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Charlemagne and the English Bible

Updated: Apr 11, 2021

I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth, Isaiah 49:6.

Trying to understand the origins of the English Bible is like trying to find the source of a mountain stream which eventually becomes a mighty river. As a child my cousin and I would sometimes climb a nearby wooded hill and find a melting patch of snow. There would be a little rivulet of water that was often too small to place the wooden boats that we had carved the night before. We would follow that rivulet a few paces and find the a slightly larger stream of runoff where two or three streams from the melting snow had blended together and we would place our boats.

At first the boats would get easily snagged and we would free them with our walking sticks. As each little stream merged with other streams running off the hill, we would have to quicken our pace. Eventually, we would come out of the woods into a field and our little stream of melting ice and snow would pour into a nearby creek. We would race along the creek bank watching our little boats until after hours of fun we came to the bridge over the highway. From there we lost sight of our boats.

That stream eventually poured into the Allegheny River which joined with the Ohio River and then gave all of its waters to the mighty Mississippi River. I don't know if our little boats ever made it out of the mouth of the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico or not. I suspect that few inhabitants of New Orleans watching the Mississippi River roll by ever thinks about the hundreds of thousands of tiny rivulets of melting snow from thousands of hills which contributed to that mighty river.

Likewise, we will probably never understand every source of the manuscripts and understanding of language that went into our King James Bible. In Margret Deansley's book, The Lollard Bible she recounts the hundreds of itinerant preachers who traipsed through the hills and villages of Europe over the centuries carrying small snippets of scripture in the tongues of the several peoples.

She quotes from Inquisition records wherein the trials of these heretics were recorded. From those records we see that a preacher would often have only a small portion of scripture, often from a gospel. He would come into a house under cover of darkness and read to the people in their own tongue. From there he would plead for their souls. Many of those preachers made their way to England and were given the generic term Lollard.

Inquisition records and other forms of witness make it clear that England was fertile ground for these preachers. It is said that the Reformation in England was like that in no other nation. In most nations when a prince or king converted to Protestantism, the first generation of his people obeyed with sullen silence. It took a generation or two for a people to embrace the new order of things. England was different. The Reformation was often met with joy.

The Lollard preachers had been so effective that when the Great Bible was chained to the pulpits and priests were ordered to read from it and to sing the psalms, great crowds of thousands of people would stand outside of the church. There are eye witness reports of thousands of people outside of the church and overflowing onto nearby hills straining to hear every word. Thousands of people would lift up their voices and sing the psalms together.

One of the more obscure tidbits of the history of the English Bible comes from the life of Alcuin of York an 8th century British monk. Alcuin was regarded as one of the great Latin experts of his time and he had been a classmate of Charlemagne. We learn from G. F. Browne's biography of Alcuin that "Alcuin is credited with a revision of the whole Latin Bible, both the Old Testament and the New. We have a letter of his in which he states in precise terms that he had been commissioned by Karl (Charlemagne) to correct the corrupted text. The letter is is addressed to Gisla, Abbess of Chelles, Karl's sister, and Rotruda, Karl's daughter, who he addresses as Columba and Dove." ( page 253 Alcuin of York by G. F. Browne D.D. 1908)

A study of the Vetus Latina Institute's catalogue of known pre-Jerome Latin manuscripts shows a number of them associated with England. Even a great one kept in Sweden was stolen by Vikings from England. England was rich with manuscripts. Among countless other sources, we can thank Charlemagne for that. Even though Alcuin eventually sided with the Jerome Vulgate over the pre-Jerome vulgate readings, an analysis of versions of the Wycliffe Bible (There are 180 extant manuscripts of the Wycliffe bible and they often have very different readings.) shows that there are many readings which utilized the pre-Jerome Text. It is obvious that like those little rivulets that my cousin and I followed all those years ago, little obscure manuscripts of which we know little, and hundreds of forgotten preachers preaching in the hills of England contributed to our English Bible.

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