The story of how the Bible came to be translated and distributed in English is a fascinating one. It involves royal politics, cruel acts of persecution and murder from the religious establishement, and acts of tremendous sacrifice and ultimately martyrdom from many remarkable men and women who gave their lives so that ordinary people could read the Bible for themselves in their native tongue.
The path towards an English Bible was as improbable as many of the other elements in the history of the transmission and distribution of the Bible. From the end of the Roman Empire through the Middle Ages the Bible was literally held under lock and key by the Catholic Church. Church policy dictated that since the Church and its leaders were the divinely-ordained guardians and interpreters of the scriptures, there was no need for the average person to have a Bible in their own language. The Church establishment went so far as to claim that allowing the masses to read the Bible could even be harmful, possibly giving rise to ideas that the establishment did not sanction. Such knowledge could even cause an uprising against the Church.
The Early Effort
Fortunately, this all changed. The beginnings of a Bible in English can be traced to one man, John Wycliffe. Born in Northern England around 1320, he rose to the rank of master of the Balliol College in Oxford. By any measure, he was a radical for his day. He denounced the power of the Church and believed the way to undermine Rome was to translate the Bible into a language that everyone could understand. He worked with a small group of cohorts and by 1382, had translated the New Testament of the Latin Vulgate (the Roman Catholic sanctioned latin translation of the original Hebrew and Greek Bible) into English.
Wycliffe died in 1384 which left his partners to deal with the backlash from the religious establishment. Some suffered imprisonment, others torture and execution. A notable scholar on the European continent who took up Wycliffe’s cause was a man named John Huss. Like many who challenged the Church and labored to make the Bible available in English, he was burned at the stake in 1415.
The 15th century was a time of brutal oppression for those who worked to translate the Bible. Ironically, that same period of suffering also saw the seeds planted that would eventually lead to a readily available English Bible. The first was the Renaissance, a time that saw the revival of culture and learning after centuries of stagnation. Starting in Italy in the 14th Century, the movement spread throughout Europe, bringing new ideas and the questioning of long-accepted norms. A second factor was a revival in the study of the ancient Greek and Hebrew languages. Third was the invention of the movable type printing press by Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz in the 1450’s. This revolutionized communication by enabling mass production of books and other publications. Gutenberg reproduced the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible. By the 1470’s a craftsman by the name of William Caxton brought printing to England. He was the first to print parts of the Bible in English. To avoid the wrath of the Church, he did not print scripture passages directly but rather paraphrased the original text.
By the 16th century, the changes brought about by the Renaissance, in concert with the wider availability of biblical texts, caused more and more scholars to question the authority of the Church. Men such as William Grocyn, Thomas Linacre, and John Colet taught at Oxford and gained notoriety for their progressive views on exploring the Bible separate from the control of the Church. Colet became the Dean of St. Paul’s in 1505, and Linacre, a medical doctor, became the King’s physician to Henry the VII and Henry the VIII. Desiderius Erasmus was another reformer who, in the early 16th century, found his way to Cambridge where he became Professor of Divinity and Greek. He produced his own editions of some early Church writings and established the gold-standard for translating works into another language.
A review of the Reformation would not be complete without a mention of Martin Luther. Though he was not directly instrumental in the spread of an English Bible, the way in which he rocked the religious establishment opened the door to a freer distribution of scriptural texts in general. His railings against corruption in the Church were printed and widely circulated throughout England.
William Tyndale entered Oxford in 1510, and by 1515 had received both a bachelors and masters degree. He was disturbed by the pervasive ignorance of the scriptures that characterized England. Influenced by reformers like Colet and Erasmus, Tyndale became deeply disillusioned with the Church and its ability to control the masses by restricting access to the Bible. Like many reformers, Tyndale concluded that the Pope was the anti-Christ spoken of in the Bible, and that the only way to combat his power was to translate the Bible into English and have copies broadly distributed.
Tyndale moved from Oxford to Cambridge and then to London, and finally to the European continent in pursuit of his dream. Using his education in Greek and Latin, Tyndale teamed up with a former friar by the name of William Roye to translate the New Testament into English. Unlike Wycliffe, Tyndale was able to go to the original Greek manuscripts to complete the first “primary” translation of the New Testament into English. True to the period, printing the work was no small feat. He lined up one printer in Cologne only to have the city Senate stop the printing. After working his way down the Rhine to the city of Worms, he found another printer who was able to complete 3,000 copies.
The next challenge was getting a shipment of English New Testaments into England. This was greatly complicated when Henry VIII was informed of the plan. In a stroke of “luck”, the winter of 1526 was rife with disease in London which distracted the authorities and virtually shut down the legal system. As a result, Tyndale’s shipment made the trip from Antwerp to London in the spring of 1526 unaccosted. The books were stored in the house of the curate of a small church in the Cheapside district of London by the name of Thomas Garrett. He sold copies near and far until he was hunted down by the authorities and promptly burnt at the stake. Though it cost him his life, Garrett was the first person to distribute a significant numbers of copies of the New Testament in English.
