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  Wikipedia: History of the English Bible

Wikipedia: History of the English Bible
History of the English Bible
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

 This article is part of the 
History of the English Bible series.
Overview of English Bible translations
 Old English Bible translations
Bede, Alfred the Great, Aelfric
Middle English Bible translations
 John Wyclif, Richard Rolle
Early Modern English Bible translations
William Tyndale, Great Bible, Bishops' Bible,
Geneva Bible, Douai Bible,
King James Version of the Bible
Modern English Bible translations
 Revised Standard Version,
New International Version

The following article originated as an excerpt from "The Study of the King James Bible by Cleland Boyd McAfee (1866-1944), first published 1912. McAfee's whole text is available online at . The present text is now being edited for compatibility with Wikipedia's standards and other articles, and will come to differ from McAfee's original; some notes about difficulties with McAfee's text will be found at the end of the article.

No book was ever translated so often as the Bible.

Jewish translations

The first movement to make the Scripture speak the current tongue appeared nearly three centuries before Christ. Most of the Old Testament then existed in Hebrew. But the Jews had scattered widely. Many had gathered in Egypt where Alexander the Great had founded the city that bears his name. At one time a third of the population of the city was Jewish. Many of the people were passionately loyal to their religion and its sacred book. But the current tongue there and through most of the civilized world was Greek, and not Hebrew. As always, there were some who felt that the Book and its original language were inseparable. Others revealed the disposition of which we spoke a moment ago, and set out to make the Book speak the current tongue. For one hundred and fifty years the work went on, and what we call the Septuagint was completed.

We owe still more to translation. While there is accumulating evidence that there was spoken in Palestine at that time a colloquial Greek, with which most people would be familiar, it is yet probable that Jesus spoke neither Greek nor Hebrew currently, but Aramaic. He knew the Hebrew Scriptures, of course, as any well- trained lad did; but most of his words have come down to us in translation. His name, for example, to his Hebrew mother, was not Jesus, but Yeshua; and Jesus is the translation of the Hebrew Yeshua into Greek. We have his words as they were translated by his disciples into the Greek, in which the New Testament was originally written.

Early Christian translations

By the time the writing of the New Testament was completed, say one hundred years after Christ, while Greek was still current speech, the Roman Empire was so dominant that the common people were talking Latin almost as much as Greek, and gradually, because political power was behind it, the Latin gained on the Greek, and became virtually the speech of the common people. The movement to make the Bible talk the language of the time appeared again. It is impossible to say now when the first translations into Latin were made. Certainly there were some within two centuries after Christ, and by 250 C.E. a whole Bible in Latin was in circulation in the Roman Empire. The translation of the New Testament was from the Greek, of course, but so was that of the Old Testament, and the Latin versions of the Old Testament were, therefore, translations of a translation. These translations generally came to be known as the Vetus Latina

There were so many of these versions, and they were so unequal in value, that there was natural demand for a Latin translation that should be authoritative. So came into being what we call the Vulgate, whose very name indicates the desire to get the Bible into the vulgar or common tongue. Jerome began by revising the earlier Latin translations, but ended by going back of all translations to the original Greek, and back of the Septuagint to the original Hebrew wherever he could do so. Fourteen years he labored, settling himself in Bethlehem, in Palestine, to do his work the better. Barely four hundred years (404 C.E.) after the birth of Christ his Latin version appeared. It met a storm of protest for its effort to go back of the Septuagint, so dominant had the translation become. Jerome fought for it, and his version won the day, and became the authoritative Latin translation of the Bible.

MediŠval translations

For seven or eight centuries it held its sway as the current version nearest to the tongue of the people. Latin had become the accepted tongue of the church. There was little general culture, there was little general acquaintance with the Bible except among the educated.

During all that time there was no real room for a further translation. Medieval England was quite unripe for a Bible in the mother tongue; while the illiterate majority were in no condition to feel the want of such a book, the educated minority would be averse to so great and revolutionary a change.

When a man cannot read any writing it really does not matter to him whether books are in current speech or not, and the majority of the people for those seven or eight centuries could read nothing at all. Those who could read anything were apt to be able to read the Latin.

