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Christian Belief



Short History of the English Bible.

We can do no more than sketch the history of the Bible in English and it will be best to divide the subject according to periods and the main translations.

a. Early English and Anglo-Saxon Versions.

There was no complete Bible in the English tongue before the days of Wycliffe, but many attempts were made to present the Scriptures in the language of the people. As early as the 8th century A.D. we have the story of Caedmon, a cowherd of Whitby who had no ability to compose verse but who by a miraculous gift from God was enabled to tell the story contained in the Scriptures in the form of a lovely poem and who went everywhere reciting this to the people.

The first actual translation of which we know was that of Bede, a monk in the monastery of Jarrow and the most famous scholar of his day in Western Europe (673-735). He translated the Gospel of John into the Anglo.-Saxon tongue. It was concluded on his death bed and the thrilling story is told in a letter from Bedeis disciple, Cuthbert, to a friend.

The letter reads as follows, "Our father and master whom God loved had translated the Gospel of St.John as far as 'what are these among so many, when the day came before our Lord's Ascension. He began then to suffer much in his breath, and a swelling came in his feet, but he went on dictating to his scribe.

'Go on quickly' he said, 'I know not how long I shall hold out, or how soon my master will call me hence'. All night long he lay awake in thanksgiving, and when the Ascension Day dawned, he commanded us to write with all speed what he had begun." The letter continues to describe the battle to keep going throughout the day, then as the sun was setting comes the conclusion. Paterson Smythe in his book, "How we got our Bible" gives the following description of the last moments.

`There remains but one chapter, master, said the anxious scribe, 'but it seems very hard for you to speak.' `Nay, it is easy`, Bede replied., 'take up thy pen and write.' Amid blinding tears the young scribe wrote on, 'And now father', said he, as he eagerly caught the last words from his quavering lips, 'only one sentence remains,' Bede dictated it.

It is finished, master,' cried the youth, raising his head as the last word was written. Ay it is finished!.' echoed the dying saint; lift me up; place me at the window of my cell where I have so often prayed to God. Now glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost: 'and with these words the beautiful spirit passed to the presence of the Eternal Trinity."

Unfortunately there is no copy of this translation in existence today. It was another hundred years or more before another real translation was attempted but helps to the understanding of the Psalms (which were constantly used) was provided by glosses between the lines of the Latin giving the meaning of the words in the vernacular.

The next actual translation was that of Alfred the Great (871-901). At the beginning of his Laws of England is a translation of the Ten Commandments. He also translated the remainder of this section of Exodus, the letter in Acts 15 and fifty of the Psalms. A further example of glosses is found in what are called the "Lindisfarne Gospels's, The original Latin text dates about 700 and the Anglo-Saxon glosses about 950 A.D..

Archbishop Aelfric and one or two other translators appeared towards the end of the tenth century and considerable portions of the Scriptures were translated. It seems that these latter translations were made to be understood by the ordinary people and some rather cute, expressive terms were used e.g. "hundred-man" for"centurion"; leorning enight" (learning youth) for "disciple"; "rest daeg" (rest day) for "sabbath".

All these translations during this period were from the Latin Vulgate. There was no knowledge of Greek and Hebrew at that time and, while Jerome had consulted the Greek and Hebrew Texts, the translators into Anglo-Saxon merely followed the Latin of Jerome.

b. Middle English Versions and Wycliffe.

It is difficult to decide exactly where Early English ended and Middle English began. After the Norman Conquest the language of the ruling class naturally ceased to be Anglo—Saxon. French was used, and even more so, Latin for ecclesiastical and official documents. Obviously, however,  Anglo-Saxon remained as the ordinary speech of the common people.

With the passing of years it gradually changed and by the time it regained its own a a the language of the ruling class some years prior to the time of Chaucer and Wycliffe, it had become English rather than Anglo-Saxon, and the precursor of our present language.

Because of the Norman Conquest and the smothering of Anglo—Saxon learning and literature there was nothing in the way of Biblical translation for about three centuries. Even when the language had come into its own again it was fifty years or more before any translation of the Bible was attempted. The first translations were of the Psalms and then of the Gospels. The first translation of the Psalms is dated about 1300 A.D..

As far as translation is concerned the man who dominates the period, though coming at the end, is Whycliffe. Wycliffe, who died in 1384, saw clearly the corruptions of the church and saw, too, the need for the ordinary people to be able to read the Word of God in their own tongue.  It is not absolutely certain whether the version called by Wycliffe's name was all actually translated by him; it is clear, though that he was the moving dynamic behind it all.

Two other men are associated with him in the work - Nicholas of Hereford, a follower of Wycliffe, who seems to have translated the Old Testament as far as Baruch 3:20; and another Wycliffite, John Purvey, who, published another version at the end of the century after Wycliffe was dead. Purvoy`s prologue to his version is both interesting and instructive as to the care taken in translation-

"A simple creature hath translated the Bible out of Latin into English. First, this simple creature hath much travail, with divers fellows and helpers, to gather many old Bibles, and other doctors, and common glosses, and to make one Latin Bible some deal true; and then to study it a new, the text with the gloss, and other doctors, as he might got, especially Lyra on the Old Testament., that helped full much in this work; the third time to counsel with old grammarians and old divines, of hard words and hard sentences, how they might best be understood and translated; the fourth time to translate as clearly as he could to the sentence, and to have many good fellows and cunning at the correcting of the translation". (The English has been modernized in this quotation; for instance the last sentence road "haue manie gode felaw is and kynnynge at the correctinge of the translacioun".)

