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One of the calumnies often brought against the Catholic Church is that she withheld the Bible from the people, by preventing its being translated into the vernacular. It is commonly said and believed that Wyclif was the first to give to the English people the Bible in English.

The most hard-lived of all lies, is a controversial lie, and the so-called Reformation has found in such its most powerful ally. The Church recognized that in the Scriptures are some things hard to be understood, which the ignorant and unsteadfast wrest, as they also do the other Scriptures, unto their own destruction. (2 Pet. 3:16.)

The Church therefore regulates the vernacular reading of Scriptures according to what she judged best for the people. The wisdom of this policy is acknowledged by candid protestants. Mr. Karl Pearson (Academy, Aug. 7. 1886) declares: The Catholic Church has quite enough to answer for … but in the fifteenth century it certainly did not hold back the Bible from the folk, and it gave them in the vernacular a long series of devotional works, which for language and religious sentiment have never been surpassed. Indeed, we are inclined to think it made a mistake in allowing the masses such ready access to the Bible. It ought to have recognized the Bible once for all as a work absolutely unintelligible without a long course of historical study; and, so far as it was supposed to be inspired, very dangerous in the hands of the ignorant.

To the same end in 1530 a royal proclamation was made in England which decrees as follows:—

Having respect to the malignity of this present time, with the inclination of the people to erroneous opinions, (it is thought) that the translation of the New Testament and the Old into the vulgar tongue of England would rather be the occasion of continuance or increase of errors among the said people than any benefit or commodity towards the weal of their souls, and that it shall be now more convenient that the same people have the Holy Scriptures expounded to them by preachers in their sermons as it hath been of old time accustomed.

For these reasons all are ordered to deliver up the copies of the printed Testament corruptly translated into the English tongue, the king promising to provide that the Holy Scripture shall be, by great learned and Catholique persons, translated into the English tongue, if it shall then seem to his Grace convenient to be. (Gasquet, The Old English Bible, footnote pp. 132 and 133.)

The Church was rightly hostile to unauthorized translations of Scripture especially as many in those days made these the means of propagating the most dangerous errors. This is frankly acknowledged by the protestant Dean Hook. (Lives of Archbishops of Canterbury, III. p. 83). It was not from hostility to a translated Bible, considered abstractedly, that the conduct of Wiclif in translating it, was condemned. Long before his time there had been translators of Holy Writ. There is no reason to suppose that any objection would have been offered to the circulation of the Bible, if the object of the translator had only been the edification and sanctification of the reader. It was not till the designs of the Lollards were discovered, that Wicliffs version was proscribed.

Maitland (Dark Ages p. 252) a writer who will not be suspected of being too friendly to the Catholic Church declares that he found no evidence that the Catholic Church strove to prevent the reading, the multiplication, the diffusion of the Word of God.

In the British Museum alone there are eleven German editions of the Bible ranging from 1466 to 1518; three Bohemian editions of between 1488 and 1506, one Dutch edition of 1477. There are five French versions from 1510 to 1531, and seven Italian versions of between 1471 and 1532. These are all Catholic versions. It has been conclusively proven that in Germany in the Middle Ages there were seventy-two partial versions of the Scriptures, and fifty complete versions. These all emanated from Catholic sources. Seventeen of such versions were made before the time of Luther. And yet many still believe that Luther was the first to give to the Germans the Bible in the vernacular tongue. The Library of St. Gall contains many fine Bibles in the vernacular made before Luthers time.

The explanation of the fact that no complete English Bible existed before the time of Wyclif is thus given by Dom Gasquet:

We are apt to forget the fact that till past the middle of the fourteenth century French was actually the tongue of the Court and of the educated classes generally. Only in 1363, for the first time, was the sitting of Parliament opened by an English speech, and in the previous year only had it been enacted that the pleadings in the courts of law might be in English in place of the French which had hitherto been the legal language; but even then the record of the proceedings was still to be in Latin. French, however, continued for almost a century longer to be the language of the upper classes, and in it were written the rolls of Parliament, and such wills and deeds as were not in Latin. An explanation of this retention of the French language is of course to be found in the circumstances of the time. Before the era of Wycliff consequently, the reading public, that is to say, the higher classes or the clergy, found in the Latin version of the Holy Scriptures, or in such French versions as existed in England, what they required.

