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How We Got the Bible in English

It was a bleak December afternoon, and a visitor was walking in the graveyard of the parish church of Lutterworth, England, about 90 miles northwest of London. The rector came by as the visitor examined the church’s ancient slate gravestones bearing the names of faithful parishioners of centuries past.

wycliffeThe rector shared some of the highlights of his church’s long history. "It was in this church that John Wycliffe, our most famous rector, ministered during the last years of his life, over six centuries ago," he said.

Wycliffe was famous, but not everyone approved of him. The rector explained: "Four decades after his death, Wycliffe’s bones were dragged from their grave and burned. His ashes were cast into the waters of the River Swift."

What had been Wycliffe’s crime, that his remains were so maliciously treated? He had dared to translate the Bible into a language his countrymen could understand.

Only for scholars?

It had been Wycliffe’s passionate desire that everyone should be free to read the good news of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. Others disagreed. They believed it was wrong for ordinary people to read the Scriptures for themselves.

Today, such an attitude seems incomprehensible. The Bible is accessible to virtually everyone, and its study is encouraged. It is the world’s most widely translated book, available in more than 1,000 languages and dialects.

But in medieval times, the Bible was not available to the common person in Western Europe. The Old Testament was generally available only in Hebrew, in a Greek translation called the Septuagint, and in a Latin translation called the Vulgate. The New Testament was available only in Greek and Latin. Only scholars, educated clergy and a few others had direct personal access to God’s Word.

(Translations had been made into Syriac, Coptic, Gothic, Georgian, Ethiopic and Armenian in the second through fifth centuries. But those languages were unknown to most Europeans.)

In time, however, there were moves to translate the Bible into the vernacular, or common tongues, that had been developing among the peoples of Europe. Little by little, parts of the Bible were rendered into national languages so that the common people could understand. The first translations into French, Dutch, Polish, Italian and Spanish appeared in the 12th and 13th centuries.

The English Bible: risky business

The beginnings of the English Bible go back to the early eighth century. The first known attempt to render portions of Scripture into the Anglo-Saxon language was Aldhelm’s translation of the Psalms, about A.D. 700.

In 735, as he lay on his deathbed, the historian Bede finished a translation of John’s Gospel. Late in the ninth century, the English King Alfred the Great gave his people parts of Exodus, Psalms and Acts in their own tongue. But no effort was made to translate the Bible as a whole.

The more that people heard God’s Word in their own language, the more they wanted. But with the passing of time, church leaders adopted the view that it was dangerous for ordinary people to read the Scriptures without benefit of clergy. They insisted it was safer for people to rely on priests to tell them what the Bible said and meant.

Because of this attitude, translators found themselves engaged in an increasingly dangerous business. In some European countries, the ban on vernacular Scriptures carried with it the death penalty.

Wycliffe’s Bible

In their zeal for the Bible and in the sacrifices they made for it, the British provide an inspiring story. It was in England that a major battle was fought and won for the right of the common people to have a Bible in their own language.

One of the first who sought to make the Word of God available to the average person was the Oxford theologian John Wycliffe, the 14th-century English religious reformer. Wycliffe argued that the Scriptures did little good locked away in Latin, which few could understand. God’s Word, he declared, is for all people: "No man is so rude a scholar but that he might learn the words of the Gospel according to his simplicity."

Wycliffe thus determined to give the English people a translation that could be read in their native tongue. He and his associates completed the monumental task of translation about 1382. Wycliffe’s translation was based on the Latin Vulgate, since he and his colleagues did not know Hebrew or Greek.

wycbibleWycliffe’s Bible was the first complete rendering of the Scriptures into English. His hand-copied Bibles were circulated widely and eagerly read. (This was before the days of printing.) But they brought him into conflict with the church and with officials at Oxford, where he lived and taught during much of his life.

An inscription on a memorial tablet on the wall of his Lutterworth church relates that Wycliffe’s Bible "drew on him the bitter hatred of all who were making merchandise of the popular credulity and ignorance."

Wycliffe was brought to trial several times in church courts, but his powerful and influential friends protected him. He died a natural death in 1384 at the age of 55 and was buried at Lutterworth. As his teachings were forerunners of those of the Reformation, he is accorded the title "Morning Star of the Reformation," having heralded the dawn of the Reformation.

In 1408 — nearly a quarter century after Wycliffe’s death — a synod of clergy met at Oxford and formally outlawed the reading of his Bible — as well as the writing, circulation or study of any translation of Scripture into English. It warned all persons against reading such books under penalty of excommunication. England had a Bible — but it was a forbidden one.

Yet the seeds sown by Wycliffe had not ceased to bear fruit. The appeal of the English Bible was great. Despite severe penalties, many continued to read Wycliffe’s Bible in secret.

