4 Apr 2011

Ancestry of the King James Version #8: Old "English" Scripture

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Church History, Exegesis, King James Version, Ministry

Caedmon’s hymn.

Setting the Stage

Here are previous contributions in this series on the Ancestry of the KJV: Ancestry of the KJV #1: A Literal Translation?; Ancestry of the KJV #2: Mythology, Archeology & Translation; Ancestry of the KJV #3: Making Books in the Ancient World; Ancestry of the KJV #4: ABCs of Biblical Languages; Ancestry of the King James Version #5: More Greek Thoughts & Literal Translation; Ancestry of the King James Version #6: The Septuagint; Ancestry of the King James Version #7: The Latin Versions.

Christianity in the British Isles is ancient. It is unknown when it arrived, or by whom, but by the time of Tertullian(AD 160-225) and Origen (AD 185-254) Christianity had already taken root in Roman Britain. The British Christianity was sufficiently thriving to send three bishops; Eborius of York, Restitus of London, and Adelphius, to the Synod of Arles in 314 to discuss the Donatist controversy. St. Alban was the first martyr for Christ, that we know of, in Britain during the reign of Diocletian [1]. One of the most famous Christians from Britain was the heretic Pelagius. The imperial armies left Britain in 407 AD but Roman culture continued for some time. However, in time, the memories of Rome faded into the past as Britain went through a series of invasion and migrations from Saxons, Jutes and Vikings.

In these early years the Bible was known, studied, and loved by disciples of the Lord but not in anything we would recognize. The Bible of Roman Britain was in Latin. Manuscript masterpieces of Jerome’s Vulgate were produced in old England. As Roman culture faded so too did the dominance of Latin among both the “clergy” and “laity.” Pictures on stained glass became the Bible for the common folks and remained so for centuries. Poems such as the Dream of the Rood were sort of creative retellings of portions of the biblical narrative.

Caedmon, Anglo-Saxon Poet (d.c. 680 AD)

The Venerable Bede tells the story of the unlearned and ungifted cow herder for the monastery at Whitby named Caedmon. One night Caedmon left a party out of fear of having to contribute by song to the merry making. Falling asleep in the stable Caedmon was visited by a heavenly messenger who called out “Caedmon, sing me something.” In the spirit of Moses the cow hand protested and yet was commanded again to sing. Caedmon replied “what must I sing?” To which the reply came “about the beginning of created things.” Caedmon woke in the morning met with the leaders of the monastery and sang a powerful and beautiful song. Caedmon was admitted into the monastery and he learned Bible stories and turned them into vernacular poems and songs for the masses. Bede tells us that he learned all he could “ruminating over it, like some animal chewing the cud” he would turn the story into “the most melodious verse.” During the remainder of his life Caedmon sang about the creation of the world, Adam and Eve, the history of Genesis, the Exodus from Egypt, the conquest, especially the incarnation, passion and resurrection of Jesus [2]. A portion of his hymn to creation reads (with interlinear)

Now we ought to praise the maker of the heavenly realm
Nu sculon herigean heofonrices Weard
the might of the Creator and his understanding,
Meotodes meahte ond his modgethanc
the works of the Father of Glory, how he, the eternal Lord,
weorc Wuldorfaeder, swa he wundra gehwaes
established a beginning of each wonder.
ece Drihten, or onstealde.

Caedmon could not read or write. He learned the stories of the Bible listening in the monastery from the Latin Vulgate. Since that is all he knew the songs he produced reflect that translation. Thus in his songs about Daniel he included for the Anglo-Saxons of his day material he believed to be Scripture – The Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men.

Caedmon’s poetry was imitated by other poets whose names have now been lost. These poets gave the Anglo-Saxons (along with Caedmon) their first traces of the Bible in their vernacular. Surviving examples of these early biblical works are Daniel and Judith [3].

King Alfred the Great (849-899 AD)

Alfred’s reign was a remarkable one in the history of what we now call England. He defeated the Vikings and lead a sort of Renaissance in Britain. Writing about 894, Alfred noted that even among the clergy there were few that could read or translate Latin. Alfred, a very pious and learned man, wanted to help the clergy and translated a number of works in Anglo-Saxon Gregory’s Pastoral Care, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, the first fifty psalms of the Psalter and various other liturgical works such as the Lord’s Prayer. A great, and entertaining, telling of his career is Asser’s Life of King Alfred [4]. Here is the Lord’s Prayer from the time of Alfred with a literal word for word “translation.”

