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Frederic G. Kenyon
Bruce Metzger writes,
The story of the English Bible begins with the introduction of Christianity into Britain. When and how that happened are obscure, but in the third century Tertullian and Origen witness to the existence of British churches, the former stating that there were places in Britain subject to Christ which Roman arms had not been able to penetrate. Among delegates who attended the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) were several from Britain. Although initial developments of the church were wiped out by Teutonic invasions in the fifth century, significant advance began again with the arrival rival in A.D. 597 of missionaries sent out by Pope Gregory, and Christianity became firmly established.
In Britain, as elsewhere, missionary work proceeded almost entirely by means of the spoken word. Any translation of the Scriptures consisted of a free and extemporaneous rendering of the Latin text into the vernacular speech. Interlinear translations into Old English begin to appear in the ninth and tenth centuries. Among surviving copies of Anglo-Saxon renderings of the Gospels pels in various dialects are the famous Lindisfarne Gospels, a Latin manuscript (now in the British Library) written by Bishop Eadfrith of Lindisfarne toward the end of the seventh century. About the middle of the tenth century, a priest named Aldred wrote between the lines a literal rendering of the Latin in the Northumbrian dialect. A similar gloss is provided in the Rushworth worth Gospels, a manuscript copied from the Lindisfarne Gospels and now housed in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. The Rushworth glosses are practically transcripts of the Lindisfarne glosses so far as the Gospels of Mark, Luke, and John are concerned, but in Matthew the Rushworth gloss is an independent rendering in the rare Mercian dialect by a priest named Farman. A copy of the four Gospels in West Saxon orthography is preserved at Cambridge University Library and is generally dated to about A.D. 1050. According cording to an inscription, the manuscript was given by Bishop Le-ofric (d. 1072) to his cathedral church at Exeter. In addition to the four Gospels, the manuscript contains the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus and the Embassy of Nathan the Jew to Tiberius Caesar, both in Anglo-Saxon.
The Norman conquest of England (A.D. 1066) marked the end of the production of Scripture translation into Anglo-Saxon and Old English. For some three centuries, Norman French largely supplanted English among educated people; Latin, of course, continued to be used by the clergy. In the fourteenth century, English translation of parts of the Scriptures began to appear again, the form of the language being what is now called Middle English.
The Norman Conquest checked for a time all the vernacular literature of England, including the translations of the Bible. One of the first signs of its revival was the production of the Ormulum, a poem that embodies metrical versions of the Gospels and Acts, written about the end of the twelfth century. The main biblical literature of this period, however, was French. For the benefit of the Norman settlers in England, translations of the greater part of both the Old Testament and New Testament were produced during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Especially notable among these was the version of the Apocalypse because it was frequently accompanied by a series of illustrations, the best examples of which are the finest (and also the most quaint) artistic productions of the period in the sphere of book illustration. Nearly 90 manuscripts of this version are known, ranging from the first half of the twelfth century to the first half of the fifteenth [see P. Berger, La Bible Francaise au moyen age, p. 78 ff.; L. Delisle and P. Meyer, L’Apocalypse en Francais (Paris, 1901); and New Paleographical Society, part 2, plates 38, 39], some having been produced in England, and others in France; and in the fourteenth century it reappears in an English dress, having been translated apparently about that time. This English version (which at one time was attributed to Wycliffe) is known in no less than 16 manuscripts, which fall into at least two classes [see Miss A.C. Paues, A Fourteenth-Century English Biblical Version (Cambridge, 1902), pp. 24-30]; and it is noteworthy that from the second of these was derived the version which appears in the revised Wycliffite Bible, to be mentioned presently.
