The translators of the New English Bible worked without suspicion of inciting heresy among their readers. The teams producing the Revised Standard Version and the Good News Bible labored without fear of burning at the stake. We may be inclined, in fact, to imagine modern Bible translators as bookish, professorial people who are all but assured of dying quietly in bed.

It was not so for the earliest English translators.

Many did their work with the express opposition of the church of their day and fled to the European continent at the risk of their lives. They did this to make God’s Word available to every Englishman, including the lowly ploughman. Ecclesiastical authorities opposed translation of the Bible into the vernacular because they were deeply afraid that if lay people read the Bible, heresy would result, as had been the case with the Albigenses in France.

The method of Bible translation has also changed. The first English translations of the Bible were made before Johannes Gutenberg had even dreamed of creating a printing press. Instead, monks and priests spent hours copying verses by hand, with quill pen and ink, then comparing what they had written with one another.

Today complete concordances of the Bible can be produced by a computer.

It is often not easy to isolate one person as the translator of a book as long as the Bible. Over the years, however, individual names have come to be associated with particular translations. Some of the most interesting personalities associated with various English Bible translations are John Wycliffe, Miles Coverdale, William Tyndale, John Rogers, William Whittingham, Matthew Parker, Gregory Martin, Richard Bancroft, and Westcott and Hort.

English Bible Translators Before Wycliffe

Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People tells the interesting story of Caedmon, a laborer in the monastery at Whitby in Yorkshire around the year 675, who quite unintentionally became the first known translator of a part of the Bible into English.

One evening, so the story goes, Caedmon left a party and went to the stable so he wouldn’t have to sing. There he fell fast asleep and dreamed that a heavenly visitor told him to sing about the Creation. He began to praise God in words he had never heard before. When Hilda, the abbess of the monastery, heard the story, she realized God had been calling Caedmon and persuaded him to become a monk. She taught him Bible stories from Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel, and he turned them into English poetry. So the earliest English translation of the Bible was a paraphrase.

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Caedmon was followed by other talented translators whose names are all but forgotten. F. F. Bruce in The History of the Bible in English, S. L. Greenslade in The Cambridge History of the Bible, and Jack P. Lewis in The English Bible from KJV to NIV tell us stories about the brilliant poet Cynewulf; the learned Bishop Andhelm; the great Oxfordshire abbott, Aelfric; the translator for nuns, William Gifford; William of Waddington; the Augustinian monk Orm; and Richard Rolle. These translators of portions of the Bible into English lived between 950 and 1350.

John Wycliffe (Ca. 1330–84)

The first translation of the whole Bible into English is associated with the name of John Wycliffe, the six-hundredth anniversary of whose death we celebrate this year.

The most respected Oxford theologian of his day, Wycliffe seems to have first thought of the Bible as an authority to counteract the political involvement of English clergy in 1374 when he was on a royal commission to Belgium to contest money claimed by Pope Gregory IX. Wycliffe’s support of the anticlerical party in England resulted in the implacable opposition of such church leaders as William Courtney, the archbishop of Canterbury. In 1382 he and his followers were condemned as heretics at the Synod of Black Friars.

Wycliffe spent the last 18 months of his life in banishment at a Lutterworth rectory. There his friends and colleagues began the translation of an English Bible that would long survive him. Nicholas of Hereford translated the Latin Vulgate Bible into a very literal English version. He was interrupted in 1382 in the middle of the apocryphal book of Baruch because he had to travel to Rome to appeal his conviction as a heretic to Pope Urban VI. At Baruch 3:20, an unknown scribe wrote in, “Here ends the translation of Nicholas of Hereford.”

If Nicholas’s translation was as literal as today’s New American Standard Bible, the translation of Wycliffe’s secretary, John Purvey, attempted a “dynamic equivalence” translation like today’s Good News Bible. Of the 200 surviving hand-copied manuscripts of the Wycliffe Bible, 170 are in the Purvey translation. It proved so popular that despite its condemnation it survived to become the Bible Elizabeth I used at her coronation in 1558.

