English Bible Translations Through 1611 A. D.

Ferrell Jenkins,
St. Louis, Mo.

The learned men and the clergy of the middle ages always had access to the Scriptures in Vulgate, a translation of the Greek and Hebrew into Latin by Jerome in the Fifth Century. Such was not true with respect to the common people. The Western Church had a strong hostility to vernacular scripture. They thought that it could be tolerated only in the hands of great persons, or monks and nuns, who knew Latin.

Early Efforts

Before the Norman Conquest occasional paraphrases of parts of the Scripture had been made in Anglo-Saxon. Caedmon, who was a servant in the monastery at Whitby, England, became a poet. He would take the stories of the Bible and turn them into beautiful poems. There was not a single copy of the whole Bible in all England at the time, and very few could have read it if there had been. The efforts of Caedmon and others like him are well summed up in the following statement:

"Theirs was not really a work of translation, but it was an effort to put the bible in the minds and hearts of the common people, and this stirred interest in Bible knowledge and paved the way for translation which came later." (Roy H. Lanier, Sr., "The Bible Revised," God and His Book, p. 43.)

Bede of Jarrow translated a few select passages in the seventh and eight centuries. Efforts were made also by Aldhelm, King Alfred, Aldred, and Aelfric.

Roman Catholic View

Following the Norman Conquest the common people were allowed to see something about certain Biblical themes or stories in the Miracle and Morality plays. By the l4th Century crude primers of the Christian faith included English versions of different parts of the Bible, such as the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes and the Lord's Prayer. The very thought of making the whole Bible available to the people was abhorred. We can see the Roman Catholic viewpoint in a statement made by Pope Innocent III in 1199. He declared:

"The secret mysteries of the faith ought not to be explained to all men in all places, since they cannot be everywhere understood by all men. (W. Russell Bowie, "History of the English Bible," Encyclopedia Americana, III:671c.)

In the preceding century Gregory VII had put it in these words:

Not without reason has it pleased Almighty God that Holy Scripture should be a secret in certain places, lost, if it were plainly apparent to all rnen, perchance it would be little esteemed and be subject to disrespect; or it might be falsely understood by those of mediocre learning, and lead to error. (Ibid.)

It is not hard to see why the Roman Church wanted to keep the Bible out of the hand of the common man. It was a dangerous thing to attempt a translation in those days. One translator in the 14th Century felt that he was taking a risk. He indicated that his translation might lead to his death.

John Wycliffe

The first really significant translation was made by John Wycliffe (1324-1384). Wyclif, as it is sometimes spelled, was a scholar and lecturer at Oxford. He was a very important figure in the early days of the Reformation. It is doubtful if Wycliffe did all the translating in the work involved. He evidently did the New Testament and a small part of the Old. His followers, the Lollards helped much in this effort and after 1382 when the first complete English Bible was circulated, they carried it with them in their preaching and teaching. The greater part of the Old Testament was the work of Nicholas Hereford. Among other scholars who helped was John Purvey, one of the Wycliffe's very close friends, who revised the earlier version about 1395. Wycliffe's translation was from the Latin and the style is old, and painfully literal. Purvey's revision gave it more natural speech and rhythm. It must be remembered that the age of printing had not come into existence. Even though this be true; over 170 copies of the revision still survive today. The Catholic view of Wycliffe and his endeavor is seen in a letter written by Archbishop Arundel, in 1412, to the Pope. He says of Wycliffe:

"that wretched and pestilent fellow of the damnable memory, . . . the very herald and child of anti-Christ, who crowned his wickedness by translating the Scriptures into the mother tongue." (Ibid.)

A counterblow came from the hierarchy. In 1408, Convocation passed at Oxford the famous Constitution, which forbade any man to translate any part of the scripture, unless he was authorized by a bishop. The penalty for violation was greater excommunication. The Constitution also forbade the reading, publicly or secretly of any of the books, booklets, or treatises composed in the time of John Wycliffe. They are allowed to show their true colors now, as the bishops fail to authorize any versions. The people of England were still without access to a copv of God's Word in the fifteenth Century.

The people who made the ancient versions did not have such difficulty. The Syrian and Gothic, as well as others, were produced to meet some very obvious requirements of the Missionary.

