Bible Translation History: English Bible
The translation of the Bible into English has a long and rich history, paralleling closely (and probably helping to advance) the major stages of development of the language itself. Those stages of development are generally known as “Old English,” “Middle English” and “Early Modern English.” Significant steps in the history of the translation of the Bible into vernacular English took place during each of these stages of development of the language—and beyond, down to modern times.
When our story began, English as we know it today did not exist. Various dialects spoken by waves of Germanic invaders to the British Isles predominated. These invaders came in the centuries following the departure of the Romans, whose empire had reached its farthest extent in the southern half of the British Isles. These languages all contributed to the development of the speech which, over the centuries, was to become English.
By the seventh and eighth centuries, the language had evolved to what is now known as Anglo-Saxon, or “Old English.” The Bible and its use was the sole domain of the Church, for two main reasons: one, only the churchmen were literate in any language; two, the only accepted version of the Bible available was the Vulgate—the Latin Bible—which only the educated could read. As a result, the people had to depend on the Church to inform them on what the Scriptures said on matters of faith and practice.
The earliest known attempts to translate the Bible into the vernacular of the time were by a few distinguished churchmen. Aldhelm (c. 640-709) translated the Psalms and some other portions into Old English. As a clue to his possible awareness of the importance of the vernacular in spiritual life, it is said that Aldhelm , noticing an alarming drop in church attendance, would stand at the end of a bridge and sing songs to the people in their language, then teach them once they were gathered to him. The Venerable Bede, or Saint Bede (c. 672-735), translated the entire Gospel of John into Old English. In the 10th century, Abbot Ælfric (c. 955 – c. 1010) paraphrased parts of the Old Testament.
The Norman invasion of 1066 marked the beginning of major changes in the development of the English language. When the Normans came in from northern France and became the ruling class, their French vocabulary began to influence Old English, particularly in domains of the court and government. What evolved from these changes became known as Middle English.
By the 14th century, Middle English predominated as the common language of the people. John Wycliffe, a theologian and Oxford scholar, born in the Yorkshire region, arose in this period as a prominent thinker and reformer.
Wycliffe (mid-1320s – 31 December 1384) was a powerful voice for change in how the Church conducted its affairs and shaped its doctrinal positions. Though he predated Martin Luther by about 200 years, he was driven – like Luther – by the idea that Scripture alone was to guide matters of faith and practice, and opposed official positions of the Church that contradicted Scripture. As a result, Wycliffe has been called the Morningstar of the Reformation by church historians. But what John Wycliffe is more widely known for is his main life’s work, stemming from his convictions about the role of Scripture in the life of the believer: translating the Bible into the Middle English of his time.
The Wyclif Bible, as his translation came to be known, was the first translation of the entire Bible into the vernacular English of the period. Collaborating with others, he translated directly from the Vulgate, the Latin Bible. The work was completed by 1384. His was no mere academic exercise. He also trained cadres of “poor priests” (who became known as the “Lollards”) to travel from place to place preaching the gospel from the Scriptures in the language of the people.
Because of his open opposition to many accepted practices and dogmas of the Church, and because his translation of the Bible was “unauthorized” and viewed as full of errors, Wycliffe came under sharp attack by the Church authorities. However, he enjoyed the political protection and favor of the English ruler of the time and thus never had his life seriously threatened. Some years following his death in 1384, however, the Church declared him to be a heretic and orders were given to burn both his bones and his books. In 1428, under the command of the pope, Wycliffe’s bones were exhumed from his burial place and burned to ashes, which were scattered in a nearby river.
Early Modern English
The next significant stage in the history of the English Bible came when William Tyndale (c. 1494-1536) translated the whole Bible into the vernacular of his time – what historians today call “Early Modern English.” Tyndale was the first English Bible translator to use source texts in the original Biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew – largely bypassing the Church-authorized Vulgate (Latin Bible) as a source text. Tyndale’s work also had broad impact because the development of the printing press allowed his translation to be produced in a high enough volume that many people gained access to the Scriptures for the first time.
Tyndale was convinced that God could be known by man only through the Scriptures, and in order to allow as many people as possible access to the Bible, it must be disseminated widely in the language of the people. He once said, in an argument with a clergyman about the authority of the pope versus that of Scripture, “I defy the pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, I will cause the boy that drives the plow in England to know more of the Scriptures than the pope himself!"
Tyndale’s translation was later to become a major source text for a number of other translations, including the 1611 King James Version. Tyndale’s translation is filled with phrases and expressions now quite familiar to native speakers of English and students of the English Bible: let there be light, my brother’s keeper and the salt of the earth are but a few.
William Tyndale paid dearly for his love of God’s word. Brought under a charge of heresy by the English cardinal for supposed errors in his translation, copies of Tyndale’s New Testament were confiscated and burned, and Tyndale himself was arrested and imprisoned in 1535. After refusing to recant his positions, he was strangled and then burned at the stake in 1536.
The capstone of this period was the translation and publication (in 1611) of the King James Bible. This translation of the Bible has survived the test of time, being the favorite translation among many English speaking Christians even today.
Over the centuries since the publication of the King James Version (KJV), the Bible in English has been re-translated and published in many different versions. Most modern translations, like that of Tyndale, have been based on Greek and Hebrew source texts that are chronologically as close as possible to the originals. Today, around 50 different translations and paraphrases of the Scriptures have been published in English.
Read more: The following article from Bible Study Magazine outlines the translation philosophy and approach behind many of the modern English Bible translations and the relative merits of each: Choosing a Bible Translation (2.19 MB PDF).