The murderous history of Bible translations
The Bible has been translated into far more languages than any other book. Yet, as Harry Freedman reveals, the history of Bible translations is not only contentious but bloody, with many who dared translate it being burned at the stake...
In 1427, Pope Martin ordered that John Wycliffe’s bones be exhumed from their grave, burned and cast into the river Swift. Wycliffe had been dead for 40 years, but his offence still rankled.
John Wycliffe (c1330–1384) was 14th-century England’s outstanding thinker. A theologian by profession, he was called in to advise parliament in its negotiations with Rome. This was a world in which the church was all-powerful, and the more contact Wycliffe had with Rome, the more indignant he became. The papacy, he believed, reeked of corruption and self-interest. He was determined to do something about it.
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Wycliffe began publishing pamphlets arguing that, rather than pursuing wealth and power, the church should have the poor at heart. In one tract he described the Pope as “the anti-Christ, the proud, worldly priest of Rome, and the most cursed of clippers and cut-purses”.
In 1377 the Bishop of London demanded that Wycliffe appear before his court to explain the “wonderful things which had streamed forth from his mouth”. The hearing was a farce. It began with a violent row over whether or not Wycliffe should sit down. John of Gaunt, the king’s son and an ally of Wycliffe, insisted that the accused remain seated; the bishop demanded that he stand.
When the Pope heard of the fiasco he issued a papal bull [an official papal letter or document] in which he accused Wycliffe of “vomiting out of the filthy dungeon of his heart most wicked and damnable heresies”. Wycliffe was accused of heresy and put under house arrest and was later forced to retire from his position as Master of Balliol College, Oxford.
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Wycliffe firmly believed that the Bible should be available to everybody. He saw literacy as the key to the emancipation of the poor. Although parts of the Bible had previously been rendered into English there was still no complete translation. Ordinary people, who neither spoke Latin nor were able to read, could only learn from the clergy. Much of what they thought they knew – ideas like the fires of hell and purgatory – were not even part of Scripture.
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With the aid of his assistants, therefore, Wycliffe produced an English Bible [over a period of 13 years from 1382]. A backlash was inevitable: in 1391, before the Bible was completed, a bill was placed before parliament to outlaw the English Bible and to imprison anyone possessing a copy. The bill failed to pass – John of Gaunt saw to that [in parliament] – and the church resumed its persecution of the now-dead Wycliffe [he died in 1384].
Shorn of alternatives, the best they could do was to burn his bones [in 1427], just to make sure his resting place was not venerated. The Archbishop of Canterbury explained that Wycliffe had been “that pestilent wretch, of damnable memory, yea, the forerunner and disciple of antichrist who, as the complement of his wickedness, invented a new translation of the scriptures into his mother-tongue”.
In 1402, the newly ordained Czech priest Jan Hus was appointed to a pulpit in Prague to minister in the church. Inspired by Wycliffe’s writings, which were now circulating in Europe, Hus used his pulpit to campaign for clerical reform and against church corruption.
Like Wycliffe, Hus believed that social reform could only be achieved through literacy. Giving the people a Bible written in the Czech language, instead of Latin, was an imperative. Hus assembled a team of scholars; in 1416 the first Czech Bible appeared. It was a direct challenge to those he called “the disciples of antichrist” and the consequence was predictable: Hus was arrested for heresy.
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Jan Hus’s trial, which took place in the city of Constance, has gone down as one of the most spectacular in history. It was more like a carnival – nearly every bigwig in Europe was there. One archbishop arrived with 600 horses; 700 prostitutes offered their services; 500 people drowned in the lake; and the Pope fell off his carriage into a snowdrift. The atmosphere was so exhilarating that Hus’s eventual conviction and barbaric execution must have seemed an anti-climax. But slaughtered he was, burnt at the stake. His death galvanised his supporters into revolt. Priests and churches were attacked, the authorities retaliated. Within a few short years Bohemia had erupted into civil war. All because Jan Hus had the gall to translate the Bible.
