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A Short History of the Bible in English

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a short history of the bible
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    A Short History of the Bible in English by Dr. Russell Morton  for Words that Shaped the World: 400 Years of the Bible in English  Presented by Ashland Theological Seminary 910 Center St., Ashland OH 44805 2011   Ashland Theological Seminary, 2011 2 The Authorized, or King James, Bible In 1611 one could scarcely imagine that a Bible translation, organized in some haste, dependent on earlier translations, and commissioned by a king of questionable piety, would become the gold standard by which future English translations would be  judged, both for its eloquence and usefulness to the church. The Authorized, or King James, Bible, which was never officially authorized, nor did King James 1 of England participate in the translation, has not only been the source of comfort and inspiration to countless Protestant English speaking Christians, but also stands with Chaucer and Shakespeare as one of the pillars of English prose and poetry. How did this begin? The Authorized Version was not the first translation of the Bible into English.  Neither is it necessarily the most accurate translation, for that distinction belongs to Tyndale and the translators of the Geneva Bible. What it did do was combine both the scholarship of the  previous century with a sense of language that enabled the 1611 translation to attain its singular influence in the English speaking world. Prehistory The King James Bible was not the first translation of Scripture into English. Even in the early Middle Ages, portions of Scripture were translated into the vernacular, such as the translation of Psalms into   Ashland Theological Seminary, 2011 3 Anglo Saxon, attributed to Alfred the Great of Wessex (871-899). 1  These early translations of portions of scripture, such as Psalms or the Gospels, prepared the way for the more ambitious project of translating the whole scripture into English during the turbulent 14th century. 2  This was the period both of the Hundred Years War with France (1339-1453), the Avignon Papacy (1308-1378), when the popes lived in Avignon in southern France rather than in Rome, and the Great Schism of 1379-1414, when rival popes at Rome and Avignon claimed obedience o f Western Europe’s Christian  population. Wycliffite Bible (1380-84?, Later version 1388?) In this environment, it is no wonder that many would call for reform both of church and the incipient state. One product of the reforming impulse would be translations of the Bible into the vernacular. What is remarkable is that in the last quarter of the 14 th  century the task of translating the Bible in England was undertaken  by a circle of Oxford scholars associated with the person of John Wycliffe (or Wyclif, d1384). In his own lifetime, Wycliffe was less associated with Bible translation than with political and ecclesiastical theory. His insistence that clergy live a simple, godly life, attracted the attention of notable supporters, including the man 1   Geoffrey Shepherd, “English Versions of the  Scriptures Before Wycliff  ,” in The Cambridge History of the Bible: Vol. 2. The West from the Fathers to the  Reformation , ed. G. W. H. Lampe   (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 362-87. 2   For more on this turbulent age, see, George M. Trevelyan,  England in the Age of Wycliffe (London, New York: Longman’s Green and Co., 1946); Nigel Saul,  Richard II  . Yale English Monarchs (New Haven: Yale, 1997).   Ashland Theological Seminary, 2011 4 who served as his patron, John of Gaunt (d. 1399), whose motives in supporting Wycliffe were mixed to say the least. 3  Wycliffe was an Oxford don rather than a popular preacher. Yet, he was undoubtedly sympathetic to the goals of popular lay  preachers, known as Lollards, who flourished in the area around Oxford even after Wycliffe’s  views were suppressed at the university in 1382. They agreed with Wycliffe that the duty of all Christians was to know the scriptures and that it was the primary duty of both priests and laity to preach the Gospel. 4  Although often called Wycliffe’s translation, it is likely that Wycli ffe translated only the Gospels, while the remainder of the Bible was rendered into English by Wycliffe’s disciples, particularly Nicholas Hereford and John Purvey. 5  There are two evidences for this conclusion. First, work of translation began in earnest only in 1382, by which time Wycliffe was old and ailing. Second, is the fact that two major versions of the Wycliffite translation exist, 3 John of Gaunt’s corruption and greed were well known. It is thought his support for Wycliffe was rooted less in a desire for spiritual renewal than avarice, for one of Wycliffe’s proposed reforms was to divest the church of wealth. Some have supposed that John of Gaunt wished to seize the church’s wealth for himself, which is what Henry VIII and the English nobility did accomplish after the disestablishment of the monasteries in the 16 th  century. For more on John of Gaunt, see Trevelyan,  England in the Age of Wycliffe. 4   Margaret Deansley, The Lollard Bible and Other Medieval Biblical Versions  (1920; repr., New York: AMS Press, 1978), 242.   5   Henry Hargreaves, “The Wycliffite Versions , ” in The Cambridge History of the Bible: Vol. 2. The West from the Fathers to the Reformation , ed. by G. W. H. Lampe   (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 387-415; Deansley, The Lollard Bible, 252-67 .  

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