Four Bibles that changed our world
3rd April 2020
Access to modern English Bibles that are faithful to the original text is something we take for granted, but they are relatively recent phenomena.
Translation of Scripture into European languages, particularly English, has a fraught and sometimes deadly history. Dr Elijah Hixson and Timothy Berg tell the story of the text by focusing on four extraordinary editions that made an indelible mark on Western culture.
Jerome (c347-419) and the Vulgate
History remembers St Jerome as one of the greatest scholars and Bible translators of early Christianity, who championed the discipline of rooting translations clearly in the best available early manuscripts.
In the preface to his The Four Gospels, he writes: “If we are to pin our faith to the Latin texts, it is for our opponents to tell us which, for there are almost as many forms of texts as there are copies. If, on the other hand, we are to glean the truth from a comparison of many, why not go back to the original Greek and correct the mistakes introduced by inaccurate translators, and the blundering alterations of confident but ignorant critics, and further, all that has been inserted or changed by copyists more asleep than awake?”
The New Testament was written originally in Greek, the common language of the world of the early Church. However, as the Gospel spread west, the availability of the New Testament in Greek wasn’t much use to the growing number of Christians for whom the language of academic study was Latin. Unfortunately, attempts to translate the component parts of the New Testament into Latin had led to chaos. We can almost feel Jerome’s exasperation when he wrote that there were almost as many “versions” of the Latin Bible as there were copies of it. Unlike today, when Bible translations are well documented and discussions of the strengths and weaknesses of different translations can be found easily, competing forms of the text brought confusion, not clarity. So in the late fourth century, Pope Damasus asked Jerome to revise the older Latin translation(s) of the Bible.
Jerome was a scholar of scholars — a vir trilinguis with a command of Latin, Greek and even Hebrew. He revised the existing Latin texts of the Bible using his knowledge of the original languages and the best scholarship of his day. For the New Testament, that meant going back to manuscripts written in Greek. Jerome corrected what he found in the existing Latin copies of Scripture into a single standardised version by comparing the Latin with the Greek manuscripts he could find, as a way of making sure the words were correctly translated.
Jerome himself did not revise the whole Bible, but he was responsible for the four Gospels and many books of the Old Testament. Others continued his work, and his name remained indelibly linked with this new revision — the Vulgate (short for versio vulgata, or “the version commonly used”). Though the Vulgate was not adopted by all Latin readers immediately, it would eventually reign supreme in the Christian West for centuries. There were occasional attempts to update it, but in essence, the Vulgate became “the Bible” for every Latin-speaking Christian.
Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466- 1536) and the Textus Receptus
If Jerome gave the West the Vulgate as its de facto Bible (albeit a step removed from the original languages), an attempt to update the New Testament of that same Bible in Jerome’s own spirit ended up taking the West back to the Bible’s forgotten roots.
Erasmus of Rotterdam was already a great figure of the northern Renaissance when he turned his mind to the text of the New Testament. He is often described as a “humanist” although in his day the term denoted study of the human condition, often in relation to God, and didn’t have the atheistic overtones it does in modern times. As part of his humanist ambitions he began producing a revision of the Latin Vulgate, which was finally published in 1516 in Basel. He announced brazenly on the title page that he had produced, “The complete New Testament, carefully revised and corrected” by reference to Greek manuscripts and the writings of the early Church Fathers.
He included a Greek text in the column beside his own Latin to justify these revisions — the first time the Greek New Testament had ever been published. He also included, “annotations to explain to the reader what changes have been made and the reason for making them”.
Four revisions of this annotated dual-language version followed (1519, 1522, 1527 and 1535), with the 1527 edition published as a triglot highlighting his revised Latin text in the centre column, sandwiched by the Vulgate it corrected and the Greek that justified it.
The Greek column of his text was initially intended only as a prop for his revisions to the Latin text. In a stroke of providence, however, it ended up unleashing the power of the original language into an atmosphere where the Renaissance cry of ad fontes (“back to the sources”) was already ringing loudly in the air. The spark of the first publication of the printed Greek New Testament lit the fires of Reformation thought in Martin Luther and other reformers. Various revised forms of Erasmus’s text, later called the Textus Receptus, stood behind virtually every Reformation translation of the Bible and became fodder for the theological debate of the era. Now the reader could peer behind a half a millennium of tradition to assess its validity. Perhaps more dangerously, now the reader could find grounds to question it.
