Who first translated the bible into English?

  • During the middle ages and the Reformation, several people tried to translate the bible from Latin into English. You can find medieval translations of individual texts. Furthermore, some medieval illuminated gospels have Anglo-Saxon notations and translations on them.
  • The first person credited with translating the whole bible from Latin into English was John Wycliffe. This bible was hand-written and seems to have jump-started the Lollard movement. Wycliffe was declared a heretic and died of a stroke. The reason Wycliffe just used Latin is because in Wycliffe’s time, knowledge of classical Greek and Hebrew was hard to come by. Most of those ancient texts were in countries dominated by Islam, and the tensions caused by the Crusades meant Christians did not have access to them.
  • However, later scholars would try to go to the original source.  The Hebrew bible was written not in Latin but in Hebrew, with a little Aramaic throne in. The Apocrypha and the New Testament were written in Greek. The Latin translation attributed to Jeremiah, which Christians read until the early modern period, was a translation of the Greek Old and New Testament (The Greek Old Testament came from the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew bible, which was the text read by authors of the New Testament gospels). So Jeremiah’s Latin translation was two removes from the Hebrew source, and that let to misunderstandings. Here are two of my favorites:
    • Matthew 1.23 quotes the Greek translation of Isaiah: “The virgin will conceive.” But the Hebrew text said, “the woman will conceive.” The Greeks were much more concerned about female virginity than the Jews were, and that concern was passed from Jeremiah to the entire Christian religion and many Christian households to this day.
    • A passage in Isaiah referred to the Babylonian king as Helel Ben Shachar or “shining one, son of the Canaanite god of the dawn.” Somewhere between the Greek and the Latin translations, that got rendered as “light-bearer,” which Jeremiah translated as Lucifer, thinking it was an early reference to the devil. In fact, ancient Jews didn’t believe in a devil or hell, and there is no character named Lucifer in the Hebrew bible.
  • The first person to translate the Hebrew and Greek bible directly into English, bypassing the Latin, was William Tyndale in 1535. The Geneva bible and the King James bible followed suit. While Shakespeare and Milton were probably raised on the Geneva bible, King James, the first English monarch to claim absolute power, commissioned the KJV to counter what he thought were subversive, anti-monarchical elements in the Geneva bible.
  • Tyndale and KJV scholars did their best, but they knew less about biblical Hebrew that scholars do today. It was pretty easy to make a mistake because the Masoretic texts they had did not transcribe vowels, only consonants. They didn’t have access to Jewish people with knowledge of Hebrew because England, like so many European countries, had pushed all the Jewish people out. Until the time of Ferdinand and Isabella and, later, the inquisition, both Muslims and Jews coexisted with Christians in Spain. By pushing them out, Christians missed out on lot of new thinking about the classics, science, navigation, mathematics–you name it.
  • Like Tyndale, several precursors who translated the bible from Latin into English were executed as heretics. You might say that the church did not want ordinary people reading the bible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *