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The Story of the English Bible

This year my church, along with many, is celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible. Last night I got the ball rolling with a little talk on “From King Ælfred to King James: The Story of the English Bible.” (I hope it was more entertaining than these bare notes below the fold suggest!)

I. Non-English Translations.

The first 700–800 years of Christian history were relatively fruitful for Bible translations.

A. It was assumed that the Bible was, in fact, translatable.

  1. Missionary impulse: proclaim the word of the Lord to “all the nations.”
  2. Incarnational dimension. God connects with humankind by speaking a word  (or Word) that we can understand.
  3. Expectation that Christian devotion is more than mere ritual performance. There is content to be taught and mastered; there are stories to be told.

B. Greek Translations of the Old Testament

  1. The Septuagint (3rd–2nd century BC)
  2. Aquila of Sinope (c. AD 130)
  3. Theodotion (c. AD 150)
  4. Symmachus the Ebionite (late 2nd century AD)
  5. Origen’s Hexapla (3rd century AD)

C. Latin Translations

  1. Old Latin Bible (2nd century AD)
  2. Jerome’s Vulgate (c. 400)

D. Other Ancient Versions

  1. Old Syriac Peshitta (OT, c. 1st-2nd cent. AD), Diatessaron (Gospels, 2nd cent.)
  2. Coptic (2nd cent.?)
  3. Gothic (Ulfilas, c. 360)
  4. Old Armenian (400s)
  5. Old Georgian (400s)
  6. Old Church Slavonic (Cyril and Methodius, 860s)
  7. NB: These are all translations produced in the East for Eastern Christians. In the West, the Latin Vulgate quickly became the “standard” Bible.

    With barbarian invasions and the fall of the (Western) Roman Empire in the 5th century, Western Europe hit the “pause” button on learning and biblical translation. Very little literacy let to very little demand for vernacular Bible translations.

II. Old English (before 1066)

The language of the Epic of Beowulf (after c. 700; before c. 1000?)

A. Early English Christianity

  1. Anselm of Canterbury (597). Sent from Rome to evangelize in southern England (Kent).
  2. Aidan of Lindisfarne, “Apostle to the English” (633; d. 651). Arrived in northern England (Northumbria) from the island of Iona in Scotland.
  3. Caedmon, monk and religious poet (before 700). He sang Bible stories in English in poetic form (you might say he produced “paraphrases,” not “translations”).
  4. Aldhelm, Bishop of Sherborne (c. 700) possibly produced a version of the Psalms.

B. Translations

  1. Venerable Bede’s Gospel of John (c. 735). (lost)
  2. The Vespasian Psalter (c. 850)—and other 9th-century Psalm-glosses.
  3. King Ælfred the Great (871–899), king of the West Saxons. Both a warrior (who ended up uniting England against the Danes) and a scholar.
    • Like Charlemagne, Ælfred wanted to revive learning in his kingdom.
    • Founded a court school for his children, the sons of nobles, and boys of lesser birth who showed potential.
    • Personally translated several theological and philosophical works.
    • Published a law code to which he prefixed translations of the Ten Commandments and other passages from the Pentateuch (West Saxons as a kind of “New Israel”).
    • Directed the translation of the Psalms (found in the Paris Psalter?)
  4. Aldred the Scribe (c. 950–70). Added an interlinear English gloss to the Latin Lindisfarne Gospels.
  5. The Wessex Gospels (c. 990). A full, free-standing English version of the four Gospels. The Wessex Gospels give us the most common Old English version of the Lord’s Prayer:
  6. Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum;
    Si þin nama gehalgod
    to becume þin rice
    gewurþe ðin willa
    on eorðan swa swa on heofonum.
    urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us todæg
    and forgyf us ure gyltas
    swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum
    and ne gelæd þu us on costnunge
    ac alys us of yfele soþlice

  7. Ælfric of Eynsham (c. 990). Produced an independent translation of the Pentateuch, Joshua, and Judges.
  8. NB: All these translations were partial (not the whole Bible).

    Furthermore, all these translations were based on the Latin Vulgate, not from the original Greek and Hebrew texts. (Knowledge of the original languages had largely disappeared in the West in the early Middle Ages.)

III. Middle English (1066–1500)

The language of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (late 1300’s)

A. After the Norman Conquest in 1066, English falls on hard times. French was the preferred language of the elite; Latin remained the preferred literary language.

