Friday, October 29, 2021

English Bible Translations: The Nineteenth Century

 And be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves by false reasoning. For if any one be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like a man who views his natural face in a mirror; for he who looks at himself and goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of person he was. But he who looks narrowly into the perfect law of liberty, and perseveres, not becoming a forgetful hearer, but a doer of its work, shall, in so doing, be happy.

-James 1:22-25 (The Living Oracles, 1826)

This is the sixth post in a series on the development of the English Bible. You can read about the reasons for this series here, and the second installment on John Wycliffe here. The third post on William Tyndale is here. The fourth on The Geneva Bible is here. The fifth on the King James Version is here.

    By the nineteenth century the King James Version, already 200 years old but still the dominant English translation of the Bible, was showing its age. Developments in biblical scholarship and the translation of ancient Near Eastern languages had highlighted its deficiencies. More significantly, the 300-year-old English of the King James Version was becoming more difficult for the average reader to understand.

     Several attempts were made in the nineteenth century to update the KJV. Notably for those of us in Churches of Christ, The Living Oracles (1826) was one of the first efforts. The Living Oracles, which was a translation of only the New Testament, was published by Alexander Campbell, an early Restoration Movement leader. Campbell believed that changes in the English language and the availability of better Greek and Hebrew manuscripts had made the KJV obsolete. He used a Greek text published by Johann Jakob Griesbach that took into account the latest manuscript evidence. A quirk of the translation is that it replaces the word "church" with "congregation" and "baptize" with “immerse,” which made it popular among Restoration Movement Christians and others who believed in baptism by immersion, but suspect among other groups. The Living Oracles is a forerunner of modern language translations in its updating of the traditional KJV English and reliance on the work of textual critics such as Griesbach.

     Noah Webster, of dictionary fame, lightly revised the KJV in 1833. He focused mostly on replacing archaic words and making small grammatical changes since he didn’t want to make his version sound completely contemporary, but to remove some of the barriers to understanding the KJV.  

     Robert Young, a publisher self-taught in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, produced his own “Literal Translation” of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek in 1862. However, he used the same outdated Greek and Hebrew texts used by the KJV translators, and his translation wasn’t that much of an improvement in making the Bible understandable since he used a very literal translation philosophy that insisted on preserving Greek and Hebrew word order and tense. 

     Similarly, Julia Smith Parker, the daughter of a Congregationalist minister with a “working knowledge” of Greek and Hebrew produced a very literal and idiosyncratic translation in 1855, finally publishing it in 1876. She was the first and is still the only woman to produce an individual English translation of the Bible. 

     J.N. Darby’s translation (1867/1890) was based on the work of Samuel Tregelles, who had recently published a Greek New Testament based on the best manuscripts available throughout Europe. It was intended to be “as exact a translation as possible" for the “simple and unlearned reader.” 

    By the end of the 19th century, bishops of the Anglican Church agreed on the necessity of a new English translation that would retain the KJV text "except where in the judgement of competent scholars such a change is necessary.” The resulting translation, the Revised Version of 1885, was intended "to adapt King James' version to the present state of the English language without changing the idiom and vocabulary," and "to adapt it to the present standard of Biblical scholarship.” The RV updated language and utilized the better manuscripts that had come to light in the 350 years following the publication of the KJV. The translation committee of more than 50 was made up of British and American scholars  from many different denominations in the UK and the States.

     The Revised Version, which ended up being a very literal and flat translation, was never very popular. Its Americanized revision, the American Standard Version (1901), sold much better, but was still not able to challenge the dominance of the King James Version. The ASV, though, has had lasting influence in that it has been the basis for several other translations, revisions, and paraphrases, including the Revised Standard Version (1952), the New American Standard Bible (1971, revised in 1995), The Living Bible (1971), the New Revised Standard Version (1989), and the English Standard Version (2001). Many of these have become popular and widely used among English-speaking Bible readers. The NRSV is officially approved by several mainline Protestant denominations for use in worship, and is the preferred version of the majority of Bible scholars due to its strong textual base and largely word-for-word translation philosophy. The English Standard Version is currently the fourth best-selling English translation. We’ll look at several recent translations in the next post.

