Thursday, July 5, 2012

The English Bible

John Wycliffe (c.1320-1384) was politically active and a reformer whose brilliance as a theologian was originally admired widely. Eventually, as some of his ideas began to be put into practice, he became labeled a heretic. One of his greatest (and, in the church's opinion, most heretical) acts was to produce a complete translation of The Bible into English, because "it helpeth Christian men to study the Gospel in that tongue in which they know best Christ’s sentence."*

"In ye bigynyng iwas ye word", Wycliffe Bible.
We are pretty sure that Wycliffe didn't do the whole book himself. Nor was he the first: the Bible had been translated into Old English centuries before Wycliffe, but manuscripts were rare and piecemeal. The Venerable Bede (c.673-735) and Aldhelm (c.639-709) had each translated parts of the Bible into Old English. The oldest existing manuscript we have is the Lindisfarne Gospels, a 10th century Latin text of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John with Old English translation inserted between the Latin.

Many so-called Middle English Bibles were in fact paraphrases or commentary rather than strict translations.

For Wycliffe, the Bible held more truth than the church hierarchy, and he wanted people to be able to directly study the word of God. When the church objected—the traditional approach was that the clergy were best suited to explain the Bible to the people—Wycliffe replied “Christ and his apostles taught the people in that tongue that was best known to them. Why should men not do so now?”

So he set about making a careful translation with his friend, Nicholas of Hereford. Although using familiar English words, they stuck to Latin syntax, and so a sentence that we know as "And God said, Let there be light, and there was light." which is a fairly sensible translation of the Latin, came out (following Latin word order) as "And God said, Be made light, and made is light." In the years after Wycliffe's death in 1384, a follower of his (probably John Purvey) revised it, changing the word order to "And God said, Light be made, and light was made."

The Bible was popular—over 250 copies exist—but the church objected to it and to Wycliffe's increasing influence on the common people, especially after the Peasants' Revolt and the increasingly vocal and active Lollard movement. The early 1400s saw some extremely strict censorship laws put into place to prevent any more unauthorized translations. The problem was that, since the Wycliffe Bible had been translated from the Latin (whether carefully or not) without editorializing, it was not easily distinguishable from "authorized" translations. This may be why so many copies survived. Of course, 1453 and Gutenberg were just a couple generations away, which meant that the production of "unauthorized" texts was about to become frighteningly easy.

*N.B.: "sentence" in the Middle Ages did not mean just a collection of words expressing a complete thought. From the Latin sententia, it signified concepts such as "meaning" or "thought" or "opinion."

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