The fourteenth century saw the practical extinction of the general use of the French language in England, and the rise of real vernacular literature saw a great revival of vernacular Biblical literature, beginning apparently with the Book of Psalms. Two English versions of the Psalter were produced at this period, one of which enjoyed great popularity. This was the work of Richard Rolle, hermit of Hampole, in Yorkshire (d.1349). It contains the Latin text of the Psalter, followed verse by verse by an English translation and commentary. Originally written in the northern dialect, it soon spread over all England, and many manuscripts of it still exist in which the dialect has been altered to suit southern tastes. Towards the end of the century, Rolle’s work suffered further change, the commentary being re-written from a strongly Lollard point of view. In this shape, it continued to circulate far into the sixteenth century. Another version of the Psalter was produced contemporaneously with Rolle’s, somewhere in the West Midlands. The authorship of it was formerly attributed to William of Shoreham, vicar of Chart Sutton, in Kent, but for no other reason than that in one of the two manuscripts in which it is preserved (Brit. Mus. Add. MS 17376), the other being at Trinity College, Dublin) it is now bound up with his religious poems. The dialect, however, proves that this authorship is impossible, and the version must be put down as anonymous. As in the case of Rolle’s translation, the Latin and English texts are intermixed, verse by verse, but there is no commentary. [See K.S. Bulbring, The Earliest Complete English Prose Psalter (Early English Text Society), 1891).]
The Psalter was not the only part of the Bible of which versions came into existence in the course of the fourteenth century. At Magdalene College, Cambridge (Pepys MS 2498), is an English narrative of the life of Christ, compiled out of a re-arrangement of the Gospels for Sundays and holy days throughout the year. Quite recently, too, a group of manuscripts, which (so far as they were known at all) had been regarded as belonging to the Wycliffite Bible, has been shown by Miss Anna C. Paues [A Fourteenth-Century English Biblical Version (Cambridge, 1902)] to contain an independent translation of the New Testament. It is not complete, the Gospels are represented only by Matthew 1:1 to 6:8, and the Apocalypse is omitted. Indeed, the original nucleus seems to have consisted of the four larger Catholic Epistles and the Epistles of St. Paul, to which were subsequently added 2 and 3 John, Jude, Acts, and Matthew 1:1-6:8. Four manuscripts of this version are at present known, the oldest being one at Selwyn College, Cambridge, which was written about 1400. The prologue narrates that the translation was done at the request of a monk and a nun by their superior, who defers to their earnest desire, although, as he says, it is at the risk of his life. This phrase seems to show that the work was produced after the rise of the great party controversy, which is associated with the name of Wycliffe.
Bruce Metzger writes,
So far as we know, the first complete English Bible was due to the influence and activity of John Wycliffe (c. 1330-84), an eminent Oxford theologian, called the “morning star of the Reformation” because of the religious convictions that he developed and propagated. In his treatise of 1378, De Potestate Papae (“Concerning the Authority of the Pope”), he maintained that the Bible, as the eternal “exemplar” of the Christian religion, was the sole criterion of doctrine, to which no ecclesiastical authority might lawfully add, and that the authority of the pope was ill-founded in Scripture. A strong believer in the Bible as the Word of God addressed to every person, he felt the need to provide the Scriptures in a form that the ordinary reader could use. Interested in both religious and political reform in England, Wycliffe had powerful enemies who finally were able to bring him to trial for heresy. At a synod held at Blackfriars, London, on May 21, 1382, twenty-four theses from his writings and sermons were condemned as heretical or erroneous.
It is doubtful whether Wycliffe himself took any direct part in the work of translating the Scriptures; he died at Lutterworth of a stroke on December 31, 1384. One need not, however, have any qualms about referring to the Wycliffite Bible, for it was under his inspiration that the work was done. In fact, two complete versions of the Scriptures were produced by his pupils and colleagues, John Purvey and Nicholas of Hereford. These were handwritten inasmuch much as printing had not yet been invented. The first version, produced about 1382, was extremely literal, corresponding word for word to the Latin, even at the expense of natural English word order. der. The second version, which appeared around 1388, was more free and shows a feeling for native English idiom throughout. The translation was made from the current Latin Vulgate text and so included the Old Testament apocryphal/deuterocanonical books.
In 1415 the Wycliffite Bible was condemned and burned. Purvey vey and Nicholas were jailed and forced to recant their teachings. In 1428 Pope Martin V insisted that Wycliffe’s body be exhumed, burned, and his ashes cast into the river that flowed through Lutterworth. But just as his ashes were carried by that river to multiple points, so his message went far and wide during the following centuries.