Such, then, is the very simple explanation of the non-existence of any English translation of the entire Bible before the time when Wycliff came upon the scene. In the first half of the fourteenth century probably the only entire book of Scripture which had appeared in English prose was the book of Psalms translated by Richard Rolle, who died in 1349. This work he undertook at the request of Dame Margaret Kirby, a recluse at Hampole. At the same time, probably about 1320, another translation of the Psalms was made by William de Schorham, a priest of Chart Sutton, near Leeds, in the county of Kent.

Besides these, however, there were the metrical paraphrases of Genesis and Exodus, the Ormulum, or poetical version of the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles, the work of an Augustinian canon called Orm, and more than one metrical translation of the Psalms, approaching almost to a literal translation, all productions of the thirteenth century. It is, moreover, of interest to remark that after the Norman Conquest, whilst the wants of the educated class were satisfied by the Norman-French translations, the Anglo-Saxon version of the Gospels was copied as late as the twelfth century. (The Old English Bible, London 1897).

It is very doubtful whether the entire Scriptures have ever been translated into Anglo-Saxon. We have no traditionary account of a complete version, and all the Biblical MSS. in Anglo-Saxon now in existence contain but select portions of the sacred volume. The poems on sacred subjects usually attributed to Cædmon, afford the first feeble indications of an attempt being made by the Saxons to convey the truths of Scripture in their vernacular tongue. Cædmon lived in the seventh century; he was a monk in the monastery of Streoneshalch in Northumbria. His poems have been strung together so as to form a sort of metrical paraphrase on some of the historical books of Scripture. He commences with the fall of the angels, the creation and fall of man, and proceeds to the history of the deluge, carrying on his narrative to the history of the children of Israel, and their wanderings in the desert. He also touches on the history of Nebuchadnezzar and of Daniel. The authenticity of this work has been doubted, some writers being of opinion that it was written by different writers at different periods; the striking similarity between some of the poems and certain passages in Miltons Paradise Lost has been repeatedly noticed. Two editions have been printed; the first by Francis Junius at Amsterdam in 1655, and the second, with an English translation and notes, by Mr. Thorpe in London, in 1832.

The literal versions of such portions of the Scripture as have been translated into Anglo-Saxon have chiefly been transmitted to us in the form of interlineations of Latin MSS. A Latin Psalter, said to have been sent by Pope Gregory to Augustine, is still preserved among the Cottonian MSS, and contains an Anglo-Saxon interlinear version, of which the date is unknown. Aldhelm, bishop of Sherborne, and Guthlac, the first Anglo-Saxon anchorite, translated the Psalms soon after the commencement of the eighth century, but their MSS are lost, and nothing is known with certainty respecting them. The same may be said concerning the portions of Scripture reported to have been translated by the Venerable Bede. At the time of his death, this renowned historian was engaged in a translation of the Gospel of St. John, and almost with his latest breath he dictated to his amanuensis the closing verse of the Gospel. Alfred the Great also took part in the translation of the Scriptures. He translated the commandments in the twentieth chapter of Exodus, and part of the three following chapters, which he affixed to his code of laws. He likewise kept a hand-boc, in which he daily entered extracts from various authors, but more especially verses of Scripture translated by himself from Latin into Anglo-Saxon.

There are three different versions of the Four Gospels at present known to be in existence, The most ancient of these is the famous Northumbrian Gloss, or Durham Book, preserved among the Cottonian MSS. in the British Museum. This MS. is one of the finest specimens extant of Saxon writing. The Vulgate Latin text of the Four Gospels was written by Eadfrid, bishop of Lindisfarne, about A. D. 680; his successor in the see adorned the book with curious illuminations, and with bosses of gold and precious stones; and a priest named Aldred added an interlinear gloss or version, probably about the year 900. The second Anglo-Saxon version of the Gospels belongs to the tenth century, and was written by Farmen and Owen at Harewood, or Harwood, over Jeromes Latin of the Four Gospels. The Latin text was written about the same period as that of the Durham Book, having been made during the seventh century. This valuable MS. is in the Bodleian Library, and is called the Rushworth Gloss, from the name of one of its former proprietors. The other translation of the Gospels was made by an unknown hand, apparently not long before the Norman conquest, and is thought to have been translated from the Latin version which was in use before Jeromes time.

Two editions of the Anglo-Saxon Psalter have been published. The first appeared in 1640; it was printed in London under the care of Spelman, from an ancient MS. by an unknown translator, and collated with other MSS. of equal antiquity. This version was undoubtedly made from the Latin Vulgate, which interlines with the Anglo-Saxon. A splendid edition of the Psalms was published in 1835 at Oxford: the MS. which forms the text formerly belonged to the Duc de Berri, the brother of Charles V., king of France, and was preserved in the Royal Library at Paris. Mr. Thorpe, the editor attributed this MS. to the eleventh century; and by some it is supposed to be a transcript of the version executed by Aldhelm, bishop of Sherborne, in the early part of the eighth century. It is, however, rather a paraphrase than a version, and is written, partly in prose, and partly in metre.

A partial interlinear translation of a Latin version of Proverbs, made in the tenth century, is preserved among the Cottonian MSS in the British Museum. To the same century belong the celebrated translations of Ælfric, Archbishop of Canterbury: they consist of the Heptateuch, or first seven books of the Bible, and the Book of Job. An edition of this version was published by Mr. Thwaits, at Oxford, in 1699, from an unique MS. belonging to the Bodleian Library; the Book of Job was printed from a transcript of a MS. in the Cottonian Library. Ælfric in some portions of his version adheres literally to the text; but in some parts he appears to aim at producing a condensation, or abridgment, rather than a translation of the events related by the inspired historian. Like the other Anglo-Saxon fragments, his translation was made from the Latin version.

A few MSS. of the Psalms, written shortly before, or about the time of the Norman eonquest are extant, and show the gradual decline of the Anglo-Saxon language. The history of the language may still farther be traced in three MSS. yet in existence, which were made after the arrival of the Normans. They are MSS. of the same translation, and two of them are attributed to the reign of Henry the Second: but the language in which they are written is no longer pure Anglo-Saxon; it has merged into what is designated the Anglo-Norman.

The exact period of the transmutation of Saxon into English has been disputed, but it seems most reasonable to believe that the process was gradual. A fragment of the Saxon Chronicle, published by Lye, and concluding with the year 1079, exhibits the language in the first stage of its transition state, no great deviation having then been made from Anglo-Saxon. But in the continuation of the same chronicle, from 1135 to 1140 A. D., the commencement of those changes may be distinctly traced, which subsequently formed the distinctive peculiarities of the English language. The principal change introduced about this period was the gradual substitution of particles and auxiliary words for the terminal inflections of the Anglo-Saxon. The English has happily retained the facility of its parent language in compounding words, the only difference in this respect being, that, in the formation of its compound terms, the Anglo-Saxon drew only from its own resources, whereas the English has had recourse to the Latin, the Greek, the French, the Italian, and other languages. It has been remarked by a distinguished foreigner, that everywhere the principle of utility and application dominates in England, and constitutes at once the physiognomy and the force of its civilization. This principle is certainly legible in its language, which although possessed of remarkable facility in the adaptation of foreign terms and even idioms to its own use, is at the same time free from the trammels with which the other languages of its class are encumbered. In the gender of nouns, for instance, we meet with no perplexity or anomaly, every noun being masculine, feminine or neuter, according to the nature of the object or idea it represents; and as the adjectives are all indeclinable, their concordance with the noun is at once effected without the apparently useless trouble of altering the final letters. This perfect freedom from useless encumbrance adds greatly to the ease and vigor of expression.

After the gradual disappearance of the Anglo-Saxon and evolution of the English language, the Anglo-Saxon versions became useless from the alteration in the language, and until the fourteenth century the efforts made to produce a new translation were few and feeble. An ecclesiastic named Orm, or Ormin, supposed from his dialect to have been a native of the North of England, composed a metrical paraphrase of the Gospels and Acts, in lines of fifteen syllables, during the latter part of the twelfth century. This work is entitled the Ormulum, from the name of its author, and is preserved in the Bodleian Library. A more extensive metrical paraphrase, comprising the Old and New Testaments, is to be found amongst other poetry of a religious nature in a work entitled Sowle-hele (Souls health), belonging to the Bodleian Library: it is usually ascribed to the end of the twelfth century. Another metrical version, probably of the same date, is preserved in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge: it comprises only the first two books of the Old Testament, and is written in the dialect then spoken in the north of England. In the same college, a metrical version of the Psalms, apparently written about the year 1300, has been deposited: this version adheres to the Latin Psalter, corrected by Jerome, as closely as the nature of the composition will admit. Several other MSS. of the old English Psalter, preserved in the British Museum and the Bodleian Library, are supposed to be exemplars of the same version, with the orthography altered in conformity with the state of the language at the periods in which they were written. A translation of the Psalms from the same text (the corrected Latin of Jerome), was executed by Richard Rolle, of Hampole, near Doncaster, during the early part of the fourteenth century. This version is remarkable as being the first portion of the Scriptures ever translated into English prose. Rolle, or Hampole as he is more generally called, also wrote a paraphrase in verse of a part of Job. Two other versions of the Psalms, belonging to the same period, are likewise extant. In Benet College, Cambridge, there is a version of Mark, Luke and the Pauline Epistles, but the translator and the date are unknown; and in the British Museum there is a translation of the Gospels appointed to be read on Sundays, written in the northern dialect.

