CHAPTER XVII. THE ENGLISH BIBLE.
Early Versions. The Septuagint. The Vulgate. Wiclif; Tyndale.
Coverdale; Cranmer. Geneva; Bishop's Bible. King James's Bible.
Language of the Bible. Revision.
EARLY VERSIONS OF THE SCRIPTURES.
When we consider the very extended circulation of the English Bible in the version made by direction of James I., we are warranted in saying that no work in the language, viewed simply as a literary production, has had a more powerful historic influence over the world of English-speaking people.
Properly to understand its value as a version of the inspired writings, it is necessary to go back to the original history, and discover through what precedent forms they have come into English.
All the canonical books of the Old Testament were written in Hebrew. The apocryphal books were produced either in a corrupted dialect, or in Greek.
THE SEPTUAGINT.—Limiting our inquiry to the canonical books, and rejecting all fanciful traditions, it is known that about 286 or 285 B.C., Ptolemy Philadelphus, King of Egypt, probably at the instance of his librarian, Demetrius Phalereus, caused seventy-two Jews, equally learned in Hebrew and in Greek, to be brought to Alexandria, to prepare a Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures. This was for the use of the Alexandrian Jews. The version was called the Septuagint, or translation of the seventy. The various portions of the translation are of unequal merit, the rendering of the Pentateuch being the best; but the completed work was of great value, not only to the Jews dispersed in the countries where Greek had been adopted as the national language, but it opened the way for the coming of Christianity: the study of its prophecies prepared the minds of men for the great Advent, and the version was used by the earlier Christians as the historic ground of their faith.
The books of the New Testament were written in Greek, with the probable exception of St. Matthew's Gospel, which, if written in Hebrew, or Aramaean, was immediately translated into Greek.
Contemporary with the origin of Christianity, and the vast extension of the Roman Empire, the Latin had become the all-absorbing tongue; and, as might be expected, numerous versions of the whole and of parts of the Scriptures were made in that language, and one of these complete versions, which grew in favor, almost superseding all others, was called the Vetus Itala.
THE VULGATE.—St. Jerome, a doctor of the Latin Church in the latter part of the fourth century, undertook, with the sanction of Damasus, the Bishop of Rome, a new Latin version upon the basis of theVetus Itala, bringing it nearer to the Septuagint in the Old Testament, and to the original Greek of the New.
This version of Jerome, corrected from time to time, was approved by Gregory I., (the Great,) and, since the seventh century, has been used by the Western Church, under the name of the Vulgate, (fromvulgatus—for general or common use.) The Council of Trent, in the sixteenth century, declared it alone to be authentic.
Throughout Western Europe this was used, and made the basis of further translations into the national languages. It was from the Vulgate that Aldhelm made his Anglo-Saxon version of the Psalter in 706; Bede, his entire Saxon Bible in the same period; Alfred, his portion of the Psalms; and other writers, fragmentary translations.
As soon as the newly formed English language was strong enough, partial versions were attempted in it: one by an unknown hand, as early as 1290; and one by John de Trevisa, about one hundred years later.
WICLIF: TYNDALE.—Wiclif's Bible was translated from the Latin Vulgate, and issued about 1378. If it be asked why he did not go to the original sources, and thus avoid the errors of successive renderings, the answer is plain: he was not sufficiently acquainted with Hebrew and Greek to translate from them. Wiclif's translation was eagerly sought, and was multiplied by the hands of skilful scribes. Its popularity was very great, as is attested by the fact that when, in the House of Lords, in the year 1390, a bill was offered to suppress it, the measure signally failed. The first copy of Wiclif's Bible was not printed until the year 1731.
About a century after Wiclif, the Greek language and the study of Greek literature came into England, and were of great effect in making the forthcoming translations more accurate.
First among these new translators was William Tyndale, who was born about the year 1477. He was educated at Oxford and Cambridge, and left England for fear of persecution. He translated the Scriptures from the Greek, and printed the volume at Antwerp—the first printed translation of the Scriptures in English—in the year 1526. This work was largely circulated in England. It was very good for a first translation, and the language is very nearly that of King James's Bible. It met the fury of the Church, all the copies which could be found being burned by Tonstall, Bishop of London, at St. Paul's Cross. When Sir Thomas More asked how Tyndale subsisted abroad, he was pithily answered that Tyndale was supported by the Bishop of London, who sent over money to buy up his books. To the fame of being a translator of the Scriptures, Tyndale adds that of martyrdom. He was seized, at the instance of Henry VIII., in Antwerp, and condemned to death by the Emperor of Germany. He was strangled in the year 1536, at Villefort, near Brussels, praying, just before his death, that the Lord would open the King of England's eyes.
The Old Testament portion of Tyndale's Bible is principally from the Septuagint, and has many corruptions and errors, which have been corrected by more modern translators.
