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1.4 History of the Bible

By the year 150 A.D. all the books of the Old and New Testaments had been written. What has become from these writings over the following eighteen centuries? It is well known that parchments turn to dust, languages change, old ideas are not always well accepted, … All this could lead to rejection but, strange enough, this was not the case with the Bible.

Papyrus and parchment, even if well kept, decay with time; copies were made over and over again by hundred of scribes copying and, sometime, translating the old texts. Generally a reader dictated from the master copy to ten to twenty scribes. Even like this the process was very expensive and time consuming. However in this way the Scriptures survived for centuries until paper was perfected and printing invented in the fifteenth century. From then on millions of durable copies were printed at low cost.

The hand copying process used in the first centuries implied a big risk for the accuracy of the texts and their faithfulness to the writing of the authors. Before the New Testament was canonised a copyist could try to clarify part of a document, or a church leader could modify a sentence to make it in line with the current doctrine. Scribes could also make careless errors that would be reproduced many times afterwards. Present day scholars have compared the surviving early Bible manuscripts to detect these errors. They were then able to reconstruct a text that is as close as possible to the original. For the Old Testament the problem was different. After the Romans destroyed the Jewish state, Jerusalem and the Solomon Temple in 70 A.D. it was feared that the Old Testament would have been lost for ever. Fortunately some scrolls of the Holy Scriptures were saved and survived to become the base of modern Judaism. Scholars called Masoretes (meaning “tradition”) were trained to read and preserve the sacred texts. The Hebrew scrolls were accurately copied -and corrected by proofreaders- and in this way they reached us. They also standardised the texts to make their reading easier. It is known, for instance, that ancient Hebrew was written only in consonants. They invented signs to indicate vowels. These Masoretic texts are the base of the English version of the Bible in particular the version of the Ben Asher family of scholars.

The original books of the Bible were written in languages unknown to most people and, if only for this reason, they had to be carefully translated. For instance between 250 and 100 B.C. the original Hebrew texts of the Old Testament (with some sections written in Aramaic) were translated in Greek for the use of the many Jews living in Egypt. This version is called “Septuagint” meaning “seventy”. The legend says that seventy translators from Jerusalem were charged by the Egyptian ruler Ptolemy II to translate the Pentateuch into Greek. They worked independently and finished their work at exactly the same time after seventy days. All the translations were identical! All the other books were also translated and put at the disposal of all the people who understood Greek. The Septuagint became the reference Bible of the early Church and was quoted very often by the authors of the New Testament. For this reason the Jews repudiated it and used other Greek translations.

The books of the New Testaments were written in Greek although some of the sources were in Aramaic, the language of Jesus and his disciples. The first Christian Bible containing the Old and the New Testament was written in Greek, the main language of the Church during the first two centuries A.D. When Latin became the official language of the Roman Empire the Church followed and by 250 A.D. many Latin translations were used. These are called the Old Latin versions to distinguish it from the Jerome translation, or Vulgate, that was completed in about 400 A.D. The Vulgate was used in Western Europe for a thousand years. The first book to be printed, the Gutenberg Bible of about 1455, was the Vulgate.

As Christianity spread the Bible was translated in many other languages: Aramaic, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopic, Arabic, Gothic, Slavonic. Other translations and new versions have been done especially since the Reformation. In modern English there are at least six complete versions. By 1978 it was estimated that the Bible had been translated, totally or in part, in 1631 languages and dialects. (1)

The Bible has not only been translated in many languages but it has also been used extensively in the arts such as music, drama in the Middle age, visual arts such as painting and cinema, sculptures, mosaics, printing, … (1)

The story of the Bible in English started at the abbey of Whitly, Yorkshire, founded in 658 by the Princess Hilda. There, an illiterate farm hand was discovered to have a gift for poetry and song. He translated the Latin Bible in old English poetry. His poems were not translations but paraphrases, not written but sung in old English, also known as Anglo-Saxon. It was the first known attempt to express the Bible message in a language understandable to the illiterate people of England. Only a few lines of this work survive to-day.

