William Tyndale / Wikimedia Commons
The extraordinary popular excitement produced by the first printed vernacular translations of the Bible can seem rather a distant imagination for us today. It has, however, a lively parallel in our own time, namely the excitement produced by the invention of the personal computer and subsequent explosion of web resources. Just as for us, so for Europeans five hundred years ago; a new, heretofore largely inaccessible world suddenly opened up. In the fifteenth century the great technological break-through in information sharing came with the invention of moveable type. Fortuitously, a simultaneous public interest in the translation of ancient texts of Greek, Latin, and Middle Eastern origin into common tongues provided much work for the presses. Printing in the vernacular meant that texts previously accessible only to an elite group of highly educated males might now become available to be read by all sorts of people in their own languages.
From the beginning the book most in demand for translation was Christian Scripture. No text had been more central to the cultural formation of Europeans than the Bible, yet access to it for most people had been partial, cryptic, and muted through clerical distillations. Late medieval records make it clear that populations all over northern Europe had a pent-up curiosity where the full text of the Bible was concerned, seeing in it the possibility not only of religious illumination and clarification, but of lively new historical knowledge, much of which had been previously inaccessible to ordinary lay readers. Printing was also a huge economic breakthrough. Whether lavishly illustrated, illuminated, or merely rubricated, hand-copied medieval manuscripts of the Bible were very expensive. Few people could hope to own a book that, in its simplest and least expensive form, might have taken a well-trained scribe or calligrapher two years or more to produce. Calculate the salary, do the math, and you will see why only institutions or wealthy medieval families could afford such copies. Now imagine the cost for a beautifully illuminated Bible, one with colored capital letters and pictures. Each such Bible was unique – and could cost a fortune.
In this connection, the appeal of the pioneering printed block book, a kind of bridge technology, was likewise partly economic. Developed first in China in the Tang dynasty (618-906 CE), printed block books and long scrolls made this way become widely available there by the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE). (A form of movable type was invented by Bi Sheng in 1041 CE). But not until 1423 did the first products of xylography, printing pages from a carved wooden block, appear in Europe. Unlike their manuscript predecessors, while most of the early printed block books featured illustrative images, they were textually incomplete. In the case of the Poor Folks’ Bible (Biblia Pauperum), portions of Scripture were arranged typologically and with a Messianic focus to show what is often less immediately clear to the average reader of the biblical text alone, namely how events and sayings in the Old Testament can be read as pointing to events and the sayings of Jesus in the New. What the creators of such illustrated Latin abridgments did, in effect, was to formalize an already established system of cross-references and annotations highlighting certain analogies between the Old and New Testaments, whether quotations, allusions, or narrative patterns. These were repeated and intensified so as to draw the readers’ attention to perceived principles of unity in the design of the whole biblical anthology. The books were most often used by clerics in preparation for basic theological instruction; an excellent late example of the Biblia Pauperum was printed by Johannes Froben in 1491, richly illustrated with woodcuts. For the late medieval Church more broadly, the success of such books suggested a next step, a distillation such as could make narrative unity in the fuller history of human salvation more apparent and memorable even for un-Latinate lay Christians.
The biggest technical problem with the block book, despite that it made multiple, virtually identical copies of a work available at reduced cost, was that production was still too slow when measured against rising demand. Each block – text and illustration – had to be hand carved. For a book of any size, that required a great deal of refined and patient work. Also, the wood blocks wore out rather quickly. When in 1436 a Mainz goldsmith named Johannes Gutenberg developed moveable metal type – individuated letters that could be set for a line of text then re-used – it was a major breakthrough. Gutenberg also developed an oil-based ink, which kept the letters from bleeding and fading. With these advances in technology two trained men could make as many as 3,600 pages per day—a feat previously unthinkable.
Gutenberg’s first printed book (1446) was a “Poem on the Last Judgment,” reminding us that this was a period in which most of Christian Europe expected the imminent return of Christ; Gutenberg doubtless anticipated that such volumes were unlikely to sit long on the booksellers’ shelves. Popular interest in apocalyptic speculation had also fueled demand for block books with grisly illustrations; an excellent example is Der Antichrist und Die Finfzehn Zeichen, printed at Nuremberg by Hans Briefmaler in 1472. Demand for such books grew more rapidly than even the dramatically increased production capacity could supply. By 1500, 236 printing presses were pumping out books in twelve European countries. More than 15 million volumes had been published – about 30,000 individual titles. Obviously not just the Bible was benefiting from the new technology.
Yet it was the 42-line Bible begun by Gutenberg in 1452 and published in 1455 that more than any other work became the hallmark of the age of incunabula, or early printed books.
Pages from 36-line Bible at the Bavarian State Library
The comparative rarity of extant copies owes to the fact only 200 of these handsome two-volume editions of the Latin Bible were printed. At a price equivalent to three year’s wages for a competent clerk, they were just too expensive for what they were. Gutenberg went bankrupt. Johann Faust took over his company; the disheartened Gutenberg died in 1468. Another goldsmith turned printer, Anton Koberger of Nuremberg was more successful, however, greatly reducing the ratio of cost of production to price. In 1476 William Caxton set up shop in Westminster, invented more readable black-letter type (on the model of the script of some monks in Harlem), and did a land office business. Perhaps the most important continuing legacy of Gutenberg’s Latin Bible, printed without marginal commentary but beautifully illuminated, is the inspiration it gave to the printing of Bibles in general. Ten more Psalters or complete Latin Bibles were printed in Europe by 1483. More importantly still for future developments, there appeared eight different Bibles or Books of Psalms in German, five New Testaments or Psalters in French, an Old Testament and most of the New Testament in Dutch. By 1500 there were translations of the Bible into Danish, Italian, and Czech. All of these, however, were really translations of a translation – Jerome’s Latin – and thus at three removes from the original languages in which the Bible was written. All were vernacular translations by Catholic scholars for Catholic constituencies, and all preceded by many years the first English translations to make it into print.
The most important book in Europe in the fifteenth century – by a large margin – was still the Bible. Moreover, with the success of the universities since their foundation two hundred years before, there was by now a much greater proportion of literate (i.e., Latinate) people than the clergy alone, and a larger audience for books in general and the Bible in particular. So the “market” was there. But what did it want? As the case of the block-book Biblia Pauperum shows, there was an established interest in teaching texts, moralized and typologized presentations of scriptural narratives used in the liturgy and scheduled readings of the church. What some people were looking for was a Bible-digest in effect, a kind of crib to help explain the biblical “plan of salvation” to people – including village priests – who were limited in their capacity to read in Latin.
Yet there was another popularizing model afoot, one presaged a century earlier by the popular success of such figures as John Wyclif and his colleagues, who had produced a complete manuscript Bible in English by 1396. Though it was banned and wherever possible burned in the early years of the fifteenth century, the fact that over 250 of these Bibles remain is strong evidence for an enthusiastic lay readership for a vernacular Bible translation, even in this expensive medium. Wyclif’s Bibles were not glossed in the margins, but presented, in Wyclif’s words, as just the “naked text,” the model later adopted by Gutenberg. As the preface to the Wycliffite Bible makes clear, Wyclif and his associates were convinced that the only way to get a responsible, wholistic understanding of Scripture was to read it through narratively, quite precisely not in bits and pieces selected to teach doctrine, and strictly for its own words, not as interpreted in a determinative way by commentators. Reading the Bible in that way, Wyclif thought, readers would come to appreciate that it has its own distinctive grammar and logic in terms of which all formal interpretation, based to that point on Greek and Roman models, needed to be reconsidered. He also thought that reading the Bible literarily, book by book more or less from Genesis to Revelation, would reveal how all of Scripture formed a unity – “one law of God: lex dei, lex Christi.” This idea was to become a basic premise for the translators of the Reformation.
