The Bible: A forbidden book

You may be surprised to know what the first printed English Bible was. Photo: The Golden Legend

VANCOUVER, Wa., July 17, 2012 — From John Wycliffe’s first English Bible translation in 1382, the Bible in English was forbidden in Britain. It took the turbulent years of Henry VIII and his break with Rome for him to move from the Latin Bible to an approved Bible in the English vernacular (1537). In the meantime, many suffered persecution for their support of a forbidden English Bible (the Constitutions of 1408), including William Tyndale, the famous English translator. 

Many are unaware that the Golden Legend was the first printed portion of Scripture in English. Dr. John Hellstern, retired Air Force Chaplain, rare-bible collector, and co-founder of The Living Word National Bible Museum, reminds readers of the significance of the Golden Legend. With his permission, I have reproduced Dr. Hellstern’s article in condensed form. The full article will eventually be available on the Dunham Bible Museum’s website.  

“The unlawful printing of the Scripture in English slipped into England unnoticed when William Caxton published his first edition of The Golden Legend in 1483. Forty-three years before William Tyndale’s first New Testament in English was smuggled into England in 1526 and yet another eleven years before Henry VIII officially authorized, in 1537, the English Bible released to the people, Caxton, England’s first printer, included English Scripture in this early text.

“A 1521 edition of The Golden Legend printed by Wynkyn de Worde is part of the Dunham Bible Museum’s current exhibit, Picturing the Word. This edition, next to the last off the Caxton Press, contained large amounts of Old and New Testament Scripture.

“The Golden Legend, initially entitled Legenda sanctorum, was a collection of the lives of saints compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, around 1260-80. Over the centuries the content was expanded and it became a medieval best seller with an estimated thousand manuscript copies still in existence. Intended as a source book of the lives and miracles of the Saints, it served as a service book for the Liturgical Church year.

“Each of the five sections began with a special treatise in the nature of a sermon on each special feast day, along with the Scriptures to be read in connection with them. The book’s popularity, as seen in its many versions in prose and poetry, is proof that it was used not merely by the learned or by preachers who wished to borrow anecdotes from it, but was studied as a religious book and widely used in private devotions.

“When printing was invented around 1450, editions of Legenda aurea appeared quickly, not only in Latin, but also in every major European language. William Caxton (c. 1422-1492) was the first English person to work in printing and introduced printing to England in 1476. The Golden Legend was one of his early books produced in 1483. It was a massive volume of nearly 900 pages, lavishly illustrated with woodcuts. Nineteen illustrations in his first edition were in full-width of the ‘royal size’ paper, 51 were full-page illustrations of Old and New Testament scenes and saints, and clusters of smaller scenes on a single page, all of which added dramatic impact to the stories.

“In his introduction to the first edition, Caxton says he translated the text from copies of the French and Latin plus an English version he had written earlier. He omitted some of the earlier saints of Voragine’s original and added extra stories of the English and Irish such as Thomas a Becket of Canterbury, which had become a pilgrimage site in Caxton’s time. Nearly every section contained Scripture references, sometimes quoting Scripture text with the book of the Bible referenced, but many times not. 

“When reading about the lives of the Patriarchs, whole sections were nothing but a rendering of the Scripture text. In the history of Adam, for example, much of the first three chapters of Genesis were quoted… . 

“Evidence suggests Caxton did possess at least one copy of the [English] Wycliffe or ‘Lollard Bible,’ and perhaps the later revisions of 1388 and 1395 as well.” [John Wycliffe is credited with the translation of the first complete Bible in English in 1382, prior to the invention of the printing press.]

“It is interesting to consider that Caxton’s book in English might have been read in churches to help make the Scriptures more understandable to the people in the tongue they spoke. Certainly we know that all these early editions of The Golden Legend were popular and widely read by the people, thus circumventing the laws of the time that prevented the publishing of the Bible in English.”




This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Donald L. Brake, Sr.

Donald L. Brake, Ph.D., is Dean Emeritus of Multnomah Biblical Seminary, past president of Jerusalem University College, Israel; author of A Visual History of the English Bible: The Tumultuous Tale of The World’s Bestselling Book; Baker Books, 2008 (a 2009 ECPA Christian Book Award finalist), A Visual History of the King James Bible: The Dramatic Tale of the World’s Best-Known Translation, Baker Books, 2011, A Royal Monument of English Literature: The King James Bible 1611, Credo House Publishers, 2011; and antiquarian collector with his extensive collection of rare and significant Bibles and artifacts currently at the Dunham Bible Museum, Houston Baptist University, Houston, Texas.

Contact Donald L. Brake, Sr.


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