     None of these potential replacements for the King James Version have been without controversy. Most any time a new Bible translation is published, there are objections to what are perceived to be changes from an earlier, perfect, pristine Master Bible that God dropped from heaven. Of course it’s not that simple. The originals of every book of the Bible are long gone. It would be amazing to have even part of a manuscript stained with Jeremiah’s tears or the dust from one of Paul’s journeys, to read a psalm from a page that David touched or the words of Jesus written in the hand of someone who heard them spoken. The Bible just doesn’t work that way. 

     Always, it’s been people who God has used to preserve the biblical text. People like Phoebe — probably the first person to read the letter to the Romans in church; or some unnamed person in an Asian church who first said, “Someone should copy Paul’s letters so they don’t get lost;” or a Jewish scribe laboring over a text that he had no way of knowing would be found thousands of years later in a desert cave; or a scholar comparing some of those ancient copies of still more ancient manuscripts to reconstruct what Jesus or Paul or David or Jeremiah actually said or wrote or sang; or people who have worked hard to translate those words into hundreds and hundreds of languages and dialects. People have always been part of God’s work of making the Bible available to the world. 

     New translations are always necessary because language evolves and understanding of the biblical text grows and changes. The KJV translators said it best, perhaps: 

“Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtaine, that we may looke into the most Holy place; that remooveth the cover of the well, that wee may come by the water…”

Friday, October 22, 2021

English Bible Translations: The King James Version

 But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers onely, deceauing your owne selues. For if any be a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like vnto a man beholding his naturall face in a glasse: For hee beholdeth himselfe, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what maner of man he was. But who so looketh in the perfect Law of libertie, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetfull hearer, but a doer of the worke, this man shall be blessed in his deed.

-James 1:22-25 (Authorized Version, 1611)

This is the sixth post in a series on the development of the English Bible. You can read about the reasons for this series here, and the second installment on John Wycliffe here. The third post on William Tyndale is here. The fourth on The Geneva Bible is here.

     When James VI and I* came to power in England in 1603, the Bishops’ Bible was the Bible read in the churches of England. The Bishops’ Bible, completed in 1568, was a revision of The Great Bible — the earlier “official” Bible of the English church — in light of The Geneva Bible. It was never as popular as Geneva. Neither was its scholarship as rigorous, nor its English as good. By 1604, there were calls from both State and Separatist church leaders for a new version.  

     After a conference with Puritan and Anglican Church leaders at the Hampton Court palace, James VI/I ordered that a translation committee be formed and that work on the new translation should begin as soon as possible. All of the 47 men who made up the committee were members of the Church of England, and all but one were clergy. The translators worked in six groups, two at Oxford, two at Cambridge, and two at Westminster Abbey. The new translation was just called The Authorized Version, but it eventually became better known by the name of the monarch who authorized it: The King James Version.

     To keep the new translation familiar, the Bishops' Bible was used as the basis, meaning that in many ways the King James Version was a revision and not a completely new translation. Forty unbound copies were printed for the translators so that they could note changes in the margins. For places where the Bishops’ Bible was thought to be problematic, the translators were allowed to consult Tyndale and the other existing English translations. The flyleaf of most printings acknowledges this when it says that it was "translated out of the original tongues, and with the former translations diligently compared and revised, by His Majesty's special commandment.” Just a reminder from the translators that they stood on the shoulders of those who came before, especially of William Tyndale, who it’s estimated influenced 80-90% of the King James Version both directly and through the other translations he influenced. This also means that the English of the KJV is more like the English of the early 1500s than of the early 1600s. 

    The KJV is likely the most printed book in history, which means that  it was revised numerous times, sometimes sloppily — a notorious 1631 edition has Exodus 20:14 saying, “thou shalt commit adultery.” (A mistake which cost the printer his royal license.) Cleaning up typographical errors and following changing standards in spelling and punctuation required frequent new editions. A King James Version reader today is probably reading an edition of the Oxford text from 1769, after which the KJV became more or less standardized.

