The Joyce Hill Column

November 2017

The First Complete Printed Bible in English

As I explained in last month’s article, 2017 is the five-hundredth anniversary of Luther’s ninety-five theses, traditionally seen as the starting-point of the Reformation. One of the Reformation’s fundamental features was the printing of bibles in the language of the people, so that anyone who could read could study Scripture for themselves, and anyone who could not do so would nevertheless be able to hear the word of God directly, if someone read it to them — neither of which was possible when the standard bible was in Latin translation, as it had been throughout the Middle Ages. So I thought that this month, when we are still in the anniversary year, I would write about the circumstances under which Miles Coverdale produced the first complete printed bible in English.

Coverdale was ordained in 1514 and joined the Augustinian friars in Cambridge, where he was greatly influenced by the prior, Richard Barnes, who was an enthusiast for reform. His extreme position led to his being summoned before Wolsey in 1526, when Coverdale was one of Barnes’ supporters. But Coverdale, himself known for preaching against confession and images, took refuge abroad immediately afterwards, and there, residing mostly in Antwerp, he produced the first complete English bible. This was printed in 1535. Some of the text was translated from the Latin bible (the Vulgate), but he also drew on the German bible recently produced by Martin Luther, and incorporated the books that William Tyndale (c. 1494-1536)  had already translated into English during his exile in continental Europe. The Tyndale books were the New Testament, the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Leviticus and Numbers) and the Book of Jonah. Coverdale’s translation of the Psalms, based on Luther’s version and the Latin Vulgate, is the version of the psalms that was later incorporated into the Book of Common Prayer, which is why the wording of the BCP psalms differs from what we find in the King James Bible (the Authorised Version) of 1611.

Following his 1535 edition, Coverdale was much involved with several other English bibles preceding the Authorised Version: notably Matthew’s Bible, the Great Bible and the Geneva Bible. Matthew’s Bible (1537) was substantially Coverdale’s 1535 text, but with revisions and notes, ‘Thomas Matthew’ being an alias for the editor, John Rogers. It was dedicated to Henry VIII, who licensed it for general reading. More significant was the Great Bible. This was produced by Coverdale on the basis of Matthew’s Bible and was the edition that Thomas Cromwell ordered in September 1538 to be set up in every parish church, although it was not actually issued until 1539. The Geneva Bible (New Testament, 1557; complete Bible, 1559/60) was produced by a group scholars in Geneva, including Coverdale when he was resident there during part of his third exile. It was the first English edition to divide the text into numbered verses. As its place of origin might suggest, it had a strongly Calvinistic flavour.

Coverdale was briefly in England in 1539/40 but was back on the continent, as a married pastor, 1540-48. He was Bishop of Exeter 1548-53, almost the whole of Edward VI’s reign, when a more Calvinist regime prevailed, but he went into exile for a third time in the reign of Mary (1553-58), when Catholicism was re-established. When he returned in 1559, he assisted at the consecration of Archbishop Matthew Parker, Elizabeth I’s great Archbishop, and for the rest of his life was a leader of the Puritan party. He died in 1568, aged 80.

Joyce Hill


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