The Story of the English Bible I: John Wycliffe

The King James Version Bible is celebrating its 400th anniversary on May 2nd, 2011. This version is probably the one we are most familiar with, as many of us have grown up hearing it read at home and at church. Yet, many of us do not know the history of how the English Bible came into existence. Therefore, in order to mark this historic occasion it will be our intention to provide a history of how the English Bible came into being; in a time when Roman Catholic heresy and superstition dominated England. It was a period in history when the only version allowed to be read was the Latin Vulgate of Jerome. We will see in our study that the only way that men such as: John Wycliffe, John Purvey, Nicholas Hereford, and William Tyndale; could translate the Bible, was by God’s grace alone; for the Roman Catholic Church persecuted anyone who translated and even read the Bible in English. Therefore, the story of the English Bible is a wonderful and beautiful story of the grace of God in the hearts of the men who translated His Word.

To begin the story of the English Bible we will start with a man named John Wycliffe; being a pre-reformer, he has rightly been given the name “The Morning Star of the Reformation.” For, he opposed many of the false doctrines of Rome and in doing so; he laid the groundwork for the reformation in England.

John Wycliffe was born around 1328 in North Riding, Yorkshire. His father was a wealthy squire, who had the funds to send his son to university. Therefore, in September of 1345, Wycliffe was admitted into Merton College, in the town of Oxford. He remained in Oxford for thirty-five years, being both a student and a teacher. During his studies, he obtained degrees from several colleges, including: Merton, Balliol, and Queens.

His course of study was quite normal for the time. It included the seven liberal arts (grammar, rhetoric, logic, music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy). He also studied the three philosophies (natural, moral, and metaphysical). In addition, he studied Latin literature and Aristotelian philosophy. His theological courses took eight years to complete. Four of these years were spent studying the Vulgate, two years were spent studying Sentences by Peter Lombard (this is a middle age textbook on Scripture), and the last two years were used giving lectures and speeches on the Old Testament and the New Testament. During this time, he also engaged in public lectures and debates. Although his course load was heavy, he was regarded as an excellent scholar.

Much happened to Wycliffe in the period from 1361 to 1372. When he was thirty-four, he was appointed to the priesthood and on May 14, 1361, he was given a parish at Fillingham, Lincolnshire. This simply means that he received the pay of a priest, without doing any of the work associated with the office of priesthood, and could continue his studies without any hindrance. However, Wycliffe would from time to time preach a sermon there. In 1365, he became warden of Canterbury Hall. Around 1368, he left his Fillingham parish and went to one at Lugershall, which was closer to Oxford. He obtained a Bachelor of Divinity in 1369 and in 1372, he became a Doctor in Divinity at Oxford.

God worked by His Holy Spirit in the heart of Wycliffe by means of several notable men. The first was Augustine of Hippo. Like many of the reformers, Wycliffe respected Augustine on many issues including, the difference between the visible and invisible church and predestination. The second was Robert Grosseteste, who was a contemporary of John Wycliffe. Grosseteste hated the corruption of the church and placed a large amount of authority on the Bible. He also knew Greek and Hebrew, which was a rarity for his day. The third man was Thomas Bradwardine. He led Wycliffe to the truth of the sovereignty of God’s grace. He taught that man has no freewill and even applied this doctrine to election and reprobation.

Wycliffe did not agree with the levels of office in the Roman Catholic Church, and rather than basing his beliefs about this on the history and traditions of the church, he based them solely on the New Testament; in which he found only two church offices: elder and deacon. He also taught that the priest’s office should be only, to preach the Word and that the priest’s payment should be supported solely on the people’s willing contributions. He criticized the clergy who let secular offices get in the way of their spiritual labours and condemned the large wealth that the church had acquired. Wycliffe also utterly despised indulgences and taught that God alone could forgive sin.

It is important to note that around this time, ideas concerning the church were changing drastically in England. There are several factors included in this, the first is Rome had replaced the preaching of the Word and Biblically based worship, with the worship of images and pompous ceremonies. The reading of Scripture was extremely rare, even for the clergy. In fact, it was only necessary for the priests to know: the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and Hail Mary. The lack of knowledge the clergy had and their immoral behaviour caused seeds of doubt to be planted in the minds of the people. The second factor is that England was developing a new patriotic spirit and this had a great impact on many of their views. For instance, the English government was beginning to defy the Roman Catholic Church, which at the time was mainly controlled by France. Thus in 1371, the parliament made a decision to keep the clergy out of government and secular office. In addition, the government began filling church offices with men of their own choosing, rather than men appointed by the church. Also due to this patriotic spirit, the government authorities wanted a share in the church money that was collected on English soil and the monarchy was beginning to   challenge the   pope’s   authority. All of these new ideas were causing problems with the Roman Catholic Church and in 1374, John Wycliffe was sent with a government embassy to talk to papal representatives about the growing differences between Rome and England.

