Book Review: A Visual History of the English Bible

A Visual History of the English Bible: The Tumultuous Tale of the
World’s Bestselling Book by Donald L. Brake (2008)

In this glossy-page book, author Donald L. Brake of Multnomah Bible College and Seminary chronicles the history of the English Bible from medieval manuscripts to contemporary translations.

Brake opens his book with a brief history of the earliest manuscripts that were written in the original languages to the documents copied during the Middle Ages. Most of the book, however, covers the conflict between monarchs and the Roman Catholic Church authorities and those brave reformers who desired to make the Bible accessible to the masses.

Ever since Jerome translated the Bible into Latin in AD 380, the Roman Catholic Church had clung to the Vulgate as the sacred edition of the Bible. This decision trapped God’s word in a language incomprehensible to most Europeans. The Roman Catholic Church forbade anyone from translating the Bible into a vernacular language. They feared that the common people would misinterpret the Bible.

John Wycliffe, in his passion to provide the Scriptures in the language of the “people of the plow,” defied church leaders and translated the Bible into English. He wrote his 1384 translation using Middle English, the language of Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of The Canterbury Tales.

In reaction, the Roman Catholic Church issued the Constitutions in 1408. This made translating, owning, or even reading an English Bible heretical acts.

Next, the author explains how the Gutenberg Bible, Martin Luther, and the Reformation increased the desire for Bibles in vernacular languages. At the same time, various rulers and church leaders fought against this trend.

Finally, the Authorized King James Bible of 1611 brought the struggle between the English authorities and the common man to an end. The English people, at last, could have God’s word in their own language without fear of government or church punishment.

As Brake describes the various translations and printings of the English Bible, he gives detailed examples of translation problems that the scholars ran into. He also told stories of the numerous typographical errors that escaped the printers’ notice.

Most importantly, the author demonstrates how God kept his message from being distorted despite some errors. Our modern translations do express the message of the oldest Hebrew and Greek manuscripts.


Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

The last part of the books describes modern English translations and their source manuscripts.

Throughout this book, Brake inserts sidebars containing anecdotes of his insatiable hobby of antique Bible collecting. Living up to its title, the book offers numerous beautiful photos of various antique Bibles, some of which belong to the author.

For reference, the book has a table of contents for illustrations, an illustrated timeline, maps of England and Germany, a glossary, chapter notes, a selected biography, a scripture index, and a general index. These sections will aid students, authors, or pastors in finding facts quickly.

Each chapter takes a different path, and occasionally the author repeats himself when his train of thought crosses with facts from another section. Overall, readers who love history or have a specific interest in how we gained our English translation of the Bible will find this book an enjoyable read.

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