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England and the Wycliffe Bible Part IV

Updated: Feb 15, 2020

Wycliffe started a revolution. Wycliffe dared to publish not just a bible in the English tongue; he published a bible in its bare text. He published a bible that allowed the reader to think for himself. For well over a century bibles were clandestinely translated afresh, printed and smuggled into secret meetings. These bibles are generally referred to as the Wycliffe Bible. There were many anonymous translators who risked life and property to work and rework the Latin texts found on their estates and abbeys. Eventually a greater sophistication in textual criticism and an imported understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures began to make the English Bible a truly masterful work. Until the time of Tyndale[1] all those earlier editions were called the Wycliffe Bible or the Lollard Bible. No other name was associated with these bibles because the penalty would have been death by burning.

Tyndale’s Bible was one more bible in this long line. What distinguished Tyndale’s Bible was that it bore his name. Many men had worked on perfecting the English Bible between Wycliffe and Tyndale. Many of them wrought substantial improvements that in later generations would have warranted their names being added to the list of English Bibles. Many of those men will stay anonymous in this life and others are only now being discovered through careful language analysis.

That same process of reworking the English Bible as it came into the possession of estates and abbeys continued until 1611, when the King James Bible was published. What distinguished bibles published from Tyndale on is that they were associated with particular men, such as the Matthews Bible or a city such as the Geneva Bible. Prior to Tyndale all English Bibles were referred to as the Wycliffe Bible.

One of the most fascinating works that I have come across in my studies is the three volumes written by Dr. Sven L. Fristedt of the University of Stockholm, Sweden entitled; The Wycliffe Bible Parts I, II and III. Published between 1953 and 1973 and written in English, they are the most comprehensive look at the Wycliffe bible that I know of. The University of Stockholm, Sweden is in the forefront of understanding the Wycliffe Bible. Wycliffe wrote in Middle English, which was a language which still used Scandinavian pronouns and is a link between the Vikings who conquered much of England and the language we speak today. Fundamental Bible colleges seem to be ignorant of his work; however he is well known in secular English departments.

In Part I The Principal Problems connected with Forshall and Madden’s Edition, Stockholm, Almqvist & Wiksells Boktryckeri-A.B., 1953, Fristedt establishes a procedure for identifying which scholars of the time worked on the Wycliffe Bible and which manuscripts are first and which are copies. He makes statements such as; “Although the current conception of the Wycliffite Bible is based on Forshall and Madden’s edition, this work has not been subjected to close criticism, Sir Fredric Madden’s name apparently having been taken to be a warrant of its infallibility. The editorial methods applied by FM have, however, given rise to so much misunderstanding with resultant false conclusions that a detailed look is imperative.”[2]

In this work which Fristedt labored on since 1925, he cross examines the many different manuscripts and outlines a far more reasonable and scientific process for understanding the century long outlay of manuscripts. Throughout, Fristedt’s work is diligent to understand each manuscript word by word. Fristedt used translations of secular writings in which scholars of the time were at liberty to acknowledge their work, and he uses those translations to identify each of the Wycliffe translators. He goes over tenses, pronouns, pronominal objective format, active periphrastic conjunction, possessive pronouns and many other linguistic designations to compare translating work from the 14th and 15th centuries. He identifies individual men as easily as if they had left DNA.

Fristedt only partially agrees with Forshall and Madden that Wycliffe is a Jerome text. He paints a picture of a text that is passed from estate to estate and slowly builds in sophistication until it began to show a profound sophistication in Hebrew and Greek. In 1509 Erasmus moved to England. England had not been high on Erasmus’s list of desirable habitations, but he being like us needed an income, and England held out the best offer. When we think of England in the 17th through the 20th century we tend to see it as a world power in science, finance and military might. No observer of the world scene in the early 16th century would have ever ascribed any of those attributes to England. It was Italy that held a reputation for advanced learning and finance while Spain was the predominant military power. Any scholar who truly longed to be in the thick of decoding the classical languages and uncovering the long dead secrets of the ancient past yearned to obtain a paying post in Italy. Erasmus sought just such an appointment but resigned himself in bitter disappointment to accept a living in England. He honestly thought it would retard his advancement in the science of the ancient languages.

