The first English-language bible: The Wycliffe Bible.

by K.W. Leslie, 25 July 2019

English is the most widely spoken language in the world. Partly ’cause of the British Empire; partly because of American multimedia, including the internet. There are a lot of useful resources in English, and it’s otherwise generally useful, so most of the people in the world learn English as their second language.

English is my native language, so that’s mighty handy for me; though if it weren’t I’d obviously have learned it instead of Spanish and French. Although a lot of my fellow Americans take this circumstance for granted, cretinously don’t bother to learn any other language, and get annoyed when multilingual people can’t speak English as well as they’d personally prefer. But let’s not talk about them.

Obviously there was a time when English wasn’t everybody’s second language; it was French. And before that, Latin. And the reason it was Latin was ’cause the Vulgate. The Latin-language bible was “the bible,” as far as western Christians were concerned, so if you wanted to read the bible, or understand any of the bible quotes or prayers your preachers used, you oughta learn Latin. And people did. It wasn’t as widespread as English is today—for that matter, neither was education and literacy—but everybody knew some Latin, ’cause church.

Which is why few people bothered to translate the bible into local languages: What’s the point? Everybody who could read in those countries, already knew some Latin; they could read the Vulgate. Or they could go to church, where the priests knew Latin and could interpret the Vulgate for the locals. You don’t need local translations.

But every once in a while somebody didn’t wanna go to church. Or they felt Roman Catholicism was the wrong church, and people shouldn’t have to go to its priests to get the bible interpreted. So they’d take a stab at translating the bible themselves. Problem is, before the United States, no nation had freedom of religion: You were automatically a member of the nation’s official church, and you weren’t allowed to quit the church. If you did, you were an illegal. They’d prosecute. (Which meant you wound up with a nation full of hypocrites—which explains why they’d get downright savage in their prosecutions.)

And that’s exactly what happened with the first guys to translate the bible into English. That’d be John Wycliffe (1324–84) and Nicholas of Hereford (?–1420). Nicholas did the Old Testament; Wycliffe did the New; and both their translations are bundled together as the Wycliffe Bible, WB for short.

Wycliffe and his bible.

“Wycliffe” is how people tend to spell his name, although you’ll see alternate spellings from time to time. In his day there was no standard way to spell anything, so you could spell things however you pleased… so people did. (It’s why William Shakespeare sometimes spelled his own name “Shakspere.”) Wycliffe’s name will get spelled Wiclef, Wickliffe, Wicliffe, Wyclif, or Wyclif. And of course there’s Wyclef Jean, who’s unrelated but pretty talented in his own way.

Wycliffe was an Oxford scholar and a local priest. He wasn’t a fan of his fellow clergy; he was pretty sure the end of the world was gonna come sooner rather than later because of them. They didn’t like him either, and he grew more and more alienated from his church. Didn’t help that there was no separation of church and state, so whenever Wycliffe didn’t get along with local nobles it might cost him his job (and sometimes did); didn’t help that church officials kept interfering with local-level politics and it also messed with his job. Really didn’t help that in 1378 two different guys were, at the time, claiming to be pope. (And that the other pope was a heretic and antichrist, that you needed to pick sides, that if you picked the wrong side you were going to hell, and all that.)

Wycliffe’s views were greatly influenced by a book he’d read as a student, Thomas Bradwardine’s De causa Dei Pelagium (“God’s charge against Pelagians”). The whole deal of Pelagianism is that people can be good enough to merit saving, and Bradwardine reminded people no we’re not: We’re too depraved, so we need God’s grace. Wycliffe agreed… and compared this grace-based way of thinking to the Christianism of England at the time: Loads of Pelagianism. Lots of people insisting if you don’t behave, if you don’t think like they do, if you don’t stick to official church doctrine, you’re going to hell. And, because it was against the law to not be Christian, loads of hypocrisy.

So Wycliffe went his own route. Got a few followers; Nicholas of Hereford among them. Wycliffe developed a few teachings of his own, including the idea (now common among Protestants) the bible overrules any church’s official teachings. He and his followers were so adamant about this, the popular nickname for them was “the bible men.” And yeah, many of them took a stab at translating the bible into English.

Wycliffe translated the New Testament at least twice. His translations were based on the Vulgate. (There’s a form of his later version on Bible Gateway, with the spelling updated so we can read it.) Because the WB is in 1300s English, which is right on the edge of Middle English becoming modern English, it’s sometimes said his bible’s in Middle English. It’s debatable. Today’s English speakers can usually read the WB, more or less; but give ’em Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which is full-on Middle English, and they’ll be lost. But some of that readability may have to do with how influential the WB has been: When later English-language bibles were made, the scholars kept looking back at Wycliffe and Nicholas to see how they put it, and the “new” bibles wound up sounding an awful lot like the WB. Just as true of the King James Version.

Wycliffe was accused of heresy all his life. Including by the archbishop of Canterbury, who held a whole council in 1382 to condemn 24 different things he taught. But he was never kicked out of the church… during his lifetime. Years after he died, the Catholics’ formal Council of Constance in 1415 declared him a heretic and banned his writings. In 1428 the pope had his body dug up, burned, and the ashes dumped in the nearby river.

And that, they figured was that… till the Protestant Reformation. At which point the English took another look at Wycliffe, realized he taught a lot of the same things as Martin Luther and John Calvin, and now consider him a saint. As for his bible… well like I said, a lot of it got into other English bibles. Our present-day bibles included.

Bible translations.