      In 2011, the 400th anniversary of the original printing, Zondervan produced a digitally-remastered reprint of the original printing of the KJV. Even if you’re a King James reader, you’ll be surprised at how different it is from the Bible you’re familiar with — starting with its typeface and spelling.

     At the time of its development, the King James Version was based on the best Hebrew and Greek manuscripts available to the translators. For the New Testament, the translators had available Beza’s Greek New Testament, based on mostly 12th- and 15th-century manuscripts. For the Old Testament, they used Daniel Bomberg’s edition of the Masoretic Text, which dated to the 10th century. While these were the best manuscripts available in their day, biblical scholarship has pushed the earliest available complete or near-complete New Testament manuscripts to the 4th century, with fragments perhaps dating to the 3rd century. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls made available Old Testament manuscripts that are dated as far back as the 2nd century B.C. Some of these have significantly different readings than the later texts. Developments in the study of ancient Near Eastern languages have also caused a reevaluation of some the KJV’s translations of Hebrew words. While a minority of scholars insist on the superiority of the later Greek and Hebrew texts on which the KJV is based — nearly all of them to prop up their claims about the KJV — almost all modern translations are based on the older manuscripts. This is nothing that should surprise us, as we’d expect that study of biblical languages would progress over the space of 400 years.

    Because of its inferior text base and its long-outdated English, the KJV is not recommended for serious study of the Bible. Much of its language, though, just sounds like the Bible for many people. There’s no doubt that many of its expressions have helped to form our language even today — though some of those choices go beyond the KJV to Tyndale. A combination of excellence, royal and ecclesiastical favor, and market realities made the King James Version the dominant version of the Bible for the Protestant English-speaking world for well over 400 years. Many of us memorized Bible verses in “King James” English.

     Despite the easy availability of better and more understandable translations, a significant number of Christians still love and read the King James Version today. There is even a small number of Christians who believe that the only faithful translation of the Bible is the 1611 KJV — and some of them even make the startling claim (never made by the original translators) that the KJV was inspired by God.  

     It wasn’t. No translation of the Bible is inspired, or even perfect. Every one of them requires trade-offs of literal accuracy for understandability. (Homework assignment: find out why the King James Version has some words printed in italics.) 

     The King James Version of the Bible was a very good and sometimes even excellent translation for its time. Through it, uncounted numbers of people came to faith in Jesus, grew in their walk with him, and were comforted and encouraged through difficult times. Through it, the Bible was heard and read in churches, homes, workplaces, and schools throughout the world. It was never intended to be the final word in Bible translations. If you enjoy reading it, please continue. If you struggle to understand it and don’t read the Bible much because of it, set it aside and get a more recent translation. And even if you understand it well, take advantage of the easy availability of more understandable and better translations to widen and deepen your knowledge of Scripture.  

     “Thou shalt be blessed above all people.” (Deuteronomy 7:14, KJV)

*He had ruled Scotland as James VI since 1557. After the union of Scottish and English crowns in 1603, he also ruled England and Ireland as James I.

Friday, October 15, 2021

English Bible Translations: The Geneva Bible

 And be ye doers of the worde, and not hearers onely, deceauing your owne selues. For if anie heare the worde, & do it not, he is like vnto a man, that beholdeth his natural face in a glasse. For when he hathe considered him self, he goeth his way, & forgetteth immediatly what maner of one he was. But he who so loketh in the perfit Law of libertie, and continueth therein, he not being a forgetfull hearer, but a doer of the worke, shalbe blessed in his dede.

-James 1:22-25 (Geneva Bible)

This is the fourth post in a series on the development of the English Bible. You can read about the reasons for this series here, and the second installment on John Wycliffe here. The third post on William Tyndale is here.

By the middle of the 17th century, William Tyndale’s work fifty years earlier had opened the door for several new English translations. The Great Bible was a revision of a revision of Tyndale, authorized by King Henry VIII in 1539 to be read in churches, (and sometimes literally chained to the pulpits). Tyndale’s translations still circulated in various forms. It was easier than ever before for an English-speaking person to hear the Bible read in their own language.