Timing is everything. Fiercely condemned by the bishops, Wyclif’s Bible did not make it to a printing press until 1850. It had thus no direct impact on the Reformation. But Wycliffite views about the primacy of the Bible had a significant influence on theological debates that were shaping up toward the early years of the sixteenth century. Their commentaries and tracts had a substantial influence on John Hus, and indirectly through him on Martin Luther. Luther would likewise favor translation of the “bare text.” By contrast, when Latin Bibles began to be printed in earnest in the mid-fifteenth century, most were offered still in the medieval manner – a small portion of text surrounded by a lot of marginal commentary, typically one of two popular late medieval glosses surrounding the biblical text on each page. The Glossa Ordinaria associated with Anselm of Laon, really an eleventh-century compendium by many hands, was one of these. The other was a postilla (or commentary) on the whole of the Bible by a single author, Nicholas de Lyra. In approach to the text they could hardly be more different. Lyra, an early fourteenth-century Franciscan and possibly a converted Jew, brought to his work a greater knowledge of Hebrew than other biblical scholars in this period. His knowledge of Hebrew illumined nearly every page of his Old Testament comments. More significantly, Lyra, though a Christian, also read the text from a Jewish point of view: for him the real historicity of the events described in the Bible was an essential feature, even a point of principle. Unlike the Glossa Ordinaria, he emphasized neither the allegorical nor the moral sense. Rather, like Thomas Aquinas, he insisted that careful reflection on the sensus literalis, the literal sense, was prerequisite to any responsible interpretation of Scripture. In several beautifully illustrated manuscripts of the Bible that have his commentary the illustrations are accordingly restricted largely to literal representations of historical events or depictions of such things as the tabernacle and the ark. One such manuscript (now at Princeton) has a pictorial diagram of the genealogy of Jesus from Matthew – a prototype for that which was later to appear in the preface to the King James Bible in 1611.
Lyra’s emphasis on the literal historical sense appealed strongly to Wyclif and Luther, for both of whom Lyra’s work became the benchmark in authoritative interpretation. Citations to Lyra are found all through their work. Here, then, is one of the many ironies in the theological developments of the Reformation: Wyclif’s choice to present a vernacular Bible unobstructed by commentary on the page pretty much set the agenda for translations and printed Bibles by Luther, Tyndale, Coverdale, and later the King James Bible. Yet Wyclif’s own English Bible, still under the ban of the Roman censors, was bypassed by the early printers. Meanwhile, Lyra’s Latin Bible, bearing an imprimatur and heavily surrounded by astute commentary, was the preference not only of traditional preachers and scholars, but of many Reformers, perhaps most notably Calvin’s confederate Theodore Beza. Because many valued Lyra’s highlighting of the historical context and literal meaning and had a decreasing affection for the allegorical commentaries of the Glossa Ordinaria, Lyra’s commentary was printed and reprinted many times in years leading up to and beyond the Reformation. Moreover, Lyra’s comments on the philological character of the original languages, perhaps the most detailed such commentary since St. Jerome’s translation notes for the Vulgate Latin a millennium before, provided important grist for the mill of the new Reformation-era theologians and translators. Suddenly issues of history and meaning in the original languages became “critical” issues for biblical scholarship. It mattered much whether a scholar knew Hebrew and Greek. Study of the Greek language developed even more quickly following the defeat of Constantinople in 1453 and the flight to western Europe of substantial numbers of clerics trained in Greek, but there was a growing interest in Hebrew as well. Printing greatly facilitated the speed and spread of this new learning also. The first Hebrew Psalter was printed in 1477, the whole Pentateuch in Greek in 1482, the complete Hebrew Bible (Soncino) in 1488. A Hebrew grammar appeared in 1503, and the considerably more accomplished Hebrew Dictionary and Grammar of Johannes Reuchlin was published in 1506. The study of Greek and Hebrew among fifteenth-century European biblical scholars increased dramatically, a true intellectual renaissance or rebirth of the original biblical languages. Not since the careful language study of St. Jerome had there been anything like it; only now, instead of being a singular phenomenon, it was part of a general and enthusiastic interest in the ancient languages of the Bible. Crowning Lyra’s influence, bringing Hebrew to the consciousness of his admirers in the Reformation, was the later decision of the King James Version translators to follow directly the Hebrew Bible, as had Jerome, using especially the First and Second Rabbinic editions of Daniel Bomberg (1516; 1524-5) rather than the Septuagint Greek in their translation of the Old Testament.