Tyndale’s New Testament circulated through England and Scotland. Owning a copy was a courageous decision since once discovered it meant imprisonment and then usually death by burning at the stake. From Antwerp, Tyndale continued to produce copies and smuggle them into England. Another reformer, George Joye, produced thousands of copies of his own translation of the New Testament. Though far inferior to Tyndale’s translation, it only increased the feeling among Henry VIII and the power brokers within the Church that things were getting out of hand. Despite their harsh treatment of those who harbored these “heretical” documents, Bibles kept arriving in England. Henry and the Church elite had only to look to Germany and the impact of “Lutherianism” to see what could happen if copies of the Bible where allowed to circulate in the people’s native tongue. A deadly game of cat and mouse continued into the 1530’s. Tyndale continued his work until 1535 in Antwerp when he was finally arrested. In October 1536 like so many before him, he was burnt at the stake.
Henry VIII and his Successors
The first sympathies in the English government for an English Bible came from none other than Henry VIII, the one responsible for the death of so many reformers. In the later years of his reign, the refusal by the Pope to allow divorce with Catherine and his new marriage to Anne Boleyn caused Henry to appoint himself as head of the Church of England. As the relationship between London and Rome deteriorated, Henry VIII started to see the advantages of a Bible in English. It didn’t hurt that his new wife, Anne, had her own copy of Tyndale’s New Testament. Another reformer, Miles Cloverdale, an associate of Tyndale, oversaw the first printing of an English New Testament Bible in England in 1536. The following year Cloverdale printed his second edition that set a new standard of excellence. John Rogers, yet another friend of Tyndale, published a new English translation under the name Thomas Matthew. It received a royal license from the king and in 1537, 1,500 copies were printed.
It concerned those that facilitated the distribution of both the Cloverdale and Matthew’s New Testament translations that the authorities could trace the roots of these translations back to Tyndale. Thomas Cromwell, King Henry’s vice regent was a key insider who facilitated the royal charter for both the Cloverdale and Matthew’s translation. Cromwell asked Cloverdale to compose a third edition that would be based on sources other than Tyndale’s translation. It would also be a complete Bible including the Old Testament. After an unsuccessful attempt to print the new Bible in France, the printing equipment was moved to London and in 1539 the “Great Bible” as it was called was published. It would be the first “authorized” version as it had the king’s blessing. Copies were sent to all 11,000 parishes in England. Between 1540 and 1541, a second, third, and forth version of the Great Bible was published.
Sadly, for those who labored to bring the English Bible to the people, dark days lay ahead. To placate the English Catholic community, Henry had Thomas Cromwell beheaded. In addition, all translations except the Great Bible were banned. The greatest trauma, however, lay after the death of Henry in 1547. At first things improved with the ascension of the 11 year old Edward VI. His handlers were kindly disposed to the existence and spread of an English Bible. But when Edward died at age 16, Mary Tudor took the throne in 1553 and things changed entirely. A staunch Catholic, Mary brutally oppressed the reformers and Protestants in general. In all, more than 300 reformers were executed and thousands of English Bibles destroyed. Additionally, an untold number of subjects from every class and region were burnt for possessing a Bible. Mercifully, “Bloody Mary” died in 1558 and the blood-bath was brought to an end.
In response to the persecution under Mary, many biblical scholars escaped to the continent. Some went to the Lutheran city of Frankfurt, others to Geneva. One notable Protestant reformer who came to prominence in Geneva was John Calvin. His austere philosophy became the basis of the Puritan sect. The result of the efforts of many in Calvin’s adopted city was the “Geneva Bible”, the next big step toward a modern English Bible. A more simple Roman type was used, words that were not translated directly from the original manuscripts were put in italics, and verse divisions were added. Marginal notes, which were previously quite controversial, were added in quantity. The Geneva Bible was first published in 1560 and would become a standard for almost 100 years.
In 1558, Elizabeth was crowned and the English Bible along with its advocates entered a new day. The Geneva Bible continued in popularity. The Parliament of Scotland passed a law that all households were to have at least one copy and facilitated this by printing their own Geneva Bible. Another Bible produced at the time was the “Bishop’s Bible”, first published in 1568. It included changes which intended to soften the Puritan influences of the Geneva Bible.
The Authorised or King James Version
The reign of Elizabeth sets the stage for the Bible that would be called the “authorized version” to this very day. Childless, Elizabeth’s death brought bring the end of the Tudor dynasty. James, king of Scotland was known first as James VI when he ascended the Scottish throne in 1567 at the age of 13 months. Upon the death of Elizabeth in 1603, he became James I of England, Scotland, and Ireland and would rule for another 22 years. James was heavily influenced by the Puritan movement that held sway in his Scottish homeland. The Puritans expected great things from James when he became king of England and submitted a list of reforms they wanted in the Church of England. This was known as the Millenary Petition.
To address this, the king called the Hampton Court Conference. One of the results of the conference was the commissioning of an English Bible that was to be the culmination of the efforts of so many over more than two centuries. It would be the only Bible “authorised” to be read in Churches. The best scholars were employed with access to the best original manuscripts. Multiple panels were established at Cambridge, Oxford, and in the Church of England to ensure everything was checked and rechecked. Biased marginal references were eliminated and wording and type were selected to make the translation as easy as possible for the average person to understand. The result was known as the “King James” Bible first published in 1611. Some 400 years later, it is still widely used.