Vernacular Bibles Essay - Critical Essays

Vernacular Bibles


Vernacular Bibles

Translation is a vital element in the Bible's long history; indeed, translation has seemed literally unavoidable. Ever since the third century b.c., when a Greek translation, known as the Septuagint, of the original Hebrew text of the Scriptures was produced for the Greek-speaking Jews of Alexandria, the Bible has rarely been imagined as an original text. Later, when the Biblical books that became known as the New Testament were composed in Greek, the Bible, now a bilingual book, became, as a whole, accessible in its original form only to readers who knew both Hebrew and Greek. Moreover, while Greek was spoken in the eastern parts of the Roman Empire, the Latin-speaking West had to wait for St. Jerome's fourth-century a.d. translation of the entire Bible into Latin. This monumental work is known as the Vulgate, which was the Bible of the Latin Middle Ages, until the advent of vernacular Bibles. The Latin Bible became a source of tremendous power for the clergy, for they became the guardians of the Scriptures, a totally inaccessible text to a vast majority of Europe's population. For ordinary Christians who lacked a Latin education the Bible was literally a closed book.

The first translations into the vernacular, such as that of John Wyclif and his followers in the fourteenth century, were based on the Vulgate, as Greek was not part of the medieval scholar's curriculum. In the sixteenth century, however, William Tyndale worked in a profoundly different intellectual climate, benefitting from the Greek and Hebrew scholarship that Christian humanists of the Renaissance bequeathed to European culture. It is important to point out that in sixteenth-century Europe, Biblical translation was a dangerous activity, for the idea that the Scriptures should be accessible to the average person was viewed as profoundly subversive because it diminished the power of the Church. In fact, the question about direct access to the word of God was one of the key issues of the Reformation, and the Reformation, as a religious and political movement, drew much of its strength from the accomplishments of Biblical translators. Unlike Martin Luther, who had powerful political allies, Tyndale died a martyr. In fact, the most powerful religious and political figures in England, including Sir Thomas More, ferociously opposed Tyndale's work. Although a great humanist destined to be a martyr himself, More could not comprehend Tyndale's desire to translate the Bible into English. Realizing that his enemies in England were determined to thwart his project, Tyndale went to the Continent, where he published his translation of the New Testament in 1525. In addition to the New Testament, Tyndale published translations from the Hebrew of the Pentateuch and the Book of Jonah. In 1535 Tyndale was arrested by Emperor Charles V's agents; he was accused of heresy and executed the following year.

The greatest English Bible, Authorized Version, widely known as the King James Bible, resulted from a joint scholarly effort that King James I initiated in 1604. Based on Tyndale's translation, and incorporating fragments of Wyclif's work, the Authorized Version, as the French historian of English literature Emile Legouis pointed out, employs as basic material “a real biblical dialect which had been wrought by Wyclif, Tindale and Coverdale.” Legouis, along with earlier critics such as George Philip Krapp, identified this translation as the fountainhead of modern English prose. Indeed, unlike Luther's Bible, which is monument of German literature, and unlike the many European vernacular Bibles of the sixteenth century, which figure as important literary milestones, the Authorized Version has been, in fact, a living force, as well as a guide for writers desiring to master English prose. In this respect the Authorized Version is unique. While other vernacular Bibles played a specific role in the histories of their respective target languages, the Authorized Version informed the essence of the English language. Appearing at a critical juncture of Western history, at time when the spirit of Rationalism, embodied by Francis Bacon, fought a battle against the mystical-poetical spirit of the waning Renaissance, the Authorized Version allowed the English language, as Legouis observed, to successfully incorporate both orientations without succumbing to extremes. The result of this synthesis, Legouis concluded, “was a literature which had a double inspiration and double aspect, the two being complementary rather than antagonistic to each other. … The Bible was the great force which perpetuated in English, even in English prose, elements of poetry and of quaintness and a certain chiaroscuro, and which also maintained in thought a mysticism and an imaginative ferment increasingly threatened by strict rationalism.”

While the Authorized Version was the culmination of an extended effort, bridging generations of translators, the German Bible, published in 1534, was the creation of one man, Martin Luther. Luther's version is actually more than a translation, for he created a book that appealed to people regardless of education and social background. Naturally, Luther's work as a translator was driven by his theological views, but the decisive element of his brilliant creation is his insight that language, at its most profound levels, contains a numinous power which, albeit briefly, transcends the social and political divisions of a particular speech community. “The translation of the Bible,” wrote the nineteenth-century German literary historian Wilhelm Scherer, “is Luther's greatest literary achievement, and at the same time the greatest literary event of the sixteenth century, or even of the whole period from 1348 to 1648. It laid the foundation of a common culture for all ranks of society, and opened a whole intellectual world to the people.” Furthermore, as Jaroslav Pelikan observed, the German Bible exerted a profound influence on music, particularly on the Baroque masterpieces by J. S. Bach, whose sacred music, exemplified by the great Passion according to St. Matthew, in numerous subtle and profound ways embodies the spirit of Luther's Biblical text.