It was because of his reforming views that Wycliffe was asked in the winter of 1377, to appear before the bishops at St. Paul’s Cathedral to answer to the charge of heresy. So, in February, with the support of Gaunt, (who was Wycliffe’s main protector and chairman of the Royal Council at the time) he appeared before the bishops surrounded by a Royal Guard. The commotion caused by this entry angered the bishops, but an even greater argument broke out when Lord Percy, who was Gaunt’s ally, invited Wycliffe to sit down. This small invitation turned into a roaring argument, between the bishops and the government, as to whether Wycliffe should sit or stand. (The reason for this argument was because a prisoner had to stand before the bar, but a doctor was allowed to sit in order to defend   his arguments.) Because of their petty arguments, Wycliffe was not tried at this time, nevertheless he was later called to appear before the bishops in April 1378, but this time the government ordered the bishops not to condemn him and thus he was saved from martyrdom.

Nevertheless, this was not the end of Wycliffe’s persecution. On May 22, 1377, the pope issued five papal bulls (a papal bull is a letter by the pope which would be sealed with a leaden bulla) against him, in which he stated “We have learned to our extreme sorrow, that John Wycliffe, rector of the church at Lutterworth, of the diocese of Lincoln, a professor of holy writ – would he were not a master of errors! – Has been impugning received doctrine.” (Quoted in Dahmus, The Prosecution of John Wycliffe p.39) The pope would go on to rebuke the English clergy for not condemning the heresy and for allowing his doctrines to go unchallenged. The pope also ordered Oxford University to assist the authorities and not allow any

of Wycliffe’s teachings to be taught. However, Oxford refused to condemn him, since it would show that the pope had authority in England. Yet, they still wanted to seem cooperative, so the vice-counsellor of the university ordered a group of theologians to examine Wycliffe’s work. After going over his works, the bishops found them to be Orthodox and although some stated they “sounded poorly to the ears” (Quoted in Trevelyan, England in the Age of Wycliffe, p.85) he was still allowed to teach them. Therefore, the Lord once again upheld and preserved his servant and the truth from the persecution of Rome.

Soon after this, Wycliffe began a very systematic attack of the teachings of Rome. From 1378 to 1380, he wrote seven new tracts against the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. The names of these papers are: On the Truth of Holy Scripture, On the Church, On Apostasy, On the Eucharist, On the Power of the Pope, and On the Office of Kings. We can see amidst all the persecution that Wycliffe was receiving for his views, he did not stop speaking out against Rome, but continued by the grace of God alone, to fight.

Since England was not able or did not want to deal with Wycliffe, the Pope ordered him to come to Rome. Wycliffe was unable to come and declined the invitation due to his failing health. After suffering two strokes, he died on December 31, 1384. However, he was so hated and feared by Rome, that they would not let him rest in peace. On October 8, 1427, by the command of the Council of Constance, (the same council which would order Jan Hus to be burned at the stake several years later) John Wycliffe’s bones were dug up, burned, and his ashes scattered on the river Swift.

The Translation Work

Wycliffe desired that the common people should be able to read the Bible. In fact, Wycliffe thought that the Bible was the highest standard of all writings, and stated: “Were there a hundred popes and all friars turned to cardinals, their opinions in matters of faith should not be accepted except on so far as they are founded on Scripture itself.” (Quoted in Wild, The Romance of the English Bible, p.41) It is not clear as to how much of the actual translation work Wycliffe did, because the translation of the Vulgate, known to us as the Wycliffe Bible, comes down to us in two different translations, (Nicholas Hereford did the first and John Purvey did the second). This has led some to say Wycliffe translated part of the Old Testament and did the whole New Testament. Others say that he only translated the four gospel accounts. It is known that the first translation was done under his supervision though. Having considered all this, it was the lack of knowledge the people had, as well as Wycliffe’s belief on the authority of the Bible that a translation was begun under his leadership in 1380.

As mentioned above, Nicholas Hereford did the first translation, under the leadership of John Wycliffe. Hereford’s translation went from Genesis up to Baruch 3:20. (The Book of Baruch is in the Apocrypha, which was included in the Vulgate.) He had to stop at Baruch, because he was no longer able to do the work and he let others finish the work. It is because of this that some people believe that Wycliffe took over the translation and finished it. One interesting thing to mention is that Hereford’s translation is believed to be, not just from the Vulgate, but also from a French translation, which was done in the twelfth century. This is believed to be true because a new idiom was found in Hereford’s translation that was not found in the Vulgate, but in the French translation.