As far as the English Bible is concerned, the most high profile translator to be murdered was William Tyndale. It was now the 16th century and Henry VIII was on the throne. Wycliffe’s translation was still banned, and although manuscript copies were available on the black market, they were hard to find and expensive to procure. Most people still had no inkling of what the Bible really said.
But printing was becoming commonplace, and Tyndale believed the time was right for an accessible, up-to-date translation. He knew he could create one; all he needed was the funding, and the blessing of the church. It didn’t take him long to realise that nobody in London was prepared to help him. Not even his friend, the bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall. Church politics made sure of that.
The religious climate appeared less oppressive in Germany. Luther had already translated the Bible into German; the Protestant Reformation was gathering pace and Tyndale believed he would have a better chance of realising his project there. So he travelled to Cologne and began printing.
This, it transpired, was a mistake. Cologne was still under the control of an archbishop loyal to Rome. He was halfway through printing the book of Matthew when he heard that the print shop was about to raided. He bundled up his papers and fled. It was a story that would be repeated several times over the next few years. Tyndale spent the next few years dodging English spies and Roman agents. But he managed to complete his Bible and copies were soon flooding into England – illegally, of course. The project was complete but Tyndale was a marked man.
He wasn’t the only one. In England, Cardinal Wolsey was conducting a campaign against Tyndale’s Bible. No one with a connection to Tyndale or his translation was safe. Thomas Hitton, a priest who had met Tyndale in Europe, confessed to smuggling two copies of the Bible into the country. He was charged with heresy and burnt alive.
Thomas Bilney, a lawyer whose connection to Tyndale was tangential at the most, was also thrown into the flames. First prosecuted by the bishop of London, Bilney recanted and was eventually released in 1529. But when he withdrew his recantation in 1531 he was re-arrested and prosecuted by Thomas Pelles, chancellor of Norwich diocese, and burnt by the secular authorities just outside the city of Norwich.
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Meanwhile Richard Bayfield, a monk who had been one of Tyndale’s early supporters, was tortured incessantly before being tied to the stake. And a group of students in Oxford were left to rot in a dungeon that was used for storing salt fish.
Tyndale’s end was no less tragic. He was betrayed in 1535 by Henry Phillips, a dissolute young aristocrat who had stolen his [Phillips’] father’s money and gambled it away. Tyndale was hiding out in Antwerp, under the quasi–diplomatic protection of the English merchant community. Phillips, who was as charming as he was disreputable, befriended Tyndale and invited him out for dinner. As they left the English merchant house together, Phillips beckoned to a couple of thugs loitering in a doorway. They seized Tyndale. It was the last free moment of his life. Tyndale was charged with heresy in August 1536 and burnt at the stake a few weeks later.
England was not the only country to murder Bible translators. In Antwerp, the city where Tyndale thought he was safe, Jacob van Liesveldt produced a Dutch Bible. Like so many 16th-century translations, his act was political as well as religious. His Bible was illustrated with woodcuts – in the fifth edition he depicted Satan in the guise of a Catholic monk, with goat’s feet and a rosary. It was a step too far. Van Liesveldt was arrested, charged with heresy and put to death.
A murderous age
The 16th century was by far the most murderous age for Bible translators. But Bible translations have always generated strong emotions, and continue to do so even today. In 1960 the United States Air Force Reserve warned recruits against using the recently published Revised Standard Version because, they claimed, 30 people on its translation committee had been “affiliated with communist fronts”. TS Eliot, meanwhile, railed against the 1961 New English Bible, writing that it “astonishes in its combination of the vulgar, the trivial, and the pedantic”.
And Bible translators are still being murdered. Not necessarily for the act of translating the Bible, but because rendering the Bible into local dialects is one of the things Christian missionaries do. In 1993 Edmund Fabian was murdered in Papua New Guinea, killed by a local man who had been helping him translate the Bible. In March 2016, four Bible translators working for an American evangelical organisation were killed by militants in an undisclosed location in the Middle East.
Bible translations, then, may appear to be a harmless activity. History shows it is anything but.
Harry Freedman is author of The Murderous History of Bible Translations (Bloomsbury, 2016)
This article was first published on HistoryExtra in July 2016
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