A version has been commonly ascribed to John de Trevisa, vicar of Berkeley in Gloucestershire, who flourished toward the close of the fourteenth century; but he only translated a few detached passages, which he introduced in certain parts of his writings. Some texts translated by him were painted on the walls of the chapel belonging to Berkeley Castle.

A popularly believed error is that Wyclif made a complete translation of the whole Bible between the years 1378 and 1382, As Blunt (Plain Account of the English Bible p. 17) says: The name of Wyclife has been used as a peg to hang many a work upon with which the owner of the name had nothing whatever to do. Sir E. Maunde Thompson (Wycliff Exhibition British Museum p. XX) says that only the New Testament portion can be said probably to be due to the hand of Wyclif himself. Of the other portions of the version the same eminent authority declares that Wyclif may have commenced the work of revision but he did not live to see it accomplished. Blunt, op. cit., declares: There is scarcely any contemporary evidence, except that of his bitterest opponent, that Wyclife was really the author of this translation, but there can be no doubt that tradition is to be believed when it associates his name with it.… The popular idea of Wyclife sitting alone in his study at Lutterworth, and making a complete new translation of the whole Bible with his own hands is one of those many popular ideals which will not stand the test of historical inquiry.

Dom. Gasquet believes that many of the versions popularly credited to Wyclif were made by Catholics. (The Old English Bible)

Certain it is that the rôle of Wyclif has been exaggerated. That the Bible, at least portions of it, were in use in the vernacular tongue in England is attested by the best evidence.

Sir Thomas More [Dyalogues (ed. 1530,) p. 138] is a most competent witness:

As for old translations, before Wycliffes time (he writes), they remain lawful and be in some folks hands. Myself have seen and can show you, fair and old Bibles, in English which have been known and seen by the Bishop of the Diocese and left in laymans hands and womens.

Again, in another place he says:—

The whole Bible was long before his (i.e., Wycliffes) days by virtuous and well learned men, translated into the English tongue and by good and godly people with devotion, and soberness, well and reverently read.

Cranmer himself in his prologue to the second edition of the Great Bible. says:

If the matter should be tried by custom, we might also allege custom for the reading of the Scripture in the vulgar tongue, and prescribe the more ancient custom. For it is not much above one hundred years ago, since Scripture hath not been accustomed to be read in the vulgar tongue within this realm, and many hundred years before that, it was translated and read in the Saxons tongue, which at that time was our mother tongue, and when this language waxed old and out of common usage, because folk should not lack the fruit of reading, it was again translated into the newer language whereof yet also many copies remain and be daily found.

Foxe the Martyrologist in his dedication to Archbishop Parker of his edition of the Saxon Gospels writes:

If histories be well examined we shall find both before the Conquest and after, as well before John Wickliffe was born as since, the whole body of the Scriptures was by sundry men translated into our country tongue.

Finally it is proven that the opposition to the protestant versions was not for the reason that they translated the Scriptures into the vernacular, but that they brought in false opinions into doctrine.

When one alleged against Sir Thomas More that the ecclesiastical authorities burned all the protestant versions, More answered: if this were done so, it were not well done; but, he continues in reply to one who had asserted this, I believe that ye mistake it. And taking up one case objected against him in which the Bible of a Lollard prisoner named Richard Hun, a London merchant, was said to have been burnt in the Bishop of Londons prison, he says:

This I remember well, that besides other things framed for the favour of divers other heresies there were in the prologue of that Bible such words touching the Blessed Sacrament as good Christian men did abhor to hear and that gave the readers undoubted occasion to think that the book was written after Wyclifs copy, and by him translated into our tongue, and that this Bible was destroyed consequently not because it was in English, but because it contained gross and manifest heresy.

In some editions of Tyndales New Testament, writes the Protestant historian Blunt, there is what must be regarded as a wilful omission of the gravest possible character, for it appears in several editions, and has no shadow of justification in the Greek or Latin of the passage (1 Peter 2:13, 14). (Blunt, History of the Reformation, p. 514).

