By the late Rev. Neil MacIntyre *
Extracted from The Free Presbyterian Magazine, Volume 9 (1904-5), and edited.
(Continued from last month)
Part 2 – The First English Translations
WE now proceed to consider how the Bible has come to us in a language which we can understand.
It has been pointed out already that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew by Moses and others. Is it a fact that the art of writing was known so early as the time of Moses? Yes! It is now ascertained beyond doubt that the art of writing is very old that long before the time of Moses men knew how to write. The chief materials on which they made their writings were stone, clay, wood, papyrus, and parchment. The oldest documents which we possess have come from Babylon and Egypt. The Babylonians wrote on blocks of soft clay which were easily impressed, and when impressed, were dried. By this process the writing was well preserved. Papyrus, from which our word “paper” comes, was made from the papyrus plant, which grew on the banks of the River Nile. Only a few specimens of this Egyptian paper have been found in tombs, as the material was difficult to preserve. Parchment, which was chiefly used by the Jews in transcribing the Scriptures, consisted of dried skins, and these, when fastened together, made splendid sheets, which were rolled up on poles.
The oldest manuscripts of the Old Testament known to exist date back to the eighth century only.1 This, no doubt, will appear strange to some, for the question may be asked, How are we sure that we have a correct version unless we can appeal to the original manuscript? This may easily be explained. It can be proved that the manuscripts from which our translation of the Bible is taken are faithful copies of much older manuscripts. It is a well known fact that the Jews, “to whom were committed the oracles of God”, had an almost superstitious regard for the exact letters of Holy Scriptures. So careful and minute were they in copying the manuscripts that if there happened to be a letter written in a different size from the others, in the text from which they were copying, they did not allow themselves to correct it, but copied it exactly as it stood. To prevent the possibility of making a mistake, they counted every word, and every letter in every word, and a note of the number was taken at the end of each book. So marvellously scrupulous were they in transcribing the Scriptures, that if a mistake were observed in the copy being made, it was rejected and the work was commenced afresh. Thus the Scripture was fulfilled, “The word of the Lord endureth for ever.” “Not one jot or tittle” not the smallest particle of a letter, penned by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost “will pass away”.
The New Testament, which was written in Greek, was completed during the latter half of the first century. Of it we have several manuscripts dating back to the fifth century. The original documents which came from the pen of inspiration were generally either of parchment or papyrus. The Apostle Paul seems to have used parchment in writing his epistles (2 Tim. 4:13). The Apostle John, on the other hand, evidently used papyrus (2 John 12).
About the second century the Bible was translated into Latin. This translation was made for the benefit of the Christians living in North Africa, who could not understand Greek, and who had to have the Scriptures in the language they could understand. At the end of the fourth century Jerome, who was born about 340, produced the Bible commonly called the “Vulgate.” It was partly a version of the first Latin translation, but the translator, being a great scholar, also used the original languages freely. We would draw particular attention to Jerome’s translation because it was from it that John Wycliffe’s famous translation was taken, which was practically our first English Bible.
Let us notice the religious condition of the people of the British Isles before the introduction of Christianity. They were then immersed in the pagan superstitions of Druidism. In those first centuries they, like the greater part of mankind, were lying in darkness and in the shadow of death, worshipping images and sacrificing to idols, and altogether ignorant of the living and true God. (It is painful to reflect on the general sad condition of the world even in our advanced age. It is calculated that supposing the population of the whole world consists of a thousand millions, only one hundred and seventy-five millions are even nominal Christians. One hundred and sixty millions are Mohammedans, nine millions are Jews, and the large remainder of six hundred and fifty-six millions are still idolaters. Thus the vast majority of the human race lie in wickedness, and are without Christ, without God, and without hope).2
We, who as a nation were once lying in such great darkness and wickedness, have reason to praise the Lord that in His wonderful mercy He has caused the light of the Gospel to shine upon us. It was in the sixth century, according to any positive account, that the gospel came to Scotland. Columba, who was the first missionary that brought the glad tidings of peace to Scotland, sailed along with twelve other missionaries from Derry, Ireland, in the year 563. It is supposed that they first landed on the island of Colonsay, for in this island there is a hill called “Carn-cul-ri-Eirinn.” Concluding, however, that they had not yet reached a point where they might be said to have entirely forsaken their own country, they put to sea again, and landed on the island of Iona. Columba did not confine his labours altogether to Iona, but often crossed over to the mainland, where he was instrumental in setting up many places of worship. There were no doubt many things connected with his mission which we cannot at this date regard with approval. Nevertheless it is not possible to deny that he and his labours brought a great blessing to Scotland. Columba found the people quite illiterate, so that though they should have had the Bible presented to them in their own language they could not read it. It was necessary therefore for the people to be educated, as well as to have the Scriptures in their own tongue.
