How Did We Get the Bible?: Part One

In this post and the next, we want to answer the question, “How did we get the Bible?” To do so will require us to take a tour of the history of the Bible in English.

Let’s start with nailing down some terminology. When we use the word “translate” we are talking about the transfer of a message from one language into another language. So, a “translation” would be the resultant message in the receptor language. An “edition” means the combined prints of a work of literature struck from one plate; they will all be the same. The word “text” could be used in two ways. (1) It is simply another name for a literary work, a writing: “the text of the NT; or the text of the Illiad”; (2) “text” can also be used to refer to a particular Bible passage: “Our text today is Jn 3:16.” A “manuscript” is a handwritten copy of a work of literature. Prior to the printing press, all books and pieces of literature were handwritten, this includes the original writings of the Bible.

Now let’s consider the process it took to get the Bible into the English language. There were three stages in this process. Stage 1 was Inspiration. This refers to the act of the Divine Author using the human author to compose the text of Scripture. For example, God inspired Moses to write the majority of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament.

Stage 2 was the period of Transmission, when the original texts were copied by hand thousands of times over many centuries producing many manuscripts. In this stage we are not talking about changing languages, just copying manuscripts within the original language.

The Third Stage, then, would be Translation. Here is where manuscripts in the original languages of scripture are transferred into another language so that people can read it in their own language. The Bible has been and is still being translated into many different languages. From the earliest times, Christians wanted to produce translations for others to be able to read the Bible for themselves.

Not long after Christianity was legalized, the Latin Bible became the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church. Throughout the Middle Ages, it was virtually the only Bible available in Europe. If you could not read Latin, you had to rely on the priest to tell you what the Bible said.

And so it was in Medieval England. Educated people spoke and wrote in Latin. The Latin translation completed by Jerome around 400 A.D. is known as the Vulgate. This was the almost exclusive Bible used in the British Isles for 1000 years. During this period, a few translations of sections of the Bible into English were done, but not the entire Bible. Access to the Bible was very restricted. As you might imagine, owning a personal or even family Bible (which would have been hand copied) was not economically possible.

Enter John Wycliffe (1330-1384) and his followers, the Lollards. They were responsible for the first complete translation of the Bible into English. They worked from the Latin Vulgate, which they had access to, since Wycliffe was a professor at Oxford University. This occurred around 1382. Hand copies were made and distributed by his followers. Their first translation was word-for-word, but Wycliffe’s colleague, John Purvey, later revised it to make it more readable.

For his translation of the Bible and for his criticism of the Catholic Church, Wycliffe was later officially declared a heretic. And even though he had been dead 44 years, the Pope had Wycliffe’s remains exhumed, burned, and thrown into the River Swift.

In Part 2, we will continue our history of the Bible in English.