Sunday, 16 May 2010

The Bible in English

As there are suggestions that there should be only one English translation of the Bible approved for public use in churches it is perhaps an appropriate time to view the history of how we got the Bible in English.

The Earliest Translations

The Bible was originally written in Hebrew (the Old Testament) and koine Greek (the New Testament) which were, of their day, the vernacular. Koine was the form of Greek spoken from the end of the Classical period until Byzantine times. They were translated into Latin (also a vernacular) in the early Church. There may have been one or more Old Latin Versions. St Jerome seems to indicate that there was one single Old Latin Version which was variously amended in different places. The proper chants of the Mass are still in the Old Latin Version. The Scriptures were then retranslated by Saint Jerome in the fourth century. His version is known as the Vulgate (having been translated into the Vulgar tongue - the language of the people).
The translation of the Holy Scriptures into our own tongue is not a new idea. It was being translated into English in Anglo-Saxon England. Both St Bede the Venerable and King Alfred the Great translated the Bible into Early English. On his deathbed, the last act of Saint Bede's life was to dictate, to a boy called, Wilbert a translation into Early English of St John's Gospel. He completed the translation, sang Gloria Patri et Filii et Spirítui Sancti, etc. for the last time and died. His translation is now lost.

During the Middle Ages, there was a translation of the Bible into Middle English, a copy of which is in the British Museum; the so-called Wycliff Bible. Authorship of this has been attributed to John Wycliff (c1330-1384), a Yorkshireman who was the leader of the heretical sect, the Lollards, but Cardinal Gasquet inclined to the view that it was not his work. At the time, translations were allowed on the Continent and Archbishop Arundel of Canterbury (Archbishop 1396-1414) promised that something would be done in England. The Wycliff Bible, whoever translated it, was condemned and forbidden to be used by Archbishop Arundel at Oxford in 1408. The condemnation was not of the Bible in English, approved versions existed before Wycliff. It was condemned because it was a bad translation.

The First Protestant Translations

William Tyndale (c1494-1536) was a native of Gloucestershire who was educated at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities. He attempted to gain the patronage of the Cuthbert Tunstall, Bishop of London (1474-1559) for the production of a Bible, but was unsuccessful. He moved to the Continent and by 1526 had published the New Testament in English. The Archbishop of Canterbury, William Warham (Archbishop 1503-1532) and Bishop Tunstall were active in attempting to suppress it, Tunstall claimed he had found 2,000 errors in Tyndale's work, and Saint Thomas More wrote against it saying to "find errors in Tyndale's book were like trying to find water in the sea". Between 1530 to 1534 Tyndale published parts of the Old Testament. He was burnt as a heretic in Belgium. Tyndale's translation became the basis of the King James' version.
Miles Coverdale (1488-1568), another Yorkshireman, educated at Cambridge, translated the first completed English bible in 1535. His translation of the Psalms was incorporated into the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, although they were not a very accurate translation of the Hebrew. In fact, his was not really a translation at all as he was not a master of Greek or Hebrew. He put together existing versions putting them into more elegant English.
In 1537, "Matthew's Bible" was published. Thomas Matthew was the pseudonym of a Cambridge Protestant, John Rogers (c1500-1555), a priest who had been traduced by Tyndale. His work much depended on that of Tyndale and Coverdale, using that part of the Bible which had been translated by the former and filling in with Coverdale's work for those parts which Tyndale had not translated. In April 1539 an "official" Bible, "the Great Bible" was published by order of Thomas Cromwell. "The Great Bible" was, in effect, the "Matthew Bible" edited by Coverdale. John Rogers ("Matthew") was the first of the heretics burned under Queen Mary. Coverdale became "Bishop of Exeter" under Queen Elizabeth I.

A Catholic Version

After Coverdale's death, in 1582, there was published, at last, a Catholic edition of the Bible. This is usually called the Douai (or Douay) Bible. It was not translated at Douai, nor was more than a small part of it published there. It is more properly the Douai-Rheims Bible; the title page of my copy of this translation of the scriptures says "the Holy Bible translated from the Latin Vulgate and diligently compared with other languages (Douay AD 1609; Rheims AD 1582) published as revised and annotated by authority". What we now call by that name, the Scriptures with which my generation of Catholics was brought, up has been considerably altered over the centuries. There was no imprimatur or approbation for the Douai-Rheims translation.