In spite of the zeal with which the hierarchy sought out heresy, about one hundred and eighty copies of the whole or of parts of the Wycliffe versions have survived, mostly dating from before 1450. Of these, fifteen copies of the Old Testament and eighteen copies of the New are of the older version. Just as Martin Luther’s version had very great influence upon the German language, so too the Wycliffite Bible was well received by the people and influenced greatly the development of the English language.
The survival of so many manuscripts of the Wycliffite Bible in spite of opposition and destruction indicates its widespread influence ence which can be credited to the efforts of the “poor priests” or “Lollards” who carried on Wycliffe’s work following his death. Replacing placing a number of similar and fragmentary attempts at translation made in the same period, it remained the only English Bible until the sixteenth century, after printing was invented and newer translations began to be published.’
During the first half of the fifteenth century, some copies of this version were augmented by the inclusion following Colossians of the spurious Letter of Paul to the Laodiceans. In Colossians 4:16, Paul directs the Colossians, after they have read his letter to them, to pass it on to the church of Laodicea and to see that they in turn have an opportunity to “read also the letter from Laodicea.” Although though no such letter occurs in the New Testament, before the end of the fourth century someone forged such a composition in Paul’s name. This inauthentic letter circulated in Latin for many centuries, and sometimes was included in manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate.
With Wycliffe (1320-1384), we reach a landmark in the history of the English Bible in the production of the first complete version of both the Old Testament and the New Testament. It belongs to the last period of Wycliffe’s life, that in which he was engaged in open war with the Papacy and with most of the official chiefs of the English Church. It was connected with his institution of “poor priests,” or mission preachers. It formed part of his scheme of appealing to the populace in general against the doctrines and supremacy of Rome. The New Testament seems to have been completed about 1380, the Old Testament between 1382 and 1384. Exactly how much of it was done by Wyclif’s own hand is uncertain. The greater part of the Old Testament (as far as Baruch 3:20) is assigned in an Oxford manuscript to Nicholas Hereford, one of Wycliffe’s principal supporters at that university; and this part of the translation is undoubtedly in a different style (stiffer and more pedantic) from the rest. The New Testament is generally attributed to Wyclif himself, and he may also have completed the Old Testament, which Hereford apparently had to abandon abruptly, perhaps when he was summoned to London and excommunicated in 1382. This part of the work is free and vigorous in style, though its interpretation of the original is often strange, and many sentences in it can have conveyed very little idea of their meaning to its readers. Such as it was, however, it was a complete English Bible, addressed to the whole English people, high and low, rich and poor. This is the case is proved by the character of the copies that have survived (about 30 in number). Some are large folio volumes, handsomely written and illuminated in the best, or nearly the best, style of the period; such is the fine copy, in two volumes (now Brit. Mus. Egerton MSS 617, 618), which once belonged to Thomas, Duke of Gloucester, uncle of Richard II. Others are plain copies of ordinary size, intended for private persons or monastic libraries; for it is clear that, in spite of official disfavor and eventual prohibition, there were many places in England where Wyclif and his Bible were welcomed. Wyclif, indeed, enjoyed advantages from personal repute and influential support such as had been enjoyed by no English translator since Alfred. An Oxford scholar, at one time Master of Balliol, holder of livings successively from his college and the Crown, employed officially on behalf of his country in controversy with the Pope, the friend and protege of John of Gaunt and other prominent nobles, and enjoying as a rule the strenuous support of the University of Oxford, Wyclif was in all respects a person of weight and influence in the realm, who could not be silenced or isolated by the opposition of bishops such as Arundel. The work that he had done had struck its roots too deep to be destroyed, and though it was identified with Lollardism by its adversaries, its range was much wider than that of anyone sect or party.
Wycliffe’s translation, however, though too strong to be overthrown by its opponents, was capable of improvement by its friends. The difference of style between Hereford and his continuator or continuators, the stiff and unpopular character of the work of the former, and the imperfections inevitable in a first attempt on so large a scale called aloud for revision. A second Wycliffite Bible, the result of a very complete revision of its predecessor, saw the light not many years after the reformer’s death. The authorship of the second version is doubtful. It was assigned by Forshall and Madden, the editors of the Wycliffite Bible, to John Purvey, one of Wycliffe’s most intimate followers; but the evidence is purely circumstantial and rests mainly on verbal resemblances between the translator’s preface and known works of Purvey, together with the fact that a copy of this preface is found attached to a copy of the earlier version which was once Purvey’s property. What is certain is that the second version is based upon the first and that the translator’s preface is permeated with Wycliffite opinions. This version speedily superseded the other, and in spite of a decree passed, at Arundel’s instigation, by the council of Blackfriars in 1408, it must have circulated in large numbers. Over 140 copies are still in existence, many of them small pocket volumes such as must have been the personal property of private individuals for their own study. Others belonged to the greatest personages in the land, and copies are still in existence which formerly had for owners Henry VI, Henry VII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth.