     Religiously, the death of Henry VIII in 1547 had ushered England into a protracted religious war between Catholics and Protestants that reflected the Protestant leanings of Henry’s son, Edward VI, and the Catholic preferences of Edward’s half-sister, Mary I, who succeeded him on the throne and undid many of his Protestant reforms. 

     Mary’s “bloody” 5-year reign — she had 280 religious dissenters burned at the stake — caused a wave of Protestant emigration to Europe. Many of those emigrants found their way to Geneva, Switzerland, which due largely to John Calvin’s influence had become a safe haven for Protestants. Among the group in Geneva were biblical scholars William Whittingham, Christopher Goodman, Anthony Gilby, Thomas Sampson, William Cole, and William Tyndale’s former collaborator Myles Coverdale. These scholars worked together to create the first English translation of the entire Bible from the original Greek and Hebrew. The New Testament was completed in 1557, and the Old Testament in 1560.

     The English style and word choices of the Geneva Bible largely reflects Tyndale in the New Testament, emphasizing how important Tyndale’s translation really was, even as it was surpassed in popularity by the Geneva Bible. 

     Geneva was produced in a smaller format and a more legible typeface than the Great Bible. It contained study guides and aids including cross-references, introductions and summaries of each book, maps, tables,  explanatory notes, and woodcut illustrations. It was also the first English translation to number each verse using the system created by Robert Estienne (which is still used today).

     The Geneva Bible was comparatively affordable, making it ideal for families. It was mechanically printed and mass-produced, and became hugely popular in England, especially after Mary’s reign ended in 1558 (between the completion of the Geneva New Testament and the complete Bible). It went through around 140 editions.

     It’s hard to overstate the Geneva Bible’s influence. It was the Bible quoted by William Shakespeare in his later work, and the Bible that was brought to the new world at Jamestown and Plymouth. It was used by English Protestant separatists like the Puritans for a century, and was quoted by John Bunyan in Pilgrims’ Progress, one of the best-selling English books ever written. A 1579 law passed in Scotland required every household of sufficient means to buy a Geneva Bible.

     It influenced even its detractors. The English church didn’t care for its notes, which emphasized Calvin’s views on church organization — that it was to be led by elders, not powerful bishops. The royals didn’t care for the “seditious” nature of some of its notes that advocated disobedience to the monarch; Queen Elizabeth I commissioned a revision of the Great Bible, known as the Bishops’ Bible and completed in 1568, for this very reason. Thirty-six years later, King James I would commission another English translation that would become somewhat influential in its own right after its publication in 1611. The King James Version, as it came to be called, intentionally did not include marginal notes. It likely wouldn’t have existed at all if not for the Geneva Bible. 

     In time, the King James Version would supplant the Geneva Bible, but initially Geneva outsold the KJV. Eventually, King James felt it necessary to ban the printing of new editions of the Geneva Bible in England. However, the royal printer, Robert Barker, continued to print them even after the ban, placing the  date of 1599 on new copies printed from 1616 to 1625.

     The zeal of Protestants in producing the Geneva Bible, and its influence, also influenced Catholics to publish their own English translation (from Latin, though, not Hebrew and Greek), the Douay-Rheims Bible, between 1582 and 1610. 

     The Geneva Bible represents a paradigm shift. Where earlier English translations were mostly kept in churches, where clergy could still act as caretakers, Geneva released the Bible into the wild. Scripture — and notes on it from eminent scholars of the day — were available to anyone who could read, or had someone to read to them. A wider range of views on Scripture became available to people who up until that time had only heard their local clergy’s take. Children could grow up hearing the Bible read in their homes every day.

     There was a definite and noticeable increase in literacy rates in England from the 16th to the 18th centuries. It’s hard to say for sure that access to Scripture in their own language and in their own homes was part of the motivation for middle class, tradesmen, and farmers and day laborers to join the upper classes in knowing how to read, but I think it’s pretty likely.

     In some ways, the publication of The Geneva Bible anticipated our own world, where Scripture is available easily and cheaply to us. One fairly recent study found that 87% of American households own a Bible, and that the average number of Bibles per household is 3. That study, of course, has only to do with hard copies of the Bible. It doesn’t take into account the huge number of translations available to English-speakers on digital resources like Bible Gateway (62) and YouVersion (68).

