The Struggle over the English Bible A SCHOLAR'S VIEW

Article excerpt

TODAY, English-speaking Christians may take the King James Bible and modern English translations for granted. But they shouldn't.

The translation of the Bible into English out of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin was a virtual revolution. Many of the early Bible translators were great reformers who laid down their lives to give the Scriptures to the public.

These reformers played a pivotal role in a convulsive struggle that revolutionized nearly everything that mattered in Renaissance England: church, throne, literature, arts, and sciences.

Before these Bibles were published, the idea of making the Scriptures available to the common people was anathema to the leaders of both church and state. They thought that putting the Scriptures into ordinary language would desecrate the Word of God and encourage heresy and rebellion.

John Wycliffe, a late-14th-century theologian at Oxford University, found this intolerable. He agonized over the people's ignorance of the essentials of religion and of the Bible.

So he sent a corps of "poor preachers" throughout the countryside explaining the Gospel simply and clearly to the common people. And he and his followers translated the whole Bible from Latin into Middle English.

Wycliffe paid a price, however. He was condemned by the church and imprisoned for heresy. Yet his followers carried his mission forward boldly, revising his translation and dispersing copies of it all over England. Even so, the popular craving for the Scriptures was far from satisfied by this underground Bible market.

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 sent Hebrew and Greek scholars westward for asylum, unlocking those languages for Bible scholars in Western Europe and England. Gutenberg's printing press provided the vehicle for producing Bibles for mass distribution. And Martin Luther completed his monumental translation of the entire Bible into German from the original Hebrew and Greek in 1521.

In England, Luther's thinking had an immediate impact. William Tyndale, a scholar of Greek, began a fresh translation of the New Testament into English from the original texts.

Finding no support for his work in England, where King Henry VIII believed the Bible would stir up rebellion, he fled to Europe to confer with Luther and complete his text. Dogged by spies who followed him from city to city, Tyndale nevertheless completed and published his New Testament in 1525, smuggling large quantities of the text into England.

Tyndale's Bible meant nothing but trouble for Henry, since multitudes of English people defied his authority by reading the new translation. So when the reformer was at last arrested and sentenced to death in Germany in 1535, Henry did nothing to rescue him. Tyndale's final words as he burned at the stake were, "Lord, open the king of England's eyes!"

Meanwhile, Henry, having just declared his independence from the Roman Catholic Church, wanted to produce a Bible for which he alone could take credit. …