Thursday, November 30, 2006

The case of William Tyndale: How "possible" was it for someone to make an authorized translation of the Bible in the early 1500s?

In my immediately preceding post, I noted that my correspondent said it was possible to have an authorized vernacular Bible back in William Tyndale's day. And I said I question that: Was it possible? And, supposing it had been possible, just exactly how possible?

I ask that second question because it is possible--and I want to pursue this--that the possibility of acquiring a vernacular translation was in the same league as the possibility that I will be hit by an asteroid tomorrow morning. The event really and truly is possible. But its likelihood is exceedingly small.

With that question in mind, I want to note that my correspondent referred me to two articles. One of them was Matthew A. C. Newsome's "Tyndale's Heresy"--what, I discovered, is a modernized, substantially condensed reworking of Chapter 13 in Henry Graham's Where We Got the Bible.

Newsome writes,

Tyndale was an English priest . . . who desperately desired to make his own English translation of the Bible. The Church denied him for several reasons.

First, it saw no real need for a new English translation of the Scriptures at this time. In fact, booksellers were having a hard time selling the print editions of the Bible that they already had. Sumptuary laws had to be enacted to force people into buying them.
I would like to note, first, that, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia article about "Versions of the Bible: English Versions,"

No part of the English Bible was printed before 1525, no complete Bible before 1535, and none in England before 1538. . . . William Tyndale was the first to avail himself of the new opportunities furnished by the press and the new learning.

So Newsome's claim against Tyndale, that "booksellers were having a hard time selling the print editions of the Bible that they already had," bears no weight. As the Catholic Encyclopedia itself acknowledges, there were no print editions of the English Bible before Tyndale. Tyndale was the first to avail himself of the press to publish the English Bible.

But then more to the point of making authorized translations.

My correspondent writes,

. . . The Church was making authorized vernacular translations. We already had English Scriptures. The RCC's German Bible came out on the printing press before Luther's.

Understood and accepted: there were authorized vernacular translations. Indeed, as Graham amply demonstrates, there were quite a number of authorized English translations of the Bible available throughout England. They weren't relatively low-cost editions. They weren't easily transported, nor ready to hand as virtually all printed versions of the Bible are today. They were the truly ponderous tomes as would be chained to a lectern in a cathedral. After all, they were all manuscript versions. And, I daresay, due to the recent and still ongoing rapid transition of the English language, most of them, I expect, were at least quaint.

But they were, most definitely, available. Indeed, again, as Graham notes, contemporary (or near contemporary) Protestant commentators on the situation in England at that time happily acknowledge the fact that there were many manuscript copies of English Bibles available in England at the time. Even the King James/Authorized Version translators acknowledged as much in their Preface to the 1611 KJV.


I think the history of English translations from Tyndale's era to the early 1600s is instructive.

The following is from the Catholic Encyclopedia, "Versions of the Bible: English Versions" (all emboldened text has been emboldened by me):

In 1524 [Tyndale], . . . [a]ssisted by William Roye, . . . translated the New Testament, and began to have it printed in Cologne in 1525. Driven from Cologne, he went to Worms where he printed 3000 copies, and sent them to England in the early summer of 1526. The fourth edition was printed at Antwerp (1534). In 1530 Tyndale's Pentateuch was printed, in 1531 his book of Jonas. Between the date of Tyndale's execution, 6 Oct., 1536, and the year 1550 numerous editions of the New Testament were reprinted, twenty-one of which Francis Fry (Biographical Descriptions of the Editions of the New Testament, 1878) enumerates and describes (see Westcott, Hist. of the English Bible, London, 1905). . . .

After 1528 we find [Miles Coverdale] on the Continent in Tyndale's society. . . . He prepared a complete English Bible, the printing of which was finished 4 Oct., 1535. . . .

The London booksellers now became alive to the ready sale of the Bible in English; Grafton and Whitchurch were the first to avail themselves of this business opportunity, bringing out in 1537 the so-called Matthew's Bible. . . .

In 1539 the Matthew's Bible was followed by Taverner's edition of the Bible. . . .

About 1536 Cromwell had placed Coverdale at the head of the enterprise for bringing out an approved version of the English Bible. The new version was based on the Matthew's Bible. . . . The work was ready for the press in 1538. . . . In April of the following year the edition was finished, and owing to its size the version was called the Great Bible. Before 1541 six other editions issued from the press.

During the reign of Mary a number of English reformers withdrew to Geneva, the town of Calvin and Beza, and here they issued in 1557 a New Testament with an introduction by Calvin. . . . [This] work was soon superseded by an issue of the whole Bible, which appeared in 1560, the so-called Geneva Bible. . . . The handy form and other attractive features of the work rendered it so popular that between 1560 and 1644 at least 140 editions were

After the accession of Elizabeth an attempt was made to improve the authorized Great Bible and thus to counteract the growing popularity of the Calvinistic Geneva Bible. . . . The resultant version was ready for publication on 5 October, 1568, and became generally known as the Bishops' Bible. Several editions were afterwards published, and the Great Bible ceased to be reprinted in 1569. . . .

Now, please notice: eight full unauthorized versions of the Bible were produced--and almost every one in numerous editions--and the Church, apparently, had yet to "[see a] real need for a new English translation of the Scriptures."

Who was right? The men who were making the unauthorized editions . . . or the Church?

Personally, as a businessman, I think the Church made a mistake! It "saw no real need" until the "proof of concept" was unmistakable. . . .

In October, 1578, Gregory Martin [and a number of co-workers] . . . began the work of preparing an English translation of the Bible for Catholic readers. . . . [T]he New Testament was published at Reims in 1582. . . . The Old Testament was published at Douai (1609-10). . . .

Doing a little math, we realize the Church was 54 years--far more than a single average lifetime--behind Tyndale in deciding it "needed" an English print translation. It was 74 years behind Coverdale in issuing the first authorized complete Bible!


Lots of questions yet to answer (see the end of my previous post). . . . But I needed to begin somewhere. So I started here.

. . . To be continued.

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