February, 24, 2011 — Our uneventful trip from Scotland to London to visit a rare book dealer was suddenly interrupted by my wife’s enthusiastic scream, “Wycliffe, Wycliffe, there is a Wycliffe sign!” Sitting nestled along the highway on a very small sign were the words, “Wyclif Church.” I brought the car to a grinding halt and returned to a small narrow unpaved lane lined with a hedge fence. Following the lane we soon entered a picturesque glen with a quaint rock church and a stone house. A gentle brook called the Tees meandered ever so slowly behind the church.
We approached the cottage next to the church to seek permission to look around. The caretaker soon began explaining with a sense of pride that John Wycliffe was born in the lower section of the church. Stepping over the threshold of the church transported us back into the fourteenth-century. We spent the rest of the afternoon in an unexpected and joyful discovery.
John Wycliffe’s (1320/30-1384) profound influence on the English Bible cannot be overestimated. His uncompromising belief in the authority of the Scriptures alone gave birth to the entire Bible being translated into his mother tongue.
The Aristocracy of the period spoke French, Anglo-Norman, and Latin. The laity spoke Middle English, the period immortalized by Geoffrey Chaucer. Without a Bible the masses relied on the teachings of the corrupt medieval Church. Men and women were subjected to harsh measures by the Church such as threats of hell, excommunication, and indulgences, a practice of selling certificates that promised forgiveness not only for past sins but future ones as well. The rise of Wycliffe and his followers, stirred the masses to a longing for the Scriptures that they could read for themselves.
Wycliffe’s lack of a working knowledge of Greek and Hebrew forced him to use the Latin Vulgate of Jerome as the source for his English Translation. He had no prior list of translation rules to follow. His only example of translation was the medieval practice of placing a translation of words directly above or below the line of a manuscript text called glossing. This method of translation led to extreme literalism and strange word order. The English of Wycliffe’s New Testament was so strange, in fact, that an English teacher in Alabama mistook a Wycliffe New Testament for a Latin language New Testament.
Modern scholarship questions whether Wycliffe participated in the actual translation, but evidence suggests he assisted in much of the work with his followers doing a yeoman’s share of the translation. Whatever the case, his name became attached to it.
The weakness of the wooden literalness of the Wycliffe Bible soon became obvious and a loyal follower of Wycliffe, John Purvey began the revision of the Bible about 1388. While still an inferior work by today’s standard, it was more idiomatic and it served Great Britain for more than 135 years.
The success of Wycliffe’s Bible in English was so profound that in 1408 the authorities issued The Constitutions, a document forbidding the reading of any non-approved English Bible. Nearly 50 years after Wycliffe died the council of Constance in 1414-16 condemned him for heresy, opened his grave, burned his bones, and then threw his ashes into the river Avon. The shame the established church sought to place on Wycliffe became a tribute to his life of faith and service when an unknown poet penned these words:
“The Avon to the Severn runs,
The Severn to the sea,
And Wycliffe’s dust shall spread abroad,
Wide as the waters be.”
The die was cast: the English Bible would survive but not without bloodshed, persecution, and men and women willing to suffer the flames of martyrdom.
For the complete story and an original facsimile of the Wycliffe New Testament see the author’s Wycliffe Bible, 1986 and A Visual History of the English Bible, Baker Books, 2008.
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