William Tyndale (Ca. 1494–1536)

Because Archbishop Thomas Arundel in 1408 in the Constitutions of Oxford “forbade anyone to translate, or even to read, a vernacular version of the Bible in whole or in part without the approval of his diocesan bishop or a provincial counsel,” most people, including the clergy, knew very little about the Bible. As a result, England was one of the last countries in Europe to have a printed Bible.

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But by the time William Tyndale (or Hutchins, as he is also known) graduated from Oxford, individuals like Luther and Erasmus were already calling for a religiously literate laity, and scholars were studying Hebrew and Greek in earnest. A tutor of Sir John Walsh’s children, Tyndale got into arguments with his employer’s friends that led him to the conviction that he had to translate the Bible into English. A visit to Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall of London led to no offer of employment, so Tyndale headed to Germany where he talked Peter Quentell into printing the first English Bible translated from the original languages. Quentell had not finished more than 80 pages before the authorities stopped production. Tyndale fled to Worms, where 6,000 copies of the New Testament were printed. In 1526 they were on sale in England for two shillings. (Two of the 170 surviving copies of Tyndale’s Bible are from this printing. And in 1834 the first 64 pages of the 80 pages Quintell printed were discovered bound with another work.)

Bishop Tunstall was furious. He bought up as many copies as he could and burned them, but the money he paid was used to print additional copies.

By 1536 Tyndale, now in Antwerp, had already translated large sections of the Old Testament. In that year, however, Charles V, the Holy Roman emperor, had him condemned for heresy, defrocked, strangled, and burned at the stake. So excellent and enduring was his work, however, that nine-tenths of the King James Version shows his influence. A still-existing letter from prison requests a Hebrew Bible, grammar, and dictionary so he could continue translating.

Miles Coverdale (Ca. 1488–1569) And The Coverdale Bible Of 1535

Like that of so many clergymen in the days of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth I, Miles Coverdale’s life bounces back and forth between respected ecclesiastical office and exile to the European continent.

Coverdale will be remembered as the one who produced the first complete Bible in English. About half of his work indirectly became a part of the King James Version of 1611. Coverdale left the monastery to become a Lutheran. In Hamburg he helped Tyndale translate the five books of Moses in the Old Testament. Then he moved to Antwerp where Jacob van Meteren, a merchant, persuaded him to produce an English Bible. He finished it in 1535 and dedicated it to Henry VIII. It relies heavily on Tyndale, Luther, and the Vulgate. It is highly readable, although at times it adopts German expressions (“unoutspeakable” in Romans 8:26, for example).

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Had Anne Boleyn not been executed in 1536, Coverdale’s Bible might have been the first “authorized” English version.

Coverdale was also responsible for editing the “Great Bible” of 1539 (so called because of its size), but in 1540 he was forced to flee to Strasbourg, where he stayed until the death of Henry VIII. Under Edward VI he was appointed bishop of Exeter, but when Mary became queen he almost lost his life. Only an appeal for pardon from his theologian brother-in-law in Copenhagen, through the king of Denmark, got him back to the Continent. There he became pastor of John Knox’s church in Geneva.

Under Elizabeth I, Coverdale took part in the consecration of the archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker, whom we will meet later, and worked on the famous Geneva Bible of 1560.

John Rogers (Ca. 1500–50) And “Matthew’S” Bible

Once Coverdale’s 1535 Bible was allowed to be sold in England, others appeared in rapid succession. Matthew’s Bible, the first licensed English Bible, appeared in 1537.

