That the Scriptures may be understood

The Reformation and the languages of the people

A costly battle was fought in the turbulent 16th century for people’s right to hear and read the Bible in their own language. One of the final acts marking the end of this struggle was the publication of the King James Bible in 1611.

“For nearly 1000 years, translating the Bible into the “vernacular,” the common language of the people, was forbidden.” — John Harris

Its translators wrote that Scripture must be allowed to speak for itself, that the Bible should be comprehensible to ordinary people. This seems obvious today but for nearly 1000 years, translating the Bible into the “vernacular,” the common language of the people, was forbidden.

This had not always been so. Two centuries before Jesus was born, exiled Jews in Egypt had translated their Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, the language of the Empire and their new mother tongue. They called it the Septuagint, honouring its 70 translators. This Greek Bible, rather than the Hebrew Bible, became the Scripture of the early church, the text used by all New Testament authors. Unlike the Scriptures of other religions, the Bible is not fixed in time nor in one sacred language.

The word of God remains the word of God when faithfully translated into the languages of people’s hearts and minds.

The New Testament too was Greek but, as Christianity spread beyond Greek-speaking places, early Christians eagerly translated the Christian Scriptures into their own local languages. Within a few decades of the gospels being written, they were translated into Coptic, the language of Egypt. As Christianity spread south beyond the Roman Empire, the Bible was translated into Ethiopic. When it spread north it was translated into Gothic. The language of Rome was Latin. By the end of the 4th century, the great Latin Bible was completed, largely the work of St Jerome. This was the Biblia Sacra Vulgata, the Bible of the common people. This Latin Vulgate became the Bible of the Catholic Church for more than 1000 years.

The Vulgate was an extremely important Bible, mightily used by God, the Bible loved and read by the missionaries who brought Christianity to Europe, the Bible carried to England and Scotland, to Ireland and Wales, the Bible of St Patrick and St George. This one Bible, copied countless thousands of times, preserved the word of God through the Dark Ages so that it was never lost.

“Luther realised that people could grasp this truth only if it were available to them in a language they understood.” — John Harris

But sadly, this Bible became an instrument of oppression. When Latin became the language of the church, the Latin Vulgate became the exclusive possession of a politicised religion.

This Bible became locked away from the people, few of whom could read Latin even if they had access to it. Translating the Bible was considered a political threat, a subversive act challenging the church’s authority. Controlling the kings and officials of Western Europe, the Catholic Church was able to enforce this prohibition.  Any attempt to produce vernacular Bibles was viciously put down.

In England, on the outer edge of Europe and far from Roman power, Christians had freely translated the Bible into Old English or Anglo-Saxon. This freedom ended abruptly in 1066 with the Norman Conquest, placing England under the control of the Catholic Norman French.

By 1382, John Wycliffe and his followers secretly translated the Bible into English, but their doomed movement was crushed by the might of the church. Any further translation had to wait 150 years for the Reformation.

The Protestant Reformation is said to have begun on October 31, 1517 when Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailed his “95 theses” to the door of Wittenburg Castle church. Luther had reached his conclusions from study of the Bible. There he had learned that salvation was by “grace,” the free gift of God, and not by “works,” that is, not by anything a person or even the church could do. Luther realised that people could grasp this truth only if it were available to them in a language they understood. By 1522 he completed the New Testament in German, thus establishing the crucial Reformation principle that people had the right to read or hear the word of God in their own language. Authorities tried vainly to prohibit the printing and distribution of Luther’s Bible, but the demand was overwhelming.

Around the same time in England, William Tyndale, greatly influenced by Luther, sought official permission to translate the Bible into English. Rebuffed, Tyndale went to the Continent where he completed his English New Testament, publishing it in Worms in 1526. Tyndale famously quipped that now every plough boy could know more of the Bible than the Pope. The books had to be smuggled into England. Although condemned and burned by the church authorities, eager people secretly kept and read them.

“The Reformation drive for vernacular Scriptures was unstoppable.” — John Harris

Tyndale was betrayed in 1536, declared a heretic and sentenced to be burned to death. He was strangled and burned in October 1536, his famous last words a prayer that God would open the King of England’s eyes. Within two years his prayer was answered when King Henry VIII permitted the publication of the Bible in England.

On the Continent, vernacular Scriptures were brutally suppressed. Casiodoro de Reina translated the first full Bible into Spanish. Published in 1569, it was banned and burned by the Spanish Inquisition. Casiodoro was himself condemned to death but managed to escape Spain, finding sanctuary in Antwerp.

Yet translation of the Bible continued everywhere in Europe. The work was clandestine and dangerous in Catholic-dominated countries. But where Protestantism was flourishing, in places such as Sweden, Denmark and Wales, full Bibles were available and freely read before 1600.

The Reformation drive for vernacular Scriptures was unstoppable. When the English colonised North America, missionary John Eliot completed the Bible in Massachusetts. When the Dutch East India Company established a Dutch settlement in Batavia – now Jakarta – Dutch clergy translated the Bible into Malay.

The great period of vernacular Bible translation was the remarkable 19th-century missionary era. By 1800, some of the Bible had been translated into 68 languages. By 1900 this had become more than 500 languages. By the year 2000, part of the Bible was available in 2500 languages. Slowly but inevitably, a more enlightened Catholic Church also welcomed the Bible in the languages of its congregations.

This was what had begun in the Reformation in the 16th century. This was what so many Bible translators had died doing. This was the Reformers’ dream come true. This was the triumph of the vernacular Scriptures, the word of God in the language of the people.

John Harris is Senior Biblical Consultant for the Bible Society.