As publication of the Today's New International Version of the Bible brews controversy among church leaders and translation scholars, it may be useful to remember that the first English Bible translations sparked passions as well. Sometimes deadly flames erupted, as these excerpts from Tony Lane's article in Christian History issue 43 depict:
The first attempt to translate the complete Bible into English is associated with fourteenth-century theologian John Wycliffe. Toward the end of his life, Wycliffe became critical of the established church, and, as a result, in 1381 he was removed from his post at Oxford University. He withdrew to the church in Lutterworth, where he was surrounded by disciples who began to translate the Bible into English, certainly under his inspiration and probably at his bidding. There is no evidence Wycliffe took part in the actual work of translation.
The church did not approve of the translation, but not primarily because it was in English. There were already English translations of parts of the Bible, and copies of the Wycliffe translation were legally owned by nobles and clergy.
The main problem was that it was the Wycliffe Bible: it was distributed by his followers (the "heretical" Lollards) and used to attack the teachings and practices of the church. In addition, the church was concerned about the effect of Bible reading upon the uneducated laity. The Bible was best left to the eyes of educated clergy, since salvation was mediated through the teachings of the church and the clergy-led sacraments.
Copies of Wycliffe's books and his Bible translation were burned, as were some of his followers. Wycliffe escaped arrest during his lifetime, but 43 years after his death, officials dug up his body, burned his remains, and threw the ashes into a river.
The Wycliffe Bible was far from perfect; it had been translated not from the original Hebrew and Greek but from the Latin translation known as the Vulgate. In 1516, with the publication of Erasmus's Greek New Testament, the time was ripe for an English translation from the original biblical languages.
Into this situation came William Tyndale. Tyndale hoped to receive official patronage for an updated translation, but with the new threat of Protestantism, the church hierarchy was not disposed to allow a vernacular Bible. Bishop Tunstall of London let Tyndale understand, as Tyndale later put it, "not only that there was no room in my lord of London's palace to translate the New Testament, but also that there was no place to do it in all England."
With the sponsorship of some wealthy merchants, Tyndale left for Germany, where he completed the New Testament in two years. He never completed the Old Testament.
Tyndale translated directly from the Greek and Hebrew (with the help of grammars and Latin and German translations). He is truly the father of the English Bible: some 90 percent of his words passed into the King James Version and about 75 percent into the Revised Standard Version.
Tyndale's translation was also unpopular with church authorities. It was unauthorized and had not been made from the Vulgate, the official version. Furthermore, Tyndale had abandoned traditional terms, substituting "repent" for "do penance," "congregation" for "church," and "elder" for "priest."
In addition, Tyndale had included strongly Lutheran prefaces to various books (some being translations of Luther himself) and strongly Protestant marginal notes, some of which sharply criticized the Catholic church. In the margin of Exodus 32:5-7, for example, where the people are told not to bring any more offerings for the building of the tabernacle because they have contributed enough, the note reads, "When will the Pope say 'Hoo! [Hold!]' and forbid an offering for the building of St. Peter's Church?"
Tyndale lived with English merchants in Antwerp, a position of comparative safety. In 1535, however, he was betrayed by a fellow Englishman and arrested. After a year and a half of imprisonment, he was strangled and burned at the stake in Brussels, on October 6, 1536. It is reported that his last words were "Lord! Open the King of England's eyes."
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More Christian History, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net. Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.
Christian History issue 43: How We Got Our Bible, may be purchased in the Christian History Store.
For coverage of the TNIV debate, see these articles from Christianity Today:
Weblog: The TNIV Battle Continues | Dobson and others launch "Kept the Faith" to accuse TNIV creators of violating their word and God's (Feb. 11, 2002)
Comparing the Three NIVs | How does the TNIV treat verses that were earlier criticized as theologically incorrect? (Jan. 31, 2002)
Revised NIV Makes Its Debut | Translators alter 7 percent of the text to update style and gender issues. (Jan. 28, 2002)
The TNIV Web site offers the full New Testament text (in Adobe Acrobat format), a questions and answers section, endorsements, and other promotional material. Zondervan is also providing free copies of the translation.
Criticisms of the TNIV are available at KeptTheFaith.org and the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.
Christian History Corner appears every Friday at ChristianityToday.com. Previous editions include:
The Cremation Question | Firm belief in resurrection hasn't kept Christians from caring-and arguing-about what happens to the bodies of the dead. (Feb. 22, 2002)
Citius, Altius, Sanctus | The modern Olympics, though hardly Christian, hail from an era when athleticism was next to godliness. (Feb. 15, 2002)
Alternative Religions | Many non- and semi-Christian groups laid claim to the West, but none more successfully than the Mormons. (Feb. 8, 2002)
Zion Haste | Does the passion of a few nineteenth-century Chicagoans still influence American policy in the Middle East? (Feb. 2, 2002)
Final Solution, Part II | The Nazis planned to obliterate Christianity, too, according to newly published Nuremberg documents. (Jan. 25, 2002)
Tell Me a Story | The most helpful church history scholarship is both broad and narrative. (Jan. 18, 2002)
State of the Fragmentation | If "society" denotes a group with mutual interests and common culture, the American Society of Church History almost doesn't qualify. (Jan. 11, 2002)
Spurgeon's Epiphany | The event he recounted more than 280 times in his sermons first occurred on January 6, 1850. (Jan. 4, 2002)
Christmas Kettles | The history behind a Yuletide institution. (Dec. 21, 2001)
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