Considering that Hereford’s translation of the Vulgate into English was the first of its kind, it had several flaws that did not make it very popular for common use. The first and probably most noticeable flaw was its close rendering of the Latin syntax. This extremely literal translation into English did not make it easy to read or understand. A second problem with Hereford’s translation was that the English language was changing drastically at this time making it very difficult for the Bible to be translated into comprehensible English. The reason for this change was because the three main English dialects (Old English, Old Norse, and Anglo Norman) were starting to mix.

Therefore, in order to improve the first version, John Purvey did a revision of it. This revision took place around the 1390’s, after John Wycliffe’s death. The principles of his work at translating are set forth in the prologue found at the beginning of his Bible translation. In it, he insists that everyone should become acquainted with the whole Bible. Below is part of the fifteenth chapter, in modern English, where Purvey speaks of all the work involved in the translating of the Bible:

“For these reasons and other, with common charity to save all men in our realm, which God would have saved, a simple creature hath translated the Bible out of Latin into English. First, this simple creature had much travail, with divers fellows and helpers, to gather many old Bibles, and other doctors, and common glosses, and to make one Latin Bible some deal true; and then to study it anew, the text with the gloss, and other doctors, as he might get, and specially Lyra on the Old Testament, that helped full much in this work: the third time to counsel with old grammarians and old divines of hard words and hard sentences, how they might best be understood and translated; the fourth time to translate as clearly as he could to the sentence, and to have many good fellows and cunning at the correcting of the translation.”

The first step, according to Purvey, was to find a faithful copy of the Latin Vulgate. It was very hard to find copies that were exactly alike because books were not printed, but copied out laboriously by hand. Copying manuscripts out by hand often lead to errors and mistakes. Thus, it was imperative that translators search and compare old manuscripts of the Vulgate, to find the most authentic and true version.

The second step was to understand the text that the person was translating, in order to translate it properly. Therefore, in the task of understanding what was being said, Purvey got help from Nicholas of Lyra, who wrote a Bible commentary called the Postilla Litteralis. Although this commentary was very helpful to Purvey, it would also lead to some flaws in his translation, which is made evident when we look at Psalm 8:4. In the first translation by Hereford the verse was translated “or the son of man for thou visitest him,” however, in the second version it was translated “either the son of a virgin for thou visitest him.” The phrase, “Son of a virgin” was not found in the Latin version, but it was found in Lyra’s commentary on the Psalms. Lyra says in his commentary, “the son of man” means “the son of a virgin.”

The third step in translating was to look at grammar books and dictionaries to find the meaning of odd words that were not often used. After all these steps were completed, they could translate the text, not just a literal translation, but a translation that takes the meaning of the text and renders it according to what it meant in the original language. Once the translation work was all done, Purvey had men read his translation over and correct what they thought needed to be revised. Below for the purpose of comparing and contrasting are two selections of passages from both editions of the translation. The first is Luke 5:1-3 in modern English and the second is Psalm 46:1-2 in the Old English.

Christ stood beside the standing water of Gennesaret, and saw two boats standing beside the standing water; and the fishers had gone down and washed nets. And he went into a boat, that was Simon’s, prayed him to lead again a little from the land; and he sitting taught the companies from the boat.

He stood beside the pool of Gennesaret, and saw two boats standing beside the pool; and the fishers were gone down, and washed nets. And he went up to a boat, that was Simon’s, and prayed him to lead it a little from the land; and he sat and taught the people out of the boat.

Oure God refut, and vertue; helpere in tribulaciouns, that founden vs ful myche. Therefore wee shul not drede, whil the erthe, shal be disturbed; and hillis shul be born ouer in to the herte of the se.

Oure God, thou art refuyt, and vertu: helpere in tribulacions, that han founde vs greetly. Therfor we schulen not drede, while the erthe schal be troblid, and the hillis schulen be borun ouer in to the herte of the see.

Although only 170 manuscripts of these translations exist today, the translation of the Vulgate into English had a very important effect on the church in England. It was because the Lord used John Wycliffe to be a morning star, that England would begin a reformation; a reformation that would eventually lead to our King James Version Bible. This occurred by the spreading of the Bible around England and although reading of Scripture was condemned by Rome, many people held secret meetings where they read the Word. Another thing that they did is memorize large portions of Scripture since books were so expensive. Many of these people were persecuted for going to these meetings and hearing the Word, but as Tertullian said in the second century, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Therefore, on this anniversary we should thank God for His wondrous work of grace in the heart of John Wycliffe and all the saints who were brought to the truth by the translation of the Vulgate Bible.

Written by: Stephen Mulder | Issue 9