Part Two—How the Bible Came to Us
Flames shot skyward as more and more fuel was heaped on the roaring bonfire. But this was no ordinary fire. The intense conflagration was being fed with Bibles as priests and prelates looked on. But by buying the Bibles in order to destroy them, the bishop of London unknowingly helped the translator, William Tyndale, to finance further editions!
What led up to such determination on both sides of the battle? In a previous issue, we considered the history of Bible publication into the later Middle Ages. Now we come to the dawn of a new era when the message and authority of God’s Word were about to have a profound impact on society.
A Pioneer Appears
John Wycliffe, a respected Oxford scholar, preached and wrote powerfully against the unbiblical practices of the Catholic Church, basing his authority on ‘God’s law,’ meaning the Bible. He sent his students, the Lollards, out across England’s countryside to preach the Bible’s message in English to anyone who would listen. Before he died in 1384, he initiated the translation of the Bible from Latin into the English of his day.
The church found many reasons to despise Wycliffe. First, he condemned the clergy for their excesses and immoral conduct. Additionally, many of Wycliffe’s admirers misused his teachings to justify their armed rebellions. The clergy blamed Wycliffe, even after his death, although he never advocated violent uprisings.
In a letter to Pope John XXIII in 1412, Archbishop Arundel referred to “that wretched and pestilent fellow John Wycliffe, of damnable memory, that son of the old serpent, the very herald and child of antichrist.” Climaxing his denunciation, Arundel wrote: “To fill up the measure of his malice, he devised the expedient of a new translation of the scriptures into the mother tongue.” Indeed, what most enraged church leaders was that Wycliffe wanted to give people the Bible in their own language.
Nevertheless, a few prominent individuals had access to the Scriptures in vernacular languages. One was Anne of Bohemia, who married King Richard II of England in 1382. She possessed Wycliffe’s English translations of the Gospels, which she studied constantly. When she became queen, her favorable attitude helped to advance the cause of the Bible—and not in England only. Anne encouraged students from Prague University in Bohemia to come to Oxford. There they enthusiastically studied the works of Wycliffe and took some of them back to Prague. The popularity of Wycliffe’s teachings at Prague University later served as support for Jan Hus, who studied and eventually taught there. Hus made a readable Czech version from the old Slavonic translation. His efforts promoted common use of the Bible in Bohemia and in neighboring lands.
The Church Strikes Back
The clergy were also furious with Wycliffe and Hus for teaching that the “bare text,” the original inspired Scriptures with nothing added, had greater authority than the “glosses,” the ponderous traditional explanations in the margins of church-approved Bibles. It was the undiluted message of God’s Word that these preachers wished to make available to the common man.
Falsely promised safe-conduct, Hus was tricked into coming before the Catholic Council of Constance, Germany, in 1414 to defend his views. The council was composed of 2,933 priests, bishops, and cardinals. Hus agreed to recant if his teachings could be proved wrong by the Scriptures. To the council, that was not the question. His challenge to their authority was cause enough for them to burn him at the stake in 1415, as he prayed aloud.
The same council also made a final gesture of condemnation and insult to John Wycliffe by decreeing that his bones should be exhumed in England and burned. This directive was so repugnant that it was not carried out until 1428, upon demand by the pope. As always, though, such fierce opposition did not dampen the zeal of other lovers of truth. Rather, it increased their determination to publish God’s Word.
The Impact of Printing
By 1450, only 35 years after the death of Hus, Johannes Gutenberg began printing with movable type in Germany. His first great work was an edition of the Latin Vulgate, completed about 1455. By 1495 all or part of the Bible had been printed in German, Italian, French, Czech, Dutch, Hebrew, Catalan, Greek, Spanish, Slavonic, Portuguese, and Serbian—in that order.
Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus produced the first complete printed edition of the Greek text in 1516. Erasmus wished that the Scriptures “were translated into all languages of all people.” However, he hesitated to risk his great popularity by translating it himself. Nevertheless, others followed who would be more courageous. Outstanding among these individuals was William Tyndale.
William Tyndale and the English Bible
Tyndale was educated at Oxford and about 1521 came to the home of Sir John Walsh as a tutor for his children. Mealtimes around Walsh’s generous table often found the young Tyndale crossing verbal swords with the local clergy. Tyndale matter-of-factly challenged their opinions by opening the Bible and showing them scriptures. In time, the Walshes became convinced of what Tyndale was saying, and the clergymen were invited less often and were received with less enthusiasm. Naturally, this embittered the clerics further against Tyndale and his beliefs.
Once during a dispute, one of Tyndale’s religious opponents asserted: “Better be without God’s laws than the Pope’s.” Imagine Tyndale’s conviction as he replied: “I defy the Pope and all his laws. If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou doest.” Tyndale’s resolve had crystallized. He later wrote: “I had perceived by experience how that it was impossible to establish the lay people in any truth, except the scripture were plainly laid before their eyes in their mother tongue, that they might see the process, order, and meaning of the text.”
At the time, no Bible had as yet been printed in English. So in 1523, Tyndale went to London to solicit the support of Bishop Tunstall for a translation project. Rebuffed, he left England to pursue his purpose, never to return. In Cologne, Germany, his first printer was raided, and Tyndale barely escaped with some of the precious unbound pages. At Worms, Germany, however, at least 3,000 copies of his English “New Testament” were completed. These were sent to England and began to be distributed there early in 1526. Some of these were the Bibles that Bishop Tunstall bought and burned, unknowingly helping Tyndale to continue his work!
