In my last post I briefly went over the language transformations that occurred throughout the earlier parts of Church history. I covered 2 big translation projects, namely the Septuagint and Latin Vulgate. In this article I plan to cover the explosion of English translations that happened during and after the reformation period. In order to do that I will briefly discuss the reasons for the reformation, technological advancements of the time, and world politics that also helped to shape this process. I don't want to get caught up in any one detail too long, so keep in mind this series is not a fully detailed picture of Church history. My aim is to focus on how history has shaped the bible we have today.
Why Doth Thou Protest
As I mentioned in the previous post in this series, the limited access to the scriptures for lay people allowed for some theological drift to occur in the early Catholic Church. As time wore on, more and more people wanted access to the Bible. Initially, the church allowed unofficial translation into common vernacular, but as it might be imagined, this led to even more confusion. Translations of varying quality caused confusion, and in 1229, the Catholic Church organized the Council of Toulouse where they discussed how this problem should be addressed. As a result of the council it was decreed that no Christian would be allowed to read unauthorized copies of the Bible any more because it was leading to strange heresies based on poor quality translations.
The Arrival of Moveable Type
In 1440 Johannes Gutenberg invented the first western printing press. This allowed books to be reproduced in a fraction of the time it took to copy a manuscript at a fraction of the cost. Of course one of the first books it was used to re-create was the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible. In 1450 the Gutenberg Bible was released.
The Protestant Reformation
As might be expected, when we discuss the reformation, we have to mention Martin Luther. His 95 theses can be seen as the official starting point of this era which began in 1517. Martin Luther believed the Bible, being the inspired word of God, was to be the basis for all religious doctrine. The idea of Sola Scriptura conflicted with Catholic tradition which put interpretation of scripture in the hands of the Church rather than the people. Martin Luther was averse to this idea, and so he decided to protest. One thing that spurred this defiance was his desire to translate the Bible into his native German tongue.
Martin Luther completed his translation of the New Testament around 1522, and by 1534 he was in possession of a newly translated full Bible with select apocrypha. His work inspired William Tyndale to start an English translation of the New Testament. He informed the London Bishop of his plans, but it was labeled as heretical, and he had to flee to the European continent to complete the work. In 1524 partial versions of his translation began to circulate, and a year later the full translation was completed.
I defie the Pope and all his lawes. If God spare my life, ere many yeares I wyl cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture, than he doust. - William Tyndale
William Tyndale was a man on the run for years, and by 1536 he was tried for heresy and burned alive for the work he did to translate the bible into the English language. Although he never completed a full Bible on his own his work was used to complete the first version of the Geneva Bible which was released in 1560.
1599 Geneva Bible
In 1534 there was another schism between the Catholic Church and the Church of England. This was partly because of the Protestant reformation that was going on throughout Europe, and partly due to the fact that the King wasn't fond of being subject to the orders of the Pope who was continuing to increase in power. In 1539, King Henry VIII and the Church of England released The Great Bible which was allowed to be read in churches instead of the Latin which was still used up to this point. Between 1545 and 1564, the Catholic church met again at the Council of Trent where they actually banned access to the Bible without a license from the Church itself. The bible was added to a list of banned books, and anyone caught with it would be punished as a heretic.
When Queen Mary (Bloody Mary) came on the scene she rejoined with Rome, and many protestant reformers found themselves under persecution. They fled the country to Geneva, Switzerland and began to work on their own translation. In 1560, the first edition of the Geneva Bible hit the market. The theologians involved in the translation were William Whittingham (lead), John Calvin, Miles Coverdale, Christopher Goodman, Anthony Gilby, Thomas Sampson, and William Cole. Several more editions were released over the years, but the one that seems to have been most widely distributed was the 1599 release. It is said that the Geneva Bible was read by some of the greatest minds of the time. William Shakespeare, John Knox, John Bunyan, and Oliver Cromwell were all credited with having relied on the Geneva Bible for their spiritual journey, but the most noteworthy for historical mark would be that the 1599 version of Geneva was the one the Pilgrims brought to America.
A New Era
The Geneva Bible forever changed the landscape for biblical study. In the next post I'll cover the authorized translations that followed as a response to the Geneva Bible, and we'll wrap up the series by discussing modern translations. I have not covered the history with as much detail as it's due, partially because a lot of that history is controversial, but mainly because my main focus in this series isn't the contentious and bloody nature of the protestant reformation. I will save that for a future series.