A History of the English Bible–Early Efforts

     (Sorry–this article should have been posted before the previous one and thus is out of order.)

A HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH BIBLE–EARLY EFFORTS

by Wayne S. Walker

     Previous articles in this series indicated how the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament were copied in ancient manuscripts and preserved for us. However, most of us do not read Hebrew or Greek. In Acts 2.8, the people on Pentecost said, "And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born?" Just as those Jews could not have comprehended the gospel if it had not bee preached in a language which they had learned, so we cannot understand the Bible if we cannot read it in a tongue that we know. Yet, for many years, there were no Bible translations in common spoken languages. Why?

     Learned people and the clergy of the Middle Ages had access to the Bible in the Latin Vulgate, the translation made by Jerome in the fifth century of the Hebrew and Greek into Latin. However, this was not true with respect to the common people, since they could not read and understand Latin. The church hierarchy had a strong antipathy to the scriptures being rendered in the language of the common people, thinking that it should be committed only to the hands of great persons, or monks and nuns, who knew Latin. In the eleventh century, Pope Gregory VII said, "Not without reason has it pleased Almighty God that Holy Scripture should be a secret in certain places, lest…it might be falsely understood by those of mediocre learning, and lead to error." Then in 1199 Pope Innocent III declared, "The secret mysteries of the faith ought not to be explained to all men in all places, since they cannot be everywhere understood by all men" (both citations quoted by W. Russell Bowie from The Encyclopedia Americana in Ferrell Jenkins’s Theme of the Bible).

     So, how did the Bible come to be translated into our English language? The process actually began in pre-Norman times with Caedman, a servant in a monastery at Whitby, England, who took the stories of the Bible and turned them into beautiful poems. The Venerable Bede of Jarrow translated a few select passages in the seventh and eighth centuries. Other efforts were made by Aldhelm, King Alfred, Aldred, and Aelfric. Their works were not really translations but efforts to put the Bible in the minds and hearts of the common people by writing Bible stories which stirred an interest in a knowledge of the scriptures and paved the way for later translations. After the Norman conquest, common people were allowed to see something about the Bible in Miracle and Morality plays, and by the fourteenth century crude primers included Old English versions of well-known parts of the Bible such as the ten commandments, the beatitudes, and "the Lord’s prayer."

     However, the first really signficant translation of the Bible into English was made by John Wycliffe (1324-1384). A scholar and lecturer at Oxford, he was a very important figure in the early days of the Reformation. He evidently translated the New Testament and part of the Old, all from the Latin Vulgate. The greater part of the Old Testament work was done by Nicholas Hereford. By 1382, the first complete English New Testament was being circulated with portions of the Old Testament. Known as "the morning star of the Reformation," Wycliffe died a natural death, but later his bones were dug up, burned, and scattered over the River Swift to show the disdain of the Catholic authorities for his work. Among other scholars who had helped was a friend of Wycliffe’s named John Purvey, who in 1395 revised the earlier edition. Even though printing had not yet been invented, over 170 copies of the revision are still in existence.

     The next major translation was made by William Tyndale (1496-1536). He used the most prominent Greek text of his day, that published in 1516 by Erasmus. Going to Tunstal, Bishop of London, he offered to translate the New Testament with the bishop’s consent but was refused permission. He is reported to have replied, "If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plow shall know more of the scriptures than thou doest." Leaving England for Cologne in 1525, he printed his New Testament, some copies of which were smuggled into England. In 1530 and 1531 he published the Pentateuch and the book of Jonah. Also he translated the books from Joshua through Chronicles, but was imprisoned before they were printed. After issuing revisions of his New Testament in 1534 and 1535, he was condemned as a heretic, strangled, and burned at the stake in 1536. However, the importance of his work is seen in that 90% of the King James Version is the wording of Tyndale. (—taken from With All Boldness; July, 1999; Vol. 9, No. 7; p. 5)

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