These centuries added to the conviction of many that the Bible ought not to become too common, that it should not be read by everybody, that it required a certain amount of learning to make it safe reading. They came to feel that it is as important to have an authoritative interpretation of the Bible as to have the Bible itself. When the movement began to make it speak the new English tongue, it provoked the most violent opposition. Latin had been good enough for a millennium; why cheapen the Bible by a translation? There had grown up a feeling that Jerome himself had been inspired. He had been canonized, and half the references to him in that time speak of him as the inspired translator.

Criticism of his version was counted as impious and profane as criticisms of the original text could possibly have been. It is one of the ironies of history that the version for which Jerome had to fight, and which was counted a piece of impiety itself, actually became the ground on which men stood when they fought against another version, counting anything else but this very version an impious intrusion!

How early the movement for an English Bible began, it is impossible now to say. Yet the fact is that until the last quarter of the fourteenth century there was no complete prose version of the Bible in the English language. Indeed, there was only coming to be an English language. It was gradually emerging, taking definite shape and form, so that it could be distinguished from the earlier Norman French, Saxon, and Anglo-Saxon, in which so much of it is rooted.

As soon as the language grew definite enough, it was inevitable that two things should come to pass. First, that some men would attempt to make a colloquial version of the Bible; and, secondly, that others would oppose it.

John Wycliffe's Middle English translation

We are more concerned with the men who made the versions; but we must think a moment of the others. One of his contemporaries, Knighton, may speak for all in his saying of Wiclif, that he had, to be sure, translated the Gospel into the Anglic tongue, but that it had thereby been made vulgar by him, and more open to the reading of laymen and women than it usually is to the knowledge of lettered and intelligent clergy, and thus the pearl is cast abroad and trodden under the feet of swine; and, that we may not be in doubt who are the swine, he adds: The jewel of the Church is turned into the common sport of the people.

But two strong impulses drive thoughtful men to any effort that will secure wide knowledge of the Bible. One is their love of the Bible and their belief in it; but the other, dominant then and now, is a sense of the need of their own time. Wiclif was impressed with the chasm that was growing between the church and the people, and felt that a wider and fuller knowledge of the Bible would be helpful for the closing of the chasm. It is a familiar remark that the cure for the evils of democracy is more democracy. Wiclif believed that the cure for the evils of religion is more religion, more intelligent religion. He found a considerable feeling that the best things in religion ought to be kept from most people, since they could not be trusted to understand them. His own feeling was that the best things in religion are exactly the things most people ought to know most about; that people had better handle the Bible carelessly, mistakenly, than be shut out from it by any means whatever. We owe the first English translation to a faith that the Bible is a book of emancipation for the mind and for the political life.

Wiclif set out to give the common people the full text of the Bible for their common use, and to encourage them not only in reading it, if already they could read, but in learning to read that they might read it. Tennyson compares the village of Lutterworth to that of Bethlehem, on the ground that if Christ, the Word of God, was born at Bethlehem, the Word of Life was born again at Lutterworth. The translation was from the Vulgate, and Wiclif probably did little of the actual work himself, yet it is all his work. And in 1382, more than five centuries ago, there appeared the first complete English version of the Bible. Wiclif made it the people's Book, and the English people were the first of the modern nations to whom the Bible as a whole was given in their own familiar tongue. Once it got into their hands they have never let it be taken entirely away.

This work of Wiclif deserves the time we have given it because it asserted a principle for the English people. There was much yet to be done before entire freedom was gained. At Oxford, in the Convocation of 1408, it was solemnly voted: ''We decree and ordain that no man hereafter by his own authority translate any text of the Scripture into English, or any other tongue, by way of a book, pamphlet, or other treatise; but that no man read any such book, pamphlet, or treatise now lately composed in the time of John Wiclif ... until the said translation be approved by the orderly of the place.'' But it was too late. It was already too late, twenty years after Wiclif's version was available, to stop the English people in their search for religious truth.