MILES COVERDALE: CRANMER'S BIBLE.—In 1535, Miles Coverdale, a co-laborer of Tyndale, published “Biblia; The Bible, that is, the Holy Scriptures of the Olde and New Testament, faithfully and truly translated out of the Douche and Latyn into Englishe: Zurich.” In the next year, 1536, Coverdale issued another edition, which was dedicated to Henry VIII., who ordered a copy to be placed in every parish church in England. This translation is in part that of Tyndale, and is based upon it. Another edition of this appeared in 1537, and was called Matthew's Bible, probably a pseudonym of Coverdale. Of this, from the beginning to the end of Chronicles is Tyndale's version. The rest of the Old Testament is Coverdale's translation. The entire New Testament is Tyndale's. This was published by royal license. Strange mutation! The same king who had caused Tyndale to be strangled for publishing the English Scriptures at Antwerp, was now spreading Tyndale's work throughout the parishes of England. Coverdale published many editions, among which the most noted was Cranmer's Bible, issued in 1539, so called because Cranmer wrote a preface to it. Coverdale led an eventful life, being sometimes in exile and prisoner, and at others in high favor. He was Bishop of Exeter, from which see he was ejected by Mary, in 1553. He died in 1568, at the age of eighty-one.
THE GENEVAN: BISHOPS' BIBLE.—In the year 1557 he had aided those who were driven away by Mary, in publishing a version of the Bible at Geneva. It was much read in England, and is known as the Genevan Bible. The Great Bible was an edition of Coverdale issued in 1562. The Bishops' Bible was so called because, at the instance of Archbishop Parker, it was translated by a royal commission, of whom eight were bishops. And in 1571, a canon was passed at Canterbury, requiring a large copy of this work to be in every parish church, and in the possession of every bishop and dignitary among the clergy. Thus far every new edition and issue had been an improvement on what had gone before, and all tended to the production of a still more perfect and permanent translation. It should be mentioned that Luther, in Germany, after ten years of labor, from 1522 to 1532, had produced, unaided, his wonderful German version. This had helped the cause of translations everywhere.
KING JAMES'S BIBLE.—At length, in 1603, just after the accession of James I., a conference was held at Hampton Court, which, among other tasks, undertook to consider what objections could be made to the Bishops' Bible. The result was that the king ordered a new version which should supersede all others. The number of eminent and learned divines appointed to make the translation was fifty-four; seven of these were prevented by disability of one kind or another. The remaining forty-seven were divided into six classes, and the labor was thus apportioned: ten, who sat at Westminster, translated from Genesis through Kings; eight, at Cambridge, undertook the other historical books and the Hagiographa, including the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Ruth, Esther, and a few other books; seven at Oxford, the four greater Prophets, the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and the twelve minor Prophets; eight, also at Oxford, the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Revelation of St. John; seven more at Westminster, the Epistles of St. Paul, and the remaining canonical books; and five more at Cambridge, the Apocryphal books. The following was the mode of translation: Each individual in one of the classes translated himself every book confided to that class; each class then met and compared these translations, and thus completed their task. The work thus done was sent by each class to all the other classes; after this, all the classes met together, and while one read the others criticized. The translation was commenced in the year 1607, and was finished in three years. The first public issue was in 1611, when the book was dedicated to King James, and has since been known as King James's Bible. It was adopted not only in the English Church, but by all the English people, so that the other versions have fallen into entire disuse, with the exception of the Psalms, which, according to the translation of Cranmer's Bible, were placed in the Book of Common Prayer, where they have since remained, constituting the Psalter. It should be observed that the Psalter, which is taken principally from the Vulgate, is not so near the original as the Psalms in King James's version: the language is, however, more musical and better suited to chanting in the church service.
THE LANGUAGE OF THE BIBLE.—There have been numerous criticisms, favorable and adverse, to the language of King James's Bible. It is said to have been written in older English than that of its day, and Selden remarks that “it is rather translated into English words than into English phrase.” The Hebraisms are kept, and the phraseology of that language is retained. This leads to the opinion of Bishop Horsley, that the adherence to the Hebrew idiom is supposed to have at once enriched and adorned our language. Bishop Middleton says “the style is simple, it is harmonious, it is energetic, and, which is of no small importance, use has made it familiar, and time has rendered it sacred.” That it has lasted two hundred and fifty years without a rival, is the strongest testimony in favor of its accuracy and the beauty of its diction. Philologically considered, it has been of inestimable value as a strong rallying-point for the language, keeping it from wild progress in any and every direction. Many of our best words, which would otherwise have been lost, have been kept in current use because they are in the Bible. The peculiar language of the Bible expresses our most serious sentiments and our deepest emotions. It is associated with our holiest thoughts, and gives phraseology to our prayers. It is the language of heavenly things, but not only so: it is interwreathed in our daily discourse, kept fresh by our constant Christian services, and thus we are bound by ties of the same speech to the devout men of King James's day.
REVISION.—There are some inaccuracies and flaws in the translation which have been discerned by the superior excellence of modern learning. In the question now mooted of a revision of the English Bible, the correction of these should be the chief object. A version in the language of the present day, in the course of time would be as archaic as the existing version is now; and the private attempts which have been made, have shown us the great danger of conflicting sectarian views.
In any event, it is to be hoped that those who authorize a new translation will emulate the good sense and judgment of King James, by placing it in the hands of the highest learning, most liberal scholarship, and most devoted piety.