10. The English Bible

The first English language Bible manuscripts were hand-written in the 1380's AD by John Wycliffe. With the help of his followers (called the Lollards) Wycliffe produced dozens of English language manuscript copies of the scriptures.

When John Hus (one of Wycliffe’s followers) was burned at the stake in 1415, they used Wycliffe’s manuscript Bibles as kindling for the fire. The last words of John Hus were, “In 100 years, God will raise up a man whose calls for reform cannot be suppressed.” Almost exactly 100 years later, in 1517, Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 “Theses of Contention” (a list of 95 issues of heretical theology and crimes of the Roman Catholic Church) onto the church door at Wittenberg, Germany. The prophecy of Hus had come true!

Martin Luther was the first man to print the Bible in the German language. In that same year seven people were burned at the stake by the Roman Catholic Church (political government of much of Europe) for the crime of teaching their children to say the Lord’s Prayer in English rather than Latin. (Foxe’s Book of Martyrs)

The first book off of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press was a Latin Vulgate Bible. Gutenberg’s Bibles were very beautiful, since each leaf Gutenberg printed was later colorfully hand-illustrated.

The scholar Erasmus wanted to correct the corrupt Latin Vulgate. He assembled the New Testament in Greek from several partial manuscripts. In 1516 he published a Greek-Latin Parallel New Testament where the Latin part was his own rendering of the text, not the Vulgate. This Greek-Latin New Testament focused attention on just how corrupt and inaccurate the Latin Vulgate had become, and how important it was to go back and use the original Greek (New Testament) and Hebrew (Old Testament) languages to maintain accuracy. It also showed how important it was to have the Bible in the language of the common people no matter what that language is.

William Tyndale was the spiritual leader of the Army of Reformers. He was a true scholar and a genius, so fluent in eight languages that he could pass as a native in any of them. He is frequently referred to as the “Architect of the English Language”, (even more so than Shakespeare) as so many of the phrases Tyndale coined are still in our language today.

Tyndale wanted to use the 1516 Erasmus non-Vulgate text as a source to translate and print the New Testament in English. He was forced to flee England because of this work. Tyndale showed up on Luther's doorstep in Germany in 1525, and by year's end had translated the New Testament into English. The 1525 Tyndale New Testament became the first printed edition of the scripture in the English language.

These Bibles were burned as soon as the authorities could confiscate them, but copies trickled through anyway. One actually ended up in the bedroom of King Henry VIII!

The more the King and the Anglican Church (Henry VIII’s replacement for Catholicism) resisted its distribution, the more curious the public at large became. The church declared it contained thousands of errors and they torched as many as they could get their hands on. In fact, they burned them because they could find no errors at all and showed that their tyrannical rule was wrong. The penalty for even owning a Tyndale Bible was death by burning.

Today, there are only two known copies left of Tyndale’s 1525-26 First Edition.

How did Tyndale fund his printing? The king’s men bought all the Bibles they could to burn, leaving a profit to print even more with! Books and Bibles flowed into England in bales of cotton and sacks of flour.

Eventually, Tyndale was caught and burned at the stake in 1536. His last words were, "Oh Lord, open the King of England’s eyes." This prayer would be answered just three years later.

Myles Coverdale and John “Thomas Matthew” Rogers had been loyal followers of Tyndale. They continued his project. Coverdale finished translating the Old Testament, and in 1535 he printed the first complete Bible in the English language. This first complete English Bible (printed on October 4, 1535) is known as the Coverdale Bible.

John Rogers translated the Bible into English directly from Hebrew and Greek. He printed it under the same pseudonym Tyndale had once used, "Thomas Matthew." This was appropriate since it is a composite made up of Tyndale's Pentateuch and New Testament (1534-1535 edition) and Coverdale's Bible and some of Roger's own translation of the text. It is known as the Matthew-Tyndale Bible.

The Church and king eventually gave up. In 1539, Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, hired Myles Coverdale at the bequest of King Henry VIII to publish the "Great Bible". It became the first English Bible authorized for public use. It was chained to the pulpit in every church and a reader was even provided so that the illiterate could hear the Word of God in plain English. 

Cranmer's Bible, published by Coverdale, was known as the Great Bible due to its great size. It was over 14 inches tall. Seven editions of this version were printed between April of 1539 and December of 1541.