Impact of humanist scholarship

In the century just after the Wiclif translation, two great events occurred which bore heavily on the spread of the Bible. One was the revival of learning, which made popular again the study of the classics and the classical languages. Critical and exact Greek scholarship became again a possibility. Under the influence of Erasmus and his kind, with their new insistence on classical learning, there came necessarily a new appraisal of the Vulgate as a translation of the original Bible. For a thousand years there had been no new study of the original Bible languages in Europe. The Latin of the Vulgate had become as sacred as the Book itself. But the revival of learning threw scholarship back on the sources of the text. Erasmus and others published versions of the Greek Testament which were disturbing to the Vulgate as a final version.

The other great event of that same century was the invention of printing with movable type. It was in 1455 that Johannes Gutenberg printed his first book, an edition of the Vulgate, now called the Mazarin Bible. One can see instantly how printing affected the use of the Bible. It made it worth while to learn to read--there would be something to read. It made it worth while to write--there would be some one to read what was written.

William Tyndale

One hundred years exactly after the death of Wiclif, William Tindale was born. He was eight years old when Columbus discovered America. He had already taken a degree at Oxford, and was a student in Cambridge when Luther posted his theses at Wittenburg.

But he came at a troubled time. The new learning had no power to deepen or strengthen the moral life of the people. It could not make religion a vital thing. Morality and religion were far separated. The priests and curates were densely ignorant. And, as a century before, Wiclif had felt the social need for a popular version of the Bible, so William Tindale felt it now. In one of his writings he says: ''If you will not let the layman have the word of God in his mother tongue, yet let the priests have it, which for the great part of them do understand no Latin at all, but sing and patter all day with the lips only that which the heart understandeth not.'' So bad was the case that it was not corrected within a whole generation. Forty years after Tindale's version was published, the Bishop of Gloucester, Hooper by name, made an examination of the clergy of his diocese. There were 311 of them. He found 168, more than half, unable to repeat the Ten Commandments; 31 who did not even know where they could be found; 40 who could not repeat the Lord's Prayer; and nearly as many who did not know where it originated; yet they were all in regular standing as clergy in the diocese of Gloucester. The need was keen enough.

About 1523 Tindale began to cast the Scriptures into the current English. He set out to London fully expecting to find support and encouragement there, but he found neither. He found, as he once said, that there was no room in the palace of the Bishop of London to translate the New Testament; indeed, that there was no place to do it in all England. A wealthy London merchant subsidized him with the munificent gift of ten pounds, with which he went across the Channel to Hamburg; and there and elsewhere on the Continent, where he could be hid, he brought his translation to completion. Printing facilities were greater on the Continent than in England; but there was such opposition to his work that very few copies of the several editions of which we know can still be found. Tindale was compelled to flee at one time with a few printed sheets and complete his work on another press. Several times copies of his books were solemnly burned, and his own life was frequently in danger.

There is one amusing story which tells how money came to free Tindale from heavy debt and prepare the way for more Bibles. The Bishop of London, Tunstall, was set on destroying copies of the English New Testament. He therefore made a bargain with a merchant of Antwerp, Packington, to secure them for him. Packington was a friend of Tindale, and went to him forthwith, saying: "William, I know thou art a poor man, and I have gotten thee a merchant for thy books." "Who?" asked Tindale. "The Bishop of London." "Ah, but he will burn them." "So he will, but you will have the money." And it all came out as it was planned; the Bishop of London had the books, Packington had the thanks, Tindale had the money, the debt was paid, and the new edition was soon ready. The Bishop thought he had God by the toe when, indeed, he found afterward that he had the devil by the fist.

The final revision of the Tindale translations was published in 1534, and that becomes the notable year of his life. In two years he was put to death by strangling, and his body was burned. When we remember that this was done with the joint power of Church and State, we realize some of the odds against which he worked.

Spite of his odds, however, Tindale is the real father of our King James Version. About eighty per cent. of his Old Testament and ninety per cent. of his New Testament have been transferred to our version. In the Beatitudes, for example, five are word for word in the two versions, while the other three are only slightly changed. The peculiar genius which breathes through it, the mingled tenderness and majesty, the Saxon simplicity, the preternatural grandeur, unequaled, unapproached, in the attempted improvements of modern scholars, all are here, and bear the impress of the mind of one man, William Tindale.

