Vernacular Bibles

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(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 1,196 words.)