fly.” Since corrections were made as the type was set, it appears that “in many cases it would seem that the omission of words in the manuscript [in biblical manuscripts] was made for typographical rather than for linguistic or stylistic reasons.”
Early English printers also lacked standardized dictionaries and handbooks to govern spelling and grammar. We might expect that a rigorous system of proofreading would have been developed to ensure proper printed matter, but circumstances of the day indicate that “it was usually only the larger monastic scriptoria which employed a supervisor to check on what the scribes had written.” The primary reason for employing fewer proofreaders was to increase the already slim margin of profitability in the printing business. Since there was no uniform spelling, the compositor “would use different spellings or abbreviations to help him” fit the text into a given line. To further complicate matters, some printing establishments used more than one compositor to typeset the same Bible for publication. Herein was a “source of inconsistency and occasionally of error; for compositors had their personal styles and conventions in matters of spelling, punctuation, and abbreviation.” These typesetting inconsistencies could often produce errors within the printed text of the Bible and would remain there until some semblance of consistency could be incorporated into the printing process.
As just noted, typesetting, proofreading, and printing the early English Bible was a daunting task. If the printers of this important book did not realize the challenges they faced at the outset, they soon became painfully aware of them. Richard Grafton, the printer of the Great Bible in 1538 (so called because of its size), saw the possibilities of numerous printing errors when he exclaimed to Thomas Cromwell, “Look, however so many sentences there are in the Bible—even so many faults and errors shall be made.” Robert Barker, the printer of the 1611 King James Bible, bemoaned his frustrations by stating, “I do groan under the burden of this book.” Barker was right to complain, for the 1611 King James Bible contained on average at least one typographical error for every ten pages of printed text.
The printing oddities in the early English Bibles, and particularly the King James Version, were of two kinds. The first was the printing of text containing eccentric or incorrect translations of a word or phrase. Much to the relief of the printers, this type of mistake was usually the fault of the translator or reviser. The second type of printing error was due to typographical errors in the typesetting of the text and was usually the fault of the printing establishment. Examples of this could include omission of words, incorrect spellings, or insertion of a word that was not originally in the translator’s text.
Numerous examples of these types of printing errors had disastrous consequences for both the printer and the final product. Indeed, many of these Bibles were nicknamed for their specific printing error or peculiarity of language, such as the “He Bible,” “She Bible,” or “Murderers Bible,” and so on. These errors have created some rather unique editions of our beloved Bible.
Typographical errors contributed to the creation of some interesting editions of the King James Bible. Some of these inadvertent typographical errors have had the impact of actually—and unfortunately—changing doctrinal understanding. Andrew Anderson is remembered as one of the worst printers ever known in Scotland. In the seventeenth century, he issued a Bible with two thousand misprints in the New Testament alone, which dramatizes the fact that human hands and words still had to be involved in the transmission of the text, however divinely appointed it was.
The second edition of the 1562 Geneva Bible misprinted the word peacemakers as placemakers, making the Savior’s statement in the Sermon on the Mount read: “Blessed are the placemakers: for they shall be called the children of God” (see Matthew 5:9).
In the 1609 Geneva Bible, the typesetters mistakenly replaced Jesus’s name with that of Judas. John 6:67 reads: “From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him. Then said Judas unto the twelve, Will ye also go away?”
One of the earliest printing mishaps in the first edition of the 1611 King James Bible occurred in the text of Ruth, where it states that “he went into the city,” when it should have read “she [referring to Ruth] went into the city” (Ruth 3:15). Some historians believe that the 1611 King James Bible was probably typeset and printed in two different printing offices to speed production of this important book. Unfortunately for Robert Barker, the king’s printer, one printing establishment typeset the passage in Ruth to read “he” whereas the other set the text as “she.” For some unknown reason, the She Bible typeset in 1611 was not completed until 1613. Thus, from 1611 to 1614—the year in which the He Bible was discontinued—there were numerous He and She Bibles circulating throughout the British Isles. The word “she” became the accepted text in the later editions of the King James Bible.