The Bible as a Book to be Read
In the fifteenth century all Christian translators were un-controversially Catholic. The Reformation as we think of it from our vantage point is an early sixteenth-century phenomenon, even though it had reforming roots that reach back at least to the thirteenth century. What we can see in the early history of the printed book is that the influence of incunabula (books printed before 1500) and the renaissance of learning they promoted among European Catholics simply had consequences more far-reaching than anyone could then imagine. Just two examples of the complexity of these interactions must here suffice to illustrate a larger picture. The first of these involves one of Martin Luther’s opponents in debate, the great friend of Thomas More, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam. Erasmus was a man of great humanistic learning, a classicist. His scholarly hero was St. Jerome, and he consciously modeled his own career after Jerome’s. Like Jerome, he recognized that the first requisite of sound biblical scholarship was to make available a reliable text in the original language. There were many variant and often contradictory readings in the manuscript tradition of the Greek New Testament. European scholars had been aware of this since the time of Charlemagne. Erasmus determined to produce a critical edition that would become the standard authority. It finally appeared in 1516, and to go with it he prepared a Latin translation of the improved text, which he called the Novum Instrumentum. These were published as a diglot, in parallel columns. This text became the basis for Luther’s German translation of 1522, as well as for translations by traditional Catholic scholars into French, Dutch, Danish, and Swedish; finally, Tyndale also used it as the basis for his English translation of the New Testament (1525-26). Thus, the textual work of Erasmus, perhaps the greatest Catholic humanist and biblical scholar of the Renaissance, became the foundation for some of the most influential of Protestant New Testament translations in both German and English.
Another notable example of formal Catholic influence on Reformation translators is the Complutensian Polyglot Bible of Cardinal Francesco Ximenes de Cisneros, which appeared in six volumes in 1522. In this text, St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate appears flanked with Hebrew on the one side and Greek on the other, as in his preface Cardinal Cisneros remarks, “like Christ between two thieves.” The Spanish Cardinal’s rather obvious “slip” in revealing his continuing preference for the Latin text is reflexive, a philological equivalent of someone saying, “if the King James Bible was good enough for St. Paul, then it’s good enough for me.” But in fact the Complutensian polyglot Bible was to become a significant aid to the Protestant translators preparing the King James Version of 1611.
Luther’s Pioneering Translation
Though not the first translation of the Bible into German, Luther’s was by far the most influential, becoming not only a fundamental pillar in the German Reformation, but by many accounts the most important benchmark for the early modern German language, effectively making his own Saxon dialect “normative” literary German from then on. It was also the first vernacular translation to work directly from the Hebrew and Greek texts; some appreciation of Luther’s urgency as well as competence is apparent in his taking only eleven weeks to do his first draft of the New Testament (1522), working from the Greek New Testament of Erasmus His original complete Bible appeared as a six-part edition in 1534, at the same time as the work of William Tyndale in England, but to more immediate local effect. Luther had the advantage of several collaborators, among them Philipp Melancthon, and in the Wittenberg edition there were 117 original woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer.
‘Life of the Virgin, Christ Taking Leave of his Mother’, woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, c. 1504
Over one hundred thousand copies were published by the printer Hans Lufft between 1534 and 1574, and soon could be found in virtually every German Protestant household; by 1546 already more than one in three families owned a copy. Catholics were busy translating simultaneously – Jerome Emser’s New Testament appeared in 1527, while the first complete Catholic German Bible, translated by Johannes Dietenberger appeared also in 1534, and another by Johannes Eck in 1537. None, however, had the culture-wide influence of Luther’s version, which soon crossed the channel to influence successively the translations of William Tyndale, Myles Coverdale, and through them the King James Version of 1611.
Tyndale and Other Reformation Bible Translations in English
The early history of the printed English Bible is, like the English Reformation itself, a good bit more complex, tangled as it was in hotly contested political skullduggery. The standout English translator, foundational for everyone who followed, was William Tyndale, a superb Greek scholar who, to borrow from Shakespeare’s dedication in the sonnets, can accountably be considered the “onlie begetter” of most English Bible translations in the Age of the Reformation, in that all subsequent English translations have depended heavily on his work.