In 1415, the Council of Constance condemned Wycliffe, ordering his body exhumed and burned. But even the most energetic opposition could not wipe out a movement that was making itself felt throughout the Western world.

Movable type

While Europe was in the midst of religious upheaval and turmoil, another revolution was under way. Seven decades after Wycliffe’s death, the technology of printing opened up a revolutionary new chapter in the history of the Bible.

tyndaleThe German printer Johann Gutenberg had begun experimenting with movable metal type early in the 1450s. His first printed book was the Bible, in Latin, about 1456.

The printing press revolutionized book production. With the arrival of printing, the slow work of making manuscript Bibles ceased. Once Bibles no longer had to be written out by hand, they became much less expensive and more abundant, and were circulated more widely than ever before.

Printing provided the way to get copies of Scripture into the hands of increasing numbers of people — but, for the moment, only people who could read Latin. It would be another 70 years before the first printed English New Testament would appear, amid great opposition.

Erasmus of Rotterdam

With the revival of learning that characterized the Renaissance period (14th-16th centuries), scholars acquired a new interest in studying the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible. One of these was the Dutch scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam. Erasmus published an edition of the New Testament in Greek in 1516, the first Greek Testament ever printed. In its preface, Erasmus announced his strong support for translating the Bible into ordinary speech:

I wish that the Scriptures might be translated into all languages, so that not only the Scots and the Irish, but also the Turk and the Saracen might read and understand them. I long that the farm-labourer might sing them as he follows his plough, the weaver hum them to the tune of his shuttle, the traveller beguile the weariness of his journey with their stories.

From 1511 to 1515, Erasmus served as professor of Greek at Cambridge University in England. His great love for Greek — and at the same time, his zealous advocacy of vernacular Scriptures — left an indelible mark on the university.

jamesShortly after Erasmus left, a young student named William Tyndale arrived at Cambridge. Profoundly influenced by Erasmus’ writings, he immersed himself in the study of the Greek New Testament. That obsession opened what was to become the most decisive chapter in the entire story of the English Bible.

Luther and Tyndale

Never had official religion been at a lower ebb than in Tyndale’s day. Finding both clergy and laity ignorant of the Scriptures, in 1522 Tyndale conceived the ambitious project of translating the New Testament directly from the Greek into English, bypassing the Latin Vulgate. To a critic of the plan, Tyndale announced: "If God spare my life, ere many years pass, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scriptures than thou dost." The project became his life’s work.

Tyndale’s proposal, however, met strong opposition from religious authorities in England. English translations had been banned since 1408. So in 1524, Tyndale fled to Germany to continue his work, never to return to his own country.

In Germany, Tyndale visited Martin Luther, the great German reformer, at Wittenberg. Two years earlier, Luther had completed a translation of the New Testament into German from Erasmus’ Greek Testament. Inspired by Luther’s example, Tyndale pushed ahead with his English translation, completing it in 1525. Tyndale’s principal authority was Erasmus’ second (1519) edition of the Greek New Testament, with an occasional look at Luther’s German New Testament.

The printing of Tyndale’s New Testament was begun in 1525 in Cologne, but opposition forced him to flee up the Rhine to Worms with the sheets that had been printed. At Worms, two editions of his pocket-size New Testament were finally completed. It was the first English translation ever to be made directly from the Greek — not a translation of a translation, as was Wycliffe’s.

Smuggled into England

Copies of Tyndale’s Testament were smuggled into England in barrels and bales of cloth. They were widely distributed and eagerly studied. But when church leaders discovered their existence, they ordered them gathered up for burning. So successful were they in destroying the Testaments that only two copies of the first edition survive.

A master of style, Tyndale had rendered the Greek into simple, fresh, vigorous English. The beauty and rhythm of his language fixed the style and tone of the English Bible for centuries to come. He is thus rightly called the "Father of the English Bible."

A martyr’s death

Tyndale spent his final years in the free city of Antwerp, where he revised and improved his New Testament and translated parts of the Old. In May 1535, Tyndale was betrayed, kidnapped and imprisoned by papal agents at Vilvorde Castle near Brussels. After 15 months’ imprisonment, he was tried for heresy and condemned to death. A decade earlier they had burned the translation; now they resolved to burn the translator.

Tyndale went boldly to the stake, still defending his belief that the English should have a Bible in their own language. On October 6, 1536, he was tied to a post and strangled, after which his body was burned to ashes. He died bravely, with his last breath crying out with fervent zeal and a loud voice, "Lord, open the eyes of the king of England!"

