Scripture: “By a man came death, and by a man came resurrection from death.  For as in Adam all die, even so by Christ shall be made alive.” Tyndale’s version of 1Cor 15:21-22

Recap of week one:

  • Survey Q1: What version of the Bible do you use primarily for study at home? ESV-4  KJV-1  NKJV-5  NASB-5  NIV-24  RSV-2  NRSV-1 Phillips-1 Amer.Cath.-1
  • Survey Q2: In your opinion, what is the most important factor in selecting a version of the Bible?  Accuracy (faithfulness to original)-23  Readability (easy to understand)-7 
  • Purpose/Goals of this study (refer to outline)
  • Jerome and role of Vulgate
  • New Biblical scholarship (Erasmus et al)
  • Biblical manuscripts
    • Textus Receptus
    • Textual criticism

Some books of importance for this week’s study:

  • Biography of William Tyndale by David Daniell
  • The Word of God in English by Leland Ryken
  • In the Beginning: the Story of the King James Bible and How it Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture by Alister McGrath
  • A Literary Hx of the Bible by Geddes MacGregor

This week we will be looking at the pioneering translation work in the first half of the 16th century, and some of the challenges to vernacular translation prior to, and during, that early Reformation period.  

In the history of translation of the Bible into English, there have been two dynamic periods of activity: from Tyndale to the Authorized Version  (c.1520-1609), and the latter half of the 20th century.    We have time today to consider only the early part of the first dynamic period.  

Principles of Bible translation

Before proceeding with a more or less chronological survey of the major English  translations, it behooves us to broach briefly some of the basic principles of Bible translation that have been at play throughout history in all translations of the Bible.  The fundamental question is this: What governs, or ought to govern, translators as they work from the original languages of the Bible to the receptor language (English in our case)? 

I would argue that intuitively Christians know what is most important in Bible translation, and that is accuracy.  By accuracy is meant faithfulness to the Biblical texts.  Not surprisingly, the majority of you identified this as “the most important factor in selecting a version of the Bible.” (Q2 above)  

Also important is readability; i.e., does the translation make sense in the receptor language?  Although our topic is the history of English Bible translation, these principles hold for all vernacular translations, so allow me to share Martin Luther’s take on the importance of readability.  This from his “Open Letter on Translating” (1530), which is an apologetic for his translation of Romans 3: “We do not have to ask about the literal Latin…Rather we must ask the mother in the home, the children on the street, the common person in the market about this.  We must be guided by their tongue, the manner of their speech, and do our translating accordingly.  Then they will understand it and recognize that we are speaking German to them.” (underline my own).

Translations may contain dignified language (formal) or colloquialisms (informal), or both, and still be readable. As an example of formal, but easy to understand, language, consider William Tyndale’s treatment of the Beatitudes in the gospel of Matthew:

Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.  Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.  Blessed are they which hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they shall be filled.

You might recognize this language, for it found its way verbatim into the King James translation almost a century later.1  Most modern translations have tampered little with this wording, which has stood the test of time.  This is an example of dignified, stylistically elegant language that is pleasant to the ear and easy to understand.  It is also a faithful rendering of the original Greek text. 

Tyndale was not adverse to the use of colloquialism, however.  As Ryken comments, “there is a side of Tyndale that likes to indulge in the colloquial and daring.  Thus in Tyndale’s handling (of the Genesis account), the serpent says to Eve, “Tush, he shall not die,” Joseph “was a luckie felowe,” Pharaoh’s “jolly captains” drowned in the Red Sea, and Jesus told his disciples to “babble not much” when they pray.”2

The Protestant translations that were produced during the Reformation and Elizabethan periods were, without exception, characterized by a commitment to both accuracy and readability.   The Reformation pioneers of vernacular translation, namely Luther and Tyndale,  showed the way, and others followed their examples.

Dichotomies in translation (Ryken)

Ryken, in his book The Word of God in English, discusses three poles, or dichotomies, that have been present from the beginning of Bible translation work.  He identifies these as “Literal vs Dynamic”, “Formal language vs Colloquialism” and “Continuity and Tradition vs Innovation and Originality”.3  

First dichotomy (Literal vs Dynamic):  “Literal” in this context does not mean a strict word-for-word construction that yields an awkward, unreadable translation, but rather an “essentially literal” approach in which the original words and phrases in the Biblical texts are studied carefully, and then translated accurately, with respect to the integrity of the original languages as well as the rules and “rhythm” of the receptor language.  

