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    January 14, 1930

    Putting the Bible into the Common Tongue


    W. W. Prescott

    The fascinating story of the work of Tyndale, Wycliffe, and other men that God used to transmit His word to us.

    [Signs of the Times, January 14, 1930, The Story of Our Bible, Part 5, pp. 8, 9, 15]

    I shall now attempt to present, in rather a brief outline, a history of the Bible from the second century to the invention of printing in 1454. I shall not burden my readers with a history and a detailed review of each translation and revision, as this would call for a book rather than an article, but I shall confine myself to such documents as have had some noticeable influence in preserving and in making known to the people in a better form the message of salvation.SITI January 14, 1930, page 8.1

    While the language of the early Christian church, both in the East and in the West, was the Greek of that period (the first really Latin bishop of Rome was Victor, a. d. 192-202), yet the official language of the Roman Empire was Latin, and as the influence of Rome grew and spread, the Greek language was gradually superseded by the Latin. The natural result of this change was a demand for the Scriptures in the Latin tongue. As no authoritative translation was provided, it was left to individuals and groups to meet this demand. As a consequence, there appeared many manuscripts of portions of the Scriptures, and “it is now generally conceded that at the latest a Latin translation of the entire Bible was in circulation at Carthage 250 a. d.”SITI January 14, 1930, page 8.2

    The New Testament portion was translated directly from the Greek, but the Old Testament text for this work was the Septuagint, so that this part of the Latin Bible was a translation of a translation.SITI January 14, 1930, page 8.3

    One of the many versions of that period which is worthy of special mention is distinguished as the Itala, which may be assigned to the latter half of the second century. A comparatively small number of the codices of this version, about forty, are now extant, and they vary from one another in a marked manner, so that it is difficult to classify them in groups, or to conclude that they all came from a common source.SITI January 14, 1930, page 8.4


    This confusion of readings gradually led to a real demand for a more authoritative text, and this demand was officially met by Pope Damasus (366-384), who requested Jerome, perhaps the most scholarly and most devoted man of that period, to undertake a revision of the current texts. This work was entered upon with some reluctance by Jerome, but was prosecuted with zeal and impartiality.SITI January 14, 1930, page 8.5

    In accordance with the pope’s instructions, Jerome did not attempt at first to make a new translation, but simply to edit the translations then available, but after he had issued a text of the New Testament on this basis, he became dissatisfied with the plan, and decided to make a new translation of the Old Testament from the original Hebrew. The text of Jerome thus formed met with decided opposition in some quarters, as I have already pointed out in a former article, but it gradually replaced the less reliable manuscripts, and so acquired the title “Versio vulgata” (that is, the common version), afterward shortened into the Vulgate.SITI January 14, 1930, page 8.6

    “The revision of the Old Testament part was made by Jerome in Bethlehem between the years 392-404 A. D., by direct reference to the Hebrew, of which language he had made himself master somewhat late in life. The work of revision is very unequally done; some books underwent very little change, others were much more carefully treated. In particular, the Psalter, which Jerome translated afresh from the Hebrew, had already been twice revise by him on the basis of the Septuagint; these revisions are known as the Roman and Gallican Psalters. The new Hebrew translation found very slow reception.” The following quotation will give a brief history of the later fortunes of this version by Jerome:SITI January 14, 1930, page 8.7

    “The after history of the Vulgate is interesting, and is parallel to the history of the reception of the new English versions in modern times. No doubt it was adopted in the Church of Rome from the first, but it was not to be expected that Damasus’ successors would be so interested in it as to maintain it in a special position. As a matter of fact, we know that even in Pope Gregory’s time (the second half of the sixth century) the Jerome version and the Old-Latin were employed in the Church of Rome indiscriminately. After about 398 Augustine employed the Gospel part in the church of Hippo Regius, of which he was the bishop, and in all his works after that date long quotations are cited from the Vulgate. About 409 Pelagius in Rome used the Vulgate text as the basis of his commentary on these epistles. But Old-Latin texts continued to be employed almost everywhere. For example, Augustine continued to use the Old-Latin for the rest of the New Testament outside the Gospels.... When we have critical texts of all the post-Vulgate Christian writers, it will be possible to write a very interesting book on the fortunes of Old-Latin and Vulgate texts in the early Middle Ages. In fact, the supremacy of the Vulgate was not assured till the ninth century, and it was not till the Council of Trent (1546) that the Vulgate became the standard for the Roman Catholic Church as a whole.”-“The Text and Canon of the New Testament,” A. Souter, pages 50, 51.SITI January 14, 1930, page 8.8

    Beginning about the time of Jerome and covering a period of about two centuries, quite a number of versions of a whole or a part of the Scriptures appeared, but as none of them are of present interest it will be sufficient to catalogue them. They are known as the Ethiopic version, the Armenian version, the Georgian version, the Sahidic version, and the Bohairic version. Later came the Gospel of John by the venerable Bede, the first Anglo-Saxon translation of the Psalms, an interlinear Anglo-Saxon paraphrase of the Gospels, an Anglo-Saxon version of the Pentateuch, Joshua, Judges, etc., and the Psalter in English prose. This brings us to the time of Wycliffe, who was born in 1320.SITI January 14, 1930, page 8.9


    Before considering the work of this forerunner of the great Reformation, it seems to me that it would be desirable to present the facts concerning the attitude of the laity and of the church authorities toward the general use of the Scriptures in the vernacular by the people. Even a brief story of the Bible would hardly be complete if this phase of it should be ignored. Speaking generally, I think I am warranted in saying that the average member of every Christian denomination has, at least theoretically, been in favor of the systematic reading of the Scriptures in the common language of the people, with or without note and comment, and that this has been the attitude of the church authorities with one exception. It is true that some of the early Christian teachers, Athanasius and Chrysostom, for example, took exception to the idea that “the reading of the Bible was a thing for the clergy and monks,” but after the great apostasy was more fully developed this position was abandoned. What seems to be an unbiased review of the historical facts is presented in the following extract:SITI January 14, 1930, page 8.10

    “Later on this giving up of the Bible on the part of the laity led to its being withdrawn altogether, exactly as in the case of the Communion cup. There came a time when laymen could not read, and when they had again learned the art they were not allowed to read the Bible. This was part of the medieval system of keeping the laity in dependence upon ecclesiastical authority, and was based upon the idea of the unfathomableness of the mysteries which the Scripture contained. The traditional exegesis of the church was the only means of reaching these, and the laity, left to themselves, always wandered from the track As a matter of fact, where Bible study was fostered in lay circles, there was to be found, as a rule, an anti-hierarchical, anti-clerical, sectarian tendency. It was believed that, in the Bible-reading conventicles of South France and Lorraine, Albigensian and Catharist tendencies were to be observed. Thus Innocent III wrote to the Bishop of Metz that conventicles of the laity for the purpose of reading the Bible were to be suppressed. The study of the Bible was to be encouraged, but theological training was necessary.... Of course this did not amount to a general prohibition of the reading of Scripture by the laity, but it bore a resemblance to it, and without doubt the tendency gained ground. Against the Bible in the popular tongue especially, a continual, though sometimes veiled, and certainly unsuccessful war was waged. Where the church had no Patience with these conventicles, people were driven into the arms of the sectaries, because it was these-especially Albigensians, Waldensians, Wycliffites and Hussites-who gave the laity for free access to the Bible and a free field for its exegesis which developed in increasingly acute form upon antipapal, anti-ecclesiastical fines. This made the church all the more anxious to keep its members apart from the movement. Soon it came to be that the reading of the Bible brought people under the suspicion of heresy. The decrees passed by councils of the 13th and 14th centuries against the reading of the Bible by Waldensians, Wycliffites, Beghards, and Beguines were followed by occasional local prohibitions like that of Archbishop Berthold of Mainz (1485). This caused printers of the Bible not perhaps to suspend operations, but to omit their names from their work. In the period prior to the Council of Trent, therefore, we cannot speak of any general prohibition of the Bible. It was a time of unreadiness and confusion, when mystic piety contended with ecclesiasticism for the supremacy. The crisis was brought about even in Catholicism by the Reformation, which successfully established the unconditional right of every layman to the Bible.”-E. von Dobschutz in “Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics,” edited by James Hastings, vol. 2, pp. 607, 608.SITI January 14, 1930, page 9.1