A 1629 Cambridge printing renders 1 Timothy 4:16 erroneously as “Take heede unto thy selfe, and unto thy doctrine” in place of “and unto the doctrine.” This error was perpetuated numerous times in later editions, implying that defining doctrine is the prerogative of each individual rather than of Deity.
This 1631 edition resulted from an error incorrectly citing the seventh commandment. Rather than “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” it read “Thou shalt commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14). Peter Heylyn, in his 1668 book, Cyprianus Anglicus, states the following: “His Majesties Printers, at or about this time , had committed a scandalous mistake in our English Bibles, by leaving out the word Not in the Seventh Commandment. His Majesty being made acquainted with it by the Bishop of London, Order was given for calling the Printers into the High-Commission where upon the Evidence of the Fact, the whole Impression was called in, and the Printers deeply fined, as they justly merited.” Tradition holds that the printers were fined three hundred pounds by the king himself.
Some have theorized that the mistake was purposeful. A 1958 publication in the Times House Journal suggested that the printing error was a deliberate attempt on the part of an unidentified party to discredit the publisher. At the very least, one might admit that this kind of error is a little humorous, since thousands of years of experience have shown that some people hardly need any suggestion to violate the seventh commandment. Very few copies of this Bible have survived.
The year 1631 also saw the printing of a King James edition referred to as “The Fools Bible.” The text of Psalm 14 read, “The fool hath said in his heart there is a God,” rather than “The fool hath said in his heart there is no God.” The missing “no” cost the printers three thousand pounds.
This 1638 edition of the English Bible has several interesting typographical errors. One of the most famous is found in 2 Samuel 23:20 and reads: “He slew two lions like men” rather than “lion-like men.” Another printing oversight, from which this edition received its nickname, “The Forgotten Bible,” comes from the text of Luke 7:47, which states, “Her sins which are many, are forgotten,” rather than Jesus’s statement, “Her sins which are many are forgiven.”
This Bible was published by John Fields at London in 1653. It is known for numerous printing mistakes. Nearly twenty thousand copies were printed and distributed with such errors as the phrase from John 9:21, “Or who hath opened his eyes, we know not,” being completely omitted. Romans 6:13 was printed as, “Neither yield ye your members as instruments of righteousness unto sin,” rather than, “Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God.” The most serious mistake, from which its nickname is derived, was made in 1 Corinthians 6:9, which reads, “the unrighteous shall inherit the kingdom of God.”
With all of the printing mishaps in the early English Bible, it is only appropriate that one of the editions was called “The Printers Bible.” This text, published in about 1702, takes its name from a typesetting error found in Psalm 119, which should have read “Princes have persecuted me without a cause” but was mistakenly printed as “Printers have persecuted me.”
John Baskett, an Oxford printer, published a beautifully designed edition of the Bible in 1717, which included a table of lessons, a calendar, and the Apocrypha. The text was set in large type and had a number of engraved metal plates designed by several artists. Baskett’s work, however, was sadly overshadowed by a host of printing errors, which earned the Bible the nickname of “A Baskett-ful of Errors.” One of the misprints in the heading of Luke 20 reads “The Parable of the Vinegar” instead of “The Parable of the Vineyard.” Consequently, this edition also became known as the “Vinegar Bible.” A copy of the 1717 Vinegar Bible is on display in the Museum of the Old North Church in Boston, where the famous signal was given for Paul Revere’s midnight ride to warn that the British were coming.
Three editions share the distinction of being called the “Murderers Bible.” One typographical error changed “murmurers” in Jude to “murderers.” Another made Numbers 35:18 read, “the murderer shall surely be put together” instead of “to death.” In the third, a 1795 Bible, the phrase in Mark 7:27, “Let the children first be filled,” became shockingly, “Let them be killed.”
In addition to typographical errors, peculiar word usage has also led to some unique editions of the Bible. A few examples are pro-vided below.
