When Bibles Go Wrong

While it’s true that people are no longer strangled and burned at the stake or drawn and quartered for translating the Bible into English, sometimes there are still mishaps. Not of the fatal variety, but mishaps of the kind that collectors eat up. When bibles go wrong, it’s almost always a great story.


Sometimes there’s simply a poor decision made in the translation process. The Geneva translation, which was the main Protestant translation into English before the King James Version (and the translation known to Shakespeare), has lived on notoriously as the “Breeches” Bible for the Englishing of Genesis 3:7, in which Adam and Eve make “breeches” for themselves from fig leaves.


Title page of the 1560 Geneva Bible

Sometimes the editing of a particular edition is not up to snuff. John Baskett’s Bible of 1717 is often called the “Baskett-full of errors” because so many words and phrases were printed incorrectly. This bible is more commonly called the Vinegar Bible because of its famous use of the word “vinegar” for “vineyard” in Luke 20.


The beautiful and typographically embarrassing Vinegar Bible

Sometimes the printers simply didn’t have enough resources. The Leda Bible of 1572 earned a reputation because the printers used some type heads from a previous printing of Ovid’s Metamorphosis. This led to the rather unsuitable scene of Leda and the swan inaugurating the Epistle to the Hebrews.


Other times, there’s something more sinister afoot. The most infamous of all the erroneous bibles is the Wicked Bible. Within the text of Exodus laying out the Ten Commandments, the “not” of “Thou shalt not commit adultery” was left out. It is surmised that this was not an accident.


The infamous verse of the Wicked Bible


There are many others; see this link for a full list. Isn’t the history of printing fun?


14 Comments Add yours

  1. vanbraman says:

    Thanks for a great post. The oldest Bibles in my collection only go back to around 1800 and I don’t have any with interesting mis-printings :-).

  2. Lucas says:

    I am very interested in the “Wicked Bible.” AM I correctly seeing, “Thou shalt commit adultry?” Is that a historical inaccuracy? Or is it something that someone changed to make this particular verson of the bible fit their lifestyle? I really appreciate your consistant feedback Rebecca.

    1. I don’t think anyone knows for sure, but many scholars guess that the “not” that is missing was left out on purpose. Pretty crazy, right? Check out the link at the end of my post–I also really like the Fool’s Bible.

  3. R Towns Blethrow says:

    Happy Reformation Day to one and all viewing this missive.

    Here’s some food for thought.
    Deuteronomy 4:2

    Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the LORD your God that I give you.

    Deuteronomy 12:32
    See that you do all I command you; do not add to it or take away from it.

    Geneva Study Bible

    Ye shall {b} not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye {c} diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.

    (b) Think not to be more wise than I am.

    (c) God will not be served by halves, but will have full obedience.
    ************* *************** ************** ************

    p.s. I wonder how the one Wicked Bible copy in the collection of rare books in the New York Public Library fared with the forces of Post Tropical Cyclone Sandy?? Or, how it may fare against the possible future ones for 2012, Tony
    Valerie, and William?

    1. The NY Public Library has a seriously amazing collection of rare books. I’m sure they’ve got a lot of special security in place to protect the volumes. They have an Audubon double elephant folio, a Gutenberg, the Columbus letter…

  4. After watching the movie The Book of Eli you could totally see how translations could get messed up! FYI – Saw an episode of Pawn Stars and your appraisal of the Truman Books…I could totally have seen that lady consigning them to you instead. Did she?

    1. Nope. I think she was considering donating them to the Truman Library, though I don’t know what she did with them in the end…

  5. m says:

    Mrs. Romney is the King James version the most accurate translation? Your reply would be greatly appreciated if you have time. Thanks

    1. Oh, heavens. This is sticky because a lot of Christians prefer to use the King James Version (KJV), but, no, it’s not the most accurate. I’ll defer to a friend of mine to summarize, who is a scholar in Biblical studies currently studying at Oxford:

      “I highly recommend that you lay aside your KJV and get yourselves a copy of the NRV (New Revised Standard Version). It’s been my first choice translation for a while now. It’s a scholarly translation that is the closest thing to a word-for-word translation from the Greek/Hebrew (as far as that’s possible) that there is, while still being readable. It’s the one most used by academics. When it comes down to it, the King James is just not that accurate a translation, not to mention the fact that it uses as its base Greek text a handful of manuscripts that are late and often untrustworthy. Scholars today have thousands of additional manuscripts that are much older and closer to the originally penned words than the KJV translators had…”

      1. m says:

        Thank you. Oh heavens sticky indeed. Please allow me to take some more of your time with another question to help me in my search for truth. I believe that you know already that you will be blessed for helping me. Is there a document/article or anything listing the inaccuracies of the King James?

      2. m says:

        Please Mrs. Romney would you help me

        1. Sorry for the delay; I’ve now heard back from my friend, who is the real expert on this. He says:

          “An article in the Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal titled “Errors in the King James Bible” might work. It’s available online (http://www.dbts.edu/journals/1999/Combs.PDF). It basically summarizes the two main problems (KJV based on inferior Greek texts, and the translation itself is often erroneous) and gives a few examples under both categories. Also useful is an online article by Daniel Wallace, a solid NT scholar (http://bible.org/article/why-i-do-not-think-king-james-bible-best-translation-available-today). He mentions some of the other big textual problems like the fact that the Johannine comma (1 Jn 5:7-8), the adulteress pericope (John 7:53-8:11),and the ending of Mark (Mk 16:9-20) aren’t in our best manuscripts, which the DBSJ article neglects to mention.

          In the interest of fairness, I’ll point out that I don’t actually think the mistranslations are the biggest issue with the KJV. I mean, there are some obvious examples of mistranslations or of passages that don’t belong that people should be aware of, and anyone who wants do to close, exegetical work on the text will obviously want a version that is based on the best manuscripts, but for the purposes of the average reader I really don’t think the KJV is all that bad of a translation in terms of general accuracy (some of the modern paraphrased bibles such as the Good News Bible or The Living Bible are much, much worse). My biggest beef is simply that the language is just too archaic for most modern readers. So much of the vocabulary has changed meaning over the centuries (e.g. the word “conversation” in Jacobean English didn’t refer to what you said, as we would think, but what you did), and large parts of the Bible are almost completely unintelligible in the KJV (Isaiah, much of Paul). That, much more than the occasional mistranslation, is my biggest argument for why modern readers of the Bible should consult a modern, scholarly (NRSV, NIV, etc.) translation that uses contemporary English.

          If you are interested, a longer work that looks at the broader issues is Bruce Metzger’s The Bible in Translation: Ancient and English Versions which I often recommend. It’s meant for the general reader.”

          1. m says:

            Thank you very much for your kindness.

  6. claire says:

    Hi Rebecca, we love watching Pawn Stars at home and I was so excited to see your name on a comment on my blog! I just want to say thank you for this informative post. Any Bible translation post and I am all over it. Hope to see many more of these. 🙂

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