In the beginning, “the Word” was in Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek. In the third century b.c.e. the Old Testament was translated into Greek for Jews of the Hellenistic diaspora. In the second century c.e. an “Old Latin” translation appeared for Christians who lacked Greek, and in the late fourth century c.e. St. Jerome produced another Latin version (the Vulgate) for western Christians. By the late Middle Ages, Latin, too, had become unfamiliar to most of the laity and even to some of the clerisy. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church objected to further translation because it feared misinterpretation. Moreover, Church doctrines relied heavily on nonscriptural sources such as the Decretals (papal decisions) and the writings of church fathers.
The fourteenth century Oxford scholar and religious reformer John Wycliffe opposed papal authority, argued for a religion based solely on Scripture, and favored widespread knowledge of the Bible. An English translation of the Old and New Testaments would serve all these ends, and in 1380, Wycliffe began work on an English Bible. Wycliffe’s effort coincided with an upsurge of English nationalism and antipapal sentiment prompted by the Hundred Years’ War against France; France’s war effort was being financed in part by money from the papal treasury. The period also saw a flowering of English in the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer, William Langland, John Gower, and the Pearl-Poet. In 1362, Parliament opened in English for the first time since the Norman Conquest of 1066.
While Wycliffe’s timing seemed auspicious, the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 linked church and state in the effort to suppress dissent. In 1394, the Catholic Church attempted to ban Wycliffe’s translation. John of Gaunt, uncle to King Richard II, opposed the move, but he died in 1399. In 1408, Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury, drafted the Constitutions of Oxford, barring unauthorized translations. Four years later, Arundel denounced Wycliffe and his English Bible.
No further attempt was made to translate the Bible into English until the early sixteenth century, when William Tyndale undertook the task. Because the Constitutions of Oxford remained in force, he withdrew to the Continent. In late 1525 or early 1526, Peter Schöffer of Worms printed Tyndale’s New Testament, and copies soon were being smuggled into England. Unlike Wycliffe, Tyndale worked from the original Hebrew and Greek, though he consulted Erasmus’s Latin translation, the Vulgate, and Martin Luther’s German version. Tyndale used Hebrew syntax: “Song of Songs” and “holy of holies” instead of the more conventional English “best song,” “holiest place.” He retained Hebrew compounds such as “scapegoat” and translated phrases verbatim, such as “to die the death.” The result was at once accurate, stately, and readable. As testimony to Tyndale’s linguistic skills, the King James Bible’s New Testament is essentially his.
Yet Tyndale’s timing, like Wycliffe’s, was unfortunate, because in 1526 Henry VIII was still Catholic and rejoicing in the pope’s having named him “Defender of the Faith” in 1521 for attacking Martin Luther. Tyndale’s translation adopted Protestant views. He rendered the Greekekklesia as “congregation,” a group of worshipers, rather than as “church,” a gathering of clergy.Presbyter he translated as “senior” (later as “elder”), a leader chosen by the congregation, rather than “priest,” someone anointed by the religious hierarchy. Metanoia appears as “repentance” rather than “penance.” Penance, as Bobrick notes, provided revenues to the Church through the sale of indulgences. Repentance was free. Tyndale attacked the Catholic Church again in his 1530 translation of a portion of the Old Testament, and the preface to his 1534 revised New Testament declared that salvation comes through faith, not works. Though he was safe as long as he remained in the independent city of Antwerp, on May 21, 1535, he was kidnapped and imprisoned near Brussels. On October 6, 1536, he was executed.
By then, Henry VIII had broken with Rome over his desire to marry Anne Boleyn, who supported the Reformation. She owned a sumptuous copy of Tyndale’s 1534 edition of...
(The entire section is 1740 words.)