The revisers of 1881 declared that while the KJV was the work of many hands, the foundation of it was laid by Tindale, and that the versions that followed it were substantially reproductions of Tindale's, or revisions of versions which were themselves almost entirely based on it.

There was every reason why it should be a worthy version. For one thing, it was the first translation into English from the original Hebrew and Greek. Wiclif's had been from the Latin. For Tindale there were available two new and critical Greek Testaments, that of Erasmus and the so-called Complutensian, though he used that of Erasmus chiefly. There was also available a carefully prepared Hebrew Old Testament. For another thing, it was the first version which could be printed, and so be subject to easy and immediate correction and revision. Then also, Tindale himself was a great scholar in the languages. Nor was his spirit in the work controversial. I say his "spirit in the work" with care. They were controversial times, and Tindale took his share in the verbal warfare. When, for example, there was objection to making any English version because "the language was so rude that the Bible could not be intelligently translated into it," Tindale replied: "It is not so rude as they are false liars. For the Greek tongue agreeth more with the English than with the Latin, a thousand parts better may it be translated into the English than into the Latin." And when a high church dignitary protested to Tindale against making the Bible so common, he replied: "If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth a plow shall know more of the Scriptures than thou dost." And while that was not saying much for the plowboy, it was saying a good deal to the dignitary. In language, Tindale was controversial enough, but in his spirit, in making his version, there was no element of controversy. For such reasons as these we might expect the version to be valuable.

All this while, and especially between the time when Tindale first published his New Testament and the time they burned him for doing so, an interesting change was going on in England. The King was Henry VIII., who was by no means a willing Protestant. As Luther's work appeared, it was this same Henry who wrote the pamphlet against him during the Diet of Worms, and on the ground of this pamphlet, with its loyal support of the Church against Luther, he received from the Roman pontiff the title "Defender of the Faith," which the kings of England still wear. And yet under this king this strange succession of dates can be given. Notice them closely. In 1526 Tindale's New Testament was burned at St. Paul's by the Bishop of London; ten years later, 1536, Tindale himself was burned with the knowledge and connivance of the English government; and yet, one year later, 1537, two versions of the Bible in English, three-quarters of which were the work of Tindale, were licensed for public use by the King of England, and were required to be made available for the people! What brought this about?

Three facts help to explain it. First, thoughtful opinion wanted the Bible made available, and at a convention of bishops and university men the King was requested to secure the issuance of a proper translation. Secondly, the people wanted it, the more because it would gratify their English instinct of independent judgment in matters of religion. Thirdly, the King granted it without yielding his personal religious position, in assertion of his human sovereignty within his own realm.

The Great Bible: the first "authorised version"

There appeared what is known as the Great Bible in 1539. It was made by Myles Coverdale, and much influenced by Tindale.

The Great Bible was issued to meet a decree that each church should make available in some convenient place the largest possible copy of the whole Bible, where all the parishioners could have access to it and read it at their will. The version gets its name solely from the size of the volume. That decree dates 1538, twelve years after Tindale's books were burned, and two years after he was burned! The installation of these great books caused tremendous excitement--crowds gathered everywhere. Bishop Bonner caused six copies of the great volume to be located wisely throughout St. Paul's. He found it difficult to make people leave them during the sermons. He was so often interrupted by voices reading to a group, and by the discussions that ensued, that he threatened to have them taken out during the service if people would not be quiet. The Great Bible appeared in seven editions in two years, and continued in recognized power for thirty years. Much of the present English prayer-book is taken from it.