The “Bugges Bible” was first printed in 1535. Miles Coverdale (1488/
Some Bibles became famous because of the marginal notes or commentary added by the translator or editor. Perhaps the best known of these is the “Wife-Beater Bible,” published in 1549. This Bible, edited by Edmund Becke, was a reprint of the 1537 Matthews Bible containing a number of revised and added notes. After reading Peter’s counsel that wives “be in subjection to your own husbands. . . . Even as Sara obeyed Abraham” (see 1 Peter 3:1, 6), the zealous editor attached a note to male readers at the end of the chapter, “And if she be not obedient and helpful unto him, endeavoreth to beat the fear of God into her head.” Such an egregious note has forever tainted this 1537 Bible with the deplorable moniker “Wife-Beater Bible.”
When Queen Mary (called by some “Bloody Mary”) began to persecute, imprison, and burn Protestants at the stake, English Protestant scholars fled to the European continent for safety. While in Geneva, Switzerland, they translated what came to be known as the Geneva Bible. Published in 1560, the smaller size and less-expensive price of this Bible (compared to the larger-sized versions that were being printed) contributed to its quick rise in popularity. “A number of novel features [also] contributed to the usefulness and popularity of this Bible. Instead of heavy, black-letter type, roman type was used for the first time. It was the first English Bible with numbered verses, which became the basis of all versification in later English Bibles. The practice of italicizing English words not represented in the original text was introduced . . . , a practice that was to continue down through” numerous other versions.
The Geneva Bible was the Bible of Shakespeare and the Pilgrims who sailed on the Mayflower. Excerpts were also issued in the Soldier’s Pocket Bible for Oliver Cromwell’s army in 1643. The very next year, the last edition of the Geneva Bible was printed. A unique feature of the Geneva Bible was the voluminous marginal notes written from the Protestant perspective. Roman Catholics objected to their identifying the pope as the “angel of the bottomless pit” (see the note to Revelation 9:11), and royalty were disturbed by certain interpretations that approved of civil disobedience to the crown (see the note to Exodus 1:19, which approves of the midwives’ lying to Pharaoh). “One of the reasons that led King James in 1604, to agree readily to a new translation of the Scriptures was his dislike of the politics preached in the margins of the Geneva Bible.”
The Geneva Bible is referred to as the “Breeches Bible” because of its translation of Genesis 3:7, which states that Adam and Eve “sewed figge-tree leaves together and made themselves breeches [meaning short trousers]” rather than the famous “aprons” of the King James Version. The word “breeches” in this verse had already appeared in Wycliffe’s Bibles as “brechis” and was included in various Bible plays produced in the 1400s, but because of the popularity of the Geneva Bible, the appellation “Breeches Bible” remains associated with it.
The first edition of the Bishops Bible was printed in 1568 and is sometimes called the Treacle Bible. This unusual name came from the translator’s decision to use the word triacle rather than balm. Thus, in this edition of the Bible, Jeremiah 8:22 reads, “Is there not triacle at Gilead?” rather than the later rendition, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” Treacle and its variant form triacle were used from the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries to refer to a medicinal compound. Originally, it was a salve repudiated to heal venomous bites, poisons, and malignant diseases. In Latter-day Saint theology, the term “balm of Gilead” has been used symbolically to refer to the healing power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
We owe a debt of gratitude to those who dedicated their lives to bring forth this inspired volume of scripture. To the credit of early Bible printers, as quickly as these errors were discovered, they were corrected. Great care and effort have always attended Bible printing. Despite the occasional textual problems, the Bible is still recognized as scripture—words recorded by holy men of God when moved upon by the Holy Ghost (see D&C 68:4). As such, the Bible must never be undervalued, as President J. Reuben Clark Jr. has indicated: “Notwithstanding the corruptions themselves, the Good Old Book stands as a record of God’s dealings with and commandments and promises to his children, in their days of righteousness and in their generations of sin. It still, though corrupted, points out the way of righteousness to the man of faith seeking to serve God.” Readers would do well to study the Bible in light of Mormon’s plea about his own scriptural record: “And whoso receiveth this record, and shall not condemn it because of the imperfections which are in it, the same shall know of greater things than these. . . . Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither . . . them who have written . . . ; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been” (Mormon 8:12; 9:31).