William Tyndale (1494 -1536) and the English New Testament
From Erasmus’s newly published Greek text came forth new translations of the Scriptures into languages people actually spoke, such as English.
Born in Gloucestershire in 1494, William Tyndale was not the first to translate the New Testament into English, but using Erasmus’s editions of the New Testament, Tyndale was the first to translate directly from Greek. Tyndale wanted to give the Scriptures back to the people — not in Latin, but in the language they used every day. He once remarked that if God would spare his life long enough, he would cause the common ploughboy to know more Scripture than the Pope himself.
This desire was complicated by the fact that translating the Bible into English was forbidden by law. Successive kings rightly saw that if ordinary people could form their own views of what Scripture says, this might lead to challenge not only to the authority of the Church, but to monarchs who claimed divine legitimacy.
None of this deterred Tyndale. In 1524, he fled to present-day Germany to translate the New Testament into English. By 1525, he was attempting to print his English translation of the New Testament in Cologne. Unfortunately the local authorities found out, and Tyndale had to flee before the printing could be completed. He was only able to print the text to Matthew 22. A single copy at the British Library is all that survives.
In 1526, Tyndale finally succeeded in his aim. This edition was the first translation of the New Testament from Greek into English. English Bibles were still illegal, and this English New Testament had to be smuggled into the country. In 1534, Tyndale published a second edition. By this time he had learned Hebrew and moved to present-day Belgium to begin translation of the Old Testament. He would not live to finish the task. His betrayal came through a young Englishman named Henry Phillips who was hired to befriend Tyndale, earn his trust and hand him over to the authorities. The official charge was heresy, and Tyndale was arrested in May 1535. In prison, driven by his passion to see the English people have a Bible in their mother tongue, Tyndale requested a Hebrew Bible, a Hebrew grammar and a Hebrew dictionary — a rather bold request from someone in prison for translating the Bible into English.
In October 1536, William Tyndale was strangled, and his body was burned. Just before his faith was made sight, Tyndale uttered his last words: “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” Indeed, the Lord did open the King’s eyes. Less than one hundred years after Tyndale was martyred, James I would authorise a Bible that is perhaps the greatest book ever published in the English language.
The Authorised Version of 1611
The Authorised Version was first conceived at a conference at Hampton Court, convened to hear Puritan complaints.
It was a Monday morning, 16 January 1604, when John Rainolds, a prominent Puritan scholar, proposed the idea of a new translation. While it’s unlikely his request was sincere, James I surprisingly took to the idea.
Under the supervision of Richard Bancroft, who would soon be confirmed as Archbishop of Canterbury, a group of about 50 scholars of the day were divided into six companies. The real genius of this new work was that it was not new at all. The first rule for the companies was that, “the ordinary Bible read in the church, commonly called the Bishop’s Bible,” would be, “followed, & as little altered as the truth of the original will permit”. This new work was to be a revision of the old Bishop’s Bible.
After the initial translation by the companies, a revision of the whole text by a dozen men was completed at Stationer’s Hall in London. Thomas Bilson (then Bishop of Winchester) and Miles Smith (who was made Bishop of Gloucester shortly after) subsequently put finishing touches to the text. Smith protested that even after he and Bilson had finished, Bancroft made 14 more changes which the translators had not approved.
This revision thus gathered into itself the best of all that had come before. When it did depart from the text of the Bishop’s Bible, it was almost always to follow the best from prior English Bibles, spelt out in another rule for the translators. Only in extremely rare cases did the translators strike out into pioneer language. They had not made a new translation, but had made, as Smith noted, “a good one better, or out of many good ones one principal good one, not justly to be excepted against”.
In a stroke of genius, they had actually done little more than republish Tyndale, without giving direct credit. As Dr David Daniell, then a Senior Lecturer at University College London, wrote in the introduction to a reprint of the Tyndale Bible, “Astonishment is still voiced that the dignitaries who prepared the 1611 Authorised Version for King James spoke so often with one voice — apparently miraculously. Of course they did: that voice (never acknowledged by them) was Tyndale’s.” Tyndale’s clear and direct word to the ploughboy was replaced with the royal elegance of the King’s liturgical tongue. In a development strikingly reminiscent of the stabilising of the text in Jerome, Tyndale’s voice remained frozen in that majestic early modern English form for the next several centuries.