With the production of the second Wycliffite version, the history of the manuscript, the English Bible comes to an end. Purvey’s work was on the level of the best scholarship and textual knowledge of the age, and it satisfied the requirements of those who needed a vernacular Bible. That it did not reach modern standards in these respects goes without saying. In the first place, it was translated from the Latin Vulgate, not from the original Hebrew and Greek, with which there is no reason to suppose that Wycliffe or his assistants were familiar. Secondly, its exegesis is often deficient, and some passages in it must have been wholly unintelligible to its readers. This, however, may be said even of some parts of the AV, so that it is a small reproach to Wycliffe and Purvey; and on the whole, it is a straightforward and intelligible version of the Scriptures. A few examples of this, the first complete English Bible and the first version in which the English approaches sufficiently near to its modern form to be generally intelligible, may be given here.
John 14:1-7. Be not youre herte affraied, ne drede it. Ye bileuen in god, and bileue ye in me. In the hous of my fadir ben many dwellyngis: if ony thing lasse I hadde seid to you, for I go to make redi to you a place. And if I go and make redi to you a place, eftsone I come and I schal take you to my silf, that where I am, ye be. And whidir I go ye witen: and ye witen the wey. Thomas seith to him, Lord, we witen not whidir thou goist, and hou moun we wite the weie. Ihesus seith to him, I am weye truthe and liif: no man cometh to the fadir, but bi me. If ye hadden knowe me, sothli ye hadden knowe also my fadir: and aftirwarde ye schuln knowe him, and ye han seen hym.
2 Cor. 1:17-20. But whanne I wolde this thing, whether I uside unstidfastnesse? ether tho thingis that I thenke, I thenke aftir the fleische, that at me be it is and it is not. But god is trewe, for oure word that was at you, is and is not, is not thereinne, but is in it. Forwhi ihesus crist the sone of god, which is prechid among you bi us, bi me and siluan and tymothe, ther was not in hym is and is not, but is was in hym. Forwhi hou many euer ben biheestis of god, in thilke is ben fulfillid. And therfor and bi him we seien Amen to god, to oure glorie.
Ephesians 3:14-21. For grace of this thing I bowe my knees to the fadir of oure lord ihesus crist, of whom eche fadirheed in heuenes and in erthe is named, that he geue to you aftir the richessis of his glorie, vertu to be strengthid bi his spirit in the ynner man; that criste dwelle bi feith in youre hertis; that ye rootid and groundid in charite, moun comprehende with alle seyntis whiche is the breede and the lengthe and the highist and the depnesse; also to wite the charite of crist more excellent thanne science, that ye be fillid in all the plente of god. And to hym that is myghti to do alle thingis more plenteuousli thanne we axen, or undirstande bi the vertu that worchith in us, to hym be glorie in the chirche and in crist ihesus in to alle the generaciouns of the worldis. Amen.
The English manuscript Bible was now complete, and no further translation was issued in this form. The Lollard controversy died down amid the strain of the French wars and the passions of the wars of the Roses, and when, in the sixteenth century, religious questions once more came to the front, the situation had been fundamentally changed through the invention of printing. The first book that issued from the press was the Latin Bible (popularly known as the Mazarin Bible), published by Fust and Gutenberg in 1456. For the Latin Bible (the form in which the Scriptures had hitherto been mainly known in Western Europe), there was indeed so great a demand that no less than 124 editions of it are said to have been issued before the end of the fifteenth century. Still, it was only slowly that scholars realized the importance of utilizing the printing press for the circulation of the Scriptures, either in their original tongues or in the vernaculars of Europe. The Hebrew Psalter was printed in 1477, the complete Old Testament in 1488. The Greek Bible, both Old Testament and New Testament, were included in the great Complutensian Polyglot of Cardinal Ximenes, printed in 1514-17 but not published till 1522.
