Have you ever used the phrase “powers that be,” the words “beautiful,” “peacemaker” or “scapegoat”? If so, then you owe a debt to the English Bible. These words came into existence only after the English Bible was born. Unquestionably, it is the most influential literary work of the English-speaking world.
The English Bible was born during the late 1300s C.E. Before then, the Bible was only available in Latin, in a version called The Vulgate. The Vulgate was a translation of the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts making up the original Christian Scriptures. Latin had become the language of government while the Romans ruled, so it was natural the Bible should be translated into Latin.
It is important to understand the hold the Church had on Western Europe — what was called “Christendom.” Priests and bishops were the ultimate authority and the average person was illiterate. Royalty could generally read, along with monks in monasteries. Nations were forced into subjugation by the will of the Pope at the time. A good example of this is when the Pope placed England under interdict when Archbishop Thomas a’ Becket was killed. Until King Henry II made penance, no one in the country could receive the sacraments, which, according to the Catholic Church, consigned them to Purgatory at the least, and Hell at the worst. This was apt to cause rank rebellion, so Henry made the required pilgrimage to Becket’s tomb to do his penance there.
The result of this extreme hierarchy is that the lay people were unable to read the Scriptures for themselves. They had to rely entirely on their priests to read and interpret Scripture for them. Since some of the priests were barely literate themselves, they were not always reliable either. This bothered many earnest priests, among them a man named John Wycliffe.
Wycliffe was an English priest, educated at Oxford and a professor there. The excesses and internal corruption of the Catholic Church — the only organized Christian church in existence at the time — disgusted him and he preached against these actions in his classes.
Wycliffe decided one way to help the people and combat Church corruption was to give common people the Scriptures in a language they spoke daily. Thus, he began his work on making an English translation from The Vulgate. He published his first edition of the English Bible from The Vulgate in 1382 and his assistant, John Purvey, published a second, improved translation in 1390, six years after Wycliffe’s death.
Because a Bible in the language of the common people might undermine the Church’s power, a law was passed in England in 1408 that outlawed even the reading of the Bible in English, much less possessing one. Progress stops for no one, however, and by the mid-1400s, translations of The Vulgate had appeared in French, Italian, Spanish and Dutch. Gutenberg had manufactured his movable-type printing press and his first book in 1454 was The Vulgate in Latin. In 1453, the Ottoman Turks invaded Constantinople, home of many Greek scholars, and they fled to Western Europe, taking their knowledge and their papyri with them. European universities began teaching Greek again. Out of this atmosphere came scholar William Tyndale.
Tyndale, like Wycliffe, was also educated at Oxford, and later at Cambridge. He was fluent in several languages, including in Hebrew and Greek. Tyndale, too, had a passion for seeing the Scriptures translated into English, so his countrymen could read them. He did much of his translation work outside England, since the 1408 ban was still in effect, some 110 years later. His third edition of the New Testament, published in 1534, is the one for which he is truly remembered. Tyndale’s linguistic skills and poetic ear gave his translations a natural flair and beauty that has yet to be surpassed, as far as pure literary skill is concerned.
Tyndale died at the stake at the order of England’s King Henry VIII, for publishing a corrupt version of the Bible. Myles Coverdale, Tyndale’s assistant, went on to publish the first complete Bible printed in English — Wycliffe’s versions had been handwritten.
The climate changed in England, particularly after Queen Elizabeth I came to the throne. Under her patronage, literature thrived, and this included the English Bible. Several more major translations were finished during her reign, including the Bishop's Bible and the Geneva Bible. In spite of the Protestant sentiments sweeping England during Elizabeth's reign, a Catholic translation, the New Testament in the Rheims-Douai Bible, was published in 1582. The Old Testament of the Rheims-Douai was published between 1609-1610. This remained the standard Catholic Bible until the 20th century.
The King James Version, one of the most popular versions ever of the English Bible, was published in 1611, at the request of England's King James I. It took nearly 40 years for this version to overtake the Geneva Bible in popularity, but by the middle of the 17th century, this was the Bible of choice for most English-speaking Protestants. The King James Version owes a great deal of its beauty of language and form to the Tyndale Bible. In fact, some 70-80 percent of Tyndale's original wording remains intact in the King James Version.
In the succeeding 200 or so years, many more English translations of the Bible were published. Most aimed for greater accuracy and clarity, exchanging some archaic or obsolete words and phrases for more modern expressions. Some versions, like the Good News Version and the more recent Contemporary English Version, are meant for younger readers, as well as those completely unfamiliar with the Bible.
The New Revised Standard Version is considered to be the most accurate modern translation, since it and its predecessor, the Revised Standard Version, were interpreted with the knowledge of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient Greek papyri. The New International Version is a current translation that aims to be readable and still maintain a literary feel. This is also the goal of the New King James Version.
Indeed, there are hundreds of study Bibles in the English language, in numerous translations. A visit to a Christian bookstore will reveal study Bibles aimed toward young people, college students, women, military persons, police officers, fire fighters, doctors, nurses and many other professions. These Bibles all strive to present the Christian Scriptures in a way understood and appreciated by their audience. The Bible is also available online, even in the older English translations, and in many other languages, as well.
A quest for common knowledge of Scripture started a revolution of earth-shaking proportions. It sparked the English Reformation. Authors and playwrights have drawn from the English Bible for their inspiration for over 500 years. Its words and expressions permeate the English language, even among those who are not Christian. Many non-native English speakers begin their studies of the language with an English Bible. The appearance of the English Bible was one single act that did indeed, change Western civilization as we know it.