But this liberty was so sudden that the people naturally abused it. Henry became vexed because the sacred words "were disputed, rimed, sung, and jangled in every ale-house." There had grown up a series of wild ballads and ribald songs in contempt of "the old faith," while it was not really the old faith which was in dispute, but only foreign control of English faith. They had mistaken Henry's meaning. So Henry began to put restrictions on the use of the Bible. There were to be no notes or annotations in any versions, and those that existed were to be blacked out. Only the upper classes were to be allowed to possess a Bible. Finally, the year before his death, all versions were prohibited except the Great Bible, whose cost and size precluded secret use. The decree led to another great burning of Bibles in 1546 -- Tindale, Coverdale, Matthew--all but the Great Bible. The leading religious reformers took flight and fled to European Protestant towns like Frankfort and Strassburg. But the Bible remained. Henry VIII. died. The Bible lived on.

Under Edward VI, the regency cast off all restrictions on translation and publication of the Bible. The order for a Great Bible in every church was renewed, and there was to be added to it a copy of Erasmus's paraphrase of the four gospels. Nearly fifty editions of the Bible, in whole or in part, appeared in those six years.

The Geneva Bible

And that was fortunate, for then came Mary --and the deluge. Of course, she again gave in the nominal allegiance of England to the Roman control. But she utterly missed the spirit of the people. They were weary with the excesses of rabid Protestantism; but they were by no means ready to admit the principle of foreign control in religious matters.

So the secret use of the Bible increased. Martyr fires were kindled, but by the light of them the people read their Bibles more eagerly. And this very persecution led to one of the best of the early versions of the Bible, indirectly even to the King James version.

The flower of English Protestant scholarship was driven into exile, and found its way to Frankfort and Geneva again. There the spirit of scholarship was untrammeled; there they found material for scholarly study of the Bible, and there they made and published a new version of the Bible in English, by all means the best that had been made. In later years, under Elizabeth, it drove the Great Bible off the field by sheer power of excellence. During her reign sixty editions of it appeared. This was the version called the Geneva Bible. It made several changes that are familiar to us. For one thing, in the Genevan edition of 1560 first appeared our familiar division into verses. The chapter division was made three centuries earlier; but the verses belong to the Genevan version, and are divided to make the Book suitable for responsive use and for readier reference. It was taken in large part from the work of Robert Stephens, who had divided the Greek Testament into verses, ten years earlier, during a journey which he was compelled to make between Paris and Lyons. The Genevan version also abandoned the old black letter, and used the Roman type with which we are familiar. It had full notes on hard passages, which notes, as we shall see, helped to produce the King James version. The work itself was completed after the accession of Elizabeth, when most of the religious leaders had returned to England from their exile under Mary.

Elizabeth I

Elizabeth herself was not an ardent Protestant, not ardent at all religiously, but an ardent Englishwoman. She understood her people, and while she prided herself on being the "Guardian of the Middle Way," she did not make the mistake of submitting her sovereignty to foreign supervision. She had no wish to offend other Catholic powers; but she was determined to develop a strong national spirit and to allow religious differences to exist if they would be peaceful.

Presently it was found that two versions of the Bible were taking the field, the old Great Bible and the new Genevan Bible. On all accounts the Genevan was the better and was driving out its rival. Yet there could be no hope of gaining the approval of Elizabeth for the Genevan Bible. For one thing, John Knox had been a party to its preparation; so had Calvin. Elizabeth detested them both, especially Knox. For another thing, its notes were not favorable to royal sovereignty, but smacked so much of popular government as to be offensive. For another thing, though it had been made in a foreign land, and was under suspicion on that account.

The Bishops' Bible

The result was that Elizabeth's archbishop, Parker, set out to have an authorized version made, selected a revision committee, with instructions to follow wherever possible the Great Bible, to avoid bitter notes, and to make such a version that it might be freely, easily, and naturally read. The result is known as the Bishops' Bible. It was issued in Elizabeth's tenth year (1568), but there is no record that she ever noticed it, though Parker sent her a copy from his sick-bed. The Bishops' Bible shows the influence of the Genevan Bible in many ways, though it gives no credit for that. It is not of equal merit; it was expensive, too cumbersome, and often unscholarly. Only its official standing gave it life, and after forty years, in nineteen editions, it was no longer published.

