Medieval translations of the Bible before King James

St Therese’s day mass: priest calls Jesus “Master of Vineyard” (Maitre de la Vigne). Great definition, never heard that before. — Paulo Coelho

Crist seith that the gospel be prechid in al the world … Holi writ is the scripture of pupilis for it is maad that alle pupils shulden knowe it. — John Wycliffe

The first known reference outside of the Latin is the 10th Century Book of Exeter, a collection of riddles at Exeter Cathedral.

One of the riddles is a clear reference to the Bible, how to make, the power of the word of God.

That there is a reference to the Bible shows it must have been familiar as a book, albeit in Latin.

We have Old English, Anglo-Saxon texts, fragments.

As recorded by Cuthbert, the Venerable Bede spent his dying days translating the Gospel of John. He also translated the Crede and the Lord’s Prayer. He wrote commentary on Mark (or was it Mathew) and Luke.

William Tyndale makes reference to an early Bible pre-Norman Conquest, but no evidence has been found of it.

Later criticisms were that it was to translate the Bible into a barbarian tongue. At the time of Bede to translate the Bible was not seen as wrong.

Early translations were circulated in the form of manuscripts, printing had yet to be invented.

Bede saw the English as chosen people in God’s sight. 150 years later, the English language was seen as a unifying force for the Kingdom of Wessex.

King Alfred saw learning as important. Clergy had books but could not read them. He saw it as important that the people should have the word of God in their own language, that the Latin should be translated to English. Israel had the word in Hebrew, the Greeks in Greek, Romans in Latin, therefore why not the English in English?

Tyndale said the early Church Fathers had the Bible in their own language, why therefore not the English.

Alfred had the following translated: Bede’s History, Psalms to which he added commentary and an introduction, parts of Exodus.

Alfred was a pious man, he saw himself as a descendant of King David.

The grandson of Alfred, the first King of England, supported the church.

Later writers refer to a Bible written under the grandson of Alfred, but there is no evidence of this.

He surrounded himself with scholars. Fragments were translated.

No one saw a problem with the Bible being available to the masses, but there was seen the need for explanation, not something for them to read on their own.

The Bible was too strong a wine to be drank undiluted.

One of the main problems was the ignorance of the clergy.

Before the Norman Conquest only fragments of the Bible were translated.

Later, Old English translations were difficult to read, would often be reproduced into with a parallel translation.

Fragments of the Bible in Anglo-Norman French.

Post Norman Conquest there is growing opposition to the Bible being made available to the common masses.

c 1300 Wycliffe’s Bible. It was burnt! Must have been many manuscript copies as 150 manuscripts have survived.

1526 William Tyndale incurred the wrath of the church. He escaped to northern Europe, was tracked down, strangled and burnt at the stake.

Archbishop Thomas Arundel called John Wycliffe a pestilence for making the Bible available to laymen, even worse to women! The Bible was to be trodden underfoot by swine.

It was now an offence to be in possession of a Bible in English, even a single manuscript sheet could result in death by burning.

To those who believed in making the word of God available to the common man, the word of God on the page was seen as superior to the word of God from the lips of a priest.

The Bibles in circulation immediately preceding King James were translations from Greek, not from Vulgate Latin.

Tyndale has contributed about 90% of what is the King James Bible.

Tyndale was forced to flee to northern Europe, only to be captured, strangled and burnt as a heretic.

Tyndale argued passionately for the Bible to be made available to the common man. He was critical of the clergy for their ignorance. Many of our common expression come from Tyndale

let there be light
an eye for an eye
seek and ye shall find
am I my brother’s keeper

Tyndale had a ear for the English language. He believed English was closer to Hebrew than Latin.

King James is written to be read aloud. A Bible in every church, in every home.

Based on a talk by Sarah Foot, Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Oxford University, at Holy Trinity Church in Guildford. Part of a day of celebrebrations to mark the four hundreth anniversary of the King James Bible.

Choral evensong Surrey Cantata at Holy Trinity
King James Bible

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2 Responses to “Medieval translations of the Bible before King James”

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