Thursday, November 23, 2006

Bible translation #3: John Wycliffe

For some reason, I feel myself a bit "on a roll," here.

As I was working on my last post, I went to the Wycliffe Bible Translators' website, hoping to find out how many millions of people would, today, be living without a version of Scripture in their heart language--their "vernacular"--were it not for the work of that organization. I found only a reference to the number of translations they have completed so far (611), but no indication of the numbers of millions of human beings--the size of the potential "listening audience," as it were--who might be impacted by these translations.

While there, I noticed the statement that the Wycliffe Bible Translators organization got its name from "the pre-Reformation hero, John Wycliffe, who first translated the Bible into English" [emphasis added! --JAH].

And that, of course, is a direct statement in opposition to to what the correspondent who got me onto this subject wrote.

So what is the truth? Was John Wycliffe "first"? If so, in what sense was he first? First at what? And why is he remembered whereas others, apparently, are not?

I think, first, I want to note that there is no question concerning the existence of vernacular ("common language") versions of Scripture before John Wycliffe came along. There were English translations of the Scriptures before John Wycliffe came along. You can find plenty of evidence for that viewpoint on the Wikipedia (see "English translations of the Bible"and "Bible translations"), let alone the 1912 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia (online article on "Versions of the Bible" and, more particularly, the "English versions" subsection of that article).

But Henry Graham, once more, comes through with remarkable testimony:
Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England under Henry VIII, . . . says: ‘The whole Bible long before Wycliff’s day was by virtuous and well-learned men translated into the English tongue, and by good and godly people with devotion and soberness well and reverently read’ (Dialogues III). Again, ‘The clergy keep no Bibles from the laity but such translations as be either not yet approved for good, or such as be already reproved for naught (i.e., bad, naughty) as Wycliff’s was. For, as for old ones that were before Wycliff’s days, they remain lawful and be in some folks’ hand. I myself have seen, and can show you, Bibles, fair and old which have been known and seen by the Bishop of the Diocese, and left in laymen’s hands and women’s too, such as he knew for good and Catholic folk, that used them with soberness and devotion.’

"But," Graham continues, "you will say, that is the witness of a Roman Catholic. Well, I shall advance Protestant testimony also.

The translators of the Authorized Version [i.e., "King James Version"--JAH], in their ‘Preface’, referring to previous translations of the Scriptures into the language of the people, make the following important statements. After speaking of the Greek and Latin Versions, they proceed: ‘The godly-learned were not content to have the Scriptures in the language which they themselves understood, Greek and Latin... but also for the behoof and edifying of the unlearned which hungered and thirsted after righteousness, and had souls to be saved as well as they, they provided translations into the Vulgar for their countrymen, insomuch that most nations under Heaven did shortly after their conversion hear Christ speaking unto them in their Mother tongue, not by the voice of their minister only but also by the written word translated.’

As all these nations were certainly converted by the Roman Catholic Church, for there was then no other to send missionaries to convert anybody, this is really a valuable admission. The Translators of 1611 [again, i.e., the translators of the "King James" Version--JAH], then, after enumerating many converted nations that had the Vernacular Scriptures, come to the case of England, and include it among the others. ‘Much about that time,’ they say (1360), ‘even in our King Richard the Second’s days, John Trevisa translated them into English, and many English Bibles in written hand are yet to be seen that divers translated, as it is very probable, in that age. ... So that, to have the Scriptures in the mother tongue is not a quaint conceit lately taken up, either by the Lord Cromwell in England [or others] ... but hath been thought upon, and put in practice of old, even from the first times of the conversion of any nation.’

This testimony, from the Preface, (too little known) of their own Authorized Bible, ought surely to carry some weight with well disposed Protestants.

Moreover, the ‘Reformed’ Archbishop of Canterbury, Cranmer, says, in his preface to the Bible of 1540: ‘The Holy Bible was translated and read in the Saxon tongue, which at that time was our mother tongue, whereof there remaineth yet divers copies found in old Abbeys, of such antique manner of writing and speaking that few men now being able to read and understand them. And when this language waxed old and out of common use, because folks should not lack the fruit of reading, it was again translated into the newer language, whereof yet also many copies remain and be daily found.’

Again, Foxe, a man that Protestants trust [Graham is referring to John Foxe who wrote the book now popularly known as Foxe's Book of Martyrs--a book, in its original, that highlighted, most especially, all the Protestant "worthies" of the Reformational era who died at the hands of Catholics--JAH], says: ‘If histories be well examined, we shall find, both before the Conquest and after, as well before John Wycliffe was born as since, the whole body of Scripture by sundry men translated into our country tongue.’

‘But as of the earlier period, so of this, there are none but fragmentary remains, the "many copies" which remained when Cranmer wrote in 1540 having doubtless disappeared in the vast and ruthless destruction of libraries which took place within a few years after that date.’ --These last words are from the pen of Rev. J. H. Blunt, a Protestant author, in his History of the English Bible; and another Anglican dignitary, Dean Hook, tells us that ‘long before Wycliff’s time there had been translator’s of the Holy Writ.’

One more authority on the Protestant side, and I have done: it is Mr. Karl Pearson (Academy, August, 1885), who says: ‘The Catholic Church has quite enough to answer for, but in the 15th century it certainly did not hold back the Bible from the folk: and it gave them in the vernacular (i.e. their own tongue) a long series of devotional works which for language and religious sentiment have never been surpassed.’

So why did anyone begin to suggest that John Wycliffe was "first"? Perhaps he was first in producing an unauthorized English translation?
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