The Greek New Testament (edited by Erasmus) was first published by Froben in 1516, the Old Testament by the Aldine press in 1518. In the way of vernacular versions, a French Bible was printed at Lyons about 1478, and another about 1487; a Spanish Pentateuch was printed (by Jews) in 1497; a German Bible was printed at Strassburg by Mentelin in 1466, and was followed by eighteen others (besides many Psalters and other separate books) between that date and 1522, when the first portion of Luther’s translation appeared. In England, Caxton inserted the main part of the Old Testament narrative in his translation of the Golden Legend (which in its original form already contained the Gospel story), published in 1483; but no regular English version of the Bible was printed until 1525, with which date a new chapter in the history of the English Bible begins.
Wycliffe as a Bible Translator
It is questioned whether Wycliffe himself translated the whole Bible. In any case, it is certain that in the fifteenth century portions of the Scriptures were called Wycliffite.
Supporters of the view that Wycliffe did translate the Bible hold that when Wycliffe took on the challenge of translating, he was breaking a long-held belief that no person should translate the Bible on their own initiative, without approval of the Church. It is said that his frustrations drove him to ignore this, and that Wycliffe believed that studying the Bible was more important than listening to it read by the clergy.
At that time, people mainly heard the Bible at church since they did not know how to read, and the Bible was costly (before the printing press). It is certain though that the Bible itself was familiar even to laymen in the fourteenth century, and that the whole of the New Testament at least could be read in translations. Also, during the Middle Ages one who could read, could read Latin also, and those who could not read Latin, usually could not read at all.
Wycliffe believed every Christian should study the Bible. When he met with opposition to the translation, he replied, “Christ and his apostles taught the people in that tongue that was best known to them. Why should men not do so now?” For one to have a personal relationship with God, Wycliffe believed that need to be described in the Bible. Wycliffe also believed that it was necessary to return to the primitive state of the New Testament in order to truly reform the Church. So, one must be able to read the Bible to understand those times.
Wycliffite versions of the Bible were sometimes condemned as such by the Catholic Church because a Wycliffite preface had been added to an orthodox translation.
There are two distinct versions of Wycliffe’s Bible that have been written. The earlier was translated during the life of Wycliffe, while the later version is regarded as the work of John Purvey. Since the printing press was not invented yet, there exist only a very few copies of Wycliffe’s earlier Bible. The earlier Bible is a rigid and literal translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible, and Wycliffe’s view of theology is closer to realism than to the spiritual. This version was translated word for word, which often led to confusion or meaninglessness. It was aimed towards the less learned clergymen and the laymen, while the second, more coherent version was aimed towards all literates. It is important to note that after the translations the illiterate and poor still usually lacked the access to the Scripture: the translation originally cost four marks and forty pence, i.e. two pounds, sixteen shillings and eightpence. During Wycliffe’s time Bibles were also used as a law-code, which dominated civil law, giving extreme power to the church and religious leaders who knew Latin. The literal taste of the earlier translation was used to give Wycliffe’s Bible an authoritative tone. The earlier version is said to be written by Wycliffe himself and Nicholas of Hereford.
Surviving copies of the Wycliffite Bible fall into two broad textual families, an “early” version and a later version. Both versions are flawed by a slavish regard to the word order and syntax of the Latin originals; the later versions give some indication of being revised in the direction of idiomatic English. A wide variety of Middle English dialects are represented. The second, revised group of texts is much larger than the first. Some manuscripts contain parts of the Bible in the earlier version, and other parts in the later version; this suggests that the early version may have been meant as a rough draft that was to be recast into the somewhat better English of the second version. The second version, though somewhat improved, still retained a number of infelicities of style, as in its version of Genesis 1:3
Latin Vulgate: Dixitque Deus fiat lux et facta est lux
Early Wycliffe: And God seide, Be maad liȝt; and maad is liȝt
Later Wycliffe: And God seide, Liȝt be maad; and liȝt was maad
Douay-Rheims: And God said: Be light made. And light was made
The familiar verse of John 3:16 is rendered in the later Wycliffe version as:
Later Wycliffe: For God louede so the world, that he ȝaf his oon bigetun sone, that ech man that bileueth in him perische not, but haue euerlastynge lijf.