“Dynamic” in this context refers to an emphasis on translating the meaning of the text rather than the exact words.   This is frequently referred to as a “thought-for-thought” approach to translation, rather than “word-for-word”.   I will have more to say later about these different approaches as we consider specific versions of the English Bible, and the translational principles underlying them. 

Second dichotomy (formal language vs colloquialisms): We have seen examples of “formal language” and “colloquialism” in Tyndale.  This is straight forward, I believe.   As for the third dichotomy—Continuity and Tradition vs Innovation and Originality—I will have more to say about this in later weeks.  

Ryken argues that with each dichotomy, both poles have been at play throughout the history of English translations, however at different times the continuum has favored one pole over the other.   For almost four and a half centuries, the pendulum tended  to the left in these dichotomies.  In this sense one can speak of the “Tyndale-Authorized Version tradition” that emphasized a literal approach and formal language in translation.  Ryken identifies a major shift occurring around the middle of the 20th century, when the pendulum swung to the right in these dichotomies, with new emphasis on the principle of “dynamic equivalence”, colloquialism (easy to read versions), and innovation and originality (consumer appeals—niche Bibles).  With regard to innovation and originality, Ryken astutely observes that “the preferred name for new translations until the mid-twentieth century was revised.  The whole climate changes around 1970.  To understand which way the wind was now blowing, all we need to do is look at the names of versions as they appeared: New American Standard Bible, New Century Version, New English Bible, New International Version, New KJV, New Living Translation, New RSV.  The fashionable term is now new.”4

Well, the above is all by way of background.  Now let’s resume the details of the actual history of translation. 

The silent century in England

During the latter half of the 15th century, several vernacular translations of the Bible were made throughout Europe, in several different languages, but English was not among them.  All that existed of the Bible in English during this period were hand-copied Wycliffe bibles, possession of which constituted a crime.

It is one of the ironies of church history that among Europeans, the English were the first to have a complete Bible in their native tongue, but one of the last to receive a complete printed English Bible.   Why was this?

Oxford Convocation of 1408

The reason for this is very simple: Although the tools were providentially in place for the work of translation of the Bible into English, such scholarly activity had been officially banned by order of the Oxford Convocation in 1408.  For one to engage in a vernacular translation of the Bible without authority from a bishop was to invoke the wrath of church officials, and thereby risk excommunication and even death on charges of heresy.5

Persecution of Reformers

In our first session I briefly mentioned the pioneer English translator, John Wycliffe, however I said nothing about his final earthly disposition.  Several years after his natural death by a stroke, the Council of Constance in 1415 declared his works heretical, and ordered that his remains be exhumed and burned.  The council was actually considering charges against John Hus, the Bohemian reformer, whose teachings were believed to be based on those of the deceased Wycliffe.  Huss was summoned to the church council in Switzerland on the pretext of having an opportunity to defend his teachings, and with the promise of personal protection.  Once in Constance, however, by order of the bishop he was thrown into a putrid jail, to await a mockery of a church trial, and ultimately a martyr’s death (read ch. 18 of Hannula’s Trial & Triumph for details)

 The order of the church council regarding Wycliffe was not carried out until 1428 when Pope Martin V ordered that Wycliffe’s body be exhumed, burned  and the ashes were strewn into the river near Lutterworth where he had died in 1384.6  It would not be for another century—1534 to be exact—that the official ban on the production of English bibles would be lifted.  In that year the government of Henry VIII in England broke with the papacy, and thus the door of vernacular translation which had been shut for so many years was thrown open.

It should be noted that one of Wycliffe’s close associates, John Purvey, continued the work  of translation by producing a revision of Wycliffe’s Bible in 1388.  “Within less than a century, Purvey’s revision had replaced the original Wycliffe Bible.”7  Revisions of particular translations became increasingly popular over time.  In some cases, the original translator(s) performed the revision; in other cases, the work fell to others several years later. 

Printing Press

Two developments allowed for the flourishing of translations into the vernaculars of Europe during the latter half of the 15th century and following.  First, the invention of the printing press, and second, the renewed scholarly interest in ancient Biblical languages which resulted in the publication of critical texts of the Bible from which translators could work (recall our previous discussion of Erasmus). 

Q1: What was the first book to come off a printing press with movable type?
A1: The Gutenberg Bible (aka the “42-line Bible” because of its format)
Q2:  Which translation of the Bible first came off this press? 
A2:  The Vulgate, Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible.  The printing press was designed by Johan Gutenberg in Mainz, Germany.  200 Gutenberg Bibles were printed in the original run, 47 of which have survived to the present day. 