The translation of the Bible into the English language was a momentous undertaking, and occupied several hundred years ere it was fully accomplished. Perhaps we may be allowed, as we pass through this wide field, to give a short narrative of the lives of those men who spent their time and strength in accomplishing this great and glorious work.
The first attempt at translating any part of the Bible into English was by John Bede. He was born in the county of Durham about 673, and in 735 he translated the Gospel of John only. The well-known story of how he finished the last sentence of the Gospel is very touching, and casts a ray of light on the serene and simple piety of his life. “Dearest master,” said his scribe, “there is one chapter yet to translate, and it is hard for thee to think.” “No,” said he, “it is easy; take thy pen and write quickly.” Some time after, the scribe said, “Master, there is one sentence more.” “Write quickly,” he replied. Then the scribe said, “Now, master, it is finished.” “Well,” said the venerable Bede, “thou hast spoken truly, it is finished;” and, turning round in bed, he died. Many changes have taken place since then, and one of the greatest is in connection with the Bible itself. It is now published in 150 languages and in nearly 200 versions.3 It is computed that there are about 40 million Bibles in circulation, yet there are still about 656 million souls without the Word of God.4
Others, after Bede, translated parts of the Bible, but we pass them over, and come to one who stands by himself in high position in life we mean King Alfred the Great. He was born in 849. Though the youngest of five sons, he succeeded to the Crown of England in 871. He died in 901. Alfred is the only one in the long line of English sovereigns to whom the title “Great” has been accorded, and he certainly gave proof of his greatness by desiring that his subjects should know the Word of God. He rendered the “Law,” part of the “Psalms,” and the “Lord’s Prayer” into Anglo-Saxon.
Again, years rolled away, and with the flight of time great changes took place in the condition of the British people. The Normans, having become conquerors at the battle of Hastings in 1066, introduced a new element into the English language which gave it that shape it has manifested ever since. When the language thus attained a significant degree of development God raised up a man to use it in His own service. This man was John Wycliffe. To John Wycliffe, who has been called “the morning star of the Reformation,” belongs the special honour of giving the English-speaking population a complete translation of the sacred Scriptures in their own language. He was born at Hipswell, near Richmond, in Yorkshire, about 1325. At an early age he entered Oxford College, where he greatly distinguished himself, and latterly became one of its teachers. Unlike the other professors, he taught the students out of the Word of God. In his controversies with the Popish monks, and in exposing their morals and doctrines, he constantly appealed to the Word of God. He laid down three fundamental principles: first, that there should be no Pope between the King and the people; second, no priest between the sinner and the saviour; and third, that there is no doubt but the truth will prevail. Two years before his death he finished the translation of the Old and New Testaments, and thus presented to the people the first English Bible. However, it was costly to buy. The then vast sum of £30 to £40 had to be paid for a Bible because it was not printed but written, printing being then unknown.
The Papal party sought Wycliffe’s life again and again, but he was protected from their malice by the powerful intervention of the Court and of several nobles, such as the Duke of Lancaster and Lord Percy, both in high position in the government. It is told of him that on one occasion, when he was very ill and his enemies thought he was dying, a party of “begging friars” entered his room and pressed him to recant, but raising himself in bed he exclaimed, “I shall not die but live and declare the evil deeds of the friars.” In 1377, Wycliffe was cited to appear before the Archbishop in St. Paul’s. He obeyed the summons, but before his case was proceeded with, the Bishop of London and the Duke of Lancaster quarrelled, and the meeting broke up in disorder. Later in life, he was condemned at the Blackfriars Priory in London, yet by some means he was saved from being put to death. On the 28th December, 1384, while preaching in his church at Lutterworth, he was stricken by paralysis, and passed away on the 31st of the same month. Thus died a great servant of God. Thirty years after Wycliffe’s death, the Council of Constance condemned his writings, and ordered the bones of “the heretic” to be dug up and burned, which was done.
Where, today, are those maligned saints of God who were the means of doing so much for the spiritual benefit of mankind? In glory, and at rest from their labours and sufferings. What about the Book of books, for which they laboured and suffered? It is now available to us all, and at a fraction of what it cost others in those far off days. We are highly favoured indeed.
To be continued
* See the January issue for a biographical note about the Rev Neil MacIntyre.
1. Since this was written some earlier manuscripts, e.g. the Dead Sea Scrolls, have been discovered.
2. Today, the world population is almost 6,000 million, and about 543 million are nominal Protestants.
3. In 1995, of the 6,528 languages in the world, 4,564 languages were without any Scriptures.
4. In 1995 there were about 2,000 million people yet without the whole Bible.