Friday, May 10, 2024

Bible translation, Part 3: English


English is a relatively young language compared to the languages the Bible was written in.

The island we know today as England was a Roman colony back in Jesus’ day, and its primary language was Latin, along with some tribal languages.

As the Roman Empire faded away, the island became a prize for warriors from the area we now think of as Germany. One tribe called Saxons and another called Angles took over portions of the island and formed a language called, not surprisingly, Anglo-Saxon. An invasion of Normans (‘North men’, i.e., vikings) altered the language again, adding some Scandinavian words to Anglo-Saxon, words like ‘angel’, ‘basket’, and ‘carpenter’. Around the 8th century, written Anglo-Saxon-Norman switched from a Rune alphabet to the Latin alphabet we’ve used ever since.

Throughout most of Europe, the Bible was available only in Latin. And Latin was disappearing. By the 1300s, no one could read it except some of the clergy who had been to university. Roman Catholic priest John Wycliffe, having read the Bible in Latin, knew that what the Church taught was drastically different from what the Bible said. He set out to translate the Bible from Jerome’s Latin Vulgate into English, so that more people could read it. That work was completed in 1382. It was difficult to read because of his initial decision to translate the words individually, keeping them in the same order as they appeared in Latin, which is often not grammatically correct in English, and could in fact give a drastically different meaning. The Wycliffe Bible was revised to more common English word order in 1395.

English constantly evolves, however, and the English of his day is barely readable to us. Here’s what one copy of Wycliffe's translation looked like, at John 1:1.

It reads, “In ye bigynyng wa§ ye word & ye word wa§ at god/ & god wa§ ye word/’ Stare at it a minute, you’ll see it.

It is believed that there may have been a thousand or more Wycliffe Bibles produced. There are about 20 complete Wycliffe Bibles still in existence today, and fragments of several more. Since this was prior to the printing press, they are all handwritten.

Being able to read the Bible in English caused several revolutions against the Catholic Church, so angering the clergy that Wycliffe, having died of a stroke in 1382, was declared a heretic in 1415. In 1428 his bones were dug up and burned and the ashes thrown in a river. 

But the genie was out of the bottle. Wycliffe’s followers, a group called the Lollards, preached from village to village, reading to people in English from their handwritten copies of the Bible. They spent their spare time writing out passages to leave behind with their listeners when they moved on.

When Gutenberg invented the movable-type press his first project, in 1450, was Jerome's Latin Vulgate Bible. A German language translation of the Vulgate came off the presses in 1466. An Italian Bible was printed in 1471, Czech in 1475, Dutch in 1477, French in 1478, and Hebrew in 1488.

In 1472 William Caxton brought a press to England and started printing English books. However, due to the resistance from the clergy he didn’t print a ‘bible’. He printed a storybook called “The Golden Legende”, which just happened to include large portions of the Bible. In the account about Adam and Eve feeling guilty about their sin, it uses the word “breeches” to describe their loin coverings. 75 years later an English Bible printed in Geneva also used the word “breeches” in Genesis 3:7. If you've ever heard the Geneva Bible called the 'britches Bible' this is why.

In the 1490s Thomas Linacre, personal physician to King Henry VIII, read a Greek manuscript of the gospels and is said to have remarked, “Either this is not the gospel, or we are not Christians.” He encouraged his students to translate from the original languages rather than from the Latin Vulgate. An associate of his, Professor John Colet, translated the original Greek of the New Testament into English for his students at Oxford. It was reported that as many as 20,000 people would pack into St. Paul’s Cathedral on a Sunday to listen to readings from his English translation. Amazingly, Colet was not executed.

One of those students was a man named Erasmus, who collected several old Greek manuscripts and made a fresh Latin translation from them, publishing a Greek/Latin parallel text in 1516.

The first printed Bible in English is credited to William Tyndale. He translated it directly from Greek and Hebrew with help from Erasmus’ Greek text. Due to persecution from English clergy he fled England to Worms, Germany, where his Bible began being printed in 1525. Here's what Tyndale's printed page of John 1:1 looked like:

Tyndale was executed on orders of Henry VIII in 1536, before his whole Bible was completed. 3 years later, Henry VIII had a change of heart and authorized the publishing of the English ‘Great Bible.’

Tyndale’s friends Miles Coverdale and a man who went by the pseudonym Thomas Matthew – he didn’t trust that Henry VIII wouldn’t change his mind again – completed Tyndale’s work by translating the unfinished portions from the Vulgate. (Coverdale promised King Henry his Bible wouldn't include Tyndale's marginal notes.) The Great Bible is also called the Coverdale Bible.

When Catholic 'Bloody Mary' came to the throne in 1553, persecution chased many Bible students to Geneva, where they completed an English Bible translated entirely from the original texts. With small variations its reading is almost identical to Tyndale's work. The Geneva Bible, was smaller, making it cheaper to print and easier to carry around, and more easily hidden if the need arose. It also employed a system of chapter and verse markings pioneered in a French bible in 1553.

When Elizabeth replaced Mary, Bibles were brought out of hiding in England. However, the Geneva Bible offended the Anglican clergy because of its many Calvinist marginal notes and, in particular, because of its 'presbyterial' readings, i.e. that individual churches should be directed by bodies of elders. The Anglican church had a hierarchy of bishops, from the Greek episkopos (1 Timothy 3:1), and they wanted a Bible that taught this episcopal, hierarchical message. So the next bible authorized by the Crown was called the Bishop's Bible, in 1568. But it was huge, even larger than the Great Bible, so the Geneva remained more popular with the people.

The King James Version, authorized by the king and published in 1611, claimed to be a translation directly from Hebrew and Greek. But it relied heavily on Tyndale’s work, the Great (Coverdale) Bible, the Geneva Bible, and the Bishop's Bible.

Nearly all these various translations had a glaring problem to deal with: How to translate God’s name, used 7,000 times in the original, yet entirely absent from Jerome’s Latin Vulgate.

That will be the subject of the next column in this series. 

Feel free to leave a polite comment. Comments containing links will not post. To read Part One, click here.

Bill K. Underwood is the author of several novels and one non-fiction self-help book, all available at You can help support this page by purchasing a book.