Enter Tyndale

With new printing technology in place, and new biblical scholarship on the rise, all that was needed for the production of  an English translation of the Bible from the original languages was the right individual for the job, and an environment conducive to carrying out the task.   Tyndale was that man.  Tyndale was a scholarly giant with great linguistic skills, much like Jerome many centuries earlier.  Tyndale’s classical education equipped him to be an expert in the biblical languages.   Hebrew, the language of the Jewish Scriptures, was scarcely known and taught in England at the beginning of the 16th century.   Most Gentiles who had any knowledge of what is commonly referred to as the Old Testament came to that knowledge via the Septuagint.  Very few English scholars could read the Scriptures in Hebrew.   Tyndale was the first to translate anything from Hebrew into English. 

Listen to Tyndale in his famous work “The Obedience of a Christian Man”.  Here he  justifies an English translation of the Bible by referencing Jerome: “St. Jerome also translated the bible into his mother tongue (Latin).  Why may not we also?  They will say it cannot be translated into our tongue it is so rude.  It is not so rude as they are false liars.  For the Greek tongue agreeth more with the English than with the Latin.  And the properties of the Hebrew tongue agreeth a thousand times more with the English than with the Latin.”8

Tyndale, in addition to having a command of the original Bible languages, was also very much in command of the rapidly developing English language, which by this time was no longer the Middle English of Wycliffe’s day.  For us today to read a passage from Wycliffe’s Bible is very difficult, unless you happen to be a student of Middle English (remember Chaucer in high school?)  Not so with Tyndale’s Bible.  Yes, it contains some archaic words and odd spellings, but apart from these obvious differences, we recognize Tyndale’s English as not that different from our own.  To give you a better idea of the modernity of Tyndale, consider the fact that approximately 80% of  subsequent English translations of the Bible are based on Tyndale’s translation. 

But I’m getting ahead of the story.  How exactly did Tyndale’s translation come to be? 
Tyndale, like Wycliff before him, was an Oxford-trained theologian.  Tyndale, no doubt, was well aware that “Oxford had condemned as a heretic its own Wycliff, more than a century before for, among other things, giving the people a vernacular Bible.”9  He was also aware of the standing prohibition against vernacular translations.   This did not dissuade him pursuing his passion, which was to deliver to the people the Bible in their own language.  Those of you who listened to Elder Pribble’s class on the early Reformers will recall his description of the unlearned state of the clergy during this time.  Tyndale believed that the priests in England of his day were largely uneducated, unable to expound Scripture to the laity, whose needs were desperate.10   Desperate, yes, and sadly lagging behind the European continent in vernacular translations, as we have seen. 

To begin the daunting task of translating the entire Bible, Tyndale moved to London in 1522 and sought out an ecclesiastical patron.  Financial support was needed, of course, but so, too, was official sanction that had to come from a bishop (recall the Oxford Convocation of 1408).  Tyndale was hopeful that he had identified the right person in Bishop Tunstall, who had assisted Erasmus in his second critical edition of the Greek NT. 
The Bishop was hospitable but not encouraging.  “Room enough was there in my Lord’s house for belly-cheer; but none to translate the New Testament.”11

Suffice it to say that this patronage, as ideal as it seemed at the outset, did not materialize, and Tyndale became disillusioned.  He was forced to concede that if his translation was to happen, it would not happen in England.  Tyndale later spoke of the circumstances that drove him from England: “And so in London I abode almost a year…and understood at the last not only that there was no room in my lord of London’s palace to translate the NT, but also that there was no place in all England, as experience doth now openly declare.”12

Tyndale moved to Germany, we he began in earnest the task of translation.  It is likely that he had contact with Luther at Wittenberg.  We haven’t time to detail the events of his life and work in Europe; suffice it to say that by 1526 he had finished the NT, which was first published in Worms, Germany.   Copies were smuggled down the Rhine River in bales of cloth, and eventually made their way to England.13

Not surprisingly, the appearance of this Bible in England met with resounding opposition from the ecclesiastical authorities, not the least of which was Cardinal Wolsey.  Those of less scholarly abilities and integrity leveled charges of heresy against Tyndale, claiming that his translation contained multiple errors.  For example, his use of the word “repent”.14  In the Vulgate this is translated poenitentiam agite, which the church officials expected to be translated “do penance”. (Remember,Tyndale was translating from the Greek, not Latin, and so he felt no compunction to follow the Vulgate.) 

