Where did our Bible come from? Part 12: The bible in English

Sorry it’s been a while since the last post in this series (or generally). I’m coming to the close of this series though, just this post and one more to sum it up. It’s my hope that by the end of it, you’ll not only have gained an understanding of how we got from a small tribal group in the mideast to the bible in your hands (or on your phone, or computer, or e-reader, or whatnot), but also be able to read it with a certain level of confidence. With the last post, I had given the last criteria for New Testament Canonicity, inspiration. After going through the reason our bible includes the books it does in the Hebrew and Greek as I did over the past several posts in this series, I though it might be good to talk breifly about how we got from those Greek, Hebrew (and Aramaic) texts to the translated texts, particularly English ones.

The Latin Vulgate

So the very first translation of the bible including both Old and New Testament was into Latin and was called the “Vulgate.” Now the Old Testament had previously been translated into Greek as the Septuagint (which we’ve talked about) and before that as the Aramaic Targums. There was also an earlier Latin translation of the entire Bible (Old and New Testaments), it was actually several independent translations and all of them together were known collectively as the Vetus Latina or sometimes Old Latin. However, it did not have the wide audience that the later Vulgate manuscript did.

The Vulgate was the translation undertaken by Jerome, probably sometime between 380-420. It was not done entirely by Jerome, but he did the bulk of the work including translating the Old Testament from the original Hebrew, the most significant improvement over the Old Latin, which had based its work on the prior Greek translation. In this way, it became apparent how translations from the original source, undertaken with a certain amount of diligence, were superior. In the Western church, the Vulgate became standard.

Early Vernacular Translations

Some of the earliest bible translations were from the Old English and Old German (and later some Old French). I’ll focus on the English ones, since that One of the better examples in English was a translation of the Gospel of John by the Venerable Bede (or at least known and used by him) prior to his death around 735. Around 900, Alfred the Great, one of the first (or arguably the first) king of the Anglo-Saxons, distributed copies of various passages from the bible (most frequently the ten commandments). By 990 an Old English translation of the four Gospels had appeared.

However, once several groups, who had relied upon the biblical text in translation for their views, were condemned as heretics, things began to change. The most notable of these groups (at least as far as contemporary noteriety) were the Waldensees (sometimes Waldensians) who, among other things, believed in a form of reincarnation. Some Landmark Baptist groups like to include the Waldensees in their in their history (such as the somewhat infamous “Trail of Blood” track), which should be cautioned against due to their divisive and simply dangerous theology. At any rate, the result of these condemnations was a ban, put out by Pope Innocent III, in 1199, on any new copies of the bible that were not authorized by the church. Eventually this ban was extended and made more explicit by a later Synod, in 1234, to ban the possession of unauthorized translations and effectively limit, if not eliminate, their use in the common language.

Despite this, by 1383 an English translation of the entire bible, for which John Wycliffe has been given credit, appeared. This (Middle English) version was the first relatively widespread version of the entire bible in English and was based entirely upon the Vulgate. It was banned at the Oxford synod of 1408, but nevertheless persisted in some form or another (though was considered by many to be too vulgar for the text of the bible). Followers of Wycliffe were often called Lollards, a derogatory term coming from the Middle English for “mutter.”

Predating Wyclif, and from whom he may have gotten his ideas, was Jan Hus. A Czechoslovakian monk (though he is also claimed by Germany) who advocated that the priesthood of all believers so extreme that he led a movement to begin again the translation of the bible into the common language of the people (a Czech version of the bible did appear roughly the same time as this). For doing so, however, and violating the clear edict of the Western Church, Hus was burned at the stake.

It should be noted that these moves to have the bible in the common tongue may have been more symbolic than practical. After all, literacy was hardly widespread at the time. Those who did learn to read were generally of the wealthy class and learned to read first, as almost all paid instruction was at the time, in Latin. The Latin versions were widespread enough for these wealthy who could afford them and so it seemed that the move to have the bible into the common tongue was either purely symbolic, or (more likely) was a call to also improve education of all people so that they were able to read it. I might be a little idealistic in that assertion, but that would eventually become explicit after the Protestant Reformation.

