Before Tyndale and Luther translated the Bible only priests could read it; now there are 21 English-language versions on one CD-Rom. They offer a fascinating panorama of 500 years of belief, says Andrew Brown
In the beginning was the word: and when the word burst into English it was angry. William Tyndale, one of the earliest translators of the Bible into English, denounced the "malicious and wily hypocrites which are so stubborn and hard-hearted in their wicked abominations ... [and] say, some of them, that it is unpossible to translate the scripture ... they be all agreed to drive you from the knowledge of the scripture ... and to keep the world still in darkness."

The "malicious and wily hypocrites" paid him back in kind; he was strangled and burnt at the stake in Belgium in 1534 before he could complete his translation of the Old Testament. Nowadays we tend to think of religion as the enemy of free speech: in fact, the Bible is the prototype of all subversive books. For Tyndale and his fellow reformers, the Bible was the weapon that would overthrow all of the unjust rulers of the world who would, as Tyndale wrote, "satisfy their filthy lusts, their proud ambition and unsatiable covetousness and exalt their own honour above king, emperor, yea, and above god himself.

"A thousand books had they [rather] to be put forth against their abominable doings and doctrine than that the scripture should come to light." The objects of this scathing fury were fellow Christians. The Bible came into modern languages not to bring peace, but the sword.

Yesterday was the 450th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther, who launched the Reformation. His Protestant ideas triumphed to a large measure because the printing press allowed people to read the Bible and judge for themselves what it said.

The Bible has always been at the forefront of technology; only pornography is available today in as many media. There are bible videos and bible tapes. One of the most popular services on the Internet is a Bible Gateway on the World Wide Web, which offers simultaneous access to five different English translations and a variety of foreign languages.

Now the Cambridge firm of Chadwyck-Healey has just published a CD-Rom containing the full text of 21 versions, from the earliest known Anglo- Saxon gospels of the 9th century to the Good News Bible, the most popular modern version. At pounds 1,000 a throw, it will probably sell few copies, but there is room in the market for all sorts of variation. It certainly shows how many languages are comprehended in the simple term "English". To browse through three or four versions simultaneously, when each is several centuries away from its neighbours, is to be given an extraordinary panoramic view of the development of the English language, as if the supposedly eternal word had frozen time.

The Bible has done other things just as remarkable: we owe the Reformation to it - and the modern world is unimaginable without the Reformation. One could argue that without the Bible there would be no nation-states. This is partly because the Reformation was followed by roughly a century of religious warfare in northern Europe, which only strong states survived; and partly because the Bible defined languages, around which nations grew.

There is a saying among linguists that a language is a dialect with an army, but there has probably never been an army in the Christian world that did not have a translation of the Bible. Luther's own translation of the Bible did a great deal to shape the German language, just as the foundation stones of modern English are Tyndale, Cranmer's translations of the psalms in the Book of Common Prayer, and the King James version. Noah Webster, who produced the first American dictionary, partly to mark the differences between American and British English, also produced one of the first American bible translations

It is the only holy book that is meant to be translated: the Koran, for example, can only be studied in Arabic. The Bible's potentially global appeal has meant that Christian missionaries have done a huge amount to spread literacy around the world. They have invented alphabets, as the brother saints Cyril and Methodius, after whom the Cyrillic alphabet is named, did in the 9th century. They have written grammars and dictionaries, as missionaries today are still doing in the Amazon rainforests.

Yet seldom is one translation thought enough. No sooner is a language fixed and defined by a bible translation than someone feels it can be improved, either in fidelity to the original or in fidelity to the new, living language. The two most popular modern translations, the Good News Bible and the New International Version, have both sold more than 100 million copies each in the past 20 years. In the three years after the collapse of Communism, Protestant missionaries distributed more than 50 million bibles in the former Soviet Union.

The bibles that fail or are forgotten can still be of enormous interest. Among the texts on the CD-Rom are the versions of the gospels translated by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. These are thick with footnotes and argument. Each sentence meant something special to him and had to be expounded in detail. It was, after all, the word of God.

The idea that there is an unchanging word of God, which anyone could in principle comprehend, was the great fire of the Reformation. It burns in Luther with his slogan, "every man his own priest"; and it burns through Tyndale's scathing denunciations. Finally, it burnt itself out. The idea of a standard of rationality could not be confined within one book. If the Bible revealed the mind of the Lord, so could the world He made. Nor was there any great distinction between the two modes of thought; Isaac Newton spent more time puzzling over biblical prophecies than he did on all his revolutionary scientific studies.

