Lecture 2: Early Beginnings | Free Online Biblical Library

Lecture 2: Early Beginnings

Course: Biblical Hermeneutics

Lecture: Early Beginnings



The following lecture is provided by Biblical Training. The speaker is Dr. Robert Stein. More information is available at www.BiblicalTraining.org.

I. Early Beginnings to the Present

A. The Making of the English Language

I want to talk about the translation of the Bible into English. We have to remember, of course, that there was no such thing as an English language when the Bible was written. Actually, English is an amalgam of various kinds of dialects and the English language begins roughly in the 5th century when Germanic tribes left the continent of Europe and came to England. The main three tribes were the Angles, from which we get England; the Saxons, these were a Germanic group from the Holstein region; and the Jutes. The Jutes were out of Denmark. If any of you are history buffs, in World War I the greatest naval battle in the world was the Battle of Jutland – the British Naval Forces and the German Navy slugged it out with one another. The Battle of Jutland was off of Denmark, the Jutland Peninsula.

1. Anglo-Saxon dialect

As they came to England, they were not taking vacation cruises, they came to conquer, and they did. As they settled in England, there developed a common dialect out of these Germanic tribes which was called Anglo-Saxon  or Old English. If any of you have studied German, you will note that a lot of the vocabulary in German is very, very similar. I have listed some of them: House, spelled differently, pronounced the same way; shoe; glass of water; book; finger; knee; glass; hand; fire; boat, same; blue; white; road; student. So, lots of words are similar. The reason is very clear. English comes out in part from the German language.     

2. French influence

In the 11th century William the Conqueror, who was a Norman in France,  conquered the English in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings, introduced the long bow at that time and brought magnificent victory to the French. It was kind of a reverse of D-Day in 1944. Here was the Normandy people going over to England, rather than the reverse. That brought then a Norman or French invasion and the influence of the French language came. The French language worked with the Anglo-Saxon. You throw a little Latin in there and put it in a whirring blender, you get English, our English. So that is the way the English language originated.

In the earliest period the Bible of the people of England was the Latin Vulgate. It is the Bible of the Church. Most people could not read, however. In fact, a lot of the priests could not read. So, in effect, people learned their Christianity from the art of the church, the paintings of the church. I don’t know if you have gone to any of the old cathedrals in Europe. Stained glass windows. These were pages of the Bible, so to speak. You would learn your Bible stories through them. The preaching was lousy, look to the windows, and you read your Bible this way, or something like that. You would go to a door in a church and there were carvings of Bible stories all over the door. Anything that was art was primarily associated with the art of the Christian Faith and many people learned their Bible from these things.

There were other ways people learned about the Christian Faith, not only the preaching of the church and so forth. There were groups called troubadours, people who would have ability to sing and go from village to village, and they would sing, and people would learn the Bible. Some troubadour would come to your little town and he would start singing, “Only a boy named David, only a little sling. Only a boy named David, but oh, how he could sing”, and they would sing the story about David. We do the same with our children.  A cool way of learning, especially for people who can’t read or write, like our children at that age. They can learn stories, but they can’t read or write. “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he” and so forth. They would sing the Bible stories and this is the way people would learn them.

B. Early Translations

In the Old English dialect, beginning at around the 600s, the Bible began to be translated into Anglo-Saxon, not English, but Old English, the pre-French influenced English.  Sedman around the 7th century put into poetry and song the Biblical stories. Aldhelm, who died in 709, translated The Psalms into Anglo-Saxon, the Lord’s prayer, the Decalogue. Interesting. Psalms, you need to sing, that is what you sing. The Lord’s prayer, you have to pray together. And the Decalogue, moral instructions, those basic needs of the Church were first dealt with. They didn’t start out translating the book of Leviticus into Anglo-Saxon, but those which were most crucial to the worship of the Church. Then Venerable Bede by his death, the Gospels have been translated into Anglo-Saxon. It is debated as to how much he personally translated, but he was very much responsible for seeing that it was translated. But this is all Old English or Anglo-Saxon.

