Ancestry of the English Bible (VI): English Translations Prior to 1611

Mike Willis
Mooresville, Indiana

Although Christianity was first introduced into England as early as the second century, its progression was comparatively slow until St. Augustine's arrival in 597.

Early translations began when Caedmon put into poetical paraphrase several of the well known Bible stories which he told during the period following the meals: at festivals. A skillful musician named Aldhelm began singing songs based on Bible stories to further bring Bible knowledge to the early inhabitants of England. These were the early beginnings of the translation of the Bible into English, though they were by no means attempts to give a word for word rendering.

The first major effort to give the populace an English Bible was the work of John Wycliffe (1320-1382), sometimes called the 66 morning star of the Reformation." He quickly realized that the most effective tool to utilize against Catholicism was the Bible itself, so, he began translating the Bible into English from the Latin Vulgate. Since he lived prior to Gutenberg, all copies of his translation were transmitted by hand. However, 170 Wycliffe translations are still extant despite Catholic opposition.

William Tyndale (1484-1536) made the translation of the scriptures one of his lifetime goals. While arguing with an English churchman, Tyndale said, ". . . if God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth a plough shall know more of the Scriptures than thou doest." Soon he began translating the New Testament from the Greek. Opposition to his work was so heated, that, in order to print his translation of the New Testament, he had to flee to Worms, Germany and smuggle it back into England. So effective was the Catholic opposition to his translation when they ordered it burned, that only two fragments of an estimated 18,000 printed copies are known to exist.

Later, Tyndale began the task of translating the Hebrew Old Testament and soon published Genesis through Deuteronomy before circumstances forced him to discontinue his work. Having been betrayed by a "friend" and cast into prison, Tyndale was able to translate Joshua through Second Chronicles before being burned at the stake in 1536. His influence on the King James Version cannot be overestimated.

Several Early Versions

1. Myles Coverdale Bible (1535-1536) Coverdale was the first to publish a complete Bible in English although it was not a translation from the original languages but was a translation of a translation being based on Luther's German translation and several others.

2. Matthew Bible (1537). John Rogers, close friend of Tyndale, wanted to see Tyndale's work on the Old Testament published, so he arranged to translate Ezra through Malachi and published that with Tyndale's work under the pseudonym of Thomas Matthew in order to avoid opposition. Surprisingly, Henry VIII, king England, authorized the sale of this translation less than one year after he allowed Tyndale's execution.

3. The Great Bible (1539). With politics sanction, Myles Coverdale revised the Matthew's Bible, omitting many of the Protestant flavored marginal notes in it.

4. The Genevan Bible. When Mary Tudor ascended the English throne, Catholicism was given a full throttle once more. Many of the better Protestant Biblical scholars fled to Geneva, Switzerland to avoid execution. There, under the leadership of Theodore Beza, this translation was made from the original languages. It is best remembered for its translation of "Breeches" in Gen. 3:7 in the record of Adam's and Eve's attempt to clothe themselves.

5. The Bishops' Bible (1563-1564) is so called since all of its translators either were or later became bishops in the Church of England. For forty years, this Bible dominated all other versions, bringing us to the period of the King James translation.

6. The Douai Version (1609-1610). Although the Catholics were not desirous of their members reading the Bible, they felt that if they read at all, it should be a Catholic version with the pertinent marginal notes. The work was done on the college campuses at Rheims and Douai, thus, explaining the origin of its name. The greatest weakness of the Rheims-Douai version was that is was a translation from the Latin Vulgate instead of the original languages. Latin obscurities were faithfully rendered obscurely in English.

Although much confusion existed because there was no dominant version in England, the gigantic step of freeing the Bible from Catholic domination was completed and has never needed, until now, to be retraced.

TRUTH MAGAZINE, XV: 19, pp. 8-9
March 18, 1971