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Verily, VerilyThe KJV: 400 Years of Influence and Beauty
By Jon Sweeney
ZondervanCopyright © 2011 Jon Sweeney
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSO MUCH AT STAKE
The word of the Lord was precious in those days. 1 Samuel 3:1
Precious. "In a costly or beautiful manner." Sherman M. Kuhn, Middle English Dictionary
It is difficult to imagine how it was once possible for a nation to imprison and even execute its citizens for the crime of translating the Bible, but that's precisely what happened in England, one of the most civilized places on earth, for about 150 years.
A millennium before the era of Wycliffe and Tyndale, making translation a crime would have made about as much sense as passing a law against bareback squirrel riding or eating boats. Who would bother to legislate against something that no one wanted to, or perhaps could, do?
By the seventh century, however, the first spark of the idea to translate seems to have flared. According to the Venerable Bede (673–735), Caedmon, a monastery herdsman and the first English poet, paraphrased portions of the Old and New Testaments into Old English. Although modern scholarship now doubts whether many of those extant verses are Caedmon's originals, the "Caedmonian writings" consist of retellings of stories from Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel. Bede himself, just a generation after Caedmon, then translated portions of John's Gospel into Old English.
Two centuries later, King Alfred the Great (871-99), the most important medieval ruler of England, became a champion of vernacular learning. He was noted above all for his courageous and creative defeats of the invading hordes of Vikings. Detailed engravings and paintings, popular in every British elementary school textbook, show Alfred as a harp-playing minstrel in costume, spying in the camps of the Danes. There are also legends that he translated the Latin Bible into Old English. While that isn't exactly true — it was Alfred's scholars who did any such work — he did publicly lament the lack of Latin learning and the popular ignorance of both vernacular English and religion. Alfred translated several Latin texts, such as Pope Gregory I's Pastoral Care, into Old English. Much later, King Henry VIII (reign 1509-47) probably took his own inspiration to be a scholar-king from the legends of Alfred the Great. (More on that to come; Alfred found his way into the Catholic canon of saints — though Henry VIII wasn't so fortunate!)
How could an activity so seemingly innocent as translating the Bible into English be so threatening? It's not as if a theft or a murder or some other serious crime had been committed. This was simply translating Hebrew and Greek (or Latin) words and sentences into English equivalents. Where's the threat to national security? Why would this sort of activity be regarded as a way of undermining king and kingdom? The established order and status quo were in danger. By about 1380, translating Scripture into the vernacular became criminal, and attempting to translate the Bible became dangerous and clandestine work, like smuggling Bibles into Saudi Arabia today. There was a lot at stake in such work — quite literally for some of the early translators and readers of the English Bible!
Speech has always been dangerous. Language carries ideas that can be infectious. Historically, words have demonstrated more power than swords to stir hearts and speak to souls. Some philosophers have even remarked that without speech and words human beings would be without souls.
In the Middle Ages, the words of God were believed to have been set in stone — complete and forever finished. They were not to be changed in any way. Never mind the issues that are now familiar to us about the reliability (or unreliability) of ancient or original texts, and the methods of transmission of those texts, and so on; for most people in the centuries before the KJV, messing with the particular words of God that they knew in the Latin Bible was like deciding to take a chisel and hammer to the Venus de Milo. Imagine a man who walks into the Louvre in Paris saying to himself, "I think I could take that unseemly angle off her nose with just a tap or two right about ... there!"
Every culture has been deadly serious about this sort of thing — not only the English and not only Christians. The privilege of faithfully repeating, copying, and rendering sacred words is of the utmost importance. The Vedas have a privileged place of honor in India. Throughout Indian history, traditionalist Hindus have proclaimed the Vedas' perfection, arguing that all knowledge is to be found in them, and that the way in which they are rendered in their original Sanskrit is infallible. Similarly, the Bhagavad Gita is most holy in Sanskrit — a language that hardly anyone but scholars can read. So it is with the words of Allah in the Qur'an. The original Arabic is believed to be directly revealed by God and not of human origin. The youngest of all of the world's major scriptures, the Qur'an existed only in Arabic until the early seventeenth century. Most Muslims today still believe that the Qur'an is the final revelation of God — but only in the original language.