He then took up the task of translating the Old Testament.  He worked shrewdly and surreptitiously to avoid arrest.  Copies of his manuscripts were moved periodically to avoid detection and destruction.  In addition to working on the OT translation, he did some revisions of his NT translation, the last revision coming in 1534. 

Despite his best efforts at remaining “underground”, so to speak, eventually he was betrayed in Judas fashion by a man named Henry Phillips.  He was placed under arrest by officers of the Emperor Charles V, who was pledged to destroy the Pope’s enemies.15  He was incarcerated for 18 months before standing trial.  A letter of his during this captivity survives in the British Museum.  In it he laments the wretched conditions of the prison and appeals for a warmer cap and other clothing: “I suffer extremely from cold in the head, being afflicted with a perpetual catarrh, which is considerable increased in the cell; also a piece of cloth, to patch my leggings.  My overcoat has been worn out.  My shirts also are worn out.  I also wish his [the jailer’s] permission to have a candle in the evening; for it is wearisome to sit alone in the dark.” 

Tyndale was led to the stake on Oct. 6, 1536, where, after uttering his final prayer, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes,” he was strangled and his body burned.  At the time of his death, his OT translation was completed as far as II Chronicles. 

Coverdale Bible

It fell to Miles Coverdale, a co-worker of Tyndale on the continent,  to publish the remainder of the OT.  Coverdale’s edition of the Bible was not really a new translation, but rather a compilation of earlier translations, principally that of Tyndale. In another irony of church history, one year before Tyndale was martyred, the first complete English translation of the Bible was printed in Germany and distributed in England, with little opposition.  The Coverdale Bible was dedicated to the royal family, but this fact alone cannot explain its relative lack of opposition in the homeland.  By this time the political winds were changing, and the Reformation was picking up steam. 

A couple points to be made about the Coverdale Bible:  First, it was what we would consider today “politically correct”.  Coverdale’s Dedicatory Epistle was “couched in polite language” toward the rulers of England.16  Despite its flowery dedication to the king and queen, it was not an authorized version, which is to say that it was not commissioned and approved by ecclesiastical or civil authorities.  Later we will see examples of authorized versions, the most famous being the Authorized Version of 1611 (better known today as the King James version). 

Second, the publication of the Coverdale Bible “marks the first time that the books of the Apocrypha were separated from the other Old Testament books and printed by themselves as an appendix to the Old Testament—a precedent followed by English Protestant Bibles ever since (insofar as they include the Apocrypha at all).”17 

Matthew’s Bible (1537)

  • “Thomas Matthew” was pen name (pseudonym) for John Roger, friend of Tyndale (also martyred, although later under reign of Queen Mary).
  • This was a revision of translations of Tyndale and Coverdale.
  • The first “authorized version” in England (“set forth with the kinges most gracious lycence”)
  • The first English concordance was based on Matthew’s Bible

The Great Bible (1539)

  • so named for its large size
  • a revision of Matthew’s Bible, carried out by Coverdale under authority of Thomas Cromwell, Lord Chancellor of England
  • Title page to 1540 edition: “This is the Byble appoynted to the use of the churches”
  • Legacy: it became the basis for the Bible passages that appeared in 1549 Book of Common Prayer (and subsequent versions of Anglican Prayer Book)

Next time: the Apocrypha, the Geneva Bible, and (if time permits) intro to Authorized Version.


1 Ryken, p. 58

2 Ibid, pp.58-59

3 Ibid, pp.55-63

4 Ryken, p.61

5 In 1408, at Oxford, Convocation had passed a constitution forbidding any man, under pain of the “greater excommunication,” to translate any part of the Bible into English without authority from a bishop.” MacGregor, p.111

6 Tennyson compared the village of Lutterworth to that of Bethlehem, on the ground that if Christ, the Word of God, was born at Bethlehem, the Word of Life was born again at Lutterworth. 

7 Comfort, Essential Guide to Bible Versions, p.136

8 Daniell, William Tyndale: A Biography, p.229

9 Daniell, p.31

10 Daniell, p. 83

11 MacGregor, p.112

12 Daniell, p. 92

13 only two copies of Tyndale’s NT survive, one of which is in the British Library

w in the Greek

15 MacGregor, p. 118

16 MacGregor, p.123

17 Metzger, p.61