Bible Dictionary

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Bible, English

The first attempts to translate the Bible into the English language were made in the 8th century. The Venerable Bede, who died at Jarrow in 735, was engaged on his translation of John’s Gospel up to the very moment of his death. There are also in existence translations of the Psalms by Aldhelm, Bishop of Sherborne (d. 709), and King Alfred (d. 900). After the Norman conquest further attempts were made, but the first English Version of the whole Bible is associated with the name of John Wycliffe. There were two editions of this version, beginning in 1382. These versions were made from the Latin. They include all the canonical books and almost all the apocryphal books that are usually found in English Bibles. The work was circulated far and wide. The honor of making the first translation of the Bible into English from the languages in which it was originally written belongs to William Tindale, born about 1490. He studied first at Oxford and then at Cambridge, where Erasmus was then lecturing. Erasmus was the editor of the first printed edition of the Greek New Testament, published in 1516. In 1525 we find Tindale at Cologne, engaged in printing a quarto edition of the New Testament in English translated from Erasmus’s edition of the Greek text. When about 10 sheets were printed his plan was discovered, and an interdict was placed on the work. On this Tindale fled to Worms, carrying with him the sheets already printed, and there published an octavo edition of 3,000 copies. A fragment of one of the sheets printed at Cologne is now in the British Museum. A complete copy of the Worms edition is preserved at the British Library, London. They were proscribed by authorities of the Church of England and copies were burned when discovered. Tindale was still engaged on his translation of the Old Testament when he was put to death for heresy in 1536.

In 1530 Henry Ⅷ promised the English people that they would have the New Testament in their own tongue, and in 1534 the Convocation petitioned for a translation of the whole Bible.

In 1535 Miles Coverdale issued, with the king’s permission, the first complete English Bible. It was printed at Antwerp, the translation being made, as the title page tells us, “out of Douche (German) and Latin.” In 1537 Thomas Matthew (whose real name was John Rogers) issued, also with the king’s license, an edition that followed Tindale’s as regards the New Testament and half the Old Testament, the remainder being taken from Coverdale’s. A copy of this Bible was ordered by Henry Ⅷ “to be set up in churches.” In April 1539 appeared the first edition of the Great Bible (also known as Cranmer’s, the Preface added in 1540 being written by him). On the title page is an elaborate engraving, which represents the king giving the word of God to the clergy, and, through Thomas Cromwell, to the laity of his kingdom, amid the great joy of his subjects. The Bible is here described as “truly translated after the verity of the Hebrew and Greek texts by the diligent study of divers excellent learned men.”

The accession of Mary Ⅰ, daughter of Henry Ⅷ and Catherine of Aragon, threatened danger to all who were closely identified with the translation of the Bible into English. Coverdale narrowly escaped with his life; Cranmer and Rogers were brought to the stake. Many refugees found their way to Geneva, the city of Calvin. Here appeared in 1560, after Mary’s death, the Genevan Bible, of which 150 editions were published in England and Scotland between 1560 and 1616. It at once became popular from its use of Roman type, its division of the text into verses, and its copious notes, explanatory and controversial. This version is familiarly known as the Breeches Bible, from the rendering in Gen. 3:7. Its strong Puritan flavor made it distasteful to many English churchmen, and accordingly Archbishop Parker devised a plan for the revision of the Great Bible by the joint labor of a number of learned men, mostly bishops. The revisers were instructed to follow “the common English translation used in the churches,” unless alteration were necessary, and to avoid bitter and controversial notes. In three or four years the Bishops’ Bible was completed and was presented to Queen Elizabeth Ⅰ in 1568. It was regarded as the official English Church Bible. It was used in public worship but otherwise had no great circulation. It was unfortunately printed very carelessly. Some years later English Roman Catholics issued at Douai (France) a version of the Old Testament and at Rheims (France) a version of the New Testament. Modern editions of the Douai version have borrowed many renderings from the Authorized Version (KJV).

At the Hampton Court Conference (London) held in 1604, soon after the accession of James Ⅰ, the Puritan party asked for a new translation, to which the king agreed and gave an outline of a plan for a new version, now known as the Authorized Version. The work was to be assigned to the universities; the translation was to be then reviewed by the bishops and chief learned of the Church, presented to the Privy Council, and ratified by the king.

In 1607 six companies were appointed, consisting in all of 54 members, the meetings being held at Oxford, Cambridge, and Westminster. Of the rules laid down the following were the most important: the Bishops’ Bible was to be followed and “as little altered as the truth of the original will permit”; the translations of Tindale, Matthew, Coverdale, Whitchurch (the Great Bible), and Geneva were to be used when they agreed better with the text than the Bishops’ Bible; the old ecclesiastical words (church, etc.) were to be retained; no marginal notes were to be affixed unless for necessary explanation of some Hebrew or Greek words. The new translation was published in 1611. The familiar dedication to the king, and also a long preface, ably setting forth the principles and aims of the work (unfortunately omitted by most modern editions), are said to have been written by Dr. Miles Smith, afterwards Bishop of Gloucester. The words on the title page “appointed to be read in churches” would seem to imply express authorization; but we have no evidence that the book ever received formal sanction. There was at first some reluctance to adopt it, but in course of time its own merits enabled it to supplant all other existing English translations.