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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

The English Bible

English Bible translation began in earnest with the Wycliffite versions in the fourteenth century. Although made from the Vulgate (but not by John Wyclif himself), they were inevitably controversial because unauthorized, and made more so by the teachings of Wyclif and his followers. They were banned and fresh English translation forbidden (1407). Nevertheless, manuscripts of the Wycliffite translations continued to circulate, and the possession and public reading and preaching of English scriptures became a trademark of Lollardy and sufficient to ensure condemnation as heretical.

Thus the fresh translations of the Bible into English initiated by William Tyndale began life under a menacing cloud. By common consent Tyndale was a genius of a translator whose work had immense influence on the Authorized Version. His New Testament, made on the basis of the Greek but aided by Luther's German, Erasmus's Latin, and other resources, had to be printed on the Continent (Cologne and Worms, 1525) but copies were soon smuggled into England and Scotland. Tyndale went on to translate parts of the Old Testament but only the Pentateuch and Jonah were published. He kitted out his New Testament with prefaces, prologues, and marginalia often of Lutheran origin or inspiration.

Another English Bible translator of genius was Miles Coverdale, later bishop of Exeter. He dedicated his 1535 Bible, the first complete one in English, to Henry VIII. He used Tyndale wherever it was available. Coverdale's translation of the Psalms went on to exercise a profound influence on English religious consciousness through its inclusion in the Book of Common Prayer.

Hulton Getty.

Oxford University Press.

By permission of the British Library.

Revisions and editions based chiefly on Tyndale and Coverdale continued steadily for a decade. Sorting out the different printings of Coverdale is still an unfinished task. In 1537 a revision known as ‘Matthew's’ Bible, in reality the work of John Rogers, was the first to carry royal authorization, but the Great Bible which Thomas Cromwell in 1538 ordered to be set up in every parish church in England was another Coverdale version (1539).

Hulton Getty.

Scotland produced no vernacular Bible of its own. A manuscript Scots recension of a Wycliffite New Testament made by Murdoch Nisbet, an Ayrshire Lollard, incorporated a Lutheran preface and marginal notes based largely on a Coverdale printing, but the manuscript remained unpublished until the twentieth century. It was, therefore, English Testaments and Bibles that early Scottish evangelicals were condemned for possessing and teaching. One such was Thomas Forret, vicar of Dollar, who was burned before the castle in Edinburgh in 1539. His biblical preaching had provoked George Crichton, bishop of Dunkeld, to declare ‘I thanke God, that I never knew quhat the Old and New Testament was!’—an utterance that for a time set a proverbial standard for ignorance. The cause of vernacular scripture for Scotland was eloquently championed from the Continent by Alexander Alesius, an Edinburgh native won to Lutheranism in St Andrews, in an appeal to James V.

In England, policies concerning the free availability of English Bibles varied with the ups and downs of the Reformation movement. During the Catholic reaction under Queen Mary, translation went abroad with the Protestant exiles, to Geneva in particular. Here in 1560 the Geneva Bible of which mention has already been made was published—not to be confused with the French Genevan Bible, which Calvin and his fellow pastors steadily improved over a number of years. The English was the work of William Whittingham and colleagues. It became the most widely used English Bible for a century or more, but, although dedicated to Elizabeth I, it never possessed authorization from crown, parliament, or church. Archbishop Matthew Parker initiated a revision of the Great Bible, which on publication in 1568 became known as the Bishops' Bible but, despite being required usage for every church in England, it never challenged the Genevan version in popularity. The latter was of course the Bible of Shakespeare. It was also the first Bible to be published in Scotland—the Bassendyne Bible issued in 1579 in Edinburgh. The appearance of the Geneva Bible in 1560 coincided with the Reformation settlement in Scotland. John Knox's close ties with Geneva helped ensure a speedy and long-lasting acceptance of this translation in Scotland. That he had any part in its translation in Geneva can almost certainly be discounted, but he cited verses from its Old Testament in his major defence of predestination a year of two before 1560.

By permission of the British Library.

In 1611 was launched the Authorized or King James Version (AV), which within a generation or so—longer in Scotland—overtook the Geneva Bible in common use. The first suggestion for a new translation came from the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland meeting in 1601 in the small Fife burgh of Burntisland. (In 1946 it was again the General Assembly which set in train the production of the New English Bible.) An expert team of translators set to work at James I/VI's direction, but royal patronage and the words on the title-page ‘Appointed to be read in Churches’ are all the ‘authorization’ it received. It was not a wholly fresh translation but more a revision, taking the Bishops' Bible as a basis but consulting other versions, especially Douai–Rheims and Geneva, as far back as Tyndale, as well as the Hebrew and Greek. It achieved a literary felicitousness that still today makes it the favourite English Bible in surprising quarters, among the traditionally pious and the cultured irreligious. Its influence on the English language both written and spoken has been immeasurable. Its prose rhythms, in metres that often reflect the translators' mental formation in classical Greek and Latin verse, have made it a high preference for public reading, in settings where its use for private devotion and study has long been abandoned. The translators' preface (which takes its own biblical quotations from the Geneva Bible) justifies their decision not to adopt the same English word for every occurrence of a Hebrew or Greek term—partly on the quaintly modern grounds that to do so would by omission discriminate against ‘a great number of good English words’. Later the Revised Version (1881–95) would reverse this policy, and perhaps the AV went too far in favour of variation, for example in Romans 5: 2, 3, 11 , where the same Greek verb is rendered ‘rejoice … glory … joy’. It was from the AV that generations of English speakers learned to celebrate the Nativity as simply a season of ‘good will towards men’ (Luke 2: 14 ), and became preoccupied with their ‘soul’. Coverdale's psalms remained in the Book of Common Prayer, but the other lections were now taken from the AV of 1611.

The AV omitted marginal notes (but not cross-references) except where required on a particular point of translation. The Genevan notes have been over-criticized for their doctrinal tendentiousness, as has its actual translation. The AV deliberately opted for more ecclesiastical terms like ‘church’ instead of Geneva's ‘congregation’ and ‘baptism’ instead of ‘washing’. On the other hand it deliberately rejected ‘the obscurity of the Papists’ in using original Hebrew or Greek merely transliterated like ‘azymes, prepuce, pasche’, as Douai–Rheims preferred.

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