How did we get our first English Bible?

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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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