  1. John Wycliffe

The first real approach to translating the Bible into English would be William of Shoreham, 1325, who translated the various psalms into English, not Old English, but English. The first major name, however, who comes across in the history of the English Bible is a man named John Wycliffe. This is the Old English kind of spelling. If you look at a Bible back in the 1600, 1700, they will spell it in this manner. John Wycliffe produced the first Bible in the English language in 1382. He really was a kind of pre-Luther/Calvin reformer. He convinced a lot of people who were priestly and these priests would go around sharing the Bible and the message of the Bible with other people. He did not know Greek or Hebrew, so what he did was to translate the Bible from the language he did know which it was in, and that was the Latin Vulgate. So the Wycliffe translation was a translation of the Vulgate, which was a translation of the Greek and Hebrew. You say, that’s  not real good, you should go from the Greek and the Hebrew. If Wycliffe were here, he would say, “What do you want, nothing? Or from the Vulgate”. The answer is sure, anything, we don’t have anything, so the Vulgate was really fine.

As people began to hear the Scriptures read, they began to notice a lot of things which caused problems and that is, that the character of the clergy and a lot of the political leaders did not match what they were reading in the Bible, and they became critical of the church. They became critical of their political leaders as well. The result was that the ecclesiastic  or similar authorities began to cramp out on this and said, “Let’s put an end to this” and by 1414, it then became a capital offense to be found reading the Bible in the English language. For just reading the Bible in the English language,  you could get executed. I wonder how many people in our churches would be reading the Bible if that was the alternative. But they did that.

With Wycliffe it was too late because Wycliffe died in 1384, some 30 years earlier; so what they did was to dig up his body and then they burned his bones at the stake. We laugh at that, but there has been a recent survey among translators and well over 98% said this is the way they prefer. This translation occurs before the printing press. So they are handwritten copies and there are handwritten sections of the Bible that the Lollards were selling. They were like Bible book sellers who went around selling passages and teaching from those passages.  The result was that if you were going to start a mission society whose basic goal was to translate the Bible into the language of the people and you were living in and coming out of the English-speaking world, you might think of the name Wycliffe Bible Translators, because he was the first to really begin the translation of the Bible into English. He did the whole Bible that way.

2. William Tyndale

The next person who comes along comes after the printing press. His name is William Tyndale. He produces the first printed New Testament. Remember, Wycliffe has already done the whole Bible, but it is handwritten. This is the first printed New Testament, it appears in 1526. It was not published in England because there was opposition to this. It was printed in Worms, Germany, the place where the reformation was centered and very active. He did something in translating the New Testament that revealed right away that he was a Luther supporter. Tactically, that might not have been a wise thing to do because Henry VIII, the King of England, had received a medal from the Pope for resisting the Lutheran doctrine in England. During a meeting later on, on opening his New Testament, he noticed there was kind of a Lutheran translation. It was evident because in the introduction, the preface, he used the term, “justification” and talked about the need for justification. He used other words that were not the Church’s words. He used the word, “repentance” instead of “doing penance”. He used the word, “congregation” instead of “church”. He used the word, “elder” rather than “priest”. But I think the clearest indication of all was his order of the New Testament. Luther has an unusual order in his New Testament. The last four books of the Lutheran New Testament are not 1, 2,  3 John, Jude, Revelation like we have, but Hebrews, James, Jude, Revelation. Very unusual order.  I think it partly involved his evaluation of those books, he didn’t like some of them, James especially, and Revelation and the like.

When the Tyndale New Testament came out, everybody knew this guy is pro-Luther because his order is the same. He also translated large parts of the Old Testament. Some were destroyed, some were burned as he was fleeing; and the result was that he never completely finished that. There was a lot of opposition to this and the result was that they sought to destroy the various new testaments. There is some irony in this because the Church would go about trying to collect Lutheran New Testaments and some of the merchants were approached and told, “We can get some of these New Testaments for you, we will collect them.” They were actually some supporters of Tyndale; so they were saying, “We can sell them, make profit and make more”. So they were selling to some of the clergy these New Testaments, making profit so they could make even more New Testaments and sell them this way.

