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While the Wycliffe Bible is not the first English Bible, it is the first complete English Bible. It came to us through the efforts and influence of John Wycliffe (c. 1330-1384), a Catholic priest and a professor of theology at Oxford, England, called the “morning star of the Reformation” because of the religious principles that he developed through his investigation of Scripture and witnessed about, a great risk to himself. In his treatise of 1378, De Potestate Papae (“Concerning the Authority of the Pope”), Wycliffe was above all open and candid when it came to the church’s disregard in teaching the Bible, the timeless “exemplar” of the Christian religion, was the single standard of doctrine, to which no church authority might legitimately add, and that the authority of the pope was unreliable in Scripture.
Wycliffe once declared: “Would to God that every parish church in this land had a good Bible and good expositions on the gospel, and that the priests studied them well, and taught truly the gospel and God’s commands to the people!” Wycliffe viewed the Bible as the Word of God, penned to every person. Therefore, he felt personally obligated to render the Scriptures in a translation that the layperson-churchgoer would have access to its truths. Wycliffe was mindful of the mistreatments in the church, which he wrote and preached against, such as bribery in the monastic orders, papal taxation, the doctrine of transubstantiation (the claim that the bread and wine used in the Mass literally change into the body and blood of Jesus Christ), the confession, and church involvement in everyday life. Wycliffe had influential enemies who were finally able to bring him to trial for heresy. Twenty-four theses from his writings and sermons were condemned as heretical or erroneous at a synod held at Blackfriars, London, on May 21, 1382.
It is uncertain whether Wycliffe himself actually worked directly on the translation that bears his name. He died in peace on the last day of 1384 at Lutterworth. However, it is his translation, and rightfully bears his name, the Wycliffe Bible, for if it were not for his inspiration and influence, the translation would have never gotten done. To this end, Wycliffe, in the last years of his life, embarked on the task of translating the Latin Vulgate Bible into English, with the help of his associates, John Purvey and Nicholas of Hereford, two complete versions of the Scriptures were produced. The 1382 version was an extremely literal translation, following the Latin word for word, even violating the English word order. The 1388 version was less literal and more in line the English idiom of his time. Because the translation was made from the Latin Vulgate text, it also included the Old Testament apocryphal and deuterocanonical books.
Principles of Bible Translation
Purvey set down some principles of Bible translation:
First, it is to be known that the best translating out of Latin into English is to translate after the sentence and not only after the words, so the sentence be as open or opener, in English as in Latin, and go not far from the letter; and if the letter may not be followed in the translating, let the sentence be ever whole and open, for the words ought to serve the intent and sentence, or else the words be superfluous or false.
Some have been so bold as to use this statement, to suggest that Wycliffe and his associates supported some dynamic equivalent translation philosophy. Well, this certainly could not be further from the truth.
Furthermore, since the charge of naïveté is in part an attempt to marginalize adherents of essentially literal translation as an inconsequential segment of the English translation scene, it is important to set the record straight in this regard. Even though new English translations have been dominated by dynamic equivalence, the English Bibles actually in use have been pretty evenly divided between literal and free translations. And in terms of the history of English Bible translation, dynamic equivalence is almost wholly a modern phenomenon. No major English translation was dominated by dynamic equivalence until the mid-twentieth century, and in this regard appeals to the Wycliffe translation of the fourteenth century and occasional freedoms that Tyndale took are irrelevant to the discourse. If Tyndale gave us anomalies like claiming that Paul sailed from Philippi after the Easter holidays, he also coined words like intercession and atonement in order to express the theological con-tent of the original. In terms of the history of English Bible translation; therefore, essentially literal translation is the dominant tradition, not a lightweight view held by a few ignorant people.
The Council of Constance condemned John Hus as a heretic, the Bohemian (Czech), who had been influenced by John Wycliffe. Hus refused to recant and was burned to death at the stake in 1415. The same council also ordered that the bones of Wycliffe be dug up and burned although he had been dead and buried for over 30 years! The Wycliffe Bible was condemned and burned as well. Both assistants of Wycliffe, Purvey, and Nicholas would be jailed. They were tortured until they recanted their teachings. Then, in 1428, an outlandish and appalling event occurred. Because Pope Martin V insisted, the grave of John Wycliffe was broken open in accordance with the decree of the Council of Constance made 14 years earlier. His remains were dug up and burned, and the ashes were taken down to the little river Swift a short-distance away. However, as the ashes of Wycliffe were carried far and wide by the river, so too was his message throughout the next few centuries.
In 1407, the synod of clergy called in Oxford, England, by Archbishop Thomas Arundel explicitly prohibited the translating of the Bible into English or any other modern tongue. In 1431, also in England, Bishop Stafford of Wells banned the translating of the Bible into English and the possessing of such translations. In spite of this misplaced religious fervor, about 180 copies of the Wycliffe Bible in whole or in part have survived, largely dating prior to 1450. Of these, there are 15 copies of the Old Testament and 18 copies of the New Testament, which are of the 1382 more literal version. Many speak of the influence that Martin Luther’s version had on the German language, yet the Wycliffe Bible had no less of an effect on the English people and the English language.
The death of John Wycliffe caused great elation amongst his adversaries. They would no longer be inundated by the difficulties that his teachings had brought about. They would be able to rebuild their grasp over the people. Wycliffe’s writings and his Bible translation into English could be destroyed, and be out of sight and thus out of mind. Although that may have been their expectation, it did not happen the way that they had hoped. Wycliffe’s followers, the Lollards, were more resolute than ever to keep his work alive. Wycliffe’s writings and portions of the Bible were circulated all over England by a group of preachers frequently referred to as “Poor Priests” for the reason that they went about in simple clothing, barefoot, and without material belongings. They were also mockingly called Lollards, from the Middle Dutch word Lollaerd, or “one who mumbles prayers or hymns.” The survival of so many Wycliffe Bibles in the face of such opposition is evidence of the persistence and effectiveness of the courageous Bible preachers: the Lollards!
Bruce Metzger informs us in his The Bible in Translation that, “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 Laodicean’s. 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 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.”
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 amongst 16th-century English Catholics, and many of its renderings of the Vulgate into English were adopted by the translators of the Rheims New Testament.
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 Writings of the Reverend and learned John Wickliff – Page 125
 F. F. Bruce, The English Bible: A History of Translations (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1961), 19–20.
 Strauss, Mark L.; Scorgie, Glen G.; Voth, Steven M.: The Challenge of Bible Translation: Communicating God’s Word to the World. Zondervan, p. 201.
 Grudem, Wayne; Packer, J. I.: Translating Truth: The Case for Essentially Literal Bible Translation. Good News Publishers/Crossway Books, p. 63.
 The Lollard Bible and Other Medieval Biblical Versions, by Margaret Deanesly, 1920, p. 24.
 The Lollard Bible, p. 227.
 Inc Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary., Eleventh ed. (Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2003).
 The complete Wycliffe Bible did not appear in a printed edition of until 1850, when Josiah Forshall and Frederic Madden distributed the earlier and the later versions, printed side by side in four volumes (Oxford University Press).
 Bruce Metzger. The Bible in Translation, Ancient and English Versions (p. 58).
 Bruce, Frederick Fyvie (April 1998), “John Wycliffe and the English Bible” (PDF), Churchman, Church society, retrieved March 16, 2011