Uren Fader dhick art in heofnas
Our Father which art in heaven
Sic gehalged dhin noma
Be hallowed Thy name
To cymedh dhin ric
Come Thy kingdom
Sic dhin willa sue is in hcofnas and in eardhs
Be Thy will so as in heaven and in earth
Vren hlaf ofer wirthe sel us to daeg
Our loaf over substantial (?) give us today
And forgef us scylda urna
And forgive us debts ours
Sue we forgefan sculdgun vrum
As we forgive debtors ours
And no inleadh vridk in costung
And no lead us in temptation
Als gefrig vrich fro ifle
But free us from evil.[5]

The sharp eyed reader will note that the Lord’s Prayer, as used liturgically in Alfred’s day, did not include the doxology most have come to know in the King James Version.

Aelfric (10th Century AD)

Aelfric was “the greatest of Old English prose writers and the most important figure of the history of the Bible in the English vernacular before Wyclif”[6]. It was in his ministry as a priest that Aelfric frequently give scriptural translation in the course of his homilies from the Vulgate. Throughout his career Aelfric would render into Anglo-Saxon (Old English) the biblical story which he called “the naked narrative” the Creation story, Joshua, Kings, Job, Esther and the Maccabees. A version of Judith is sometimes ascribed to him as well. Here is a sample of from the Wessex Gospels, the Parable of the Sower from Matthew 13.3-8. I will leave it untranslated to give the native flavor of the text.

Sothlice ut eode se sawere his saed to sawenne. And tha tha he seow, sumu hie feollon with weg, and fuglas comon and aeton tha. Sothlice sumu feollon on on staenihte, thaer hit naefde micle eorthan, and hraedlice up sprugon, for thaem the hie naefdon thaere eorthan diepan; sothlice, up sprungenre sunnan, hie adrugodon and forscruncon, for thaem the hie naefdon wyrtruman. Sothlice sumu feollon on thornas, and tha thornas weoxon, and forthrysmdon tha. Sumu sothlice feollon on gode eorthan, and sealdon waestm, sum hundfealdne, sum siextigfealdne, sum thritigfealdne.


The conquest by the Normans in AD 1066 dealt a near death blow to Anglo-Saxon culture. The conquerors spoke Norman French and brought about such changes in the language that the old Anglo-Saxon itself became unintelligible to the masses. But towards the end of the twelfth century vernacular preaching began to be revived and would bear fruit in the Lollard Movement of John Wycliff.

As we can see from this brief look at a few significant moments in the Ancestry of the King James Version the beginnings of the Bible in our language was a long and perilous journey. The “English” of that time is as foreign to most of us as are the Greek and Hebrew originals of the biblical authors. We give thanks to God for these men who are now part of the great cloud of witnesses encouraging us to treasure the gift of the Word of God we have in Scripture.


[1] Alban, a pagan, offered hospitality to a fleeing Christian. Alban learned the faith from this anonymous disciple. Alban was arrested by soldiers and ordered to sacrifice to the gods. The new convert refused saying “I am now a Christian and am ready to do my duty.” He was murdered for his testimony. See Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, edited with an Intro by Judith McClure and Roger Collins (Oxford University Press, 1969, 1999), pp. 16-19.

[2] All quotes from Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, pp. 215-218.

[3] See Geoffrey Shepherd, “English Versions of the Scriptures Before Wyclif,” in Cambridge History of the Bible, vol 2, pp. 368ff.

[4] See Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources, translated and with an introduction and notes by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge (Penguin Books). For our purposes there is a fine selection of Alfred’s renderings of the Psalms.

[5] Text from G. L. Owen, Notes on the History and Text of Our Early English Bible, and its Translation into Welsh, p. 28.

[6] Shepperd, “English Versions,” p. 374.

3 Responses to “Ancestry of the King James Version #8: Old "English" Scripture”

  1. Anonymous Says:


  2. Randall Says:

    Thanks for your research and for sharing it with us. As always, your posts are interesting and frequently subject matter I would never have thought to research on my own.

  3. Gardner Hall Says:

    Love the English history and old English quotations.

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