They Loved the Word of God
IMPORTANT messages are often translated into many languages to make sure that they can be understood by as many people as possible. The Bible, which is the Word of God, contains an important message. Although recorded long ago, the things found in the Bible “were written for our instruction” and provide us with comfort and hope for the future.—Romans 15:4.
It stands to reason, then, that the Bible, which contains the most important message ever written, would be made available in many languages. Throughout history, men have struggled to translate the Bible in spite of serious illness, government ban, or even the threat of execution. Why? Because they loved the Word of God. The following account is a glimpse of the remarkable history of the translation of the Bible.
“Englishmen Learn Christ’s Law Best in English”
When John Wycliffe was born about 1330, church services in England were conducted in Latin. The common people, on the other hand, used English as their everyday language. They talked to their neighbors in English and even prayed to God in English.
Wycliffe, a Catholic priest, was fluent in Latin. Yet, he felt that it was wrong to use Latin, which he considered to be an elitist language, to teach the Scriptures. “Knowledge of God’s law,” he wrote, “should be taught in the language which is easiest to understand, because what is being taught is the word of God.” Thus, Wycliffe and his associates assembled a team to translate the Bible into English. It took some 20 years.
The prospect of a new translation was not welcomed by the Catholic Church. The Mysteries of the Vatican explains why the church was opposed: “The laity were thus enabled to compare the simplicity of primitive Christianity with contemporary Catholicism . . . How great the divergence between the teaching of the Founder of Christianity, and his self-styled vicegerent [the pope] really was, became first glaringly evident.”
Pope Gregory XI issued five edicts condemning Wycliffe. But the translator was undeterred. He replied: “Englishmen learn Christ’s law best in English. Moses heard God’s law in his own tongue, so did Christ’s apostles.” About the year 1382, shortly before Wycliffe died, the first English version of the entire Bible was released by Wycliffe’s team. About ten years later, one of his associates released a revised and easier-to-read version.
Since printing presses had not yet been invented, each manuscript had to be painstakingly copied by hand, a task that could take ten months! Yet, the prospect of the Bible’s being circulated so worried the church that an archbishop threatened to excommunicate anyone who read it. Over 40 years after Wycliffe’s death, by order of a papal council, the clergy exhumed his body, burned his bones, and threw his ashes into the river Swift. Still, sincere seekers of the truth sought out Wycliffe’s Bible. Professor William M. Blackburn related: “Numberless copies of Wyclif’s Bible were made, widely circulated, and handed down.”
A Bible for the Plowboy
Within 200 years, the English used by Wycliffe was virtually obsolete. A young preacher near Bristol was frustrated that so few could understand the Bible. On one occasion, the preacher, William Tyndale, heard an educated man say that it would be better to be without God’s law than without the pope’s. Tyndale responded by stating that if God allowed him, before long he would make sure that even a plowboy would have more knowledge of the Bible than the educated man.
Wycliffe had translated from the Latin Vulgate and manually copied the Scriptures. In 1524, Tyndale, having left England for Germany, began translating directly from the original Hebrew and Greek and then employed a press in Cologne to print copies. Soon, Tyndale’s enemies learned of the translation and persuaded the Senate of Cologne to order all copies confiscated.
Tyndale fled to the city of Worms, Germany, and resumed his work. Not long thereafter, copies of Tyndale’s Greek Scriptures in English were secretly shipped to England. Within six months, so many copies had been sold that an emergency meeting of bishops was called and Bible burnings were ordered.
To stem the tide of Bible reading and Tyndale’s alleged heresy, the bishop of London commissioned Sir Thomas More to attack Tyndale in writing. More was particularly upset at Tyndale’s use of the word “congregation” instead of “church,” and “senior” or “elder” rather than “priest.” These words challenged the authority of the pope and the distinction between clergy and laity. Thomas More also condemned Tyndale’s translation of the Greek word a·gaʹpe as “love” rather than “charity.” “This, too, was a notion dangerous to the Church,” says the book If God Spare My Life, “for the apparent downgrading of charity might undermine the lucrative donations, indulgences and bequests with which the faithful were persuaded to pave their way to heaven.”
