King's College London
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'To make a good one better': translating the Bible

The Bishops' and Rheims Bibles

The second chapter of Luke’s Gospel, describing the birth of Christ, showing the Rheims Bible text (left-hand column) and the Bishops’ Bible text (right-hand column).The second chapter of Luke’s Gospel, describing the birth of Christ, showing the Rheims Bible text (left-hand column) and the Bishops’ Bible text (right-hand column).Despite its popularity, the Geneva Bible’s overt Calvinism made it unacceptable to the Church of England authorities. In 1561 Matthew Parker (150475), archbishop of Canterbury, proposed instead that Coverdale’s Great Bible of 1539 be revised by a team of bishops and other scholars, he himself acting as supervisory editor. The result was the so-called Bishops’ Bible, printed in London in 1568.

Parker’s brief to his revisers was to take the Great Bible as the basis for their text, check it for accuracy against the Hebrew and Greek originals (using Latin translations of the Old Testament Hebrew books, the bishops not generally being Hebrew scholars) and depart from it only where its wording was manifestly wrong. Controversial notes like those in the Genev aBible were to be avoided.

In 1571 the Convocation of Canterbury decreed that every bishop’s palace and cathedral and, as far as possible, every church should possess and display a copy of the Bishops’ Bible but, despite this official approval, the Bishops’ Bible, which suffered from the revisers’ ignorance of Hebrew, never achieved the popularity of the Geneva version.

Meanwhile, just as exiled Protestants in Geneva had translated the Bible for their followers during Mary’s reign, so under Elizabeth another group of exiles, recusant Catholics, produced their own English translation, the so-called Rheims Bible, largely the work of Gregory Martin of the English College at Rheims. The New Testament waspublished there in 1582, the Old Testament and Apocrypha at Douai in 1609–10. Taking the Vulgate as his main source and asserting its primacy over all other versions of the Bible (even the Hebrew and Greek originals), Martin produced a translation that was scholarly and powerful but uncompromisingly Latinate, with marginal annotations of equally uncompromising Catholicism.

The Puritan writer William Fulke (153889), master of Pembroke College, Cambridge, countered the ‘traiterous’ Martin with a parallel edition of the Rheims and Bishops’ Bibles, prefaced by an exhaustive rebuttal of Martin’s arguments:

Seeing you confesse, that the Latine being a translation, cannot alwaies attaine to the full sense of the principall tongue, why did you not translate out of the Greeke which is the principall tongue?

On display is the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel, describing the birth of Christ; the Rheims Bible text is in the left-hand column, that of the Bishops’ Bible on the right.

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