At more or less the same time Aldhelm, abbot of Malmesbury, used music to diffuse the Biblical message. Dressed as mistrel he would sing about the Scriptures attracting many people to the Church.

The Venerable Bede (673-735), a monk at the Monastery of Wearmouth and Jarrow in Northumbria, is considered as the “father of English learning”. His book “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” is the main source of Christian history of the first eight centuries in the British Isles.

>From the tenth century many partial translations of the Scriptures appeared. Even King Alfred prefaced his code of Laws with the translation of the Ten Commandments and other Biblical laws. He is supposed to have translated personally some of the Palms. The priest Aldred, later Bishop of Durham, inserted in about 950 a translation in Northumbrian dialect between the lines of the Lindisfarbe Gospels, a Latin manuscript of the seventh century now at the British library in London.

Independent Anglo-Saxon Gospels appeared around the year 1000. Six manuscripts in the West-Saxon have survived to this day.

Aelfric (c.955-1020) is the translator in Old English of the narrative books of the Old Testament as well as some extracts from the New Testament. His aim was to provide religious information in simple English for the use of those people who did not know Latin. After 1066 Old English was suspended in favour of French and no more translation in Old English was made until the beginning of the fourteenth century. After the defeat of the French by Edward III and the Black Prince in the Hundred Years’ War a new English language emerged. It was based on the Old Anglo-Saxon but enriched with French words and Latin expressions from the Vulgate. This new language known as Middle English was used in the Wycliffe Bible, in Chauser’s Canterbury Tales, as well as in two versions of the Palms, one of them written by Richard Rolle.

The best known English Bibles are:

– The Wycliffe Bible of 1382 is the first complete version of the Bible written in English. It was in fact a translation of the Vulgate. Wycliffe (c.1320-1384) was the greater Oxford theologian of his time as well as an important politician and member of the Church. He was also a master of the new English language.

– William Tyndale studied at Oxford and Cambridge, probably under Erasmus, when the reform of the Church was in the air. Against the general opinion of the Church he wanted to put at the disposal of the unlearned a Bible in their language so that they could read it directly. He had to go to Hamburg in Germany to be able to translate the New Testament in English based on the Greek text edited by Erasmus. Three thousand copies were printed in Worms in 1325 but it was forbidden in England. Later on Tyndale translated most of the Old Testament and revised his first work twice to arrive a the final version in 1534. He was executed for Heresy in Vilvorde, Belgium, in 1536.

– Coverdale’s Bible was the first complete English Bible to be printed in 1535. It was probably printed in Zurich and imported to England. It was dedicated to, but not authorised by, Henry VIII.

– John Roger compiled Matthew’s Bible in 1537 on the base of Tyndale and Coverdale’s translations. It was published under the name of Thomas Matthew but this did not prevent him to be burned at Smithfield near London in the reign of Mary Tudor.

– Richard Taverner edited the Matthew’s Bible in 1539.

– Coverdale edited another version of Matthew’s Bible in 1539 at the request of Thomas Cromwell, Chief Minister of Henry VIII. Another edition was published in 1540 with a preface by Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury.

– The Geneva Bible (New Testament 1557; complete Bible 1560), a revision of previous versions, was published in Geneva by English scholars living as refugees in Switzerland. The Chief editor was William Whittingham, brother-in-law of Calvin, who used it as well as John Knox. Its chapters were divided in numbered verses for the first time.

– The Bishop’s Bible was a revision of the Great Bible prepared by Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1568.

– The Douay-Rheims Bible (New Testament, 1582; Old Testament in two volumes in 1609 and 1610) was prepared for English-speaking Catholics by some Oxford scholars living as refugees in France. Gregory Martin, the chief translator, based his work on the Latin Vulgate but he also freely borrowed from the previous English versions.

– The King James version, also known as the authorised version, was published in 1611. It was the result of a conference organised by James I in 1604 at Hampton Court Palace and attended by fifty-four scholars. They used the Bishop’s Bible as a base. Using also the best Hebrew and Greek texts available, they produced a scholarly revision of Tyndale’ and of the previous Bibles. (1)