History of the English Bible

This timeline features key points in the history of translation of the Bible into English, a story that is intertwined with the religious history of Europe but which now spans the globe.

Sources and further reading:;xNLx;;xNLx;Donald Brake, _A Visual History of the English Bible: The Tumultuous Tale of the World's Bestselling Book_ (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008).;xNLx;;xNLx;F. F. Bruce, _The English Bible: A History of Translations_ (New York: Oxford University, 1961);xNLx;;xNLx;David Daniell. _The Bible in English: Its History and Influence_ (New Haven and London: Yale University, 2003).;xNLx;;xNLx;David W. Kling. _The Bible in History: How the Texts Have Shaped the Times_ (Oxford: Oxford University, 2004).;xNLx;;xNLx;Bruce M. Metzger, _The Bible in Translation: Ancient and English Versions_ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001).;xNLx;;xNLx;Brooke Foss Westcott, _A General View of the History of the English Bible_ (London and Cambridge: Macmillan, 1868).

1382-01-01 00:00:00

Wycliffe Bible

John Wycliffe (1320-84), with the help of others, translated the first complete version of the Bible in English in the late fourteenth century. He was the leader of the Lollard movement which sought to replace the authority of the Catholic Church leadership with the authority of the written word, the Bible. The Lollards primarily spoke English and so the translation of the Bible into English made it much more accessible. Originally Wycliffe’s translation of the Latin Vulgate was very literal (i.e., word-for-word) and so a second edition (Purvey’s revision) was made to be more readable. The second edition flourished, despite being banned by the Catholic Church. There are around 250 copies of the Wycliffe Bible in existence today.

1401-01-01 00:00:00

Henry IV prohibits use of English Translations

Henry IV passes the De heretico comburendo law which prohibits the use of English translations of the Bible in England. This was refined in 1409 with the Constitutions of Oxford under Archbishop Thomas Arundel.

1455-01-01 00:00:00

Gutenberg Bible

In the middle of the fifteenth century, Johannes Gutenberg (1398-1468) developed a moveable-type printing press and became the first to print a book in Europe. The importance of Gutenberg’s invention is paramount. Prior to Gutenberg, books were copied by scribes who would have to hand-write out the contents. After Gutenberg, books could be printed en masse and distributed more widely and more cost-effectively. In 1455, Gutenberg produced the first printed edition of the Bible; it was an elaborate Latin version known as the Mazarin Bible, but often called the Gutenberg Bible. This edition is often praised for its beauty and value.

1516-01-01 00:00:00

Erasmus’s Greek NT (Textus Receptus)

Before the sixteenth century, the Bible used by the church in the West was in Latin. The first printed edition of the Greek New Testament was compiled by the Dutch scholar and humanist, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1469-1536). Erasmus used two main manuscripts dating from the 12th century (one on the Gospels, and the other on Acts and Epistles), which he compared with a few others. He did not have a complete text for the book of Revelation and so translated the last six verses of the book from the Latin Vulgate into Greek, which introduced new readings. It was a rushed job that contained hundreds of typographical errors. The second edition was published in 1519 and became the basis for Luther’s translation of the New Testament into German. The term Textus Receptus (“received text”) was later ascribed to it. This version and its various editions held prominent place for 400 years as it was the basis of the King James Version and other translations of the New Testament.

1517-10-31 00:00:00

Luther's 95 Theses

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittemberg, Germany. The 95 Theses were a protest against certain practices within the Catholic Church, most notably indulgences. This landmark event is often considered the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation which played a significant role in the development of new translations of the Bible into vernacular languages such as German and English.

1522-01-01 00:00:00

Luther Bible New Testament

Martin Luther was the iconic figure of the Protestant Reformation and his translation of the Bible into German was widely influential. Though there were numerous German translations of the Bible prior to Luther, his edition became the most significant within the German church and helped shape the German language during the Reformation and afterwards. Luther’s commitment to sola scriptura (the Reformation belief that Scripture is the highest authority) was central to his desire to make a translation of the Greek New Testament available in an accessible, common German language. Thus, his translation of the New Testament was the first to use Erasmus’s edition of the Greek New Testament, rather than the Latin text. Luther’s New Testament was completed in 1522 and his whole translation of the Bible was published in 1534.

1526-01-01 00:00:00

Tyndale New Testament

William Tyndale (1494-1536), who had become an expert of the ancient languages of Greek and Hebrew, sought to make an English translation of the Bible that was based on the Greek and Hebrew texts. Like Luther before him, Tyndale contended that the people should have access to the scriptures in their own vernacular. In fact, Tyndale even stayed in Germany while working on his translation because he was not authorized by Cuthbert Tunstall, then bishop of London, to translate the Bible into English. In fact, when editions of his New Testament began pouring into England in 1526, the Catholic Church opposed them and Tunstall led efforts to confiscate and burn the copies. This backfired on Tunstall and the popularity of Tyndale’s translation grew rapidly. A revision of Tyndale’s New Testament was published in 1534, just two years before his incarceration and execution. Tyndale never finished a complete version of the Bible.

1535-01-01 00:00:00

Coverdale Bible

Although Tyndale never finished his translation of the English Bible, Myles Coverdale (1488-1569) shortly picked up where he left off. Coverdale was the first to translate and publish a printed edition of the whole Bible in English. Unlike Tyndale, however, Coverdale was not proficient in Greek and Hebrew and thus relied on Luther’s translation, Jerome’s Vulgate, Tyndale’s translation (where available), and other sources. The Coverdale Bible was printed in October of 1535 and it was received with mixed views, especially by those who were opposed to its Lutheran influences. This was the first Bible to separate the Apocrypha from the Old Testament. In 1537, a slight revision of Coverdale’s 1535 Bible was published by James Nicholson, which claims to have gained the license of King Henry VIII. Thus, for the first time there was an approved English translation of the Bible in England.

1537-01-01 00:00:00

Matthew’s Bible

John Rogers (ca. 1500-1555), a friend of Tyndale published a translation of Bible in 1537 that was heavily dependent on the work of Tyndale. He used Tyndale’s New Testament, whatever Old Testament passages Tyndale had translated, and supplemented the rest of the Old Testament and Apocrypha with the translation of Coverdale. Rogers published the Bible using the pseudonym “Thomas Matthew” since Tyndale's name could not be used because the year prior, he had been executed as a heretic. Still, the Matthew Bible was the first complete Bible to be printed that made use of Tyndale's translations. The Matthew Bible received a license from King Henry VIII to be used in the churches in England, and thus it was able to be publicly produced. Eventually, John Rogers received the same fate as Tyndale; he was the first Protestant to be martyred under the pro-Catholic reign of Mary I of England.

1539-01-01 00:00:00

Great Bible

By the end of the 1530s, there were two sanctioned versions of the Bible, Coverdale’s (1535/37) and Matthew’s (1537). There was a push, backed by both King Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell (the King's leading adviser in matters of church and religion), to make a single version of the English Bible to be available in all the churches so that parishioners could read it. Not everyone was content with the Matthew Bible, especially the more conservative clergy who did not accept the overt Protestantism in marginal notes. Coverdale revised Matthew’s Bible, rather than his own 1535 edition, which meant that it was heavily influenced by Tyndale's translation. Despite printing delays in France, the Great Bible was finally printed, in England, in 1539. The title page of the Great Bible shows King Henry passing down the Bible to Thomas Cranmer (Archbishop of Cantebury) and Thomas Cromwell, who in turn pass it to clergy members amidst a larger group of laypeople. It was the first English Bible authorized by the king to be used in the churches.

History of the English Bible

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