Thomas More promoted the burning of “heretics,” which led to Tyndale’s being strangled and his body burned at the stake in October 1536. Thomas More, for his part, was beheaded after running afoul of the king. However, he was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 1935, and in the year 2000, Pope John Paul II honored More as the patron saint of politicians.
Tyndale received no such recognition. However, before his death, his friend Miles Coverdale integrated Tyndale’s translation into a complete Bible—the first English translation from the original languages! Every plowboy could now read God’s Word. What about the Bible in languages other than English?
“A Practical Impossibility”
Over the objections of family and friends, British missionary Robert Morrison, single-minded in his desire to publish the complete Bible in Chinese, set sail for China in 1807. His task of translating was not easy. “The undertaking was a practical impossibility,” asserted Charles Grant, a director of the East India Company at the time.
Upon arrival, Morrison learned that under penalty of death, the Chinese were prohibited from teaching their language to foreigners. To protect himself and those who agreed to tutor him in the language, Morrison remained indoors for a while. One report says that “after two years’ study he could speak Mandarin and more than one dialect as well as read and write” the language. In the meantime, the emperor issued an edict making the printing of Christian books a crime punishable by death. Despite the threat, on November 25, 1819, Morrison completed his translation of the entire Bible into Chinese.
By 1836, about 2,000 complete Bibles, 10,000 copies of the Greek Scriptures, and 31,000 separate portions of Scripture in Chinese had been printed. Love for God’s Word had made “a practical impossibility” possible.
A Bible in a Pillow
Two weeks after their marriage in February 1812, American missionary Adoniram Judson and his wife, Ann, embarked on a long journey, eventually settling in Burma in 1813.* They immediately applied themselves to learning Burmese, one of the world’s most difficult languages. After a few years of study, Judson wrote: “We take up a language spoken by a people on the other side of the earth, whose very thoughts run in channels diverse from ours . . . We have no dictionary, and no interpreter to explain a single word.”
The linguistic challenges did not cause Judson to give up. He completed his Burmese translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures in June 1823. Later, Burma was plunged into war. As a suspected spy, Judson was thrown into prison, confined with three pairs of iron fetters, and fastened to a long pole to prevent him from moving. “One of the first things Mr. Judson inquired after, as soon as he and Mrs. Judson were allowed to meet and speak together in English, was the manuscript translation of the New Testament,” wrote Francis Wayland in an 1853 book on Judson’s life. Fearing that buried under the house the manuscript might be destroyed by humidity and mildew, Ann sewed it inside a pillow and brought it to her husband in prison. In spite of very difficult circumstances, the manuscript survived.
After many months in prison, Judson was released. But his joy was short-lived. Later that same year, a violent fever seized Ann, and within a few weeks, she died. Only six months later, his daughter Maria, barely two years old, also succumbed to an incurable disease. Judson, though heartbroken, resumed his work. The entire Bible was finally completed in 1835.
Do You Love God’s Word?
The love for God’s Word demonstrated by these translators is nothing new. In ancient Israel, the psalmist sang to Jehovah God: “How I do love your law! All day long it is my concern.” (Psalm 119:97) The Bible is more than an impressive work of literature. It contains an important message. Do you make God’s Word your concern by reading it regularly? You can be assured that if you do and you endeavor to apply what you learn, you ‘will be happy in your doing it.’—James 1:25.
Burma and the Burmese language are now known as Myanmar.
[Blurb on page 8]
“Englishmen learn Christ’s law best in English.”—JOHN WYCLIFFE
[Pictures on page 9]
William Tyndale and a page from the Tyndale Bible
Tyndale: From the book The Evolution of the English Bible
[Pictures on page 10]
Robert Morrison and his translation of the Bible in Chinese
In the custody of the Asian Division of the Library of Congress
Robert Morrison, engraved by W. Holl, from The National Portrait Gallery Volume IV, published c.1820 (litho), Chinnery, George (1774-1852) (after)/Private Collection/Ken Welsh/The Bridgeman Art Library International
[Pictures on page 11]
Adoniram Judson and his Burmese translation of the Bible
Judson: Engraving by John C. Buttre/Dictionary of American Portraits/Dover
[Picture Credit Lines on page 8]
Wycliffe: From the book The History of Protestantism (Vol. I); Bible: Courtesy of the American Bible Society Library, New York