The attempt to destroy the Tyndale New Testament was really very effective. There were something like 18,000 printed New Testaments. Only two still remain, one in the British Library in London and the other in the Baptist Bible College in London. Listen to how some of the religious leaders oppose this. The Bishop of London fumed against the maintainers of Luther’s sect that have craftily translated the New Testament into our English language. Cardinal Wolsey assured the people that no burnt offering could be more pleasing to Almighty God than the burning of a Tyndale New Testament. Another man by the name of Cochlea says, “The New Testament translated into the Vulgate tongue, meaning the common everyday language, is in truth the food of death, the fuel of sin, the veil of malice, the pretext of false liberty, the protection of disobedience, the corruption of discipline, the depravity of morals, the termination of concord, the death of honesty, the wellspring of vices, the disease of virtues, the instigation of rebellion,  the milk of pride, the nourishment of contempt, the death of peace, and destruction of charity, the enemy of unity, the murderer of truth. If you read very carefully between the lines, you get the impression he didn’t like it very much. So there was this attempt to wipe out the Tyndale New Testaments. Tyndale himself was living at the time in Antwerp, Belgium, which was an open city, neither Catholic nor Protestant. He was kidnapped by followers of Henry VIII and in 1536 in the little town named Vilvoorde outside of Brussels, he was burned at the stake. His last words were, “Lord, open the eyes of the King of England.” If someone were about to strangle me or burn me, I don’t know if I would say that. I might have some other choice words. Who knows. God does promise that at such times the Spirit will be present and we will be able to do things like Stephen does: “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge” as he is being stoned, and blessed rather than cursed. A good example.

Tyndale was an excellent translator. He had a mastery of the Greek and Hebrew languages. He not only knew the languages,  the original languages, but he had a tremendous ability to translate that into good English. You say, “When I look at Tyndale’s writing, it sounds very archaic”. It wasn’t archaic in 1530, it was very modern. When the King James version is later translated in 1611, with regard to the New Testament, 90% of our King James version is simply Tyndale. He did a masterful, masterful job. A great translator. A great martyr of the Faith.

3. Miles Coverdale

When he dies, his work is followed by a number of his coworkers. For instance, Miles Coverdale was one of his disciples and he completes and publishes a complete printed English Bible. Pay attention, this is the first printed Bible in completion.  Wycliffe had a Bible, but it was handwritten. This is the first printed Bible in the English language in completion. He had been a coworker with Tyndale. He did not know Greek or Hebrew, however. What he did was some minor revisions of the New Testament and he did the Old Testament by taking that which Tyndale himself had already done and then the parts that he had to do for himself, he translated from the Latin Vulgate and from Luther’s German. The result was to come out with a Bible. He also was the first person up to that time who separated the books of the Apocrypha from the Old Testament.  If you come from a Roman Catholic background, the books of the Apocrypha, 1, 2 Maccabbees,  Tobit, Judith, are intermingled in the Old Testament. The reformers had to wrestle with the issue, what books belong in our Bible? We will talk more about that at the end of the semester when we talk about the canon of Scripture: Which books measure up to the canon of Scripture. They concluded for various reasons we will discuss then. The Apocrypha did not measure up  and were not to be understood as Scripture. So they separated them out of the Old Testament, put them in between the Old Testament and the New Testament.

English translations continued to have them in the Bible, between the Old and the New Testaments, indicating they were separate from those two, until sometime around the 1700s. Then there was a large, massive attempt in England to produce cheap Bibles so that everybody in England could read and have their own Bible. One way you could make it cheaper was to leave out the Apocrypha. Since they did not think this was part of Scripture, they did so from then on, there was a tendency not to have them in the Bible.

4.  Thomas Matthew (John Rogers)

Coverdale mostly revised the work of Tyndale in the New Testament. Another translator who was a coworker with Tyndale was a man by the name of John Rogers, who produced the Matthew Bible, published in 1537. Why did he call it the Matthew Bible? John Rogers knew what happened to Tyndale, and he said, “Let them burn at the stake any Thomas Matthew they can find, just leave John Rogers alone”. Unfortunately, we will find that they found who he was, and he too was martyred for the Faith. This was a revision of Tyndale for the most part. He used Coverdale for those areas that Tyndale did not translate. There is an irony here in that in 1537 both Matthew’s translation and Coverdale’s were licensed by Henry VIII. In other words, they could be printed and sold in England, and this is only one year after the martyrdom of Tyndale. In 1555 Rogers was burned at the stake by Mary Tudor.