     Of course, our reading for the past 4 weeks reminds us that hearing (or reading) the Bible does little if we walk away from it and forget the reflection of ourselves — all of our potential and all of our faults — that we see there. Let’s hear the Bible, for sure. Let’s read it. It’s certainly more available to us now than it’s ever been. But let’s also allow what we hear and read to define us and how we see and act in the world around us. May we not be “forgetfull hearer(s),” but “doer(s) of the worke” who live in “the perfit Law of libertie” and receive God’s blessing because of it.

Friday, October 8, 2021

English Bible Translations: Tyndale

 And se that ye be doars of the worde and not hearers only deceavinge youre awne selves with sophistrie. For yf eny heare the worde and do it not he is lyke vnto a man that beholdeth his bodyly face in a glasse. For assone as he hath loked on him silfe he goeth his waye and forgetteth immediatlie what his fassion was. But who so loketh in the parfaict lawe of libertie and continueth ther in (yf he be not a forgetfull hearer but a doar of ye worke) the same shall be happie in his dede.

-James 1:22-25 (Tyndale Bible)

This is the third post in a series on the development of the English Bible. You can read about the reasons for this series here, and the second installment on John Wycliffe here.

     As this series unfolds, I want us to understand that it isn’t just about history, and it isn’t academic. God’s blessing isn’t promised to those who merely listen to the word, but to those who do what it says. (You’ll find that text, James 1:22-25, quoted in a different English translation at the beginning of each of these posts.) Questions of translation — of how we listen — are always secondary to questions of what we do.

     In this post, we’ll look at the work of William Tyndale, an Oxford scholar who was the first to translate the original Hebrew and Greek of the Bible into English. Not only was he first; his work was so formative for what came after him that he’s often called the father of the English Bible. 

     Tyndale said, around five hundred years ago:

 “In so great diversity of spirits how shall I know who lieth and who saith truth? Whereby shall I try them & judge them? Verily by God’s word which only is true.”   

     The reason this quote from Tyndale sounds so contemporary, despite being half a millennium old, is that what’s true and what’s not, and how we can know, is one of those human questions that we’re always asking and never quite able to answer — other than that we need a standard outside of ourselves. Tyndale came to believe as a young man that every human being, whatever their station in life, should have access to the Bible so that they could know truth. While his most famous quote — supposedly in answer to a church official opposed to his intention to translate the Bible into English — might well be apocryphal, it accurately represents the way he thought:

“If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plow shall know more of the Scripture than thou doest."

As William Tyndale grew to adulthood in England during the first decades of the 16th Century, a renaissance of classical scholarship was happening all over Europe. For the first time in centuries, the Greek language was accessible because of the influx of Greek scholars and texts to Europe after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Erasmus compiled the first critical edition of the Greek New Testament in 1516. Johann Reuchlin published a Hebrew grammar in 1506. Martin Luther, using Erasmus and Reuchlin, published a German Bible translated from the original Greek and Hebrew (and not Latin) in 1522. Bible translations in the commonly-spoken languages of Europe were popping up everywhere — except in England, where after Wycliffe’s English translation had caused such a stir a century and a half earlier it was punishable by death to be caught with an “unlicensed” Bible. Tyndale intended to change this. 

     In 1523, while studying theology at Oxford, Tyndale sought a license from the church for an English translation of the Bible, but was refused. The next year he left for continental Europe. By 1525, he had finished his translation of the New Testament from Greek, using Erasmus’ Greek text. It was published from Worms and Antwerp, and copies were smuggled into England and Scotland, though it was condemned and burned in public. Tyndale was condemned as a heretic in England for his translation and other writing, so he remained in Europe, in hiding in Hamburg, where he revised his New Testament, began working on his Old  Testament,  and wrote in opposition to Henry VIII’s planned annulment of his marriage to Catharine of Aragon. He was eventually betrayed and imprisoned in Europe, extradited to England, and executed in October 1536.