William Tyndale

William Tyndale became well known for his translations. He lived immediately after the invention of movable type by Gutenberg, and the revival of the study of Greek and Hebrew. The first Greek grammar printed was in A. D. 1476, and the first Hebrew grammar in A.D. 1503. Printing had many advantages over manuscripts written by hand. It tended to eliminate errors. It could be checked before the final printing took place. Printing allowed many copies to be made in the time that only a few could be written by hand. As a result of mass production the price of the Bible was lowered, and this encouraged the poor to buy and read the Scripture.

Tyndale used the most prominent Greek text of his day. The great scholar Erasmus published his Greek New Testament in 1516. Tyndale used a Hebrew text that had been published in 1488. He had the necessary resources and the driving determination to do a good job. In accord with the Oxford Constitution, which we have mentioned, Tyndale went to Tunstal, Bishop of London, and offered to translate the New Testament with his consent. He was refused permission. A very famous statement is credited to Tyndale. The following was made to one of his contemporaries, a high church official:

"If God spare by life, ere may years I wvyl cause a boye that dryveth the plough shall know more of the scripture than thou doest." (Ibid.)

Tyndale left England and in Cologne, in 1525, he contracted for the printing of his New Testament. Spies were after him, so he had to flee to Worms, and there he printed the New Testament in quarto and then in an octavo edition. Some of these New Testaments were smuggled into England, but were immediately seized by the authorities and burned publically at St. Paul's Cross. There is a bit of humor, or we might even call it irony, in connection with the burning. The authorities did not know that Augustine Packnyton, the man who delivered most of the copies to the bishop of London, was a friend of Tyndale. The money he received for the destroyed testaments went to Tyndale for the printing of more copies.

Tyndale issued a revisien of his New Testament in 1534 and another in 1535. Before this, in 1530 and 1531, he had published The Pentateuch and the Book of Jonah. He also translated the books from Joshua through II Chronicles, but he was imprisoned before they were printed. After being condemned as a heretic, he was strangled and burned at the stake in 1536. This did not stultify the great work he had done. When we speak of the value of his work as a translator it is necessary that we view two sides. The Catholic view point may well be seen in the comments made by Sir Thomas More. He branded the translation as "false." The main reason was that it did not translate "ecclesia" as "church," but as " congregation." "Love" was used instead of "charity." Dr. J.F. Moz1ey says, "In truth the version is remarkably good-scholarly but at same time racy and direct, though sometimes clumsy in the epistles." (J. F. Mozley, "The English Bible Before the Authorized Version," The Bible Today, p. 129.) Dr. Goodspeed made this comment on the work of Tyndale.

"To the familiar forms of the English New Testament, Tyndale had contributed not only more than any other man, but more than all others combined. He has shaped the religious vocabulary of the English speaking world . . . but it was the terse and telling common English of William Tyndale that chiefly colored the King James Bible ... It is not too much to say that William Tyndale wrote nine tenths of the King James New Testament." (Lanier, op. cit., p. 44.)

England's First Complete Bible

A younger contemporary of Tyndale was Miles Coverdale. He was the first man to give England a complete Bible. It appeared in 1535 from Cologne. Coverdale's Bible was inferior to that of Tyndale, because he knew little about Hebrew and Greek and based his work on the Vulgate, Luther's German Bible, a Latin translation by Pagninus, a Swiss-German Bible published in Zurich, and most of all upon Tyndale. His version seemed to have a musical cadence all its own. His translation of the Psalms is still recited in the Anglican and in the American Book of Common Prayer. Many of the finest phrases in the King James version can be directly traced to Coverdale.

Matthew's Bible

In 1537, John Rogers issued a Bible under the pseudonym of Thomas Matthew. Rogers was a friend of Tyndale and evidently used all he could find by Tyndale, and supplemented it by the work of Coverdale. This was known as Matthew's Bible. For the next 75 years all other versions were based on this one.

A revision of the Matthew Bible was made in 1539 by Richard Tavener. It omitted the offensive and controversial prefaces and notes that were in the earlier editions.

The Great Bible

The Great Bible was named such, because of its size. Its pages were fully 15 inches long and over 9 inches broad. Cromwell had it installed in every church for the reading of the laymen. It was a revision of the Matthew Bible made by Coverdale. It also had the offending notes omitted. The printing was not completely finished uritil 1539. The Psalms from the Great Bible was still in use in the Book of Common Prayer. Coverdale is to be admired for making a revision. Eadie comments on this as follows:

"So careful had been Coverdale's revision and so little attachment had he to his own previous version, that in the 53rd chapter of Isaiah the Bible of 1539 differs in nearly forty places from his version of 1535. (J. Hutchinson, "English Versions," International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, II; 949.)

