How did we get our first English Bible?

When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments, they were written in stone in a language that the entire nation of Israel could read.

David composed his poems of praise and petition, promises and pleadings, in the everyday language of his people.

Solomon penned his proverbs of wise fatherly counsel, and his songs of passionate love, in Hebrew, the language of many of his sons, and at least some of his lovers.

When Jesus walked the earth, by the sea or on a hilltop, in the Temple or at the well, to individuals and to multitudes alike, he spoke to people in Aramaic and Hebrew words which they all could understand.

Paul's letters were written in Greek, the everyday language of those to whom they were sent. The same was true of the Gospels and the other New Testament writings.

But in England 2300 years after David and Solomon, and 1300 years after Jesus and Paul, the Bible was written almost exclusively in Latin, an unknown language to 99 percent of that society. Indeed, Latin was only understood by some of the clergy, some of the well-off, and the few who were university educated. This did not trouble the church princes, who long before had transformed the "Divine Commission"—to preach the Word and to save souls—into the more temporal undertaking of the all-consuming drive to wield authority over every aspect of life, and in the process, to accumulate ever-greater wealth.

John Wycliffe, an Oxford University professor and theologian, was one of those few who had read the Latin Bible. Though a scholar living a life of privilege, he nevertheless felt a strong empathy for the poor and the uneducated, those multitudes in feudal servitude whose lives were "nasty, brutish, and short". He challenged the princes of the church to face their hypocrisy and widespread corruption—and to repent. He railed that the church was no longer worthy to be the keeper of the Word of Truth. And he proposed a truly revolutionary idea:

"The Scriptures," Wycliffe stated, "are the property of the people, and one which no party should be allowed to wrest from them. Christ and his apostles converted much people by uncovering of Scripture, and this in the tongue which was most known to them. Why then may not the modern disciples of Christ gather up the fragments of the same bread? The faith of Christ ought therefore to be recounted to the people in both languages, Latin and English."

John Wycliffe earnestly believed that all of the Scriptures should be available to all of the people all of the time in their native tongue. And so Wycliffe and his followers, most notably John Purvey, his secretary and close friend, and for a limited time, Nicholas Hereford, translated Jerome's Vulgate, the "Latin Bible," into the first English Bible. (They utilized original language texts as well.) Their literal, respectful translation was hand-printed around 1382. Historians refer to this as the "Early Version" of the Wycliffe Bible.

The church princes, long before having anointed themselves as sole arbitrator (indeed "soul" arbitrator!) between God and man, condemned this monumental achievement as heretical—and worse:

"This pestilent and wretched John Wycliffe, that son of the old serpent, endeavour[ing] by every means to attack the very faith and sacred doctrine of Holy Church, translated from Latin into English the Gospel, [indeed all of the Scriptures,] that Christ gave to the clergy and doctors of the Church. So that by his means it has become vulgar and more open to laymen and women who can read than it usually is to quite learned clergy of good intelligence. And so the pearl of the Gospel, [indeed of the Scriptures in toto,] is scattered abroad and trodden underfoot by swine." (Church Chronicle, 1395)

The church princes decreed that Wycliffe be removed from his professorship at Oxford, and it was done. Two years later, his health broken, he died.

In the decade following Wycliffe's death, his friend John Purvey revised their Bible. The complete text, including Purvey's "Great Prologue," appeared by 1395 (more than 200 years before the King James Bible). But portions of his revision, in particular the Gospels and other books of the New Testament, were in circulation as early as 1388.

Historians refer to this as the "Later Version" of the Wycliffe Bible. This vernacular version retained most of the theological insight and poetry of language found in the earlier, more literal effort. But it was easier to read and understand, and quickly gained a grateful and loyal following. Each copy had to be hand-printed (Gutenberg's printing press would not be invented for more than 50 years), but this did not deter widespread distribution.

For his efforts, the church princes ordered John Purvey arrested and delivered to the dungeon. He would not see freedom again until he recanted for his "sin" of writing the English Bible. His spirit ultimately broken, he eventually did recant. Upon release, he was watched, hounded at every step, the church princes determined that he would tow the party line. His life made a living hell, the co-author of the first English Bible disappeared into obscurity and died unknown.

But the fury of the church princes was unrelenting. Edicts flew. John Wycliffe's bones were dug up and burned. Wycliffe's writings were gathered up and burned. All unauthorized Bibles—that is, all those in the English language—were banned. All confiscated copies were burned. Those who copied out these Bibles were imprisoned. Those who distributed these Bibles were imprisoned. Those who owned an English Bible, or, as has been documented, "traded a cart-load of hay for but a few pages of the Gospel," were imprisoned. And those faithful souls who refused to "repent" the "evil" that they had committed, were burned at the stake, the "noxious" books they had penned, or even had merely owned, hung about their necks to be consumed by the same flames. In all, thousands were imprisoned and many hundreds executed. Merry olde England was engulfed in a reign of terror. All because of an English Bible.

But the spark that John Wycliffe, John Purvey, and their followers had ignited could not, would not, be extinguished. The Word of Truth was copied, again, and again, and again. It was shared, from hand, to hand, to hand. It was spoken, and read, and heard by the common people in their own language for the first time in over 1000 years. At long last, the Word of Truth had been returned to simple folk who were willing to lose everything to gain all.

Today there are scores of modern translations of the Bible in English, available at the library, in bookstores, and on the Internet. But once, there was just one. Try to imagine the impact upon hearing (or reading) these words for the very first time:

In the beginning God made of nought heaven and earth (In the beginning God made out of nothing the heavens and the earth) …

Terry Noble studied at the University of British Columbia and the Vancouver School of Theology. His books include The Sculpture of Elek Imredy (1993), Wycliffe's New Testament (2001), Wycliffe's Old Testament (2001, 2010), the revised Wycliffe's New Testament (2011) and Wycliffe's Bible (2012). This article was excerpted from Wycliffe's Bible, which is available in paperback or in e-book format.

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