A translation is never a finished project, and critics, including some of the translators of the Bible, have defined Bible translation as the creation of what the Italian semiotician Umberto Eco would call “an open work.” In other words, just as Bible commentary is infinite, translation is a never-ending process. Both Tyndale and Luther knew this, and this knowledge is reflected in the effort that both translators made to create a text which would, in the hearts and minds of all readers, reverberate with the hypnotic power of a sermon. Commenting on Luther's translation, the eminent Swedish theologian Krister Stendahl remarked that, for Luther, the word of God was indeed the sermon of God, bearing in mind the connotations of the Latin word sermo: “conversation, talk, discussion, discourse, common talk, rumor, gossip, language, diction, prose, everyday language”—in other words, the totality of human speech. Ultimately, a translator's battle with a tremendous text such as the Bible, a struggle that can easily be compared to Jacob's encounter with God in Genesis 32, ends, not in victory over God, but in the kind of shattering illumination described by St. Paul in II Corinthians 12. According to the Authorized Version, Paul hears, as Northrop Frye pointed out, “unspeakable words” (arreta rhemata). Knowing that the word of God is beyond speech, Bible translators nevertheless struggle to convey, in intelligible prose and poetry, this language beyond speech to their readers.

Representative Works

The English Bible
The newe Testament as it was written, and caused to be written, by them which herde yt. To whom also oure saveoure Christ Jesus commanded that they shulde preache it unto al creatures [translated by William Tyndale] c. 1526
Biblia. The Bible, that is, the holy Scripture of the Olde and New Testament, faithfully translated out of Douche and Latyn in to Englishe [translated by Miles Coverdale] 1535
The Byble, which is all the holy Scripture: In whych are contayned the Olde and Newe Testament truly and purely translated into Englysh by Thomas Matthew [commonly called Matthew's Bible] 1537
The Byble in Englyshe, that is to saye the content of all the holy scrypture, bothe of ye olde and newe testament, truly translated after the veryte of the Hebrue and Greke textes, by ye dylygent studye of dyuerse excellent learned men, expert in the forsayde tonges [commonly called the first Great Bible; sometimes called Cromwell's Bible] 1539
The Byble in Englyshe, that is to saye the contēt of all the holy scrypture … with a prologe thereinto, made by … Thomas archbyshop of Cantorbury [commonly called the second Great Bible; sometimes called Cranmer's Bible] 1540
The Bible and Holy Scriptures conteyned in the Olde and Newe Testament. Translated according to the Ebrue and Greke, and conferred with the best translations in diuers langages. With moste profitable annotations vpon all the hard places, and other things of great importance as may appeare in the Epistle to the Reader [commonly called the Geneva Bible; sometimes called the Breeches Bible] 1560
The. holie. Bible. [commonly called the Bishops' Bible] 1568
The Holie Bible faithfully translated into English out of the authentical Latin [commonly called the Douai Bible] 1609
The Holy Bible conteyning the Old Testament, and the New: Newly Translated out of the Originall tongues: & with the Former Translations [commonly called the Authorized Version or the King James Version] 1611

The German Bible
Das Newe Testament Deutzsch [translated by Martin Luther] 1522
Biblia, das ist, die ganze Heilige Schrifft Deudsch [translated by Martin Luther] 1534

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Northrop Frye (essay date 1983)

Frye, Northrop. “Language I.” In The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, pp. 3-30. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.

[In the following excerpt, Frye discusses the linguistic problems inherent in Bible translation, remarking that translated narratives, particularly the English Bibles and Luther's Bible, are texts with rich arrays of new images, idioms, and allusions. According to Frye, these translations in many ways defined modern European culture.]

A sacred book is normally written with at least the concentration of poetry, so that, like poetry, it is closely involved with the conditions of its language. The Koran, for instance, is so interwoven with...

(The entire section is 12433 words.)

Jaroslav Pelikan (essay date 1996)

Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Reformation of the Bible: The Bible of the Reformation: Catalog of the Exhibition by Valerie R. Hotchkiss and David Price, pp. 3-62. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996.

[In the following excerpt, Pelikan discusses Bible translations during the Reformation, identifying the significant continuity between the Renaissance traditions of Christian humanism and the translation efforts of Reformation scholars. Hebrew text in this essay has been replaced by transliterations set within brackets.]


The scholarly foundations for “the Reformation of the Bible” as well as for “the Bible of the...

