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Early translations of the Bible into English

13 November, 2009

Patrick Duffy draws on Henry Wansbrough OSB’s book, The Story of the Bible: How it came to us (Darton, Longman and Todd 2006) to summarise information on translations into Old, Middle and Early Modern English.

(a) Into Old English (pre 1066)
From the Roman Empire onwards Latin was the only written language of the West.  Bede (672-735) is said to have translated parts of the gospel into Old English, but they have not survived.  There were also some inter-linear glosses (i.e. word-for-word translations written in over) over the Latin text of the Psalms to help those reciting them have some understanding of what they were reciting.  The most important of the manuscripts is the so-called Vespasian Psalter, which was written in Mercia in the first half of the 9th century. At end of the 10th and the beginning of the 11th centuries Ælfric, abbot of Eynsham translated the Old Testament into Old English.  His rendering is clear and idiomatic, and though he frequently abridges, the omissions never obscure the meaning or hinder the easy flow of the narrative.  He also left a translation of all the gospels of which five manuscripts remain extant, one of which claims to have been written by the hand of Aelfric himself.

(b) Into Middle English (1066-1500)
The Norman Conquest brought a French cultural invasion so that early in the 12th century monk-librarian-historian William of Malmesbury (1090-1143) laments that: “Foreigners are corroding the guts of England….  At present there is neither duke nor bishop nor abbot who is English, and there is no hope of an end to this misery.”

Wyclif’s Bible (1380s)
John Wyclif (1324-1384) has been called “the morning star of the Reformation”. He was primarily a philosopher who became a great Oxford figure.  He was an apostle of the virtuous life.  At a time of great corruption in the papacy he stressed the authority of scripture and held that both secular and ecclesiastical jurisdiction depended on being in a state of grace and that unworthy office-holder deserved no obedience. 

Wyclif found an ally in the Black Prince, John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster, brother of Edward III, and with his assertion of the right of temporal lords to take the goods of an undeserving clergy he emerged as a spokesperson for the anti-clerical and anti-papal nobility.  A movement of like minded purists with the nickname of Lollards (it seems to be used in the sense of “hypocrites” – derived perhaps from lollen, to sing softly, cf. Eng. lull, probably because of their hymn-singing; cf. “Lollardi seu Deum laudantes”: others take the name to mean “idlers”, lolling about) took up his his tenets and continued into the Lutheran Reformation.  Their attack on all forms of authority stemmed from the social discontent that followed the Black Death (1347-50) and found expression in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1382.

In reaction to Wyclif’s emphasis on scripture and the strength of the challenge his views posed, Church authorities held that the bible was for the clergy alone to administer to the laity.  The bible translation attributed to Wyclif by Jan Hus, the contemporary Czech reformer, was done by one, possibly two, of his disciples (Nicholas of Herford and perhaps John Treviso).  But the thirst for such a translation is clear from its popularity.  Despite the orders banning it, over 200 manuscripts are still extant.  Lollardy continued to be persecuted through the 15th century.  In 1407 Archbishop Arundel forbade all unauthorised translation.

Other languages at this time and the invention of printing
A German version appeared in Zurich in 1360 more or less contemporary with Wyclif’s, but Italy and France had translations by 1280.  Printed vernacular bibles appeared on the continent in the 1460s.  Although printing began in Germany with Johannes Gutenberg in the 1450s and the first book was printed in England by William Caxton in 1477, it was not until 1536 that bible translated into English by William Tyndale appeared in print.

(c) Into Early Modern English

William Tyndale (1494-1536)
William Tyndale was a theologian and scholar from Northumberland who obtained his Master’s at Oxford at 21.  Influenced greatly by Erasmus, whose linguistic skills and enthusiasm for providing the word of God for ordinary people he shared, he became suspected of heresy and had to flee England to Flanders and Germany.  Here secretly translated first the New Testament (1525-6) and then some books of the Old Testament (Pentateuch 1530, Jonah 1531) into an early form of Modern English and had them printed.  This was considered an outrage and the book was banned. 

Thomas More, then Chancellor of England took exception to his using the words ‘elder’ instead of ‘priest’, ‘congregation’ instead of ‘church’ ‘love’ instead of ‘charity’ – all of which are defensible options, but theologically explosive at the time.  His views were considered heretical, first by the Catholic Church, and later by the Church of England now newly established by Henry VIII. Both institutions conspired to have him hunted down, imprisoned, garrotted and burnt at the stake in the castle of Vilvoorde, near Brussels in 1536.  His last words reportedly were: “O Lord, ope the King of England’s eyes”.

Tyndale’s brilliance as a translator has never been surpassed for boldness, accuracy sparkle and memorability.  The later King James (1611) version adopted 80 per cent of Tyndale word for word.  The number of words he invented is remarkable (‘passover’, ‘long-suffering’, ‘scapegoat’).  Many of his phrases too became proverbial and are still current coinage (‘the powers that be’, ‘the fat of the land’, ‘not unto us, O Lord, not unto us’).

Bibles under the Tudors
During Henry VIII’s reign three bible translations were produced – Coverdale (1535), Matthew (1537) and the Great or Parish Bible (1541), the latter a lectern bible for use in churches – and presented to the people under royal patronage.  The Geneva Bible (1560) was the child of Protestant exiles in Calvin’s Geneva. It was produced by William Whittingham (1524-79), a fugitive from England in the reign of Catholic Queen Mary (1553-58) and friend of John Knox.  It was the first translation to have divisions into chapters and verses and also had a helpful apparatus of notes, maps and illustrations and was immensely as a study bible and is the version most used by Shakespeare. The Bishops’ Bible (1569) was prepared by a group of bishops on the instructions of Archbishop Parker, but as Grindal, Parker’s successor, encouraged the use of the Geneva Bible it fell into disuse.

Douai-Rheims: an English Catholic Bible (1582 and 1610)
Under Elizabeth I (1558-1603) Catholic studies for the priesthood transferred the continent, where William Allen (1532-94), later cardinal, established an English College – first at Douai (1568) in Flanders and then at Rheims (1578).  It was here that the first English Catholic bible was produced by Gregory Martin with the help of Richard Bristow.  It was based primarily on the Vulgate which had been declared the official bible of the Church at the Council of Trent (1546), though marginal notes also refer to the Greek.  The NT appeared in 1582 while the college was at Rheims and the OT in 1609-10 when the college had moved back to Douai.  This version in a 1750 revision by Bishop Richard Challoner remained the bible of english Catholics until well into the 20th cnetury.

The King James or Authorised Version (1611)
King James I became King of England in 1603 at the age of 37.  Having been King James VI of Scotland since the age of one, he was uncouth in manner but quick of mind.  A firm believer in the divine right of kings, he found the notes of the Geneva bible seditious and subversive towards monarchy.  When the leader of the Puritan party, John Rainolds, proposed a new translation, the king jumped at the idea.  Some of the usages of the Bishops’ Bible were retrieved, for example, the ‘thee’ and ‘thou’even though this was waning at the time.  Another important decision taken was to include the Apocrypha, even though their authority was still in dispute.  The plan was that six panels of translators, two each at Oxford, Cambridge and Westminster respectively would do the work.  The bishops, the royal Privy Council and the king himself in turn would make the final revision and approval.

Within a generation this version became established.  More polished and rhetorical that the rugged Tyndale, while still retaining 80 per cent of his version, it has the ornate fulsomeness of the baroque era and many of its phrases have become proverbial: ‘sour grapes’, ‘thorn in the flesh’, ‘salt of the earth’ and ‘going from strength to strength’.