King James Version: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
The later revised version of Wycliffe’s Bible was issued ten to twelve years after Wycliffe’s death. This version is translated by John Purvey, who diligently worked on the translation of Wycliffe’s Bible, as can be seen in the General Prologue, where Purvey explains the methodology of translating holy scriptures. He describes four rules all translators should acknowledge:
Firstly, the translator must be sure of the text he is translating. This he has done by comparing many old copies of the Latin bible to assure authenticity of the text. Secondly, the translator must study the text in order to understand the meaning. Purvey explains that one cannot translate a text without having a grasp of what is being read. Third, the translator must consult grammar, diction, and reference works to understand rare and unfamiliar words. Fourth, once the translator understands the text, translation begins by not giving a literal interpretation but expressing the meaning of the text in the receptor language (English), not just translating the word but the sentence as well.
Church Reaction and Controversy
At this time, the Peasants’ Revolt was running full force as the people of England united to rebel against the unfairness of the English Parliament and its favoring of the wealthier classes. William Courtenay, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was able to turn both the church and Parliament against Wycliffe by falsely stating that his writings and his influence were fueling the peasants involved in the revolt. (It was actually John Ball, another priest, who was involved in the revolt and merely quoted Wycliffe in one of his speeches.) The Church and Parliament’s anger towards Wycliffe’s “heresy” led them to form the Blackfriars Synod in order to remove Wycliffe from Oxford. Although this Synod was initially delayed by an earthquake that Wycliffe himself believed symbolized “the judgement of God,” it eventually re-convened. At this synod, Wycliffe’s writings (Biblical and otherwise) were quoted and criticized for heresy. This Synod ultimately resulted in King Richard II ruling that Wycliffe be removed from Oxford, and that all who preached or wrote against Catholicism be imprisoned.
Then later on, after John Wycliffe was dead, The Council of Constance declared Wycliffe (on 4 May 1415) a heretic and under the ban of the Church. It was decreed that his books be burned, and his remains be exhumed. In 1428, at the command of Pope Martin V, Wycliffe’s remains were dug up, burned, and the ashes cast into the River Swift, which flows through Lutterworth. This is the most final of all posthumous attacks on John Wycliffe, but previous attempts had been made before the Council of Constance. The Anti-Wycliffite Statute of 1401 extended persecution to Wycliffe’s remaining followers. The “Constitutions of Oxford” of 1408 aimed to reclaim authority in all ecclesiastical matters, specifically naming John Wycliffe in a ban on certain writings, and noting that translation of Scripture into English by unlicensed laity is a crime punishable by charges of heresy.
Influence on Subsequent English Bibles
Although Wycliffe’s Bible circulated widely in the later Middle Ages, it had very little influence on the first English biblical translations of the reformation era such as those of William Tyndale (Tyndale Bible) and Miles Coverdale (Great Bible), as it had been translated from the Latin Vulgate rather than the original Greek and Hebrew.
Consequently, it was generally ignored in later English Protestant biblical scholarship. The earliest printed edition, of the New Testament only, was by John Lewis in 1731.
However, due to the common use of surviving manuscripts of Wycliffe’s Bible as works of an unknown Catholic translator, this version continued to circulate among 16th-century English Catholics, and many of its renderings of the Vulgate into English were adopted by the translators of the Rheims New Testament.
Attribution: This article incorporates text from the public domain: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
 Bruce Metzger. Bible in Translation, The: Ancient and English Versions (pp. 55-56). Kindle Edition.
 The first printed edition of the complete Wycliffite Bible did not appear until 1850, when Josiah Forshall and Frederic Madden issued the earlier and the later versions, printed side by side in four volumes (Oxford University Press).
 Bruce Metzger. Bible in Translation, The: Ancient and English Versions (p. 56-58). Kindle Edition.
 Bruce, Frederick Fyvie (April 1998), “John Wycliffe and the English Bible,” Churchman, Church society, retrieved March 16, 2011