Webster's American translation of the Bible, also on the CD-Rom, contains at the beginning of the book of Genesis a note to say that the Creation events had happened in 4004BC, and this precision would have seemed to Webster the result of a growth of scientific knowledge. In the 300 years between Luther and Webster, nothing fundamental to the interpretation of the Bible had changed. In the 150 years between Webster and the Good News Bible, however, almost everything changed.

The crucial challenge was not scientific, but historical. Under historical examination from the middle of the 19th century onwards, the Bible broke up from being The Book by The Author into a collection of books by different authors with varying axes to grind. A modern study, such as Robin Lane Fox's The Unauthorised Version, can identify four different authors for the Pentateuch, and two for the book of Genesis. They all have in common that they are not God, and not even Moses. Lane Fox argues that the birth narratives of Jesus cannot all be true: even a virgin birth turns out to be more probable than the story of the birth in the manger at Bethlehem. The prophecies turn out to have been written after the events that they prophesied. The Good News turns out to be made up from good novels.

At the end of the 20th century, it is commonplace to say that reason has failed us and that the world is not ultimately explicable by rational scientific inquiry; in fact, that rationality itself may be a myth and a deception. This is now a crisis for secular thought, but it is a crisis that the 19th-century understanding of the Bible went through first.

The Bible, in fact, went through the crisis of post-modernism before the modernist movement got under way. Yet it survived. Like the God it describes, it demands love and defeats understanding. The more that post- modernism undermines our simple beliefs that language can link us to the outside world with unequivocal meaning, the more of a future there is for a book which proclaims that in the beginning was the word - especially if that "book" is now a stream of digits whirling round in cyberspace.

Jonah and the Whale: how three different translators interpreted a Biblical tale

Then they sayd vn to hym / what shall we doo vnto thee / that the se maye cease from trowblinge vs? For the se wrought & was trowblous. And he answered them / take me and cast me in to the se / & so shall it lett you be in reste: for I wotte / it is for my sake / that this greate tempest is come vppon you. Neuerthelesse the men assayed wyth rowenge to bringe the sheppe to lande: but it wold not be / because the se so wrought & was so trowblous agenst them. Wherefore they cried vn to the lorde & sayd: O lorde latt vs not perih for this mans deeth / nether laye innocent bloud vn to oure charge: for thou lorde even as thy pleasure was / so thou hast done.

And then they toke Ionas / & cast him in to ye se / & the se lefte ragynge. And ye men feared the lorde excedingly: & sacrificed sacrififice vn to the lorde: and vowed vowes.

The seconde Chapter.

Bvt ye lorde prepared a greate fyshe / to swalow vp Ionas. And so was Ionas in ye bowels of ye fish .iij. dayes & .iij. nightes.

William Tyndale 1534

Noah Webster 1833

Then said they to him, What shall we do to thee, that the sea may be calm to us? for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous.

12 And he said to them, Take me, and cast me into the sea; so shall the sea be calm to you: for I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you.

13 Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring it to the land; but they could not: for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous against them.

14 Wherefore they cried to the Lord, and said, We beseech thee, O Lord, we beseech thee, let us not perish for this man's life, and lay not upon us innocent blood: for thou, O Lord, hast done as it pleased thee.

15 So they took Jonah, and cast him into the sea: and the sea ceased from her raging.

16 Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice to the Lord, and made vows.

17 Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And. Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

Good News Bible 1976

The storm was getting worse all the time, so the sailors asked him, "What should we do to you to stop the storm?"

12 Jonah answered, "Throw me into the sea, and it will calm down. I know it is my fault that you are caught in this violent storm."

13 Instead, the sailors tried to get the ship to shore, rowing with all their might. But the storm was becoming worse and worse, and they got nowhere.

14 So they cried out to the Lord, "O Lord, we pray, don't punish us with death for taking this man's life! You, O Lord, are responsible for all this; it is your doing."

15 Then they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea, and it calmed down at once.

16 This made the sailors so afraid of the Lord that they offered a sacrifice and promised to serve him.

17 At the Lord's command a large fish swallowed Jonah, and he was inside the fish for three days and three nights.