Hindrances to Bible Translations

A serious reaction came, when in 1543, Parliament restricted the use of the English Bible to certain select social classes. Nine-tenths of the population was excluded by this ruling. In 1546 the same group restricted the use of everything but the Greek Bible.

"It was probably at this time that there took place the great destruction of all previous work on the English Bible which has rendered examples of that work so scarce." (Ibid.)

Under Roman Catholic Queen Mary ( 1553-1558) many copies of the Bible were burned, but after Elizabeth ascended to the throne things began to change.

The Bible Shakespeare Used

In 1560 the Geneva Bible was published. It was based chiefly on Tyndale and the Great Bible. It contained many annotations which were mostly of a Protestant tone. The Geneva Bible became very popular in the home. The Bible is noted for several things. It was the version that Shakespeare used; it shaped the mind of the Puritans of England and New England; and in it the meditations of John Bunyan were steeped before he wrote The Pilgrim's Progress.

The Geneva Bible was the first translation printed in Roman letters, and also the first in which chapters were divided into verses. It was sometimes called the "Breeches Bible" because of its translation of Genesis 3 :7 : "They sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves breeches." This really was not a peculiarity, for the same transla tion had been made in other versions.

Archbishop Parker did not like the Geneva Bible, especially the notes, and had it revised by a group of divines. Most of these men were Bishops so the result was the Bishop's Bible of 1568. It served as the church Bible for forty-three years. The version was not very much of a success, but to the pleasure of some it did replace the word "congregation" with the word "church."

A Catholic Translation

Although the Catholics opposed these translations they had to produce one of their own to counteract the influence exerted by those they could not stamp out. There were some English Catholic scholars at Douai in the North East of France. They decided that they must produce something. The leaders in this movement were probably William Allen and George Martin. They transferred to Rheims for a short time. The New Testament was issued there in 1582. The Old Testament came from Douai in 1609.

"The main objection to the version is the too close adherence of the translators to the words of the original and the too great Latinizing of the English, so that their translation 'needs,' as Fuller said, 'to be translated.'" (Ibid, p. 950.)

It was, of course, a translation of a translation, having been translated from the Latin Vulgate. It included the apocryphal books along with the canonical ones. In its early stages the Rheims or Douay Version, as it is more commonly called, did not meet with great success and the circulation was not too large.

The King James Version

All of these versions that we have mentioned had their part to play. In the sixteenth century there was a constant revising to be done, but there was to be a translation made which would not be revised for nearly two and a half centuries.

In 1604, James Stuart of Scotland, King of England, ordered that a new revision be started. He appointed the ripest scholars of England to participate in this endeavor. It was reported that 54 had been chosen, but when the list of names was published there were only 47 on it. These men were assigned to six companies, meeting two each at Oxford, Cambridge and Westminster, to work on designated portions of the Bible, They were all to review one another's work.

The 47 scholars did not actually begin their work until 1607 and it was not completed until 1611. This version by no means received immediate approval or favor. There were many objections to it at first.

One might think that such an endeavor as this would have cost the King a lot of money. Eadie says, "King James' Version never cost King James a farthing." (Ibid., p. 951.) The expenses were supplied by the church preferment, for which the archbishop was to take measures.

Although there were several things in the King James or Authorized Version, as it was called, that needed revising we should not fail to appreciate the value of the version. Looking at it from a literary standpoint Professor J. Isaacs says,

"The Authorized Version is a miracle and a landmark. Its felicities are manifold, its music has entered into the very blood and marrow of English thought and speech, it has given countless proverbs and proverbial phrases even to the unlearned and irreligious. There is no corner of English life, no conversation reverent or ribald it has not adorned. It has both broadened and retarded the stream of English speech. It is more archaic in places than its forerunners, and it is impossible for us to disentangle from our ordinary talk the phrases of Judea, whether Hebrew or Greek, whether of the Patriarchs, the Prophets, the Poets or the Apostles." (Norman Sykes, "The Authorized Version of 1611, "The Bible Today, 1). 147.)

We certanly acquiesce in Wescott's conclusion that it "remains absolutely indisputable that their work resulted in a version of the Bible better-because more faithful to the original-than any which had been given in English before." (Ibid.)


This is the history of the English Bible up to 1611 A. D. We pay our tribute to the noble souls who bucked the threats of Catholicism in order that the English speaking common people might have the Scriptures.

Truth Magazine IV:6; pp. 2-5
March 1960