The Greek New Testament of Erasmus (1516) was the basis for both Luther’s New Testament (1522) and William Tyndale’s (1525), the first English New Testament to be printed. At the time Tyndale was not yet thirty years old. Two or three years earlier, having grown impatient with the disdain of many elite churchmen for the text of Scripture, he is reliably reported to have said to one interlocutor of the anti-biblical persuasion, “If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.” This peppery remark was a clear echo of the preface of Erasmus to his Greek New Testament, in which the Dutch scholar expressed his wish that the Bible be read “in the common tongue” by the “unlearned,” women as well as men, by the Scots and Irish as much as the English, “even by the Turks and the Saracens.” Erasmus had concluded, “I wish that the farm worker might sing parts of them at the plough, that the weaver might hum them at the shuttle, and that the traveler might beguile the weariness of the day by reciting them.” Tyndale clearly shared this populist commitment to the faith and learning of common folk, an aspiration markedly anti-establishment at the time. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, his translation overall has many a colloquial touch, as in “the Lorde was with Joseph, and he was a luckie felowe” (Gen. 39:2), and in apparently deliberate irony, Pharaoh’s “jolly captains” are drowned in the Red Sea (Exod. 15:4). But those who might best appreciate such popular idiom were not in a financial position to be patrons for the work; he had a hard time funding his project. When he applied to Bishop Cuthbert Tonstall of London for support he was rebuffed, only the first of many rejections, and so left for Wittenberg. Several expensive catastrophic experiences trying to get his text printed befell him the following year before he finally got it printed at Worms in 1525. The following year copies began to arrive in England, much to the distress of none other than Bishop Tonstall, who confiscated all copies he could find on pain of excommunication to those who owned one. He promptly burned large quantities of them at St. Paul’s Cross, and set off across the channel to buy up future shipments and so intercept them before they could be purchased and read in England. As we might say today, the motivating issue was institutional control of interpretation. Yet in this case the attempt at suppression backfired. Whilst buying up whatever he could find in Antwerp he met a merchant named Augustine Packington, who presented himself as an agent to buy at a premium still larger quantities on the bishop’s behalf. The bishop happily agreed, unaware that Packington was in fact a Tyndale sympathizer, who then funneled the bishop’s money to the beleaguered translator in order to fund fresh printings and new shipments. None other than Thomas More, friend of Erasmus and soon to be martyred by Henry VIII, yet as much an opponent of Tyndale’s translation as Tonstall, was perplexed. Whilst examining a suspected Luther partisan for prosecution he offered him a plea bargain for information on why Tyndale’s New Testaments kept flowing into England despite every effort to shut them out. Where was the money coming from? The man’s reply, according to the polite prose of Halle’s Chronicle, identified the Bishop of London as one who “hath bestowed upon us a great deal of money [to gather] New Testaments to burn them, and that hath been, and yet is, our only succor and comfort.” More admitted to having suspected as much. Tonstall had thus funded Tyndale’s translation in spite of himself.
King Henry VIII, in this matter as in others, was inconsistent and ambiguous. He was an accomplished Latinist, as his tract against Luther defending the traditional seven sacraments (1521) amply demonstrates; for this partisan service to Rome against the Reformation he was awarded the title Defender of the Faith by Pope Leo X, a papal honor soon regretted once the divorces, remarriages, and executions of his wives began to scandalize all Europe. Henry also published his own edited Latin Bible (1535) in July, the same month he executed Thomas More. Essentially the Vulgate New Testament with selected parts of the Old Testament, it conveniently omitted such inconvenient narratives as Nathan’s denunciation of David after his adultery with Bathsheba and Elijah’s denunciation of Ahab and Jezebel.
Meanwhile, a Cambridge-educated Augustinian friar in Antwerp, Myles Coverdale, was persuaded to try his own hand at an English translation. Working from the Latin text and Luther’s German version, but also from Tyndale’s New Testament, he published the first complete Bible in English in October 1535. Returning to England, he briefly enjoyed the patronage of Queen Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell, though with their fall from grace in 1540, he was obliged to scuttle back to the continent to save his own neck. His Bible, however, had already met with some favor with the king, not least because of Coverdale’s scornful declamations against the Pope and over-the-top flattery of Henry in his preface. Henry was further persuaded, most probably by Anne Boleyn, to give his approval, though only by word of mouth, for its distribution, and the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, who had already petitioned the king in 1534 to allow a translated English Bible, proved eager to oblige. In 1537 it was the first complete English Bible to be completely printed in England.