5. Richard Taverner

Another translation, the Taverner. One comes out in 1539, a revision of Matthew’s Bible. All of these translations that we talk about will be revisions of Tyndale’s. They all come from that central root, that central stem, Tyndale’s work. Most of them always started out with the presupposition, “Unless it’s broke, let’s not try to fix it; is there any reason we should change Tyndale.” If they were working on say, Coverdale’s translation, they would say, “Is there any reason to change Coverdale?” which of course was Tyndale. So they keep on going back to the original parent, Tyndale.

6. The Great Bible

The Great Bible, named for its size. I have listed here, its size was 15 inches by 9 inches. I have seen elsewhere it was 16.5 inches by 11 inches, which may be whether you leave out the blank margin around, or not. Whatever it was, it was not your pocket New Testament for witnessing on street corners. This was a chained Bible in the pulpit. This is the first authorized version. It is not THE authorized version. It was the first one authorized. But when we talk about THE authorized version, we are talking about the King James authorized version of 1611. This was authorized before by Henry VIII. He had assistance, support from Thomas Cromwell and Coverdale. What they did was to revise the Matthew Bible. Published in 1539, it was the official Bible of Henry VIII and his reign.

To get authorized, they did some things that would make it more palatable to the clergy and to political leadership. One was by going back to the traditional order of the New Testament books at the end. So they reversed the order and instead of following Luther, they followed the other ones before. It was also required that there be no footnotes in this Bible. You say, what is wrong with footnotes? I’ll show you what is wrong with some footnotes shortly. These are not the kind of footnotes you think of. A 1-cubit footnote (a cubit is about 18 inches) or 1 talent (a talent weighed this much). That is not what we mean by footnotes. In the Geneva Bible, which comes later, here are some of the kind of footnotes you get: “Here is wisdom. Let him that hath wit count the number of the beast, which is the  number of a man, his number is 600, three-score and 6.” Footnote: “Such as may be understood by man’s reason, for about 660 years after this revelation, the Pope or antichrist began to be manifested in the world.” These are the kind of notes we’re talking about. You have another one: “There followed another angel saying, “It is fallen, it is fallen, Babylon the great city”: “Signifying Rome, for as much as the vices which were in Babylon are found in Rome in greater abundance, as persecution of the Church, etc.” One or two more: “There are spirits of devils working miracles to go unto the kings of all the earth.” Footnote: “For all the kings’ courts, the Pope has had his ambassadors to hinder the work of the kingdom of Christ”. If you are a king, you didn’t come out too well in these things, either, princes and the like. So these were not what we mean by the normal notes of the Bible. And needless to say, if you were a king, you don’t want notes. So he did not allow any notes in the Bible.

I’ll add a little parenthesis here that Mary Tudor or “Bloody Mary” as she was called,  comes to the throne and begins a period of persecution. Let me just give a little history.  It might be nice to just note these dates.  Henry VIII died in 1545. At the end of his life he had made England an Anglican or Protestant nation. I wish we could say that he had very good motives, but the big issue was that the Pope would not let him divorce his wives. He probably should have because he killed some of them as a result of that. There became a clash between Papal authority and Henry VIII over moral issues,  in which somebody  had better be right. He did make a break with the Papacy. Also, since the Bible is the strength of the reformers in the Reformation, he wants a great Bible, so that the people can read it. He dies in 1545 and he is succeeded by Edward VI, who dies in 1553. For eight years Edward VI reigns and he is also strongly Protestant in orientation. When he dies Mary Tudor becomes queen and she wants to undo the Reformation. She wants to make England Catholic once again. She begins persecuting the reformers there, some 300 of them are put to death. Bible translations are burned and destroyed, all but one, the Great Bible. Why didn’t she try to destroy the Great Bible? It was authorized by a king. If kings make mistakes,  queens make mistakes.  So, leave those things alone.  So, that was not touched.