B. Partial Translations

  1. Orm of Lincolnshire (c. 1150)
  2. Richard Rolle (early 1300s)
  3. The West Midland Psalter (c. 1340–1350). (Attributed to William of Shoreham, but probably erroneously)

C. John Wycliffe (1380, 1388) produced the first English translation of the entire Bible: 1380 (NT), 1382 (OT).

  • Knew some of the Middle English partial translations (Rolle, W Midland Psalter). Reading these led him to faith—apart from church hierarchy!
  • Undertook to translate the Bible from Latin into English. He did the NT and William of Hereford did most of the OT.
  • After his death a second edition was produced by William Purvey.
  • Began preaching without a license, gathered a group around him who did the same (the Lollards), a society of lay preachers. (Probably the preaching got him into as much trouble as the Bible translation)
  • Wycliffe’s Bible was banned, although 30 copies survive.
  • 44 years after he died (1384), the Pope ordered his bones dug up, crushed, burned, and scattered in the river.
  • In Wycliffe’s Bible, the Lord’s Prayer looks like this:

    Oure fadir that are in heuenes
    halwid be thi name
    thi kingdom cumme to
    be thi wille don
    as in heuen and in erthe;
    ȝif to vs this day oure breed ouer other substance
    and forȝeue to vs. oure dettis,
    as we forȝeue to oure detours;
    and leede vs nat in to temptacioun,
    but delyuere vs fro yuel. Amen

IV. Early Modern English (1500–1800)

The language of William Shakespeare (c. 1564–1616)

A. Shockwaves. The 1500s saw an explosion of English Bibles. What happened after Wycliffe to make this possible?

  1. Jan Hus (died 1415). Czech priest and reformer. Espoused many of Wycliffe’s ideas. Burned at the stake along with copies of Wycliffe’s Bible.
  2. Johannes Gutenberg (1450). Invented the printing press.
  3. John Colet (1496). Oxford professor. Read the Greek NT and translated it into English for his students, and later for the public. 20,000 people would gather at St. Paul’s in London to hear the Bible in their own language.
  4. Desiderius Erasmus’s Greek New Testament (1516). Humanism: ad fontes! (1453 fall of Constantinople—the West saw an influx of Eastern Christian refugees fleeing the Turks. They sparked a renaissance of interest in Greek language and learning.) Erasmus produced a parallel Greek-Latin text—not the Vulgate but a fresh Latin translation based on the Greek text.
  5. Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses (1517). Beginnings of the Protestant Reformation. The Luther Bible (German), 1534

B. Translations

  1. William Tyndale (1526, 1534, 1536). Produced an English translation largely free from ecclesiastical vocabulary (“overseer” and “elder” instead of “bishop” or “priest,” “love” instead of “charity,” etc.) and with explanatory notes deemed offensive to the religious authorities. He was burned at the stake. By this time, the English language looks more or less familiar:
  2. O oure father which arte in heven,
    halowed be thy name.
    Let thy kyngdome come.
    Thy wyll be fulfilled,
    as well in erth, as it ys in heven.
    Geve vs this daye oure dayly breede.
    And forgeve vs oure treaspases,
    even as we forgeve oure trespacers.
    And leade vs not into temptacion:
    but delyver vs from evell.
    For thyne is the kyngedome and the power,
    and the glorye for ever. Amen.

  3. Thomas Cranmer’s “Bishops’ Bible” (1534). Produced as an alternative to Tyndale. Lost.
  4. Myles Coverdale (1535). Greatly influenced by Tyndale.
  5. John Rodgers’ “Matthew’s Bible” (1537). Produced under a pseudonym: “Thomas Matthew.”
  6. Richard Taverner (1539). A minor revision of the Matthew’s Bible.
  7. The Great Bible (1539). Also compiled by Coverdale.
    • The first “authorized version.”
    • Issued to meet a decree that each church should make available in some convenient place the largest possible copy of the whole Bible, where all the parishioners could have access to it and read it at their will.
    • Much of the present English prayer book is taken from it.
  8. The Geneva Bible (1560). Published overseas because of Catholic persecution of Protestants in England. Became very popular among English Calvinists and early Baptists.
  9. Matthew Parker’s “Bishop’s Bible” (1568). Produced under Queen Elizabeth I. Follows closely the Great Bible.
  10. The Douay-Rheims Version (1582, 1609, 1610). Prepared by English Catholic scholars in France. Based on the Latin Vulgate.
  11. The King James Bible (1611, 1769).
    • Produced by around 50 translators using the widest possible range of source texts. (Greek, Hebrew, but also consulting Latin and several more recent European translations)
    • Became known as the “Authorized Version.”
    • Was the Bible for the English-speaking world up until fairly recently.
    • Extensively modernized by Benjamin Blayney in 1769.

1 Comment

  1. anonymous says:

    Good summary. I love this time period. I can’t resist mentioning a few interesting features about some of these Bibles: Wycliffe’s 2nd edition had 28 books in the NT since it included the apocryphal “Letter to the Laodiceans.” Tyndale (influenced by Luther) had Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation as the last 4 books of the NT. The Geneva Bible was the first English Bible to include verse numbering (which was created by Robert Stephanus in his 1551 Greek NT). It took nearly 50 years for the KJV to exceed the popularity of the Geneva Bible. Most of these early English Bibles (including the KJV) included the Apocrypha.


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