In synagogues around the world, from the most liberal Reform to the most ultra-Orthodox, Jews even today only read the Torah in Hebrew. Torah scrolls are always handwritten — it can take a team of people a year or longer to complete one — and only in Hebrew. The ancient Greeks, prideful of their schools of philosophy and skills in rhetoric, coined the word barbaroi, from which comes our word barbarians, to describe those people who speak languages other than Greek. None of the world's major scriptures was translated before the first English translations of the Bible, with the exception of the Bible from its original Hebrew and Greek into Latin. Christians first presumed to do such a thing.
Soon after the death of Christ, Christians seemed anxious to translate the Bible into other languages. Christianity was the religion of many nations and many people, and hence all of the languages of the Mediterranean world. But thanks to the expanding reach of the Roman Empire, Latin became the single best way to unite people by about the year 400 CE.
DON'T MESS WITH JEROME
At the start of the fifth century, St. Jerome finished his magisterial work of translating the Bible into the vernacular Latin of the West. Jerome didn't finish the entire Bible by himself, but with the help of assistants and fellow translators he produced a Bible that most literate people in the Roman empire — and beyond — could read.
You don't have to be a nice guy to get things done, and Jerome was never known for his pleasant nature and kindly demeanor.
A Letter of St. Jerome
To Riparius, a presbyter of Aquitaine [written in 404 CE, regarding the preaching of a certain clergyman]
Now that I have received a letter from you, if I do not answer it I shall be guilty of pride, and if I do I shall be guilty of rashness. For the matters concerning which you ask my opinion are such that they cannot either be spoken of or listened to without profanity.... You tell me that Vigilantius (whose very name Wakeful is a contradiction: he ought rather to be described as Sleepy) has again opened his fetid lips and is pouring forth a torrent of filthy venom ... I am surprised that the reverend bishop in whose diocese he is said to be a presbyter acquiesces in this his mad preaching, and that he does not rather with apostolic rod, nay with a rod of iron, shatter this useless vessel and deliver him for the destruction of the flesh that the spirit may be saved.... The wretch's tongue should be cut out, or he should be put under treatment for insanity. As he does not know how to speak, he should learn to be silent.
He also once wrote a letter to a Roman soldier named Exuperantius, urging him to come to Bethlehem, where Jerome himself was living, to become a monk. Exuperantius had asked Jerome for spiritual advice. According to another contemporary, Palladius, Exuperantius followed the suggestion, only to soon thereafter leave Jerusalem, "unable to endure Jerome's violence and ill-will."
Jerome may have had his comeuppance later in life, however. After a lifetime of intensely studying the Latin classics by such Roman writers as Seneca and Cicero, in order to create his Latin Bible, Jerome had a nightmare in which he stood before God on judgment day. "Who are you?" God asks him. "A Christian," Jerome replies. "You're a liar," God responds. "You're not a Christian at all. You're a Ciceronian!"
His baleful personality notwithstanding, Jerome was the greatest Christian scholar of his era and his legacy is the creation of the Latin Vulgate, the translation that became the Bible of Western Christendom for more than a thousand years. The venerability of the Latin — and the argument for the use of the Latin Bible for the next thousand years — was its univocality:
It was the view of the Church that its singleness of voice and purpose could only be communicated if its entire corps of personnel worked from the same texts. And so, to promote unity of belief and uniformity of practice, the Church transmitted its official documents and pronouncements in a single language: Latin. Latin was the language of its doctrines; Latin was the language of its laws; and Latin was the language in which its sacred text, the Bible, was legitimately conveyed.
Just as God was unchangeable, so was God's Word in Latin, according to the Church.
The original languages our Scriptures were written in were Hebrew (Old Testament) and Koine Greek (New Testament), but it was a Latin Bible that reigned supreme from about 400–1500 CE. We might say that the Vulgate was the first "authorized version."
The earliest surviving, complete manuscript of the Vulgate is called the Codex Amiatinus. It dates from about the year 700 and was created in a monastery in the north of England, though it is currently housed in a lavish library in Florence, Italy. The Codex Amiatinus is huge. One of the innovations that came along with the Vulgate was to create for the first time a Christian Bible that was bound as a single volume. Before Jerome, and long after him too, the Bible was most often presented in many volumes. There were books of Gospels and Epistles and the Pentateuch, and so on. The Codex Amiatinus, weighing in at seventy-five pounds, has over 2,000 pages and is more than seven inches thick.