Coverdale flees to Europe. He would have been martyred by Mary Tudor, except that the King of Denmark interceded on his behalf, and thus he escaped that. She marries Phillip II of Spain and in 1558 the people of England chop her head off. They did not want to go Catholic and above all, do you know how England and Spain got along? They were great rivals and 30 years later you have the Spanish Armada, which is not a cruise line, trying to invade England, so that was too much and she is put to death. In 1558 Queen Elizabeth takes the throne and she reigns until 1603, some 48 years, strongly affirming the Reformation and after Mary Tudor’s death, the fate of England as far as religion is concerned, Protestant or Catholic, is settled in the Protestant camp.

7. Geneva Bible

When Coverdale flees to England under the reign of Mary Tudor, he goes to Geneva and there he produces what is known as the Geneva Bible. This was the revision of the Great Bible and it is the first Bible in the English language that has verses, verse divisions. 1560 is the first time we have verses in our English Bible. The Geneva Bible was rather Calvinistic in its emphasis, but let me comment again. Up to 1560, no English Bible has verse divisions in it. If you look at some of Luther’s writings, he doesn’t say, “In Galations 3:23 we find…”. He says, “Towards the end of Galations chapter 3 we find…” Chapters are there, but not verses. The first person who begins this is a printer named Robert Stephanus (aka., Robert Estienne) in 1551. He produces a Greek New Testament in which he makes verse divisions. Chapters are there, now he versifies them. I remember a professor of mine, Bruce Metzger, saying that much of his work was done on horseback as he was riding through France and sometimes the horse went up and the pen went down at inopportune places. We are stuck with them. We will never change verses. How would you ever have a new versification and a commentary where the verses are different, etc. It would be absolute chaos.

Even if they are not perfect, it is much easier to try to find a verse in Psalm 119 if it is numbered.  So it became very helpful. This is the first one. It was a very popular translation in Queen Elizabeth’s reign. It had over 70 different editions. The people chose this. They chose this over the Greek Bible that was the people’s Bible. Sometimes this is known as the “breeches Bible” because in Genesis 3 when the Lord saw that Adam and Eve were naked, they translated, “He made them breeches”, so it has been called “the breeches Bible”.

8. The Bishop’s Bible

The bishops in England were not happy with the Geneva Bible. First of all, it was too Calvinistic. This is Geneva, where Calvin was located. By osmosis, it would be Calvinistic there. They knew that there had to be some sort of a new translation because they hoped that instead of having two Bibles, the one in the church, the Great Bible, and the one of the people, the Geneva Bible, they could produce one that would be a compromise that everyone would accept. So they produced the Bishop’s Bible, named because most of the people were either already bishops when they were in the translation process, or later became them.

9. The King James Version

The greatest and most famous translation of the Bible in the English-speaking world that ever was or ever will be takes place beginning in 1604. The new king, King James I orders that a new translation be made, based on the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, that would take the place of all of the Bibles up to that time. It would be one without notes. Forty-seven of the very best scholars in the Nation of England were divided into six panels, three of them for the Old Testament, two for the New, one for the Apocrypha, and afterwards a panel of two from each of those panels would become the final committee that would go over the work and come out with a final product.

A lot of translation proceeds today along the same lines. Only today, after those 12 have finished with it, they send it off to English stylists, who then work it over; and then it goes back to that committee again because stylists don’t know Greek and they may have taken liberties with the language that cause them no longer to be faithful to the translation, where you have to proofread that again.

In King James’ day the literary men of their day were the scholars of the church. So you didn’t need stylists in this way. This was then to supersede all other English translations.  It is estimated that 90% of the New Testament is simply Tyndale.

Until 1881, when there was a revision of this, the only other change for the King James version took place in 1769. It was a major change in one sense, but it was insignificant in another. It was just a change in spellings. The spellings from the Old English. Remember how I showed you Wycliffe with the double “ffe” at the end, to the more modern English, which would simply have “if”. There were lots of spellings of that nature and they were all changed in 1769. All of these are from the same family. All of them have the same root, that of Tyndale.