       Tyndale coined many words that we take for granted in our Bible reading: passover, scapegoat, mercy seat, and long-suffering among many possible examples. He was the first to use “love” instead of “charity” and “repentance” instead of “penance.” Many of the popular phrases and Bible verses that have endured in modern English translations come to us word for word from Tyndale. Expressions like "Blessed are the peacemakers,” “the salt of the earth,” “daily bread,””shepherds abiding in the field,” “eat, drink, and be merry,” “only begotten Son,””in whom we live and move and have our being,””in the twinkling of an eye,” “singing and making melody in your heart,” and many others could have been translated differently, but Tyndale’s ear made them memorable. We can see through his work that translation isn’t a robotic exchange of one word or phrase or sentence for another, but an art form.  

     Tyndale’s translation, and many of the word choices he used, provoked anger from the church. His  example reminds us that when people would use biblical words to control and manipulate others, perhaps the most faithful thing we can do is to use different words, to translate Scripture always into a language that can be understood so that as many people as possible can have access to truth.

     Tyndale’s last words, seemingly, were, “Lord! Open the King of England's eyes!” A year after his death, his sometime collaborator Myles Coverdale and John Rogers produced an English Bible published pseudonymously under the name Thomas Matthew. The Matthew Bible used Tyndale’s translations almost unchanged. Three years after his death, Coverdale was employed by King Henry VIII to produce an “authorized” English Bible to be placed in every English church. His work, called The Great Bible (for its size), again used Tyndale’s New Testament and his completed Old Testament. People flocked to church to hear the Great Bible read — so much so that some of the priests complained because their congregants preferred to hear the Scriptures read over their preaching!

     In 1560, 24 years after his death, the group responsible for the Geneva Bible — Coverdale included — substantially used Tyndale’s translations as their basis. And in 1611, nearing a century after his death, his language heavily influenced the choices of the translators of King James I’s Authorized Version. It has been estimated that 80 - 90% of the King James Version is attributable directly or indirectly to William Tyndale.

     Maybe that’s Tyndale’s great legacy: to give us hope that what we do to make God known in our world might accomplish his purposes, even if we don’t see it ourselves. God can open the most unseeing eyes, and so our work for him is far more significant than we know. 

     May we be faithful in the ongoing work of translating the Bible, especially the words and work of Jesus, into language the people around us can hear and see. 

Friday, October 1, 2021

English Bible Translations: Wycliffe

 But be ye doeris of the word, and not hereris oneli, disseiuynge you silf.

For if ony man is an herere of the word, and not a doere, this schal be licned to a man that biholdith the cheer of his birthe in a mirour;

for he bihelde hym silf, and wente awei, and anoon he foryat which he was.    

But he that biholdith in the lawe of perfit fredom, and dwellith in it, and is not maad a foryetful herere, but a doere of werk, this schal be blessid in his dede.

-James 1:22-25 (Wycliffe Bible)

Our church just sent some Bibles, some in the Luo language and some in Kalenjin, to a church in Kenya. I guess that has me thinking about Bible translations. So I thought I’d write a little about English Bible translations. My first post in this series is here. Earlier posts on Bible translation and reading are here and here.

      I have never in my life wanted Bibles as badly as my friend in Kenya wants them for his church. It isn't that I don’t appreciate the Bible. It’s that there are Bibles available to me everywhere I look. I’ve lost count of how many we have in our house. (Most of them mine: I’ve made something of a hobby of collecting different Bible translations!) We have them in every pew and in every classroom in our church. Of course, I have Bibles available in English and other languages online and on all of the devices I own. And if that’s not enough, I can drive a couple of miles and find a Bible to purchase, or go online and buy all I need. 

     I take that access for granted sometimes. I’m reminded not to by the excitement of my friend in Kenya. I’m reminded not to when I think of Gene Arnold, a minister at the church where I grew up who in his younger years smuggled Bibles behind the Iron Curtain and told me later about the excitement and joy of the people who received them.

     I hope this series reminds you of that same excitement and encourages you not to take our easy access to the Bible for granted. People put themselves on the line to make the Bible readily available to us in English. They risked careers, livelihoods, even their lives. Some of them died for it.