Research Brings Clearer Understanding
Tyndale obviously enjoyed his work. As The Cambridge History of the Bible puts it, “Scripture made him happy, and there is something swift and gay in his rhythm which conveys his happiness.” Tyndale’s goal was to let the Scriptures speak to the common man in terms as exact and simple as possible. His studies were showing him the meaning of Biblical words that had been shrouded in church doctrine for centuries. Intimidated neither by the threat of death nor by the vicious pen of his powerful enemy Sir Thomas More, Tyndale incorporated his findings in his translation.
Working from the original Greek of Erasmus’ text rather than the Latin, Tyndale chose “love” over “charity” to express the meaning of the Greek term a·gaʹpe more fully. He also used “congregacion” in place of “church,” “repent” instead of “have penance,” and “elders” rather than “priestes.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3; Colossians 4:15, 16; Luke 13:3, 5; 1 Timothy 5:17, Tyndale) These adjustments were devastating to the authority of the church and to traditional religious practices, such as confession to priests.
Tyndale likewise held to the word “resurrection,” rejecting purgatory and consciousness after death as unbiblical. Regarding the dead, he wrote to More: “In putting them in heaven, hell, and purgatory, [you] destroy the arguments wherewith Christ and Paul prove the resurrection.” In this regard, Tyndale referred to Matthew 22:30-32 and 1 Corinthians 15:12-19. He correctly came to believe that the dead remain unconscious until a future resurrection. (Psalm 146:4; Ecclesiastes 9:5; John 11:11, 24, 25) This meant that the entire arrangement of prayer to Mary and the “saints” was pointless because they in their unconscious state could neither hear nor intercede.
Tyndale Translates the Hebrew Scriptures
In 1530, Tyndale produced an edition of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. He thus became the first person to translate the Bible from Hebrew directly into English. Tyndale was also the first English translator to use the name Jehovah. London scholar David Daniell writes: “It would surely have struck Tyndale’s readers forcibly that the name of God was newly revealed.”
In his attempt to achieve clarity, Tyndale used various English words to translate a single Hebrew word. However, he followed the Hebrew structure closely. The result preserves the terse power of the Hebrew. He himself said: “The properties of the Hebrew tongue agreeth a thousand times more with the English than with the Latin. The manner of speaking is both one; so that in a thousand places thou needest not but to translate it into the English, word for word.”
This basically literal approach flavored Tyndale’s translation with Hebrew expressions. Some of them must have seemed quite strange at first reading. Yet, the Bible eventually became so familiar that many of these expressions are now part of the English language. Examples include “a man after his own heart” (as at 1 Samuel 13:14), “passover,” and “scapegoat.” More than that, readers of the English Bible thus got acquainted with Hebrew thought, giving them better insight into the inspired Scriptures.
The Bible and Tyndale Under Ban
The possibility of reading the Word of God in one’s own language was thrilling. The English populace responded by buying all that could be smuggled into the country, camouflaged as bales of cloth or other goods. Meanwhile, the clergy contemplated the certain loss of their position if the Bible came to be regarded as the ultimate authority. Hence, the situation became ever more a matter of life and death for the translator and his supporters.
Constantly hounded by Church and State, Tyndale continued working in hiding in Antwerp, Belgium. Still, he devoted two days a week to what he called his pastime—ministering to other English refugees, the poor, and the sick. He spent most of his funds in this way. Before he could translate the latter half of the Hebrew Scriptures, Tyndale was betrayed for money by an Englishman masquerading as a friend. Executed in Vilvoorde, Belgium, in 1536, his last fervent words were, “Lord! open the King of England’s eyes.”
By 1538, King Henry VIII for his own reasons had ordered that Bibles be placed in every church in England. Though Tyndale was not credited, the translation that was chosen was essentially his. In this way Tyndale’s work became so well-known and loved that it “determined the fundamental character of most of the subsequent versions” in English. (The Cambridge History of the Bible) As much as 90 percent of Tyndale’s translation was carried directly into the King James Version of 1611.
Free access to the Bible meant a great change for England. Discussions held around the Bibles set out in churches became so animated that they at times interfered with church services! “Old people learned to read so that they might come directly to God’s Word, and children joined their elders to listen.” (A Concise History of the English Bible) This period also saw a dramatic increase in the distribution of the Bible in other European lands and languages. But the Bible movement in England was to exert a worldwide influence. How did this come about? And how have further discovery and research affected the Bibles we use today? We will conclude our account with the next article in this series.
[Picture on page 26]
Tyndale’s “New Testament” of 1526—one of only two known complete copies that escaped the flames
© The British Library Board
[Chart/Pictures on page 26, 27]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
Key Dates in the Transmission of the Bible
Wycliffe Bible begun (b. 1384)
Hus executed 1415
Gutenberg—first printed Bible c. 1455
Early Printed Vernaculars
Erasmus’ Greek text 1516
Tyndale’s “New Testament” 1526
Tyndale executed 1536
Henry VIII orders Bibles put in churches 1538
King James Version 1611