Green in his History (vol. ii., pp. 127–8,) though by no means unfriendly to Tyndale on this point, writes as follows:—We can only fairly judge their action by viewing it in the light of the time. What Warham and More saw over the sea might well have turned them from a movement which seemed breaking down the very foundations of religion and society. Not only was the fabric of the Church rent asunder, and the center of Christian unity denounced as Babylon, but the reform itself seemed passing into anarchy. Luther was steadily moving onward from the denial of one Christian dogma to that of another; and what Luther still clung to, his followers were ready to fling away. Meanwhile the religious excitement was kindling wild dreams of social revolution, and men stood aghast at the horrors of a peasant war which broke out in Germany. It was not, therefore, as a mere translation of the Bible that Tyndales work reached England. It came as part of the Lutheran movement, and it bore the Lutheran stamp in its version of ecclesiastical words. Church became congregation; priest was changed into elder. We can hardly wonder that More denounced the book as heretical, or that Warham ordered it to be given up by all who possessed it. (Gasquet, The Old English Bible, footnote pp. 130–131.)

In 1850 a complete edition of both testaments of the version commonly called Wyclifs was published at Oxford under the editorship of J. Farstall and Sir F. Madden.

In 1388 John Purney revised Wyclifs translation. These translations were based on the Latin Vulgate.

In 1525 or 1526 Tyndale published a translation of the New Testament at Worms. He published also portions of a translation of the Old Testament. Miles Coverdale continued Tyndales work, and in 1535 the first printed English Bible was published.

Other translations now followed rapidly, the best known of which is Matthews Bible. Its real author was John Rogers, alias Thomas Matthew. From Matthews Bible all later revisions of the protestant Bible have been formed.

In 1539 Richard Taverner published a translation of the Bible.

As none of these translations pleased Cromwell, he commissioned Coverdale to bring out a new translation. This is called The Great Bible, published in 1539.

Cranmers Bible was published in 1540, and five other editions followed in the next eighteen months.

As Marys accession had arrested the progress of heresy in England, some of the protestants fled to Geneva. There in 1557 Wm. Whittingham brought out the N. T. Principally by his labors a translation of the whole Bible was published at Geneva in 1560. This is called the Genevan Bible.

This version is sometimes called the Breeches Bible, because the translators rendered the חֲגֹרוֹת of Genesis 3:7, by breeches.

As Cromwell and Cranmer were opposed to the Calvinism of the authors of this edition, in 1568 several protestant bishops revised Coverdales version. This is known as the Bishops Bible.

In 1604 King James of England convened a conference to reform things amiss in the Church. In the second days conference Dr. Reynolds declared that the translations of Scripture made in the days of Henry VIII. and Edward VI. were corrupt and not answerable to the truth of the original. King James immediately ordered a new translation. It was begun in 1607, and in 1611 the work was published. Forty-seven revisers were appointed for the work. We know but little of the history of their work.

This edition is the authorized edition of the protestant English Bible. None of these versions have any critical value.

In May 1870 the work of revising this translation was begun. The revision of the New Testament was completed in about ten years and a half, and was published in 1881. The revision of the Old Testament was completed in 1885. A revised translation of the deuterocanonical books was published in 1895. The New Testament differs from the edition of 1611 in 5788 places, besides numberless minor differences.

In the year 1582, William (afterward Cardinal) Allen, Gregory Martin and Richard Bristow made a translation of the New Testament at the English Catholic college of Rheims under the following title:

The New Testament of Iesvs Christ, translated faithfvlly into English out of the authentical Latin, according to the best corrected copies of the same, diligently conferred with the Greeke, and other editions in diuers languages: Vvith Argvments of bookes and chapters, Annotations, and other necessarie helpes, for the better vnderstanding of the text, and specially for the discouerie of the Corrvptions of diuers late translations, and for cleering the Controversies in religion, of these daies: In the English College of Rhemes. Printed at Rhemes by Iohn Fogny. 1582. 4to.

Thomas Worthington affixed the notes to the text. From the place of its origin it was called the Rheims version. After the college was removed to Douay, the same scholars translated the Old Testament under the title:

The Holie Bible faithfvlly translated into English ovt of the Avthentical Latin. Diligently conferred with the Hebrew, Greeke, and other Editions in diuers languages. With Argvments of the Bookes, and Chapters: Annotations: Tables: and other helpes for better vnderstanding of the text: for discouerie of corrvptions in some late translations: and for clearing Controversies in Religion. By the English College of Doway by Lavrence Kellam. 1609–10. 2 vols. 4to.

These being united form the Rheims-Douay Bible, the editio princeps of all English Catholic versions. In 1750 it was revised by Dr. Challoner, and this revision is the one usually in use.

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