Instead, Erasmus found himself in the forefront of classical learning. To his amazement and delight he found himself studying and working with English scholars and he wrote “I have found here a climate pleasant and healthful, and such cultivation of learning, not of the hair-splitting and trivial sort, but profound, exact and classic, both in Latin and in Greek, that now I feel no great longing for Italy, except what is to be seen there.”[3] A 19th century biographer of Erasmus was to state, “In England for the first time, in relations with men who he had to confess were his superiors in many ways.”[4] Erasmus’s testimony of England’s attainments makes little sense if we hold to the traditional understanding of the transmission of bible manuscripts and knowledge of the classical languages. The traditional understanding of the bible is that it slowly spread from Asia Minor through Eastern Europe to Italy, Germany and then out through the rest of Europe. Under such a scenario the outer edges of Europe could at best only have what had spilled over from the major centers of Europe. Instead we will find that England had the richest trove of manuscripts and had advanced understanding of how to read them.

We have already seen that due to Charlemagne’s influence, England became a repository for manuscripts from all over the Holy Roman Empire. The next great mystery is how did England find itself in the forefront of the science of classical languages? The simple answer is that the knowledge came from Spain. To understand that answer we must understand that Spain was dominated by a Muslim culture for the centuries before the Wycliffe Bible. That kingdom, called the Kingdom of Cordova, was a repository of great learning. Jews and Christians lived side by side with Muslims.

The Albigensians, that great Anabaptist group eventually wiped out by Pope Innocent III, were nestled in the Pyrenees Mountains between what is now modern France and Modern Spain. It was the armed might of Muslim warriors who had kept them safe for centuries from the hatred of the Catholic Church. When the Muslim Kingdom waned in strength, the pope was able to wipe out that rival church that existed since apostolic times. When Ferdinand and Isabella eventually united Spain in 1492, the last bastion in Europe where a Jew could be free from persecution was destroyed. The inquisition had its way with Jews, heretics, and bibles. The Iberian Peninsula went from being the freest place on earth for bible translation to the most oppressed. Dr. Fristedt tells us, “In Salamanca alone more than twenty books containing the Scriptures in the mother tongue were condemned and burnt in full view of all on September 25, 1492.”[5]

The story of the eventual collapse of the Muslim state and the Christian Kingdoms that vainly attempted to keep the learning of Arabs, Jews and Christians alive is long and sad. What we need to understand for purposes of this book is that there was frequent intercourse between the Iberian Peninsula and England. In Spain, both Jews and Christians were working on translations from Hebrew and Greek. Those languages had stayed alive over the centuries in the schools of Muslim protected Spain, and for a brief time under the Christian king Alfonso the Wise. The Spanish scholars who worked in England are well documented in the footnotes of Fristedt’s work. For example, there is a tantalizing footnote on page 79 of Fristedt’s Part III in which we are told that Pero Lopez de Ayala, who is credited with translating The Book of Job, was on a diplomatic mission to the Duke of Lancaster (John Gaunt: friend of Wycliffe) in 1389. The Wycliffe Bibles that were produced in the 15th century showed a profound sophistication in the original tongues that, we know now, we owe to Spanish Jews, enlightened friars (declared heretics by successive popes), and to the benevolence of Muslims. When Erasmus arrived in England early in the next century he was no doubt amazed at the extent of the learning.

In our day, talk radio has stirred up an immense amount of ignorance and hatred over the proposed building of a mosque at ground zero in New York City. The proposed name for that mosque is Cordova, named for the kingdom that protected the Albigensians and the Jews from the rapaciousness of the Catholic Church; the King James Bible owes more to that kingdom than it does the Catholic Church. Conversely, if a church named for Innocent III, who did much to destroy bible Christianity, were planned for that spot, the talk shows would be silent. The only thing I would ask of the builders of that mosque is that they provide a room for the Baptists as they did for so many centuries in Spain. It took the founding of the United States of America to ever give the Baptists and the Jews freedom again on this earth, but that is another history.

[1] William Tyndale c.1494-1536 was the first translator and printer of bibles since Wycliffe to actually have his name associated with his work. It cost him his life.

[2] Page 21

[3] Ephraim Emerton, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1899) 63,64

[4] Ibid. 64

[5] Fristedt, Sven The Wycliffe Bible Part III Relationships between Trevisa and the Spanish Medieval Bibles (Stockholm, Sweden: Almqvist & Wiksell 1973) 59

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