The title page of this Bible tells its story. It says it was “truly and purely translated into English by Thomas Matthew,” though the Bible was the work of John Rogers. Tyndale had just been executed a year before, so it was still wise to use a pseudonym. Matthew’s Bible is a combination of Tyndale’s partial Old Testament, Coverdale’s translation of the rest of the Old Testament, Tyndale’s New Testament, and Coverdale’s Apocrypha. Rogers’s contribution was an extensive set of 2,000 notes with a strongly Protestant tone (the first English Bible commentary).

The title page also indicates the fact that it was “set forth with the kinges most gracyous lycence.” It pictures King Henry VIII on his throne handing the Word of God to Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and royal adviser Thomas Cromwell, for distribution to clergy and laity. They respond with cries of “God save the King.” Even on the title page of a Bible the king’s supremacy over religious matters was asserted. To protect Coverdale’s Bible, Cranmer refused to allow the printing of Matthew’s Bible in England, however, though it circulated freely in England.

Rogers met the tragic end so common to prominent clergymen of the time. When Mary became queen in 1553, Rogers preached a violently anti-Catholic sermon, and after a year of imprisonment he was burned at the stake.

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William Whittingham (1524–89) And The Geneva Bible

During Mary’s reign, many Englishmen went to Geneva to study under John Calvin and Theodore Beza in Geneva. The leader of this group of exiles was William Whittingham, a graduate of Oxford and Calvin’s brother-in-law.

In 1557 Whittingham completed a revision of Tyndale’s New Testament that was unique in several ways. Incorporating an idea introduced by Robert Estienne in his 1551 Greek New Testament, Whittingham was the first to divide chapters into verses in an English Bible. He was the first not to include Paul’s name in the title to Hebrews. He was the first to speak of “General” rather than “Catholic” Epistles. He was the first to put into italics English words that had to be added to the literal translation for the text to make sense. The New Testament was the first study Bible in that it had chapter summaries, notes, and maps.

Working with colleagues, Whittingham then proceeded to produce the Geneva Bible. In the preface the translators say they had worked day and night for more than two years.

Though the Geneva Bible was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth, and she gave John Bodley the exclusive right to publish it for 19 years, Archbishop Matthew Parker allowed it primarily for home use and it was not printed in England until 1576. In 1579 it became the first Bible to be printed in Scotland.

The Geneva Bible won a place in the hearts of English-speaking people everywhere. It was preferred for years to the King James Version and was the Bible carried on the Mayflower in 1620. Sometimes called the “Breeches Bible” because it says Adam and Eve made “breeches” from fig leaves, it was the Bible Shakespeare used.

Matthew Parker (1504–75) And The Bishops’ Bible

Though the people loved the Geneva Bible, the strong Calvinism of its footnotes did not meet with the approval of the clergy. In 1566 Matthew Parker, the archbishop of Canterbury, assigned competent bishops and scholars who later became bishops to complete a translation but “to make no bitter notes.”

The actual work was done in only two years, and the translators lacked the ability in Hebrew and Greek the English exiles in Geneva during Mary’s reign had gained. The result is that the Bishops’ Bible, though it was published in 1568 and dedicated to Queen Elizabeth, was not an outstanding translation. It became the official Bible for church use, but the people continued to read the Geneva Bible.

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Archbishop Parker, the man who was editor in chief, was a highly competent translator. In addition, he supervised the writing of the Thirty-Nine Articles, the official creed of the Church of England, and wrote several scholarly studies in English church history.

Gregory Martin (Ca. 1540–82) And The Rheims-Douai Bible

Protestants were making such effective use of English Bible translations that William Allen, a fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, and founder of the English College for Roman Catholics at Douai in northern France, called on one of his most distinguished scholars, Gregory Martin, to produce an English Catholic translation.

Martin had graduated from Saint John’s College, Oxford, in 1557, two years after its founding, and was proficient in both Hebrew and Greek. In 1570 he went to study at the English College, became a priest, and joined the faculty as professor of Hebrew in 1573. In 1578, when the college was located temporarily in Rheims, Martin began his translation, two chapters a day. Though he completed the Old Testament first, the New Testament was published first, in 1582. The Old Testament was not published until 1609–10, when the college had returned to Douai.

