The History of the Bible, Part 2—Translation

Originally posted on the Bibles for America Blog.

This is the second post in a special, three-part series on the history of the Bible. Where did the Bible come from? How did it come to be in English and so many other languages? Knowing the history of this most precious Book will increase our appreciation of the written Word of God and its availability to us today, and will motivate us to treasure the Bible and read it regularly.

Translation: How Did the Bible Survive and Spread throughout All of Human History?

The Sacrifice of the Translators

It is no small matter that today we can read the Bible in a language we understand. Although the Word of God had been completely transmitted and recorded for hundreds of years, for a long time almost no one was able to read it.

“Our Savior God, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the full knowledge of the truth.”—1 Timothy 2:3b–4

For all men to receive salvation and come to the full knowledge of the truth, they must be able to apprehend the salvation revealed in the Bible and understand the truth God desires them to come to the full knowledge of. And since different people speak different languages, it was necessary for the Bible to be translated into various languages in order to make it accessible to all. The goal of translation is to provide all men with a translation of the Holy Word in their own language.

Beginning in the late Middle Ages, the endeavor to translate the Bible from its original languages into languages people could understand was fraught with opposition and undertaken at great sacrifice. As translators first began to translate the Bible into vernacular (common) languages, such as German, French, and English, fierce resistance arose at that time from the Roman Catholic Church. Since much of what the Roman Catholic Church taught and practiced was not mentioned in the Bible or was even forbidden in the Bible, to allow the common people access to the pure Word of God would damage the system of the clergy with all of the benefits to those who were in its ranks. The Catholic Church, working directly with secular (non-religious) sovereigns and nations, slaughtered thousands of believers who disagreed with its doctrines and practices. Thus, for anyone to translate the Bible into the vernacular languages of the day was to risk one’s life.

Nevertheless, such adversity and opposition did not deter those who sought to make God’s Word available to all. The words of Martin Luther are apt testimony of the resolve of those who risked their all for the Word of God: “The body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still.”1 Today, as the benefactors of their labor and sacrifice, we do well to treasure, read, and assimilate the fruit of all their labor.

Literacy of the General Population

Although faithful men labored and risked their lives so the Bible could be made available to all, literacy among the common people also needed to increase.

Prior to the fourteenth century, literacy was rare and often limited to the clergy. But with the new culture of the Italian Renaissance, literacy began to be promoted as a social endeavor rather than a skill limited to the clergy. By the beginning of the fifteenth century, the clergy’s monopoly on literacy was being decisively overthrown. The ability to read and write was highly esteemed and regarded as being immensely important, and more and more people became literate. Reading developed into a matter of personal enrichment. As a result, the demand for books soared. One scholar noted that “the rise in literacy created a virtually insatiable appetite for reading material,” yet the supply of books lagged far behind.2

The Mass Publication Revolution

In order to spread vernacular translations of the Bible so that people could read them, a technology that could produce copies of the Bible in large numbers was needed. Before the invention of the printing press, book production was labor intensive, costly, highly inefficient, and time consuming. Trained scribes painstakingly copied text and illustrations by hand. Because of the rise in literacy and the corresponding high demand for books, entrepreneurs began to search for a way to improve the process of book making and to reduce the cost. Johannes Gutenberg was the first to achieve a breakthrough with a new technology: movable metal type. Having completed his monumental invention, the first modern printing press, Gutenberg proceeded to print a book—the Book. In 1456, Gutenberg produced the first Bible that was printed by moveable type.3

It is impossible to quantify the effect the printing press has had upon humanity. One historian relates, “Now copies of books could be reproduced more rapidly, more cheaply, and with a higher degree of accuracy than had ever been possible previously.”4 Of particular importance is the profound effect printing had on the journey of the Bible. Without the printing press, the translated Bible would not have been as widely available to the common man. Gutenberg’s invention made the goal of those who labored to translate the Bible into vernacular languages achievable.

Translation Spotlight: William Tyndale

William Tyndale, to whom we owe the first printed English Bible,5 was greatly used by the Lord to make His Word accessible and understandable to ordinary men. For many centuries, governments and religious entities severely limited the layperson’s access to the Bible by confining it to languages requiring scholarly study. Tyndale was driven by the belief that “the root cause of much confusion in people’s minds [in Biblical matters] was ignorance of the Scripture. If this ignorance could be corrected, the eyes of all would be opened and the truth made clearly known.”6

Armed with such a conviction, Tyndale devoted his life to properly translating and widely distributing the Bible in the language of the common man. Despite the repeated confiscation and destruction of his work and constant threat to his life, he remained faithful to his service in the face of immense opposition, even until his death as a martyr.