Later on in the same prologue Purvey says "a translator hath great need to study well the sense both before and after, and then also he bath need to live a clean life and be full devout in prayers, and have not his wit occupied about worldly things, that the Holy Spirit, author of all wisdom and cunning and truth, dress him for his work and suffer him not to err."

As can be seen from this prologue Purvey realized his responsibility as a translator and was likewise conscious that the Latin Bible was itself only a translation, and therefore should be corrected by reference to the original tongues. He made use of the work of Nicholas de Lyra, a great commentator of the fourteenth century.

This Lyra is important because he studied the original languages of Scripture and thus did much to prepare the way for the Reformation. Actually there was a Latin proverb of the day "Si Lyra non lyrasset, Lutherus non saltassot" (If Lyra had not played the lyre, Luther would not have danced).

c. Tyndale.

During the hundred years after 1454 four remarkable events took place, and took place in the correct order to make possible the production of a new English version of the Bible. These events were-:

(1) The fall of Constantinople in 1453 which resulted in the influx into Western Europe of crowds of Greek scholars bringing with then their MSS (MSS unknown to the West and for the most part unintelligible for the West was ignorant of Greek), thus causing a revival of the study of Greek and also of Hebrew;

(2) The invention of printing shortly after andthe publication of the first printed book, a Latin Bible, in 1455.

(3) The publication of the first Greek Grammar in 1476, and the first Hebrew Grammar in 1503.

(4) The publication of the Greek New Tristament of Erasmus in 1516. All these prepared the way for Tyndale to translate anew the Bible into English, and this time not merely from the Latin Vulgate but with the help of MSS in the original tongues.

It is almost impossible to separate the name of Tyndale from that of Erasmus in the consideration of his translation. Erasmus was one of the finest Greek scholars of his day and he came to England and taught at Cambridge for several years. It was while he was there that Tyndale, as a young student, went to his lectures, and there is no doubt that Erasmus gave Tyndale the stimulus and vision for his work, as well as the tools in his Greek Testament.

It was in these early years that Tyndale is reputed to have said to a "learned man" I defy the Pope and his lawes. If God spare my life, "ere many yeares I wyl cause a boye that dryueth the plough shall knowe more of the Scripture than thou doest."

The times were difficult and dangerous and the Bible in English was still looked upon with suspicion. Tyndale had to flee to the continent to complete the work. Even there he was forced to leave Cologne and go to Worms. There he finally got two editions of the Now Testament published, 3000 of a quarto edition and 6,000 of an octavo edition.

It is a thrilling story how the copies were smuggled into England. The battle was on and many of the copies were collected and burnt by command of the bishops and Henry VIII. From this time Tyndale's life was continually in danger. He had, however, for some time before this been studying Hebrew in order to translate the Old Testament.

While he never completed the Old Testament, he accomplished a great deal of it and probably came very near to translating the whole Bible. At last he was tricked and betrayed into the hands of imperial agents on the continent and imprisoned near Brussels. Even in prison, lacking grammars and dictionaries as well as warm clothing he revised his New Testament. He was finally strangled and burnt at the stake on October 6th, 1536.

Tyndale's translation was certainly a very fine one. He went straight to the Greek and the Hebrew and he says of these languages, "The Greek tongue agreeth more with the English than with the Latin, And the properties of the Hebrew tongue agree a thousand times more with the English than with the Latin." There is no evidence either that he used Wycliffe at all; his was an entirely independent translation.

There are some rather interesting translations e.g. Gen.39:2- "and the Lorde was with Joseph, and he was a luckie felowe"; Matt,4:24 "divers diseases and gripinges"; Matt.l4:20-"they gadered up of the gobbetes that remayned"'; 2 Thess,1:3b''and every one of you swymmeth in love toward another betwene your selves;1 Tim.6:4 -"wasteth his braynes about questions".

There were several changes of words which offended the Catholics especially- "congregation" for "church", " senior" for "presbyter", "repentance" for "penance", "love" for ''charity" some of which were unfortunately not retained in later translations.

Other good points in Tyndale's translation of the Old Testament were,

  1. his faithfulness to the force of the Hebrew e.g. in Gen.3:4 "Then said the serpent unto the woman: 'Zush,ye shall not die."
  2. his bold invention of compounds which have remained in the language eg."scapegoat", ""passover", "mercy seat".
  3. his printing Miriam's Song and other such passages as verse, a practice which only came back in the Revised Version.
  4. his Hebraisms, many of which have remained in English prose e.g."the Lord's anointed", "in the sweat of thy face", "a man after his own heart", "the living God" , "sick unto death."

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