The translation is excessively literal and word for word, even when it makes no sense. For example, Psalm 68:12 reads, “The king of hoastes the beloved of the beloved, and to the beauty of the house, to divide the spoils.” William Allen and others provided a set of annotations that are more polemical than any of the Protestant editions of the Bible.

Between 1749 and 1772, Bishop Richard Challoner, a convert from Protestantism, thoroughly revised Martin’s translation and did such an excellent job that his version survived over 200 years among Catholics.

Richard Bancroft (1544–1610) And The King James Version

It is one of the ironies of history that the chief overseer of the most beloved of all translations, the King James Version, vigorously opposed the Puritan John Reynolds, president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and one of the leading scholars of his time, when he suggested to King James I at the Hampton Court Conference in 1604 that a new translation of the Bible was needed. Bancroft objected that there was “no end of translating.”

When James authorized the idea, however, Archbishop Bancroft did a complete about-face and supported it enthusiastically. Fanatically anti-Puritan, Bancroft spent a lifetime opposing Puritan practices and enforcing laws against Puritans.

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James favored a new translation because he could not stand the extreme Calvinism of the notes in the Geneva Bible. When Richard Bancroft suggested that the new translation could appear without Calvinistic notes, James heartily approved.

James became one of the moving forces behind the translation. He apparently told Bancroft to appoint 54 scholars, six groups of 9, to do the work. Bancroft then appears to have selected candidates from proposals made by the universities, and came up with a list of 47, which he then broke into six groups, three to work on the Old Testament, two on the New Testament, and one on the Apocrypha. Among the members were Lancelot Andrewes, John Reynolds, and Miles Smith, one of the two final reviewers and authors of the preface. Two groups met at Oxford, two at Cambridge, and two at Westminster in London.

Though the new translation was bitterly attacked for 80 years after it was published, by 1650 it had become the only Bible printed in England because it was so clearly better than all its predecessors.

Westcott (1825–1901) And Hort (1828–92) And The Revised Version

Although the King James Version had been updated a number of times, by 1870 it was felt that a major revision was needed. Samuel Wilberforce, bishop of Winchester, made the proposal to a Canterbury convocation on February 10, 1870.

Brooke Foss Westcott, a biblical scholar and later bishop of Durham, and F. J. A. Hort, a New Testament scholar and authority on early Christianity, had spent a lifetime preparing what was at the time the best critical edition of the New Testament available. Published in 1881, it formed the basis for the New Testament of the English Revised Version, published the same year. Two committees, called “companies,” did the work. The New Testament, produced by a company of 24 members, created such excitement when it was published that it was telegraphed to a Chicago newspaper and printed in its pages. The Old Testament company, also consisting of about 24 members, completed its work in 1885, and a complete Bible was published that year.

Though critics attacked it for reliance on the Greek text of Westcott and Hort and for its excessive literalness, it has been called “a milestone in the history of the English Bible.”

From the start, American scholars were invited to participate in the project, and Philip Schaff of Union Theological Seminary in New York headed up the work on this side of the Atlantic. Unauthorized publication in 1881 led Oxford and Cambridge to publish the “American Revised Version.” This upset the Americans, who in 1901 published their own version as the American Standard Version.

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The unbelievable amounts of time and energy devoted to efforts to produce outstanding translations of the Bible have characterized the twentieth century, too. The work is done by scholars whose stories can be fascinating and diverse. The earlier story from Wycliffe to Westcott and Hort, however, is one we need to be aware of as we celebrate the six-hundredth anniversary of the death of John Wycliffe, the one who laid, literally with his life, the foundation for the whole process.

Tim Stafford is a free-lance writer living in Santa Rosa, California. He is a distinguished contributor to several magazines. His latest book is Do You Sometimes Feel Like a Nobody? (Zondervan, 1980).

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