An answered prayer

Tyndale’s prayer was even at that moment being fulfilled. An altered royal and ecclesiastical attitude had emerged in England, following King Henry VIII’s break with Rome and assumption of power as supreme head of the Church of England. In the wake of that decisive event, Henry ordered that an English Bible be placed in every church of the realm, and be available to all people — a Bible, ironically, that was partly Tyndale’s.

The Bible that King Henry approved had been published in 1535 by Miles Coverdale, while Tyndale was in prison awaiting execution. It was the first full Bible to be printed in English. (Tyndale had published only the New Testament.) Henry VIII authorized its circulation after being assured by scholars that it did not contain any heresies.

Coverdale knew neither Hebrew nor Greek. He was essentially an editor, gathering together the best works and constructing a Bible that would be acceptable to ecclesiastical authorities. His translation was based on Luther’s German version, the Latin Vulgate, and Tyndale’s translations of the New Testament and Pentateuch.

Bible translation was now in the air. Coverdale’s translation was followed by a flood of other English translations and revisions, including the Matthew Bible (1537), Taverner’s Bible (1539), the Great Bible (1539), the Geneva Bible (1560), the Bishops’ Bible (1568), and the Rheims-Douay Version (1582 and 1609-10). Each translator sought to correct the errors and improve the language of the earlier ones. This bewildering multitude of Bibles occasioned the next important chapter in the history of the English Bible.

"One principal good one"

In 1603, King James I came to the throne following the death of Elizabeth I. A year later, an important conference was convened at Hampton Court Palace near London. It was a series of meetings between Anglican bishops and Puritan leaders, presided over by King James. Its purpose was to consider Puritan demands for reform in the church. Among the issues discussed was a Puritan request for a new translation of the Bible, to correct the imperfections of the current Bibles.

Some church leaders countered that there were already too many translations. James replied that another translation was needed precisely because there were too many already. He wanted one Bible for the nation, as accurately rendered as possible.

To carry out the work, King James appointed 54 scholars, drawn from Oxford and Cambridge universities and renowned for their Greek and Hebrew expertise. They worked in six groups, the work of each group being reviewed by the other groups. What distinguished the King James Version from earlier printed Bibles was that it was produced by a committee of scholars, rather than by one person. The translators drew heavily on all that was good in previous translations. Their aim was not to make an entirely new translation but, in their own words, "to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one."

Their New Testament was based largely on Tyndale’s translation. It is estimated that 80 to 90 percent of Tyndale’s wording passed into the King James Version of the New Testament. The King James translators worked at their task for seven years, completing the project in 1611. The King James or Authorized Version soon took the place of all other English versions. Various edits were made in subsequent printings, and the text as we know it now dates from 1769. For nearly 400 years, the King James Version has been the household Bible of the English-speaking world, renowned for its majesty of style and superb prose. But more importantly, it has been the primary source of the knowledge of salvation and the message of the gospel for untold numbers of sincere readers.

Modern versions

No translation is ever final. In the centuries since 1611, many new translations and revisions have appeared, as scholars have attempted to clear up words that people no longer understand and take advantage of increased knowledge about the Hebrew and Greek texts. Among them: the Revised Version (1881), the American Standard Version (1901), Smith-Goodspeed (1931), Weymouth (1903), Moffatt (1913 and 1924), the Revised Standard Version (1946 and 1952), the New English Bible (1961 and 1970), the Jerusalem Bible (1966) and the New American Standard Bible (1971).

A New King James Version (also called the Revised Authorized Version) was published by a team of conservative scholars in 1982. It was a revision to deal with changes of language and the meaning of words since the 1611 edition, while retaining the thought flow and cadence of the original King James Version.

The New International Version is another recent translation, made by an international team of scholars whose aims were clarity, dignity and accuracy, using the best results of recent research. The New International Version has become widely popular and is the source of most scripture quotes used in this website. Due to continuing research into Greek and into modern English usage, it was updated again in 2011.

Precious heritage

Through the centuries, courageous men and women have treasured the Scriptures and have struggled to preserve and disseminate them amid great opposition. Some, as we have seen, have even died to get the Bible into the hands of the common person. Their sacrifices should inspire us to a greater study and application of the Bible’s teachings. Yet many today take owning a Bible for granted. Nevertheless, surveys reveal that fewer than half of Americans can even name the first four books of the New Testament.

The words of the Bible are of no value as mere letters on paper. They must live in the minds of people through the Spirit of God. The Bible is a precious heritage and a priceless gift. It reveals the true God and his Son, Jesus Christ, the Savior of all humanity. Realizing that God inspired many dedicated Christians to great personal sacrifices should motivate us to value the precious heritage of the Bible. The once-forbidden book now lies open — to you!

Keith Stump, 1984

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