    The fourteenth century was a period of transition when there was a growing feeling against the old order of the domination of the church by the ecclesiastical authorities, but the leader had not yet appeared to organize the new order in the interest of the emancipation of religion. It was during this century that the lavish expenditure of the large income of the church had so impoverished the papal treasury that the pope deemed it necessary to make a demand for funds from the Britons. Among those who joined with Parliament in resisting this demand was John Wycliffe, who made most determined assaults upon the wealth of the high officials of on the church and of the corporations through on which they operated. “The power of his attacks lay not so much in his enthusiasm as in the purity, spirituality, and unselfishness of his character, in his determination to crush the wrong and enthrone the right; in his broad view of the questions of the day and the best method of solving them in the interests of the common people as over against the oppressions of church and state.”SITI January 14, 1930, page 9.2

    In the time of Wycliffe there was no Bible for the common people in their own tongue. The Latin Bible was in the hands of the clergy and high officials, but the laity could not read it, and the clergy did not expound it to them. The need of a vernacular translation for sustaining the religious life of the people seemed to be impressed upon the mind of “the Morning Star of the Reformation,” who came to the conclusion that this was the best, if not the only method by which the power of Rome over the people could be broken. He therefore decided to translate the Latin text of the Scriptures into the vernacular English, although he was then past middle life. Of course this could not be a critical version, as the New Testament was a translation of a translation while the Old Testament was a translation of a translation that was itself a translation of a translation, the Septuagint; nevertheless the work of Wycliffe was a long step in advance toward putting the Bible in the hands of the people in a language which they could understand. The New Testament was completed about 1380, and the whole Bible in 1382, only a short time before the death of the translator.SITI January 14, 1930, page 9.3

    Wycliffe adhered so closely to the literal meaning of the words of the Vulgate that his rendering is rather stiff and sometimes not altogether clear. An illustration of this is found in his translation of Matthew 8:29:“What to us and to Thee, Jesus Thou Son of God?” Instead of adopting the classical English of his time he employed the language of the common people, and this simplicity of style was largely followed in the Authorized Version. As showing how far the translation of Wycliffe has persisted until the present time, and also the changes in spelling between his time and ours, I will reproduce here his version of the Lord’s Prayer:SITI January 14, 1930, page 9.4


    “Oure fadir that art in heuenes, halwid be thi name: thi kyngdom cumme to; be thi wille don as in heuen and in erthe. Gif us this day oure breed, oure other substance: and forgeue to vs our dettis as we forgeue to oure dettours; and leede vs nat into temptacion, but delyuere vs fro yuele. Amen.”SITI January 14, 1930, page 9.5

    This translation of the Scriptures into the language of the people was followed at once with an organized effort to bring to their attention the message of salvation found therein. This is well stated in the following paragraph:SITI January 14, 1930, page 9.6

    “As soon as Wycliffe had issued his translation he organized a kind of religious order of poor, though not mendicant, preachers to preach and teach the English Bible to the common people. These were voluntary workers, not church clergy, who coöperated, when possible, with the clergy. If these church authorities opposed them, they carried on their work independently, and with all the vigor of their consecrated leader, Wycliffe. His disciples or followers were called ‘Lollards,’ and increased so rapidly that one of his sharpest opponents said, ‘You cannot travel anywhere in England but of every two men you meet one will be a Lollard.’ This illustrated the immense popularity that soon greeted Wycliffe, and made (Continued on page 15) (Continued from page 9) him the chief advocate of personal religion and of loyalty to the Scriptures. This fact, too gave him great influence with the church authorities, and made him the most successful reformer on English soil. The culmination of his translation marked the first serious defeat for the church’s complete control of the people of England, and the beginning of the end of the rivalry between the Norman-French and English languages. Henceforth the former waned and the latter increased in popularity and strength until it became established as the language of England.”-“The Ancestry of Our English Bible,” Ira Maurice Price, page 223.SITI January 14, 1930, page 9.7

    In spite of its intrinsic value and its great popularity, the translation of Wycliffe did not appear in printed form until nearly five hundred years after his death, and about two hundred fifty years after the appearance of the Authorized Version. Two English scholars published the first edition in 1850.SITI January 14, 1930, page 15.1

    The invention of printing from movable types in 1454 marked the beginning of a new era in the Bible story, and I shall begin to deal with this era in my next article.SITI January 14, 1930, page 15.2

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