Protestant Bibles

The emphasis that Hus had placed upon the priesthood of all believers had its most significant impact following the Reformation and evidence of it can be seen in some of Martin Luther’s works. This is likely one reason behind Luther’s translation of the bible into German. This remarkable feat was accomplished over many years and actually shaped the German language in profound ways. That said, it is likely that other concerns, beyond the idea that everyone should be able to read and interpret the bible, were likely also at play. Luther’s bible, which was one of the first works published on the printing press owned by Gutenberg in 1534, also had a political motivation for it. Since the primary authority in pre-Reformation Europe seemed to be the Roman Church, Luther (and other protestants) needed a way to get the support of the stateindependent of the Roman Church. By translating the bible into German, rather than reprinting a Latin one, a sense of Germanic pride could have been encouraged, eventually allowing Germany to break from Rome and declare itself Protestant (unfortunately this also led to some incredibly bloody conflicts, culminating in the Thirty Years War).

Predating the publication of the Luther Bible, however, was an English translation of the New Testament by William Tyndale. His 1526 translation was met with sanctions, but has survived better than Wycliffe’s translation. A considerable improvement on Wycliffe’s Bible was a return to the original Greek manuscript as the basis for translation instead of the Latin, showing the influence of Erasmus Desiderus of Rotterdam (who had also influenced Luther), likely the greatest biblical textual scholar who has ever lived. Tyndale’s Pentateuch (which may or may not have been done by Tyndale) appeared in 1530 followed by the book of Jonah. Tyndale’s work is notable for being considered somewhat “earthy” in its use of language, since he thought it should reflect the language every day people spoke.

Other English translations of other parts of the bible were also published in the years following and in 1535 the first complete English bible translated from the Original languages was published by Myles Coverdale in Antwerp. While it may seem odd that the first complete English Bible was published in a Dutch city, there are numerous historical reasons for this. Up until 1527, Britain was still secure in its Allegiance to Rome, earning Henry VIII the title of “Defender of the Faith” (a title retained by the current British monarch). However in that year Henry applied to have his marriage to his current wife annulled (in part because he probably genuinely believed God had disapproved of it). Since the Pope had given a special concession for the marriage to occur in the first place, due to the close prior relationship between Henry and Catherine of Aragon, the application was denied. This began a series of events that eventually led to England’s break with Rome (Scotland has its own break with Rome separate from that in England). Although the final break came about in 1536, as a result of gradual changes, the country was far from settled in its Protestantism (that would not come until the reign of Elizabeth) and at any rate would not have been quite as hospitable to such a radical thing as the bible in English.

Additionally, the area around Antwerp and Amsterdam and most of what is now the Netherlands was were the Anabaptists had their strongest impact. The Anabaptists were more radical in their reformation than the other Reformers and that included a radical move toward the priesthood of all believers. This encouraged both to an increase in education (leading to literacy) eventually and to a move to have the bible in the common languages. However, the most well known bible of this period was yet to come (and would be published in London).

Modern Translations

The first of what might be properly termed a “modern translation” of the bible into English would be the King James Bible. By the time of King James reign, England and Wales (and Scotland) had become firmly protestant and was ready to have a more formally approved English Bible. In 1604 work began on the English Translation of the Bible authorized by the King. It would be completed in 1611. This was one of the few times (perhaps the only time) that a work of literature in one language was translated into a literary masterpiece in its own right in another language. The language was probably more formal than that used by the common man, but considering its sponsorship by the King that may have been the point. For a long time, very little translation work was done in English following this. However, once new and better manuscripts began to emerge, and as English continued to evolve away from the high Elizabethan language of the KJV, it became apparent that new translations might be useful.

While I won’t go into the specifics of each version, I am going to sum this up by saying some general comments about English translations. The thing I want to say first and foremost is that you can have confidence in the translations you use everyday. They were (likely) performed by large committees of scholars using the best textual evidence available today. The distinctions between the various translations are rarely, if ever, enough to lead to vastly different theological stances in and of themselves. That usually is a matter of interpretation. I will however, also offer a word of warning. Anytime something is translated it is interpreted. Therefore, any and every bible translation is, in a sense, a commentary on that very bible. While most translators certainly work to minimize this, it can never be entirely avoided. In order to compensate for this, in your own study, just be aware of it. For daily readings, it is doubtful it will change much. However, if you are doing a deep and in depth study, I would merely encourage you to read a variety of different translations that will give you a sense of what these interpretive moves might be. In the end, though, you can have confidence that after a rather lengthy process, the current bibles in English are ones that have emerged as a result of careful scholarship.

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