GAINING ACCESS TO THE HOLY OF HOLIES
The Vulgate wasn't a smash hit in the early fifth century when it was first made available. Jerome's Bible faced opposition similar to the first reception of the King James Bible more than a millennium later. By the beginning of the sixth century, however, this Latin Bible was considered the unalterable Word of God. And for the next near-millennium, the words of the Bible — as well as Bibles themselves — were basically reserved for the few clergy who could study and expound them to others. The Bible was deemed too important for the uneducated to handle. Just as ordinary people were not welcome to handle the sacraments, so too, it was pretty much hands off the Holy Scriptures!
Because books were so valuable — material and labor costs made them prohibitively expensive to produce — they were quite literally chained to shelves in monasteries, cathedrals, and convents. There were no library cards for those outside the monastery or cathedral walls. No checkout privileges. No browsing the stacks. Books weren't freely circulated or discussed, and yet they were believed by nearly everyone to be holy keys to the very meaning of life and the afterlife.
During the thousand-year rule of the Vulgate, there were fragmentary translations available in Anglo-Saxon (also called Old English), as I mentioned, by Caedmon, Bede, and Alfred the Great's scholars. Aelfric of Eynsham (in Oxfordshire), an abbot, translated large portions of the Bible into Anglo-Saxon as well. But the only copies of these vernaculars were hidden away in remote monastery libraries, too valuable to be released. For most of the Middle Ages, a layperson couldn't access a Bible, even assuming he or she could read Latin.
Most people in those days believed that vernacular literature was somehow vulgar. As Tyndale would later argue at the height of his clandestine translating activities: "Saint Jerome also translated the Bible into his mother tongue: why may not we also? They will say it cannot be translated into our tongue; it is so rude."
Books held a variety of serious ideas — some of which were enjoyed much more by the ruling classes than by everyday people. The Bible, for instance, included ideas such as:
* The "divine right of kings" — hereditary sovereigns are ultimately accountable only to God. * The divine obligation of paying taxes. As Jesus said, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's" (Matthew 22:21).
In England as elsewhere, royalty and rulers enjoyed the power, and the resulting social order, these principles "mandated" — and it didn't hurt their grip on power that the people couldn't check the text for themselves.
During the Middle Ages, literacy was rare outside the privileged classes, so the Vulgate, even when available, was largely unread. Latin was rarely spoken, either. By about 1300, sermons were preached in vernacular Middle English in England, even though the Bible was not available in the language. The Scripture read in church was hardly ever understood, even though the preaching based on it was, and this began to seem wrong to certain believers.
A REBEL PRIEST
In the late 1370s or early 1380s, the popular Yorkshire priest and Oxford theologian John Wycliffe began creating vernacular versions of Holy Scripture. By 1382, he was duplicating copies of his translations. In their first incarnations, these were quite stilted, taking the Vulgate's Latin and finding the most literal English equivalents for the words. What often resulted were passages nearly as incomprehensible as the Latin had been, but Wycliffe and his students continued to revise and refine their translations.
Because Wycliffe believed in the ultimate authority of Scripture and the importance of a direct personal experience of God, he considered it essential for every man and woman in England to have access to the Bible in their native tongue. The history books often portray Wycliffe as a man who wanted to start a new faith — the Protestant faith. That wasn't his intention, however, nor could it have been. There was no such thing as a Protestant. Wycliffe was a Catholic reformer.
In an address to the king and Parliament, the reformer Wycliffe eloquently lays out his reasons why the pope in Rome has no legal, spiritual, or moral right to claim sovereignty over the Church of England (and in the process, as we'll see, he also lays claim for much more) ...
A Complaint of John Wycliffe
Exhibited to the King and Parliament [presented to the boy king, Richard II, October 1377] The first article is this: That all persons, of what kin, private sects, or singular religion, made of sinful men, may freely, without any letting, or bodily pain, leave that private rule, or new religion, founded of sinful men, and stably hold the rule of Jesus Christ, taken and given by Christ to his apostles, and for more profit than any such new religion, founded of sinful men.... The rule of Jesus Christ ... is most perfect ... and each rule ... made of sinful men, is less perfect.
Excerpted from Verily, Verily by Jon Sweeney Copyright © 2011 by Jon Sweeney . Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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