The Douai-Rheims Version

Naming one other English version will complete the series of facts necessary for the consideration of the forming of the King James Version. It will be remembered that all the English versions of the Bible thus far mentioned were the work of men either already out of favor with the Roman pontiff, or speedily put out of favor on that account. That fact seemed to many loyal Roman churchmen to put the Church in a false light. So there came about the Douai version, instigated by Gregory Martin, and prepared in some sense as an answer to the Genevan version and its strongly anti-papal notes. It was the work of English scholars connected with the University of Douai. The New Testament was issued at Rheims in 1582, and the whole Bible in 1609, just before our King James version. It is made, not from the Hebrew and the Greek, though it refers to both, but from the Vulgate. The result is that the Old Testament of the Douai version is a translation into English from the Latin, which in large part is a translation into Latin from the Greek Septuagint, which in turn is a translation into Greek from the Hebrew. Yet scholars are scholars, and it shows marked influence of the Genevan version, and, indeed, of other English versions. Its notes were strongly anti-Protestant, and in its preface it explains its existence by saying that Protestants have been guilty of "casting the holy to dogs and pearls to hogs."

The version is not in the direct line of the ascent of the familiar version, and needs no elaborate description. Its purpose was controversial; it did not go to available sources; its English was not colloquial, but ecclesiastical. For example, in the Lord's Prayer we read: "Give us this day our supersubstantial bread," instead of "our daily bread." In Hebrews xiii: 17, the version reads, "Obey your prelates and be subject unto them." In Luke iii:3, John came "preaching the baptism of penance." In Psalm xxiii:5, where we read, "My cup runneth over," the Douai version reads, "My chalice which inebriateth me, how goodly it is." There is a careful retention of ecclesiastical terms, and an explanation of the passages on which Protestants had come to differ rather sharply from their Roman brethren, as in the matter of the taking of the cup by the people, and elsewhere.

Yet it is only fair to remember that this much answer was made to the versions which were preparing the way for the greatest version of them all, and when the time came for the making of that version, and the helps were gathered together, the Douai was frankly placed among them. It is a peculiar irony of fate that while the purpose of Gregory Martin was to check the translation of the Bible by the Protestants, the only effect of his work was to advance and improve that translation.

The King James Bible

At last, the way was cleared for a free and open setting of the Bible into English. The way had been beset with struggle, marked with blood, lighted by martyr fires. Wiclif and Purvey, Tindale and Coverdale, the refugees at Geneva and the Bishops at London, all had trod that way. Kings had fought them or had favored them; it was all one; they had gone on. Loyal zest for their Book and loving zeal for the common people had held them to the path. Now it had become a highway open to all men. And right worthy were the feet which were soon treading it.

Critique of the above text

There are factual errors in this account, which presents an early twentieth century Protestant view of the history of bible translation.

1. There were vernacular translations of parts of the Bible in England prior to Wycliffe these were into both Anglo Saxon and Norman French.

2. The Church objected to the Wycliffe and Tyndale translations because in their belief purposeful mistranslations had been introduced to the works in order to promote anticlericalism and heretical views.Thomas More accused Tyndale of evil purpose in corrupting and changing the words and sense of Scripture “from the good and holsom doctryne of Criste to the deuylysh heresyes of theyr own.” Specifically, he charged Tyndale with mischief in changing three key words throughout the whole of his Testament, such that “priest,” “church,” and “charity” of customary Roman Catholic usage became in Tindale’s translation “elder,” “congregation,” and “love.”

3. The Church also objected to Wycliffe and Tyndale's translations because they included notes and commentaries promoting antagonism to the Catholic Church and heretical doctrines, particularly, in Tyndale's case, Lutheranism.

4. Translation of the bible into the vernacular was never forbidden by the Catholic Church. However 'unauthorised' translations were forbidden.

5. Tyndale was executed in the Netherlands, and he was not executed for his translation of the bible, as this article alleges. He was executed on unrelated charges of teaching Lutheranism.

6. Tyndale did not have copies of "original" Hebrew texts. In fact the quality of the Hebrew documents was poor, since no original Hebrew sources earlier than the 10th Century had survived


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