In 1454 in Germany – Johannes Gutenberg printed the famous 42-line Bible – the first printed Bible in the world. Printed in Latin – it is known as the 42-line Bible because most of its pages are 42 lines long. It was printed in 3 volumes. Only 40 copies of the 42-line Bible survived. They are among among the world’s most valuable books. The national libraries of France and Britain and the US Library of Congress hold complete sets of it.
The first English Bible
The first translation of the Bible into English was initiated by The Venerable Bede toward the end of the 7th century. Bede also gave accounts of one of the first English poets – Caedmon – writing religious verse. Bede translated The Gospel according to John and – according to his follower Cuthbert – translated the last word of John virtually at the moment of his death. It is thought that Bede also translated other Scripture of the Bible but none survived. English was much different then – of course; it was the Anglo-Saxon language – resembling modern German.
While the Anglo-Saxon language developed through the ages – there were a number of translations. Aldheim (640-709) has been credited with a complete translation of Psalms – and much of the rest of the Bible into Anglo-Saxon. King Alfred the Great (849-901) presented the Ten Commandments and portions of Exodus and Acts in old English. In the 11th century – the abbot Aelfric translated large portions of the Old Testament.
By the late-13th century – Anglo-Saxon had developed in what is known as Middle English. The modern prose was quickly following by Bible translations. Richard Rolle of Hampole translated portions of the New Testament. In 1325 – a new style of writing called Secretary script contributed to the speed with which translations could be made. The new script style was invented by Jean Froissart while writing his Chronicle during his travels through Europe. The flowing Secretary script was fast to write and easy to read.
Perhaps the most distinguished translation of the Bible into Middle English was initiated by John Wyclif (1320-1384). Wyclif was 29 when the Black Death plague killed half the population in England. Between 1380 and 1383 – Wyclif established an ardent following for translation. Nicolas of Hereford translated a substantial portion of the Old Testament. The translators produced the Wyclif Bible. It is not known which portions were translated by Wyclif himself.
The Wyclif Bible was made from a Latin base and was not true to the (then) new English language. Soon after its completion – in 1388 – John Purvey and his assistants made a more modern translation in a smoother writing style. Purvey’s translations would be used for more than 100 years.
The printed Bible
In 1525 and 1526 – William Tyndale completed an English translation of the 1519 and 1522 editions of the Erasmus Greek New Testament. Johannes Gutenberg had introduced his printing press in 1454 – so now Tyndale’s translations could be printed. It is thought that some 6000 copies were made of Tyndale’s Bible but were destroyed because of official opposition to it. In 1530 – Tyndale published a translation of the Pentateuch. In 1531 – he published Jonah and selections from the Old Testament. In 1534 and 1535 – he printed revised editions of his New Testament translations.
Tyndale continued to work on translations of the Old Testament – working from the Hebrew and Latin text and Luther’s German translation – but died before he could complete it.
In Tyndale’s time – George Joye also translated portions of the Bible into English. In 1534 – he published a revision of Tyndale’s New Testament – with changes of which Tyndale did not approve. Joye also published translations of Isaiah – Jeremiah – Lamentations – Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.
In 1535 – Miles Coverdale – working from the European continent – published the first English translation of the entire Bible. Coverdale was a writers’ writer – delivering his translation in beautifully constructed phrasing. The Coverdale translation was a remarkable contribution to the English Bible and the English language.
Many English translations of the Bible would follow as the language developed and discoveries of the origins of the Bible were made. The Geneva Bible was published in 1560 – the Authorised (King James) version in 1611 – the American Standard Edition in 1901 – The Bible in Modern English in 1903 – Today’s English Version (Good News for Modern Man) in 1966 – and the New International Version in 1972. The translation of the Bible is – indeed – an ongoing process. Today – the Bible is available in more than 2 200 of the 2 700 languages spoken in the world.