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History of the English Bible
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History of the English Bible
Keith W Stump  

   On a bleak December afternoon, I was walking in the graveyard of the parish church of Lutterworth in England, about 90 miles northwest of London. The rector walked past as I was examining the church's ancient slate gravestones bearing the names of faithful parishioners of centuries past.
   The rector described to me some highlights of his church's long history. 'It was in his church that John Wycliffe, our most famous rector, ministered during the last years of his life, over six centuries ago,' he told me. Wycliffe was not acclaimed by all his contemporaries, 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 dared to translate the Bible into a language his contemporaries could understand. It had been Wycliffe's passionate desire that everyone should be free to read the good news of eternal life through faith in Christ. Others disagreed. They believed it was wrong for ordinary people to read the Bible for themselves.
   Today, such an attitude seems incomprehensible. The Bible is accessible to virtually everyone and it's 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 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 Vulgate.
   The New Testament was available only in Greek and in the Latin Vulgate. Consequently, 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 to fifth centuries. But these languages were unknown to most Europeans.)
   In time, however, there were moves to translate the Bible into the vernacular, or the 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, Polish, Italian and Spanish appeared in the 12th and 13th centuries. Some evidence points to a Dutch translation as early as the 10th century.
   The beginnings of the English Bible go back at the early eighth century. The first known attempt to render portions of Scripture into native. Anglo-Saxon was Aldhelm's translation of the Psalms in about AD 700. In 735, as he lay on his deathbed, the historian Bede finished a translation of John's Gospel. Late in the ninth century, King Alfred the Great of England 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 for 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, British history provides an inspiring story. It was in England that a major battle was fought and won for the right of the common people to have the Word of God in their language. One of the first who sought to make Bibles available to the average person was John Wycliffe, Oxford theologian and 14th-century English reformer.
   Wycliffe argued that the Scriptures did little good locked away in Latin that 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 about 1382. Wycliffe's translation was based on the Latin Vulgate, as he and his colleagues knew no Hebrew or Greek.
   Wycliffe's Bible was the first complete rendering of the Scriptures into any from of modern English. His hand-copied Bibles were circulated widely and eagerly read. (This was before the days of printing.) But his Bibles brought him into conflict with church officials. An inscription on a memorial table on the wall of 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 about the age of 55 and was buried at Letterworth. 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 that epic era.
   In 1408, nearly a quarter of a 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. They warned all persons against reading such books under penalty of excommunication. England now 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 to be 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 a revolutionary new chapter in the history of the Bible. The German printer Jonannes Gutenberg had begun to experiment with movable metal type early in the 1450s. His first printed book was the Holy Bible, published in Latin, about the year 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-17th 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. He voiced 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.'
   Erasmus served as professor of Greek at Cambridge University from 1511 to 1514. His great love for that language and at the same time, his zealous advocacy of vernacular Scriptures left an indelible mark. William Tyndale was profoundly influenced by Erasmus' Greek New Testament. He immersed himself in its study. That obsession opened 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, Tyndale conceived, in 1522, 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 translators 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 Erasmous' second (1519) edition of the Greek New Testament, with an occasional look at Luther's German New Testament. Tyndale began the printing of his New Testament 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-sized New Testament were finally completed. It was the first English translation ever to be made directly from the original Greek not a translation of a translation, as was Wycliffe's.
   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 survived. A master style, Tyndale had rendered the Greek into simple, fresh and 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 the 'Father of the English Bible'.

A Marty's Death

   Tyndale spent his final years in the city of Antwerp, where he revised and improved upon his New Testament and translated part of the Old. In May 1535, Tyndale was betrayed, kidnapped and imprisoned by papal agents at Vilvorde Castle near Brussels. After about 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 Englishmen should have a Bible in their own language. On 6th October 1536, he was tied to a post and strangled after which his body was burned to ashes. He died bravely, with his last crying out with a loud voice, 'Lord, open the king of England eyes!'
   In one sense, Tyndale's prayer was even then being fulfilled. An altered royal and ecclesiastical attitude towards English religion had emerged in England, following King Henry VII'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 a Bible, ironically, that was partly Tyndale's own.
   The English Bible in question 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 remember, had published only the New Testament). Henry VII 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 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.
   Covedale's Bible was followed by a flood of English translations and revisions, including the Matthew Bible (1537), Taverner's Bible (1539), the Great Bible (1560), the Bishops Bible (1568), and the Rheims-Douay Version (1582, New Testament, and 1609-10, Old Testament). Each translator sought to correct the errors and improve the language of the earlier ones. This bewildering multitude of Bibles let to the next important chapter in the history of the English Bible.
   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 neat London. The conference 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. King James replied that another translation was needed precisely because there were too many already. He wanted one Bible for a nation, as accurately rendered as possible. To carry out the work, King James appointed 54 scholars, drawn from Oxford, Cambridge and Westminster, who were 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 of the Bible was that is was produced by a committee of scholars, rather than by one man. 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.'
   Significantly, 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' work was published in 1611. The King James or Authorised Version, soon took the place of all the other English versions.
   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 important, it has been the primary source of the knowledge of salvation and the message of the gospel for untold numbers of 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 the translations Revised Version (1881), the American Standard Version (1901), Weymouth(1903), Moffat (1913 and 1924), Smith-Goodspeed (1931), the Revised Standard Version (1946 and 1952), the New English Bible (1960 and 1970), Jerusalem Bible (1966) and the New American Standard Bible (1971), the Jewish Tanakh version of the Old Testament (1985).
   A New King James Version (also called the Revised Authorised 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 1611 edition, while retaining the thought flow and cadence of the original King James Version. The New International Version (1973, 1978 and 1984) is another recent translation, made by an international team of scholars whose aim were clarity, dignity and accuracy, using the best results of research. The New International Version has become widely popular.

Precious Heritage

   Through the centuries, courageous men and women have treasured the Scriptures and have struggled to preserve and distribute them amid great opposition. Some, as we have seen, have died to get the Bible into the hands of the common person. Their sacrifices should inspire us to greater study and application of the Bible's teachings.
   Yet many today take owing a Bible for granted. Indeed, although the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare are still seen as essential props on the bookshelves of educated people, the Bible is all too often seen only as a symbol for a court of law, to be read at the christening or quoted at a funeral, but rarely used in between. Few read what it has to say as a regular part of their daily lives.
   Yet the words of the Bible are of no value as mere letter 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 Saviour of all humanity. Realising that God inspired many dedicated Christians to great personal sacrifice should motivate us to value the precious heritage of the Bible. The once-forbidden book now lies open to you!

Publication Date: 1984
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