Coverdale’s Bible was also the first to use chapter summaries rather than simple headings, and first to separate out the books of the Apocrypha and print them as an appendix. His revised Psalms are the text used in the Book of Common Prayer (1549), alongside Cranmer’s translation and adaptation of the Latin liturgy, so still in use by Anglicans today. Despite some idiosyncratic phrasing – e.g., the Song of Songs becomes “Salomons Balettes,” and in Ps. 91:5 we read “thou shalt not need to be afrayed for eny bugges by night” (where most translations read “terror”; bugges reflects an old Welsh word for “ghosts,” surviving now only in “bogey man” in English) – Coverdale’s text was nonetheless readable enough to generate a lot of interest. His Bible, like Coverdale’s 1537 edition, appeared with a formal royal license later in the same year. Once again, the bulk of the text was assimilated Tyndale.
With two licensed editions widely circulating, and at least one bishop (Salisbury) requiring every church in his diocese to keep a large folio edition chained to the desk at the rear of the sanctuary, the dam had broken. Among successors of importance was the Great Bible, in which Coverdale had a hand, especially in the second edition of 1540 which made real improvements in the poetical passages of the Old Testament (Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, Isaiah). This edition carried a preface by Cranmer and a full title included the “appointment” of “Lorde Kyng Henry the VIII, supreme head of this his churche and realme of Englande,” not to mention an endorsement from none other than Bishop Cuthbert Tonstall, who would most grievously have committed himself to his moat had he known how much of this text was actually Tyndale’s. Nor were the ironies of ignorant politics yet concluded; in another of his mood shifts Henry got the Parliament in 1543 to ban the “crafty, false and untrue translation of Tyndale,” and on August 31, 1546, just months before his death, went so far as to order that no man or woman of any social class or calling should possess “Tyndales or Coverdales New Testament.” Large quantities of both were publically burned, an obtuse gesture, since the Great Bible, largely Tyndale and Coverdale re-packaged, was everywhere to be found.
With the coronation of Edward VI, the tide turned again. Bibles were restored to churches, and the Great Bible was reprinted in 1549 and 1553, as still other translations were begun (e.g., John Cheke, Bishop Beke). When Mary Queen of Scotts came to the throne after the demise of her brother Edward, her Catholic sensibilities were inflamed against unsanctioned vernacular access to Scripture. She had Thomas Cranmer and others associated with the English Bible executed, but did not directly attack the Great Bible, for it was too deeply rooted for her to do so. When Elizabeth succeeded her after her execution, the way opened for further developments. Of these by far the most interesting and important was the 1560 translation produced in Geneva under the influence of Calvinist scholars. This effort was spearheaded by William Whittingham, an associate of Theodore Beza and John Knox. With several partners working freshly from the Greek and Hebrew text this team produced a highly readable English text, amply adorned with strong Calvinist, populist, and anti-papal marginal notes.
Far more polemical than any predecessor, one such note describes the “beast that cometh out of the bottomless pit” (Rev. 11:7) as the Pope, while another takes a harsher line than God on sin, suggesting, for example, that the Jewish midwives were right to refuse Pharaoh’s order to kill their babies, but wrong to lie about it (Exod. 1:15-19). This, despite the following verses in which we are told that God honored them for their pluck and shrewdness! The Geneva Bible became the appointed Bible in Scotland, and was exceedingly popular in England, becoming the literary Bible of choice for Shakespeare, Herbert, Donne, and Milton among others. Nothing would approach it in philological quality until the King James Version was authorized in 1611, though by then the Puritan cause which the Geneva version served and encouraged was meeting stiffer Anglican resistance. In a theological as well as historical sense, the Geneva Bible was the pinnacle achievement in English translation of the Calvinist wing of the Reformation. The Lutheran wing, so well represented by Tyndale’s translation, was to endure longer, passing through the Coverdale, Bishops, and Great Bibles to be everywhere visible as a rich foundation for the King James translators.
Originally published by Marginalia Review of Books under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license as stated here.