British and Irish Literature Biblical Literature
Mark Sweetnam
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0142


It is difficult to imagine a set of truisms more obviously true than the statements that the Bible is a remarkable book, and that its influence on literature and culture has been enormous. This has been particularly true of literature in English, which is the focus of this article. In spite of—and perhaps because of—the apparently self-evident truth of these statements, they have not been examined by scholars with the comprehensiveness or thoroughness that one might have expected, or hoped for. While the Bible remains one of the most studied texts in the modern academy, and while the influence of literary criticism can be seen in some of the work being carried out within the discipline of Biblical studies, both the study of the Bible as literature and the study of the influence of the Bible on literature remain, to a large extent, relatively marginal activities. In the case of the study of the Bible as literature, this neglect has survived the persistent and fruitful efforts of a small number of distinguished scholars. This work deserves to be more widely known than is currently the case. In a few cases, the impact of the Bible on culture and literature has been registered. This is especially true of the Authorized/King James Version. A general tendency toward what is sometimes termed “AVolatry” was greatly compounded by the four-hundredth anniversary of the translation in 2011, and a rash of popular and scholarly volumes have documented the considerable impact of this translation on the way in which English has been written and spoken ever since. Apart from a few isolated cases, however, the examination of the ways in which English literature has been shaped by the Bible remains somewhat partial, especially outside of the early modern period, where the importance of Scripture as an intertextual source is especially obvious. Given the influence of the Bible on literature well outside that period, much work remains to be done. There are encouraging signs that this dearth of scholarship is beginning to be addressed.


Recent editions of the Biblical text, in a variety of translations, have been significant for two reasons. Firstly, scholars have benefited from a number of new editions of older translations. Norton 2005 sets the standard for these with an edition of the King James Version (KJV), which combines rigorous textual scholarship with a notably reader-friendly presentation. Tyndale 1989 and Tyndale 1992 provide editions of Tyndale’s Old and New Testament translations with modernized spelling. These editions have made Tyndale’s work available to a general readership and played an important part in uncovering the scale of Tyndale’s achievement and the indebtedness of later translations to his work. Tyndale 2000 provides an edition of the 1526 New Testament that retains the original 16th-century spelling. Not all translations of the Bible into English are available in modern critical editions. Work is in progress on a new edition of the Wycliffe Bible, the first English translation of the whole Bible. Until this becomes available, readers must continue to rely on Forshall and Madden 1850, which does have the advantage of being freely available online. Tyndale and Coverdale 2009 provides a facsimile reproduction of The Matthew Bible, the first English Bible to be printed with official sanction and a significant landmark in the project of Reformation. A number of factors make an authoritative edition of the Geneva Bible a nearly impossible task, but readers can benefit from a choice of facsimile reproductions, including McKitterick 1992 and The Geneva Bible: A Facsimile of the 1560 Edition. Norton 2005 and The Holy Bible: King James Version, Quatercentenary Edition are important resources for scholarly interaction with the text of the King James Version. Secondly, the market in modern editions and printings of the Bible has seen an increased trend toward editions that are designed to maximize the reading experience and to minimize the distractions traditionally imposed by chapter and verse markings as well as the other apparatus of reference. Cambridge’s Clarion edition, which is available with a range of translations, blazed a trail here, and Crossway has followed suit, with the one-volume ESV Reader’s Bible (2014) and the six volumes of ESV Reader’s Bible (2016).

  • ESV Reader’s Bible. 6 vols. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016.

    A six-volume edition of the English Standard Version (ESV), designed to maximize the ease of reading Scripture. An elegant paragraph setting with chapter numbers, but no additional para-textual apparatus. Directly related to Crossway’s previous foray into reader-friendly Bibles, the one-volume ESV Reader’s Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014).

  • Forshall, Josiah, and Frederic Madden, eds. The Holy Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments, with the Apocryphal Books, in the Earliest English Versions made from the Latin Vulgate by John Wycliffe and his Followers. Oxford: At the University Press, 1850.

    A four-volume edition of the Wycliffe/Purvey translation of the Bible. For a more recent edition of the New Testament with modernized spelling, see William Cooper, ed., The Wycliffe New Testament (1388): An Edition in Modern Spelling with an Introduction, the Prologues and the Epistle to the Laodiceans (London: British Library, 2002).

  • The Geneva Bible: A Facsimile of the 1560 Edition. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Bibles, 2007.

    A facsimile, including a useful introduction by Lloyd E. Berry and bibliography that, though not exhaustive, provides a useful guide to the relevant historical literature.

  • The Holy Bible: King James Version, Quatercentenary Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    With an essay by Gordon Campbell. Set in Roman type, but including all the features of the 1611 edition—front matter, chapter headings, marginal notes, and catchwords. Retains original spelling and employs italics for words supplied by the translators.

  • McKitterick, David, ed. The Cambridge Geneva Bible of 1591: A Facsimile Reprint Marking 400 Years of Bible Production by the World’s Oldest Bible Printer and Publisher. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

    A limited-edition facsimile of the very first Bible printed by Cambridge University Press in 1591, published in 1991 to celebrate Cambridge’s first four hundred years of Bible publishing.

  • Norton, David, ed. The New Cambridge Paragraph Bible with the Apocrypha. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    An important edition of the King James Version edited by David Norton and based on the collation of the established text of the KJV with the translators’ original notes. An attempt to present the text as intended by the 1611 translators, but using modern spelling. Reproduces the translators’ preface and marginal notes.

  • Tyndale, William, trans. Tyndale’s New Testament. Edited by David Daniell. New Haven, CT; London: Yale University Press, 1989.

    A modern-spelling edition of Tyndale’s New Testament by Tyndale’s leading biographer. An attractive edition with a useful introduction. An alternative modern-spelling edition that includes a useful introduction, Tyndale’s prologue, and a selection of Tyndale’s marginal notes is William Tyndale, trans., William Tyndale’s New Testament: With a Selection from the Marginal Notes and an Introduction by Priscilla Martin, ed. Priscilla Martin (Ware, UK: Wordsworth, 2000).

  • Tyndale, William, trans. Tyndale’s Old Testament. Edited by David Daniell. New Haven, CT; London: Yale University Press, 1992.

    A modern-spelling edition of Tyndale’s translation of portions of the Old Testament—the Pentateuch and the historical books. Tyndale’s introductions and marginal notes are included.

  • Tyndale, William, trans. The New Testament: 1526 Translated by William Tyndale; Original Spelling Edition. Edited by William Cooper. London: British Library, 2000.

    An edition of Tyndale’s New Testament, retaining the original spelling.

  • Tyndale, William, and Miles Coverdale, trans. Matthew’s Bible: A Facsimile of the 1537 Edition. Edited by Joseph Johnson and John Rogers. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2009.

    A facsimile of the first English Bible to be printed with official sanction.

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