Alfred the Great, British Museum, Caxton, Guttenberg, Henry VIII, John Lettou, John Wycliffe, King Athelstan, King James Bible, Lindisfarne Gospel, Martin Luther, Mystery plays, Peasant's Revolt, St Bede, St Jerome's Latin Vulgate, Thomas Cromwell Vicar General, Vikings, Wicked Bible, William Tyndale, Wynkyn de Worde
The year 2011 saw the 400th anniversary of the printing of the King James’ Bible the retranslation set in motion by King James VI of Scotland who became King James 1st of England on the death of his cousin the ‘virgin Queen’ Elizabeth I. The project started in 1604 and was completed by 1611. This publication would freely allow ordinary people to have access to the word of God without the mediator of priest or cleric; this is, after all, why the curtain into the most Holy Place was torn in two in the temple at Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified. Luke 24:4-5 The English is sublime it would in time transform Britain and ultimately the English speaking world.
Up to the 1400’s the first translations of sections of the Bible and Psalters into English, and there were quite a number, had been transcribed by hand. Very early Bibles were in Latin with the most exquisite calligraphy and jewel like miniatures, and coloured and gold leaf decoration to the page margins. Inscribed by the priesthood in the monastic orders they were available only to the church or the very wealthy. There are many wonderful examples such as the Lindisfarne Gospel and St Cuthbert’s Gospel on display in the British Library well worth a visit.
There had been earlier translations into English than the King James Bible these were hand written manuscripts. As early as 673AD St Bede also known as the Venerable Bede and the Father of English history wrote and translated over 40 books across a wide gamut of subjects including the scriptures. From 887AD Alfred the Great, he of the burnt cakes, who halted the Viking onslaught, a warrior but a scholar also sought to have passages of scriptures in English. King Athelstan ‘the Glorious’, grandson of Alfred, and the first King of all England is said to have overseen the translation of the Bible into English from 937AD. Many of these amazing manuscripts were damaged or destroyed in Viking raids from 790AD. From medieval times Mystery plays sometimes called Miracle plays brought the scriptures to the very streets and market places and were still being enacted as late as the 16th century. Even the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 may be linked to the scriptures in English “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?”
Translation of the Bible into any other language than Latin, the language of the Catholic Church, was violently opposed by the church and the ruling classes. By the fifteenth century the church had become a vehicle of control and power, not that every priest was an oppressor. And there were priests and scholars who ‘kicked against the prick’ and looked for Christ’s heart, which would shake the foundations of the establishment and bring change. Martin Luther in 1517 nailed his ’95 theses’ criticising practices in the church to the church door in Wittenberg Germany. In Geneva John Calvin’s ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’ in 1536 would further fuel reform in the church throughout Europe.
The earliest translations, however, would not go on to influence the King James Bible: Yorkshireman and Oxford scholar John Wycliffe, ‘the morning star of the reformation’, in cooperation with other Oxford scholars in the late 14th century translated the Bible into English based on the St Jerome’s Latin Vulgate which dated from 382AD and was the scriptures used in the Catholic Church. There was great opposition from the church in Rome and in England. Wycliffe had his supporters notably John of Gaunt uncle to the King Richard II but inexorably Wycliffe was condemned for heresy. His followers, called the Lollards, who continued to circulate his translations after his death, were persecuted and killed notably by Popes Gregory XI, Urban VI and Martin V. Wycliffe lived out his natural life but after his death his grave was desecrated and his body defiled by order of Pope Martin V.
In 1525 Welshman and Oxford scholar William Tyndale, in voluntary exile from England in fear for his life, translated the New Testament drawing on the available Hebrew and Greek texts, the Vulgate and Martin Luther’s German Bible. Published in Germany these were smuggled into England which would lead to him being condemned in his absence by Cardinal Wolsey. Tyndale also opposed Henry VIII’s application for divorce from Catherine of Aragon on the grounds that it was unscriptural, his enemies were lining up in battalions even the saintly Thomas More.
In 1535 in Belgium Tyndale was betrayed, hunted down, arrested and condemned by the Catholic Church and despite the intervention by the Vicar General Thomas Cromwell, he was executed by strangulation and his body burnt at the stake but his works lived on.
Tyndale’s last words “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes” found fulfillment as his observations on ‘The Obedience of a Christian man’ written in 1528 which decried papal authority influencing secular power contributed to Henry VIII’s final schism with the Catholic Church.
The Tyndale translation of the New Testament and his incomplete Old Testament formed the basis of the Great Bible of 1539, printed by the command of the now enlightened Henry VIII and spearheaded by his Secretary and Vicar General Thomas Cromwell. The remaining translation was completed by Miles Coverdale and other scholars.
The King James’ Bible was initially titled simply Holy Bible and was translated from the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts available at the time by over 50 scholars, and also based upon comparisons with the Latin Vulgate and with Wycliffe, but the Tyndale and Coverdale translations make up the majority of the text.
The advent of the movable type printing press, Guttenberg 1450 in Germany and its subsequent development and dissemination, for example in Britain Caxton 1476, John Lettou 1480 or Wynkyn de Worde, Caxton’s successor 1495, meant that people could have easier access to the word of God and from 1539 with the printing of the Great Bible, under the authority of Henry VIII, and chained to the pulpit in every English church the Bible was available to be read in English in the churches.
Neither Henry VIII nor Thomas Cromwell are seen in a very good light in history but it clearly shows how God uses the things of this world to achieve his purposes.
It was printing that would kick start the standardization of written English that would gather pace with the publication of the King James Bible which also dramatically stimulated education and thought. The language is early 17 century English akin to the language of Shakespeare.
One would hope that the freedom to read the word of God in our own language would have begun a time of peace and brotherly love but alas this was far from the truth the Catholic protestant divide would continue to fester and even within the protestants there would be dissension and division, think of the Pilgrim Fathers, the English Civil War, the American Civil War, mans inhumanity to man was displayed over and over again. The Word of God was twisted like a weapon to justify war and cruelty on both sides of the Atlantic, but despite the sinful nature of man faith continued and would eventually reap a wealth of spiritual and philanthropic blessings.
Of course the King James’ version of the Bible was revised several times; it encouraged a wider vocabulary and literacy in our nation and in those nations where English was spoken. It was widely used in education and it might be thought that this was oppressive but, that was the culture of the day and who are we to criticise this, if one can read the bible you can also read other literature, it stimulated thought and brought a flowering of original thought and ideas. William Tyndale said to one of his detractors “If God spare my life, before very long I shall cause a plough boy to know the scriptures better than you do!” This came to fruition in the King James Bible it is as readable today as it was 400 years ago, spiritually revealing and uplifting, the truth and beauty of its word thrills the soul, its influence permeates down to the present day so enmeshed into our everyday language that we can loose sight of it. It is considered to have had the most far reaching influence on the English language and is a cornerstone of British culture.
Post script: I have been reminded that my Blog is supposed to promote my book ‘Reflections of the old past’ and possibly this blog does that more strongly than my previous blogs because a printing of the Great Bible which became known as ‘The Wicked Bible’ has more than a passing appearance in my story.
‘Reflections of the old past’ is set in one of the least likely areas of 21st century London it is in the dark places that you will find evil but even there you will also find heroes.