A History of the English Bible–Before 1611

A HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH BIBLE–BEFORE 1611

by Wayne S. Walker

     The previous article in this series discussed early efforts at putting the Bible into the spoken language of the common English people, and the first two actual translations of the Bible done in English–those of John Wycliffe and William Tyndale. Over one hundred years passed between the death of Wycliffe and the birth of Tyndale. Five great events paved the way for renewed interest in Bible translations. The invention of the printing press by Johann Gutenberg in 1455 made it easier to print copies of the Bible. The capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453 forced the Byzantine Greek scholars with their New Testament manuscripts to flee to Europe. The first printed Greek New Testament made by Erasmus in 1516 gave more people access to the New Testament in the original language. A series of remarkable discoveries, beginning with Columbus’s arrival in the New World in 1492, paved the way for the great rebirth of learning known as "The Renaissance." And Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German in 1522 produced a nearly universal desire for translations of the Bible into the language of the common people.

     After Tyndale, called "the father of the English Bible," the next major English Bible translation was done by Miles Coverdale (1488-1569). A younger contemporary of Tyndale, he was the first man to produce a complete English Bible, in 1535 at Cologne. The first to be circulated without official opposition, it is mainly a revision of Tyndale’s work and is considered inferior because it was based on the Latin of Jerome and German of Luther rather than the original language. However, his translation of the Psalms was for many years included in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

     In 1537, the "Matthews Bible" was issued under the pseudonym of Thomas Matthews by another friend of Tyndale’s, John Rogers (1550-1555). It was basically a revision and compilation of the works of Tyndale and Coverdale. The first "licensed" English Bible, it was approved by Henry VIII, but the approval was withdrawn when it was discovered that Tyndale’s work was used. Rogers was burned at the stake after the Catholics came back to power in England. However, for the next 75 years, all other versions were based on this one. This Bible is sometimes called the "wife-beating Bible" because Rogers’s translation of 1 Peter 3:7 reads, "He that dwelleth with his wife according to knowledge, taketh her as a necessary helper, and not as a bond servant or a bond slave. And if she be not obedient and helpful to him, endeavoreth to beat the fear of God into her head, that thereby she may be compelled to learn her duty and do it."

     A revision of the Matthews Bible was made in 1539 by Richard Taverner (1505-1575). Taverner’s Bible was the first to be wholly printed in England. It omitted the offensive and controversial prefaces and notes which were in the earlier editions. Also in 1539, The Great Bible was issued, so named because of its size. The pages were fifteen inches long by nine inches wide. Oliver Cromwell commissioned Miles Coverdale for this new translation and had it installed in every church for the reading of the laymen. It was also a revision of the Matthews Bible but so careful was Coverdale’s revision that In Isaiah 53 there are forty differences from his own 1535 version. It is also called "Cranmer’s Bible" because it bore the permission of Sir Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury," and was thus the first Bible "authorized" to be read in the churches of England. Copies had to be chained to the pulpits to keep them from being stolen because it was so popular.

     In 1560 the Geneva Bible was published, based chiefly on Tyndale and The Great Bible. The translation was made by men who had fled from England to Geneva during the bloody reign of Mary and was overseen by William Whittingham. It was the first to be printed in Roman letters and to be divided into verses. This was the Bible that Shakespeare read, that shaped the minds of the Puritans of New England, and that was the basis for the meditations of John Bunyan when he wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress. Archbishop Parker did not like the Geneva Bible and had it revised by a group made up mostly of Anglican bishops. The result was the Bishops’ Bible of 1568. It was the second one "authorized" to be read in all the churches, but it was never accepted by the common people who kept the Geneva Bible. It is sometimes called "the Doomsday Bible" because it was said that the next time a new Bible would be needed would be Doomsday.

     The only other significant translation prior to the King James Version of 1611 was the Rheims-Douai version. The Catholic Church had opposed all these other new translations, but finally decided that it had to produce one of its own to counteract their influence. English Catholic scholars at Douai in France, under the leadership of William Allen and George Martin, started the work. They transferred to Rheims for a while and issued the New Testament from there in 1582. Returning to Douai, they issued the Old Testament from there in 1609. This was a translation of a translation, being based on the Latin Vulgate, and included the apocrypha along with the canonical books. Thus it did not have great circulation, but it was the only official Roman Catholic Bible in English for many years. (—taken from With All Boldness; August, 1999; Vol 9, No. 8; p. 25)

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