The Douai-Rheims Bible pre-dates the publication of the King James' Bible ("the Authorised Version") and influenced it. The idea of a new translation of the English Bible was launched at a general assembly of the Church of Scotland at Burnisland in May 1601. James VI of Scotland attended the assembly. Two years later, he became James I of England. As King of England he had a new translation prepared. The translators met in the Jerusalem Chamber of Westminster Abbey; Lancelot Andrewes, Dean of Westminster, was one of the translators. The James I Version appeared in 1611. The divines who produced the "Authorised Version" had the Douai Version before them, although their translation was far less accurate than the Douai. One Protestant writer estimates that Douai "furnished a large proportion" of the Latin words which the producers of the King James' Bible adopted, and those who produced the Revised Version of 1881-1895 wrote that the "Authorised Version" of 1611 "shews evident traces of a Version not specified in the rules, the Rhemish [Rheims], made from the Latin Vulgate but by scholars conversant with the Greek Original".
The original of the Douai-Rheims Bible was translated from the Vulgate at the English College of Douay, but at the time the College was at Rheims. It had been founded in 1568 at Douai - where Philip II of Spain had established a University - by Dr William Allen, Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford and former Canon of York, later Archbishop of Mechlin and a Cardinal. Huguenot riots meant the English College was expelled from Douai and caused it to move to Rheims in 1578. It was there that the work of an English version of the Bible was begun.
The translation of the New Testament was the work of Dr Gregory Martin. Dr Allen, Dr Richard Bristow and John Reynolds, all former Oxford men, revised the work, and Drs Allen and Bristow annotated the text. Dr Martin also translated the Old Testament with notes written by Dr Worthington.
Because of the lack of finance, publication did not take place until 1582 when the New Testament was published at Rheims. In 1609 and 1610 the Old Testament was issued at Douai. Further editions were published; a second edition of the New Testament in 1600 with a few changes being made to the text, and of the Old Testament in 1635. Two more editions of the New Testament were made during the seventeenth century.
The spellings were modernised and a few more alterations made to the text some hundred years later in the edition published in 1738. Another edition was published at Liverpool in 1788.
Two new and independent translations of the New Testament were made during the eighteenth century; by Dr Cornelius Nary, a Dublin priest, in 1718, and by Dr Witham, the President of Douay, in 1730.
Dr Gregory Martin's sixteenth century translation was not very readable. Martin invented many latinate words to enable him to translate real Latin words for which there was not an English equivalent.

Bishop Challenor's Modernisation of Douai

Later in the eighteenth century, the Venerable Richard Challenor revised the Douay-Rheims text and made so many alterations to it that it may be considered a new translation. Bishop Challenor was assisted by Fr Francis Blyth, a Carmelite Friar, the Vicar General of his order in England. Fr Francis was a convert from the Anglican Protestants and so would have been familiar with the King James' Bible.
Dr Challenor's chief object was to make the language intelligible to the ordinary faithful; the sixteenth century original had been written more for scholars.
Bishop Challenor, by then the Coadjutor to Bonadventure Giffard, the Vicar Apostolic of the London District, published the first edition of his New Testament in 1749, and the whole Bible in the following year. Challenor's Bible was published in five small (12mo) volumes for easy reading by the people.
Further editions of the New Testament followed in 1752, 1772 and 1777 with variations and his own notes. In 1763-1764 he published the whole Bible.
A Dublin priest revised Challenor's text afresh and published the New Testament (12mo) in 1783, and the complete Bible (quarto) in 1791. His revision of the whole Bible was undertaken at the request of Archbishop Troy of Dublin and for this reason is usually known as the Troy Version.

Challenor's second edition of 1763 was reprinted in Philadelphia in 1790, being the first Bible printed in the USA for English speaking Catholics.

Modern Versions

The Jesuits attempted to produce a version of the Scriptures to be called the Westminster Bible. All that was completed was part of the New Testament: the four Gospels and an Epistle or two.
Mgr Ronald Knox made a new translation from the Vulgate "in the light of the Hebrew and Greek originals". The New Testament was issued in 1945, the complete Bible in 1955. As Knox was a convert Anglican minister, a lot of Knox's language echoes the King James' version. The copyright is vested in the Archbishop of Westminster.
The Revised Standard Version is a modern English translation published between 1945 to 1957 as a replacement for the Revised Version published in 1881-1895 and based on the King James' Bible. The Revised Standard Version was based on an American Standard Version of 1901. There is a Catholic Edition which is approved for public use in church. The New Revised Standard Version has recently been published with a Catholic Edition.
In America, the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine produced a new translation in the 1940s and 1950s. It is one of the approved translations for use in the New Order of Mass in English.
The Jerusalem Bible published in 1966 was an attempt to translate the poor koine Greek of the New Testament into an equally poor vernacular - originally French and then English. The English was translated from the French version, not from the Vulgate. Because of the poor construction of its sentences, it at times says the exact opposite to what it intends to say. It is perhaps an interesting academic exercise, but not the ideal means in which to make the Scriptures known to Christ's Faithful. Unfortunately, it seems to be the most widely used version in New Order Masses. A revised version, the New Jerusalem Bible was published in 1985.

The Book of the Church

There are still Protestants who repeat the canard that Catholics are not permitted to read the Bible. I used to work with a Seventh Day Adventist. He was absolutely convinced that the Pope forbids us to read the Bible.
To the great amusement of a High Anglican, who also worked with us, when I spoke to the Adventist, I peppered my conversation with Biblical quotations. After each of them, I would ask the young man if he recognised the quotation - the Anglican did - but the Adventist did not. Despite his certainty that Catholics, because of Papal prohibition, were unfamiliar with the Bible - to him, the only word of God - he was quite unfamiliar with it. As I would point out to him, Catholics hear the word of God from the book which was written by the Church every time they go to Mass.
Protestants claim an ownership of our book and claim to be responsible for its translation into the tongue of the people, but this is an error, two errors; the Bible is ours, and Catholics were translating it into the language of the people before Wycliff, Tyndale, Coverdale, et al. were born, and were translating it after they had departed this life.
In a recent edition of the television programme "Songs of Praise", the presenter stated that the Reformation was due to Martin Luther translating the Bible into the language of the people for the first time. Well it wasn't! The Bible had been translated into the language of the people long before Luther was born, alone apostatised.
Although we wish to have the Scriptures in the Liturgy sung or read to us in the language of the Church, Latin, we also hear their translation read before the Sermon on Sundays and Holidays, read them in our vernacular translations in our Missals when we go to Mass and read them at home in whatever version or language we prefer. It is our book, the Book of the Church.

(Also published on the Latin Mass Society's November 2001 Newsletter)


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