Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A history of Bible translation

A few weeks ago, a woman wrote to complain about the content of one of the stories told in a book our company carries.

"Hero Tales in Core K starts our students out with a prejudice against the Catholic Church without all the facts needed to make a determination, in my opinion," she wrote.

That [our children] should be learning half the story in Sonlight is not expected, but that is precisely what Hero Tales divulges--half the story.

I recommend Tyndale's Heresy to you.

At a minimum, students should be told that Tyndale did not produce the first Bible in English. Exploring the heretical aspects of his version would also be prudent, I think.

It is a fact usually ignored by Protestant historians that many English versions of the Scriptures existed before Wycliff, and these were authorized and perfectly legal (see Where We Got the Bible by Henry Graham, chapter 11, "Vernacular Scriptures Before Wycliff"). Also legal would be any future authorized translations. And certainly reading these translations was not only legal but also encouraged. All this law did was to prevent any private individual from publishing his own translation of Scripture without the approval of the Church.

I have to confess, it is not always easy to maintain openness to "new information." How can I afford the time?

But, as I replied to my correspondent, "Really great article recommendations and points. (I found Graham's book on the web and, so far, have read both Chapter 11 and Chapter 1.) . . . I am going to have to think how to "talk" about these things. . . ."

Well, I think it is time for me to begin to "talk." And, I'm afraid, I probably need to modify my comment about the article recommendations being "really great."

In one sense I really do believe them to be great: they were greatly informative. But they may, actually, have been more informative than my correspondent intended. So they are "really great" in an alternative sense as well that she may not appreciate as much as my original communication with her may have implied.

But before I get into that level of detail, let me note that I think all of us--Protestant, Catholic, whoever--should be very careful to understand and teach history accurately. And as I have found, too often, a lot of "history" is non-historical: it isn't accurate; it isn't true . . . or, should I say, isn't accurate and true enough (for my tastes, anyway!).

So let me begin by offering the most positive aspects of my correspondents' critique.

Tyndale did not produce the first Bible in English.

The book she is criticizing, Hero Tales by Dave & Neta Jackson, is a collection of biographies for children. One chapter, titled "William Tyndale," is subtitled, "The Man Who Gave Us the English Bible."

I will admit the subtitle is at least potentially misleading . . . if you read nothing else in the story and you make certain assumptions about the broader meaning of the (sub)title. What I mean by that is this: It is about as wrong to say "Tyndale gave us the English Bible" as it would be to say "Columbus discovered America."

In one sense--or, depending on how far you want to nuance your words, in many senses--Columbus did not discover America. For example,

1) Columbus was by no means first to "discover" America. Clearly, the aboriginal peoples--the so-called "Indians"--had been in the land we now call America for well over a thousand years before Columbus arrived. Anthropologists would say they had been in "America" for thousands of years. Moreover, as research in the last century has made almost incontrovertibly clear:

2) Leif Ericson came to North America about AD1002; Chinese junks visited North America in 1421; and others, too, from distant lands, found their way to North America before Columbus did.

3) No place named "America" existed when Columbus "discovered" the land mass we now call America.

4) Columbus never used the word "America" to refer to the land mass now known by that name.

5) And so forth. . . .

But still, most people I know say Columbus discovered America. And that's certainly what they were taught.


Because it was his explorations and his reports that first truly opened the continents we now know as North and South America to exploration by Europeans and--as a result of the Europeans--the rest of the world. Prior to Columbus, the land masses we now know as North and South America remained largely, if not completely, unknown to those who lived outside. Their prior discoverers never reported their findings or reported them so poorly that "no one" followed up on their reports.

So is it fair to criticize those who say Columbus discovered America? Sure. Mildly. For the reasons stated and by way of proving one's superior grasp of historical realities.

But for all practical purposes, I have no serious difficulties with anyone saying Columbus discovered America.

Well, so it is, I'm afraid, with criticism of the Jacksons' article about Tyndale.

"At that time [i.e., when Tyndale was alive], it was illegal to translate the Scriptures into English without official approval," the Jacksons write. And that is correct. It had been illegal since 1408 when, as the Catholic Encyclopedia says (last sentence in section C.(2)), the Synod of Oxford "forbade the publication and reading of unauthorized vernacular versions of the Scriptures, restricting the permission to read the Bible in the vernacular to versions approved by the ordinary of the place, or . . . by the provincial council."

It was, as the Jacksons note, Tyndale's dream to make it possible for every man, woman and child in England, whether rich or poor, to read the Bible in English.

I need to stop here for the moment. But the story is . . . to be continued. . . .
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