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

The Wycliffe Bible

The first chapter of St John's GospelThe first chapter of St John's GospelThe name of the religious reformer John Wycliffe (d 1384) is commonly associated with the first complete translation of the Bible into English, made in the late 14th century. Henry Knighton, writing shortly after Wycliffe’s death, praises him for translating the Bible ‘from Latin in to the language not of angels but of Englishmen’ but, although Wycliffe was undoubtedly the inspiration and driving force behind this translation, it is now thought that the actual work was a collaborative effort undertaken by several of his followers.

Wycliffe profoundly disagreed with the hierarchy and privileges of the medieval Church, for which he found no justification in the teachings of Christ. He believed that every human being was individually accountable to God and responsible for keeping God’s commandments. For this to be possible the word of God must be available to all men in the language they could understand. These beliefs, which came to be known as Lollardy, brought him into conflict with the Church authorities.

Manuscripts survive of two principal versions of the Wycliffite translation of the Bible. The first appears to be partly the work of Nicholas of Hereford, a follower of Wycliffe who suffered imprisonment and exile for his adherence to the Lollard cause, and was completed by some of Wycliffe’s other followers. It is a more or less literal translation of the Vulgate, preserving Latin syntax even when this conflicts with understandable English.

As FF Bruce points out, verbal accuracy is of paramount importance in the law and it is possible that Wycliffe’s conception of the Bible as the codification of God’s law lay behind this approach. However, it was soon perceived that this stilted and obscure rendering would be of little use to ordinary English men and women. A second version was produced, the translation this time led by Wycliffe’s former secretary, John Purvey (1353?–1428?), who took a very different approach, seeking to render the word of God in the English idiom of his day.

This second translation, which was probably completed in the mid-1390s, was immensely popular with readers, less so with the authorities. In 1408 the archbishop of Canterbury,Thomas of Arundel, convened a synod at Oxford, one of whose decrees (the so-called Constitutions of Oxford) prohibited the unauthorised translation of the Bible into English or even the reading of a vernacular text of the Bible without the express approval of a bishop or Church council. This prohibition remained in force until well into the 16th century.

On display is a 1731 printed edition of the second Wycliffe Bible, opened to show the first chapter of St John’s Gospel.

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