Arthur Middleton on the origins of the English Bible and its historical precedents

The English Bible has played an important part in Anglican devotion. Today it is hard to imagine that until 1536, the possession of an English Bible could result in punishment by death. The Church feared that uncontrolled access to the Bible by individuals without the necessary qualifications was dangerous and liable to undermine the authority and stability of the Church. Such thinking was based on a number of things. First, the Bible could be misunderstood or deliberately misinterpreted, even by the increasing number who could read Latin. The Church’s responsibility was to teach people about God, his nature, his mighty acts and will. This was a gift of Christ to his Church, whose interpretation must be accepted.

Danger of heresy

Secondly, the Vulgate was the standard text of the Bible and only Latin Bibles were approved so that the Church knew exactly what text scholars and teachers were using. This would prevent the laity from reading the Bible and making their own interpretations. The danger of heresy caused the Church to become more restrictive about translating the Bible into the vernacular and more cautious about biblical translations. Even a translator can introduce some error, and when it comes to translating the words of Scripture the danger is even greater, as the translator can so easily introduce his own ideas as to what the text is trying to say. Look at some of the English Bibles of today to see how easily this can be done, even by fully accredited scholars.

Earlier translations

Always there have been vernacular translations of the Bible. The earliest datable fragment of English poetry is a paraphrase of part of Genesis in Anglo-Saxon. Bede on his deathbed finished dictating his translation of St John’s Gospel and translated the Psalms and other Gospels into Anglo-Saxon. King Alfred translated part of the Book of Exodus. The Bible is part of the English heritage because of people like Caedmon, Alfred the Great, Richard Rolle, Wycliffe and William Tyndale who translated parts of the Bible from the original languages that became the basis for the Authorised Version and the Revised Version. In 1535 Myles Coverdale, using Tyndale’s work and others, produced the first complete English Bible in exile.

The role of Cranmer

Cranmer longed to promote an English Bible, though he was not the first to desire it. The inspiration for this promotion of the Bible for ‘vulgar people’ in the ‘vulgar tongue’ came from his reading of the Fathers, and the Anglo-Saxons who had translated the Bible and read it in what was their ‘vulgar tongue’. Cranmer’s liturgical revision was concerned to embody such biblical material in its lections. He appeals to the Fathers to justify an English Bible, in the face of petty objections from bishops.

In 1539 Cranmer wrote a Preface, which was published in April 1540 and prefixed to the Great Bible appointed to be read in churches that year, appealing to John Chrysostom’s sermon ‘De Lazaro’, on the benefits ‘lay and vulgar people’ can derive from reading the Scriptures. Chrysostom is concerned that those who listen to his sermons should read their Bibles at home between these sermons and memorize what he has preached on such texts as they read. The reading of Scripture is a great and strong bulwark against sin, and ignorance of it can ruin and destroy those who do not know it. Such ignorance causes heresy in corrupt and perverse living.

Necessity of Bible reading

Gregory Nazianzen is used to reprove another sort of offender. In Gregory’s time, there were ‘idle babblers and talkers of the Scripture’ who did not allow it to reform their lives by example of good living. Cranmer quotes Gregory that not everyone is able to dispute the high questions of divinity and that it is dangerous ‘for the unclean to touch that thing that is most clean; like as the sore eye taketh harm by looking at the sun’. Contention and debate about Scripture is most hurtful to ourselves and to the cause we have furthered. Reading the Bible is as necessary for the life of a person’s soul as breath for the body.

Anglicans can be thankful that through the influence of the teaching of the Fathers an English Bible is authorized and their liturgy packed with biblical material that is read and heard throughout a continuous cycle. ND