(The entire section is 28061 words.)

Criticism: The English Bible

George Philip Krapp (essay date 1915)

Krapp, George Philip. “Bible and Prayer Book.” In The Rise of English Literary Prose, pp. 218-70. New York: Oxford University Press, 1915.

[In the following excerpt, Krapp identifies the principal English translations of the Bible as crucial factors in the formation of modern English prose.]


Most Englishmen were doubtless aware of the existence of such a book as the Bible before Wiclif's English version was made, but very few could have known any practical use of it. As an English book, the history of the Bible begins with the third quarter of the fourteenth century. But even this beginning was abortive, and not until Tindale published...

(The entire section is 16726 words.)

Luther A. Weigle (essay date 1949)

Weigle, Luther A. “The Church and the English Vernacular.” In The English New Testament: From Tyndale to the Revised Standard Version, pp. 28-54. New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1949.

[In the excerpt below, Weigle examines sixteenth-century concerns regarding the propriety and practicality of translating the Bible into English.]

The movement for a vernacular English Bible, from Tyndale to the King James Version, was part of the general movement that took the Church of England from the control of the Papacy. The Bible of the Roman church was the Latin Vulgate, and the language of its worship was Latin. Generally speaking the Roman Catholics in sixteenth-century...

(The entire section is 8031 words.)

F. F. Bruce (essay date 1961)

Bruce, F. F. The English Bible: A History of Translations from the Earliest English Versions to the New English Bible, pp. 24-126. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

[In the following excerpt from a work that was originally published in 1961, Bruce traces the history of the English Bible from William Tyndale's translation to the Authorized Version, including translations prepared for English Catholics.]



The three quarters of a century from 1450 to 1525 were momentous years in the history of Europe. Mid-century witnessed the invention of printing—an invention...

(The entire section is 36824 words.)

David Norton (essay date 2000)

Norton, David. A History of the English Bible as Literature, pp. 1-114. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

[In the following excerpt, Norton chronicles the history of English Bible translation, showing how the English Bible, originally perceived as a theological project, eventually assumed the aura and prestige of an exceptional literary work, and also attracted the attention of England's leading scholars, writers, philosophers, and scientists.]



To the early reformers, the Bible was a central part of religion hidden from the people in the occult language of...

(The entire section is 34178 words.)

Criticism: The German Bible

Wilhelm Scherer (essay date 1885)

Scherer, Wilhelm. “Martin Luther.” In A History of German Literature, translated by F. C. Conybeare, edited by F. Max Müller, vol. 1, pp. 272-82. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1903.

[In the following excerpt from an English translation of his 1885 survey of German literature, Scherer identifies Martin Luther's translation of the Bible as the foundation of modern German prose, remarking that the earliest German grammarians based their observations on Luther's idiom.]

It was Martin Luther who created the Reformation in Germany; his mind and his will determined the character of the whole movement. The numerous remarkable men whom the New Learning had formed, and...

(The entire section is 3550 words.)

Ernst Rose (essay date 1960)

Rose, Ernst. “The Reformation.” In A History of German Literature, pp. 95-104. New York: New York University Press, 1969.

[In the following excerpt from his history of German literature, originally published in 1960, Rose discusses the historical context of Martin Luther's work as translator of the Bible, asserting that Luther was the first German translator to work with the complete text of the Bible. According to Rose, Luther successfully rendered the Bible into an idiom which all speakers of German could understand.]

The Church as an actual institution is merely the external organization of the invisible community of believers united by their faith in Christ. It...

(The entire section is 8546 words.)

Jane O. Newman (essay date 1985)

Newman, Jane O. “The Word Made Print: Luther's 1522 New Testament in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Representations (Summer 1985): 95-113.

[In the following essay, Newman discusses the epoch-making role of printing in the dissemination of the German Bible.]

In a letter written in 1556, a Reformed citizen of the Swiss town of Zug describes the events that led to the mass burning of Bibles that occurred in his town in that year.1 The townspeople were divided, according to the letter writer, between those who read “the Gospel, the pure teaching, the word of God” with great enthusiasm for themselves, and those of the “papist” persuasion...

(The entire section is 17556 words.)

Further Reading


Alter, Robert, and Frank Kermode, eds. The Literary Guide to the Bible. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, 678 p.

Collection of essays offering detailed analyses of the Bible, including an extensive discussion of the principal English translations.

Bluhm, Heinz Siegfried. Martin Luther, Creative Translator. St. Louis: Concordia, 1965, 236 p.

An analysis of Luther's translation of the Bible, with particular emphasis on his ability to blend his profound scholarship and literary genius.

Bobrick, Benson. Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It...

(The entire section is 550 words.)