10. The Douay-Rheims Version

If you are a Roman Catholic, you have a problem. If you want to read the Bible in the English language, what do you read? Do you read the Geneva Bible? I showed you some of the notes on that one. The Great Bible has no notes, but you can’t even carry the thing, it is so heavy. So eventually they decided to have their own Bible and this was produced in Douay, France, the Old Testament and that is how it got the name Douay Version. The New Testament was produced mostly in Rheims, France and sometimes they talk about the Rheims New Testament. The major difference here is that it is based not on Greek and Hebrew text, but on the Latin Vulgate. This is due to the fact that in the Council of Trent in 1546, a counter conference to oppose what the Reformers were doing, it was decided that it would not be the Greek and Hebrew text for the final authority, but the Latin Vulgate. So this was the authority for the text and it remained pretty much that way among Catholic translators until the 20th century, modern Roman Catholic scholars don’t follow that, although the Council of Trent did. Published in 1609, 1610. The present one that people would use in the Roman Catholic Church would be a revision in 1749. It became the authorized translation of the Roman Catholic Church.

Look for a minute at something of a chart as to the various translations:  The influence of Tyndale. From Tyndale you have Coverdale, the Matthew, the Greek Bible comes out of Matthew, which goes back to Tyndale. The Taverner uses both Tyndale and Matthew. The Geneva goes back to Matthew and Tyndale. The Great Bible. The Bishop’s Bible. The King James. The English Revised of 1881. The American Revised of 1901. The Revised Standard Version of 1952. The New Revised. The American Standard. The New American Standard Version; they wouldn’t use the word revised, they used the updated New American Standard Version. All of these ultimately come out of the seed of Tyndale, a wonderful translator, a great gift to the Church.

C. Modern Versions

Let me talk a little about some of the translations. In 1881 we had the first revision of the King James. It was the English Revised Version, or The Revised Version, for short. The English invited some American scholars to be part of that revision. But they had the promise that they would not come up with their own revision for at least 20 years. Twenty years, bingo! The American Standard Version. In 1952 a Revised Standard Version is completed,  The RSV in 1946 and the revision in 1962 of that and 1970, there have been several revisions of these.  One of the things about modern translation is that they are constantly being revised, so that every 10, 15 years there are small changes in them. Germans still use the Luther translation. What edition is it? 26th, 27th, 28th, somewhere up there. So, there have been 26, 28 times when changes were made and it is so gradual, you don’t have this traumatic experience, but after 340 years you have changes like the RSV make, and it is too earth-shattering.  This is being done regularly. The NIV has gone through three, four, five changes already. The Living Translation that came out 10 years ago, they are working on a revision of that again, an updating of it.

One of the things that is interesting is that when the King James Version came out, I read a letter of one of the Biblical scholars in England, castigating it, that it lost the beauty of the Geneva Bible. And I thought, everything in this letter sounds like the kind of thing that happened in 1952 when the RSV came out. All you could have done is just take this letter and just changed names and you wouldn’t have to change anything, it was the same kind of thing. We don’t like change and that is why I think you want to make translations and revise them regularly, so you don’t have these traumatic exchanges. The New American Standard Version came out in 1960. The Berkeley was an evangelical one that was an attempt to be an option to the Revised Standard Version. The New American Standard in 1963. The Jerusalem Bible, this came out in 1966, it was originally a French translation; but it was so successful that it was translated into English. The new English Bible, a completely new translation from scratch. The Roman Catholic New American Bible in 1971. The New International  in 1978. The new King James, 1982. The New Revised Standard Version in 1989. The Revised English Bible, a revision of the new English Bible, etc.

There are so many different translations coming out, it is simply impossible to stay on top of them. It is incredible how much is coming out. I have had quite a few translations, but I will go broke if I try to keep up with every one. I have some real problems with all the translations that are coming out. The problem is simply this: It is not accidental that there are big bucks in English translations of the Bible, a lot of money to be made. In a world in which there are all sorts of languages that don’t have any part of the Bible in their language, do we need dozens and dozens of translations all of the time coming out? I don’t know. I have real questions on that.