The Men Who Risked All to Translate the Bible

Article excerpt

This highly detailed account of the struggle to translate the Bible into English, beginning with John Wyclif's work in the late 14th century and carrying the story through the King James version of 1611, makes a fascinating and remarkable book.

The work behind the translations was not easy; in fact, it was often dangerous. Early translations were made by a series of people fascinated by the idea of adherence to truth. They didn't all agree about what the truth was, but their dedication to that concept was more important to them than their lives. Some died violently for the cause of translation.

The existence of the text of the Scriptures, available to the common person for study and discussion, unsupervised by authorities to give the official meaning, let loose a force that, according to author Benson Bobrick, made the Reformation inevitable. Once the basis for moral authority had shifted from the official views of the church to the private judgment of citizens, based on their own reading of the Scriptures, people could not be counted on to back the views of the authorities automatically.

After Wyclif, who died in 1384, the work of biblical translation into modern European languages did not immediately take off, because it was opposed in general by the church. Bobrick points out, however, that "Bible translations, in fact, dominated 16th- century book production, and by the end of the century every European nation had the Scriptures in its own tongue."

The work of translation into English was taken up by William Tyndale in the 1520s, when Henry VIII of England was still a Catholic. Tyndale had to work on the Continent, and when his translation reached England in 1526, although many wanted it, it was contraband.

Beset by opposition, and even shipwreck, Tyndale persisted in translating and promoting his Bible, opposed in England by the much praised "man for all seasons," Thomas More, who even put one heretic, James Bainham, on the rack and had him whipped for, among other sins, owning Tyndale's translation. Tyndale was eventually tried for heresy in the Netherlands, convicted, and executed in August 1536.

Miles Coverdale, who had worked with Tyndale, produced the first complete translation of the Bible into English in the 1530s, now with Henry VIII's approval. A variety of translations into English in the 16th century had wide distribution, though after Henry's death, attempts were made to turn the nation again to Roman Catholicism, especially under Queen Mary. But when Elizabeth I took the throne in 1558, protestantism, though at first embattled, became settled in the nation. …