     As this series unfolds, I want us to understand that it isn’t just about history, and it isn’t academic. God’s blessing isn’t promised to those who merely listen to the word, but to those who do what it says. (I’m intending to quote that text, James 1:22-25, in a different English translation at the beginning of each of these posts.) Questions of translation - of how we listen - are secondary to questions of obedience. “What do we do with what we hear?”, this is by far the more important question facing believers. Every translation of the Bible succeeds or fails at the point of communicating Scripture to human beings. Every human being succeeds or fails at the point of putting Scripture into practice in our lives.

     The story of the English Bible really begins with John Wycliffe. Wycliffe was a seminary professor at Oxford who in around 1384 directed the first full translation of the Bible into English. (There are differing scholarly opinions as to how much of the translation he was directly responsible for.) 

     Wycliffe wrote in what’s known today as Middle English. (Back then it was just called, I guess, English.) It was a Great Vowel Shift (and then some) away from English today, but you’d recognize it. 

     Here’s how it might sound if you were able to go back in time and listen to someone read from Wycliffe’s Bible in his day. (That’s probably how you would have first encountered it — orally.)

     And here’s Revelation 21.

     Prior to Wycliffe’s Bible, we know of translations of parts of the Bible into English that date back to the 600’s or 700’s, though we have no actual record of them. The oldest English translation of any part of the Bible that anyone in our day has seen is known as The Lindisfarne Gospels, an early 8th century manuscript of the Gospels in Latin, with a 10th century English gloss inserted between the Latin lines.

      These early attempts at translation were in Old English — closer to German than it is to Modern English. They were all translations of the Vulgate — the Latin Bible translation that was widely regarded as the Bible in Wycliffe’s day. (And by Catholics up until the 1960s or 1970s.)

     Wycliffe’s Bible was also a translation from the Vulgate — it would be another 150 years before anyone attempted to translate to English directly from the original Hebrew and Greek. Wycliffe would have considered the Vulgate a very reliable text (it was, in many ways), but was convinced people needed to read the Bible in their own language.

     This conviction of Wycliffe’s came from his opinion that the clergy, monks, and Popes who ruled the church in his day had led their people into heresy and error. He believed that their pronouncements concerning the Bible were often wrong and even corrupted by their own interests. So he felt a responsibility to make the Bible available so that people could read it for themselves. His interest in a translation into the common language was not academic, it was practical. When confronted by someone who opposed his efforts — and there were many — he would often respond, “Christ and his apostles taught the people in that tongue that was best known to them. Why should men not do so now?" He believed that people needed access to the Bible to grow spiritually, and he believed that the Bible needed to be available to all people to drive what he viewed as needed reform in the church. 

     Wycliffe lived in a time before the printing press, when all books — including Bibles — were hand-written manuscripts. His Bible was disseminated widely by a group of roving preachers, the Lollards, who were connected to Wycliffe.

     Wycliffe’s Bible translation activities, not to mention his views on reform, got him on the wrong side of the church. He eventually lost his post at Oxford. In 1384, shortly after his Bible began to be disseminated, he died of a stroke while saying Mass at the Lutterworth parish church. His followers continued editing and making his Bible available.

     The church, in an effort to regain power lost or undermined in England by Wycliffe, persecuted his followers and eventually declared Wycliffe a heretic. In 1428, 44 years after his death, his body was ordered exhumed from consecrated ground by Pope Martin V and was burned and his ashes scattered in the river Swift. His writings were burned too, including his Bibles. Translation of the Bible into English by “unlicensed laity” was a crime punishable by charges of heresy.

    Its popularity after his death, and the work that went into copying it, is evident when you consider that, almost 650 years after it was produced, and 600 years after the church ordered them burned, at least 250 manuscripts still exist. 

     We’re reminded by Wycliffe that Scripture should form us — individually and in communities — into the image of Christ. We’re also reminded that the Bible belongs to the church, not just its leaders. May we be faithful in the task of hearing it and allowing it to shape us as Jesus, the Word made flesh, wants us to be.