An inspired and prolific translator, William Tyndale faithfully rendered the original Greek text into the first complete printed New Testament in English, the 1526 Worms New Testament. Two copies still exist today.7 He was the first to translate anything from Hebrew, a language virtually unknown in England at the time, into English when he published the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) in 1530.8

Although Tyndale spent much of his life working amid relentless persecution from the king of England, ironically, the highly regarded King James Bible, published only 80 years after his own version was printed, borrowed from Tyndale’s work almost word for word.9

William Tyndale’s effect on the English language is immeasurable, even to the extent that some claim, “Without Tyndale, no Shakespeare.”10 Tyndale’s masterful work demonstrates his greatly admired talent for balancing accuracy and clarity, the latter affording him great variety of expression. His unique ability as a translator was rooted in his technical skills of fluent and accurate Greek, Hebrew, Latin, German, and four other languages, and from his complete understanding of the complex art of rhetoric.11 His unadorned poetic style in structuring the English translation can be seen in many widely recognized phrases, such as “let there be light” (Gen. 1:3); “my brother’s keeper” (Gen. 4:9); “the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13); “give us this day our daily bread” (Matt. 6:11; King James Version); “for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:32, King James Version); and “the powers that be” (Rom. 13:1, King James Version).

William Tyndale was born in Gloucestershire, England, circa 1494 (the exact date of his birth is unknown), into a prosperous, well-connected family. He studied at the University of Oxford, obtaining his bachelor of arts degree in 1512 and his master’s degree in 1515, which permitted him to read theology for the first time. He was appalled that this official study did not include studying the Scripture.12

He later attended Cambridge University and may have gained his competency in Greek there. For a short period he was a tutor to a Gloucestershire family, where at the dinner table he engaged local church officials in lively discourse over what were often conflicting views of biblical truths. He was even summoned before the diocese on a charge of heresy, which was dropped. John Fox, in his Book of Martyrs, describes one debate during which Tyndale announced to a clergyman that he meant to translate the Bible into English so that even a farmer could know more of the Scriptures than the clergyman himself.13

Since Tyndale could not translate the Word of God in England without episcopal license, he went to London where he appealed to the Bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, to support his work. His appeal was unsuccessful. It was difficult, if not impossible, to independently translate the Bible in England with King Henry VIII, a Catholic “Defender of the Faith,” on the throne. So Tyndale sailed for continental Europe and began translating the New Testament into English there in early 1524. By August 1525, the work was practically complete and prepared for printing in Cologne, Germany. The local government, alerted to the progress, forbade the printing, causing Tyndale to gather his work before it was seized and flee up the Rhine to Worms. The first complete printed New Testament in English appeared in February 1526, and copies began to reach England a month later.14

For the first time, the whole New Testament, faithfully translated from the original Greek (rather than from the erroneous Catholic Latin version), could be read by anyone who could read English. This alarmed the English authorities, and Bishop Tunstall himself sent out a prohibition of the book, labeling it a “pestiferous and most pernicious poison.”15 He gathered all the copies he could find for public burnings and bought large quantities of the books in Europe before they reached England. Ironically, Tyndale used much of the money he received from these bulk orders to revise and print updated versions. Though the Church authorities tried to prevent the spread of Tyndale’s New Testament, they did not succeed. There is evidence that in many parts of England, groups of people met to read and hear the Word.16

William Tyndale spent the next few years working freely in Antwerp. However, in the spring of 1535 a young Englishman befriended him and then treacherously betrayed him for money. Tyndale was kidnapped and imprisoned in the fortress of Vilvorde, just north of Brussels. He was tried for heresy before 17 commissioners and chose to defend himself, not by legal maneuvering, but from the Scriptures. He wrote his defense in a book entitled Sola fides justificat apud Deum, meaning “Faith alone justifies before God.”17

Eventually Tyndale was condemned to death, and after 16 months in prison, he was “brought forth to the place of execution…tied to the stake, strangled by the hangman, and afterwards consumed with fire, at the town of Vilvorde, 1536; crying at the stake with a fervent zeal, and a loud voice, ‘Lord, open the king of England’s eyes!’”18

Surely Tyndale would have rejoiced to know that his prayer was heard: within months of his martyrdom, a complete English Bible, two-thirds of it his own work and licensed by King Henry VIII himself, was circulating in Britain.19

Read part 3 of The History of the Bible to learn about Bible interpretation, or how we understand the Bible.

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