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England And the Wycliffe Bible Part II

Updated: Feb 15

The Latin Bible shares a common characteristic with the Greek Bible and today’s English Bibles. There were two competing strains scattered throughout the territory of the old Roman Empire. The pre-Jerome Latin Bible called the Vetus Latina, basically conforms to the King James Bible in its text. Then there is Jerome’s Vulgate, which reads like the newer translations of the bible so rampant today. In the 16th through the 19th centuries Protestantism sided with the Vetus Latina; whereas the Roman Catholic Church sided with Jerome. Our narrative picks up with what appears to be the first serious inquiry made to determine which bible is the word of God.

It was Pepin the Great who started the first German Reich. A Reich being a Germanic empire that ruled much of Europe and worked closely with the Roman Catholic Church to utterly subjugate those it conquered. That first Reich was known as the Holy Roman Empire. Pepin’s son Charlemagne (also known as Charles the Great) inherited much of Central Europe from his father. Charlemagne had been raised with a boyhood friend who was known to the world as Alcuin of York. It was this same Alcuin of York, England who recorded for the world the Viking rape of Lindesfarne in 793 and left many other writings from the 9th century. Alcuin spent his time between Tours, France and York, England; since those two lands have often shared mutual political ties, especially in the Middle Ages. The discrepancies between the two strains of bible, Jerome’s and the Vetus Latina, had come to Charlemagne’s attention. It was to Alcuin that Charlemagne was to turn for clarity on the bible issue.[1]

Charlemagne used his clout as the emperor of Europe to collect Latin Bibles and send them to Alcuin. Ultimately, Alcuin was to side with the Jerome text, and reject the older more accurate Vetus Latina, and when he did he produced a huge Jerome type Latin Bible that can still be seen today in the British Museum. For purposes of this chapter we are not interested in Alcuin’s error in favor of the state church. We are interested in all the rejected manuscripts that made their way to England and France only to be ultimately rejected by Alcuin. These same manuscripts represent the Vetus Latina; they had been confiscated throughout Europe by the power of Charlemagne and were cast off in England by Alcuin. We need to take a closer look at these rejected manuscripts for they represent the forerunners to the Protestant Bible, and they represent the texts used by those who rejected Roman Catholicism and suffered so horrifically through the centuries. Due to Charlemagne’s decree, and thanks to Alcuin’s rejection, those same manuscripts were scattered throughout the estates of England and later became the foundation of the Bible we know as the King James Bible. As the scriptures tell us, the stone which the builders disallowed, the same became the head of the corner, I Peter 2:7b.

Despite rejection by Alcuin, manuscripts of this type would be held in great esteem by monasteries and estates, not treasured for their value as scripture, but as relics. Consequently, England abounded with Latin manuscripts. It is these manuscripts that were used for over 100 years to slowly edit and improve that Bible that we know of today as the Wycliffe Bible. The 100-year perfecting process of the Wycliffe Bible cannot be understood without first understanding that the various castles and domains scattered throughout medieval England held a surprisingly large amount of rejected Latin manuscripts of the pre-Jerome Latin Bible.

For much of the 14th and 15th centuries England was riven by strife between cousins over who was the proper King of England. In 1485 Henry VII firmly ended what has been called the War of the Roses with his decisive win at Bosworth. Henry VII’s victory ushered in the Tudor dynasty which ultimately led to the enthronement of James I in 1604. Prior to Henry VII’s great victory, England was a deeply divided country where noblemen could often flaunt the power of the throne because of the great estates they held far from the power of a centralized government. To make war in those days it was necessary to make alignments between great houses and the knights who were loyal to those houses. The lack of one great central power in England and the inability of any one house to decisively put down its rivals, led to decades of bloodshed and instability.

The England of the War of the Roses is the petri dish of the English bible. There is no record of how many of the sundry castles and abbeys of England harbored Latin manuscripts. John Wycliffe had friends among the nobles of his time; among them was John of Gaunt (1340-1399), the third son of King Richard III. Gaunt owned over thirty castles and had many manors scattered throughout England and France. His Duchy[2] of Lancaster held the legal title of palatinate, meaning that it was almost autonomous and virtually independent of the king’s writ.[3] Gaunt was not the only nobleman favorable to Wycliffe and the Lollards, he is just the best known. Throughout their estates and throughout cooperating abbeys Wycliffe’s followers were active in translation work.

We don’t know how many different estates or abbeys were to eventually have some version of the Wycliffe Bible. What we do know is that there are about 180 manuscripts that have survived of what we loosely call the Wycliffe Bible. Those manuscripts are as diverse one from another as Greek manuscripts are, as Latin manuscripts are, and as current English translations are. The historical evidence shows that over a 100-year period unknown translators working in peril of their lives passed the Wycliffe bible from manor to manor, peasant hut to peasant hut, and abbey to abbey. For 100 years the Wycliffe Bible functioned like a huge Wikipedia project where each person who accessed it edited it as they saw fit, with such light as they had, and with whatever manuscript they had. Like Wikipedia, the work had no central authority to ensure accuracy. Some of the manuscripts are hack jobs with a pro-Jerome twist to their translation. Other manuscripts show a sophistication of spiritual understanding and conform to the pre-Jerome text.

This brings us to a clash between perceived history and bible doctrine. When we access a Wycliffe Bible today on line or purchase a reprint we get a Jerome text. If Wycliffe’s Bible were a Jerome text then much of what a King James Bible believer comprehends about God working through scripture is wrong. For example, many times when speaking with fundamentalists I have quoted the Scripture, “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth forever”, I Pet. 1:23. Scripture clearly states that God uses incorruptible seed to give the new birth. Fundamentalists invariably have stared back at me and said, “What about Wycliffe? That was a Jerome text.” They never stop to consider that their concept of history might be wrong. They instantly discard bible doctrine at the least challenge. We will see that the bible being peddled today as the Wycliffe Bible is as much the Wycliffe Bible as Westcott and Hort’s[4] text is the original Geek.

[1] Browne, G. F. Alcuin of York, London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1908 Chapter XV

[2] An area ruled by a Duke.

[3] Weir, Allison The Wars of the Roses, New York, Ballantine Books, 1995 pg24-26

[4] Westcott and Hort are the two individuals who constructed a now debunked Greek Text and foisted it upon the English revision committee as if it were the original Greek. Their work was translated into a crude bible now abandoned by all parties called the Revised Version of 1881. Dean Burgon published an irrefutable takedown of their Greek text and the crude translation job of rendering it into English in his seminal book, The Revision Revised published in 1883 and is now in the common domain and available in reprints from many sources.