Despite the overwhelming obstacles and difficulties encountered in printing the word of God, the labors of those who struggled with these challenges have not gone unappreciated. The Bible is a literary masterpiece containing powerful prose and edifying teachings that enliven the mind, turning thoughts both inward and heavenward. Rather than treat printing or translating errors as evidence that invalidates the text, we should honor and use the Bible to lift our lives, strengthen our souls, and enlarge our spirituality. As Elder Bruce R. McConkie testified:
The Bible should become an open book—a book that is read and believed and understood by all men on earth. . . .
It is a volume of holy scripture; . . . it contains the mind and will and voice of the Lord to all men on earth; and . . . it has had a greater effect on the civilization of the world, up to this time, than any other book ever written. . . .
Providentially the Bible is so written that all men, however slight their spiritual endowment may be, can gain truth and enlightenment from it. . . .
Read the book itself. “Search the scriptures” (John 5:39). Treasure up the Lord’s word. Go to the source. The words are sacred. Insofar as they have come down to us as originally penned, they were inspired by the Holy Ghost. They are to be read over and over again as long as we live.
 Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, ed. Bruce R. McConkie (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1956), 3:184; see also Benson Bobrick, Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001), 11.
 Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 119.
 Bruce M. Metzger, The Bible in Translation: Ancient and English Versions (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2001), 60.
 Jon Nielsen and Royal Skousen, “How Much King James Bible Is William Tyndale’s?” Reformation 3 (1998): 73.
 Nielsen and Skousen, “How Much?” 74.
 Joseph Fielding Smith, The Progress of Man (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1964), 211–12.
 N. F. Blake, Caxton: England’s First Publisher (London: Osprey, 1976), 73.
 Blake, Caxton, 89, 92, 94, 97–98.
 Bobrick, Wide as the Waters, 83; see also Alister E. McGrath, In the Beginning—The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 256–58.
 John H. Gilbert, letter to James T. Cobb, February 10, 1879, cited in Terryl L. Givens, By the Hand of Mormon (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 31.
 Blake, Caxton, 89.
 Blake, Caxton, 101.
 Blake, Caxton, 97.
 The Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. 3 (Reformation to Present Day) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963–70).
 Bobrick, Wide as the Waters, 251.
 Bobrick, Wide as the Waters, 251.
 Bobrick, Wide as the Waters, 251–52.
 Jenny Roberts, Bible Facts (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1990), 17.
 See A. S. Herbert, Historical Catalogue of Printed Editions of the English Bible: 1525–1961 (New York: The American Bible Society, 1968), 133.
 Peter Heylyn, Cyprianus Anglicus; or, The History of the Life and Death of The Most Reverend and Renowned Prelate William (London: A. Seile, 1668), 228; emphasis in original.
 See Herbert, Historical Catalogue, 162.
 See Herbert, Historical Catalogue, 178.
 See Herbert, Historical Catalogue, 200; emphasis added.
 See Ray Russell, “The ‘Wicked’ Bibles,” Theology Today 37 (October 1980): 360–63.
 See Herbert, Historical Catalogue, 244.
 See Herbert, Historical Catalogue, 9.
 Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “bug.”
 See Herbert, Historical Catalogue, 41.
 Metzger, Bible in Translation, 65.
 Metzger, Bible in Translation, 65.
 See Metzger, Bible in Translation, 65.
 See Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “treacle.”
 J. Reuben Clark Jr., On the Way to Immortality and Eternal Life (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1950), 210.
 Bruce R. McConkie, “The Bible, a Sealed Book,” Eighth Annual Church Education System New Testament Symposium, Brigham Young University, 1984, 31–33.