The English reformer John Wycliffe was one of the first translators of the Latin Vulgate Bible to English in the late 1370s. The late 1370s were the lowest points in his life after he was condemned as a heretic. The heresy issue limited his movement in England, but he was also at his most productive during this difficult period. His translation was later known as Wycliffe’s Bible. Because of his efforts, ordinary Englishmen could finally read the Bible. For the first time during the Medieval Period, God’s word was not limited to the clergymen who, at that time, were the only ones who could understand Latin. These events are recorded on the Bible Timeline Chart with World History during that time.
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The Bible in Medieval Europe
The first known attempts to translate the Bible from Latin Vulgate into English were during the Early Medieval Period. Bishop Aldhelm, the Venerable Bede, Abbot Aelfric, and King Alfred all translated portions of the Bible. These translations were often incomplete, and the manuscripts had disappeared over time. Thirteenth century Europe was also a turbulent place during the height of the Albigensian heresy in France. In response to the “heresies” preached by the Albigensians, the Council of Toulouse forbade the people to read non-Latin translations of the Bible. All unauthorized versions of the Bible were also seized and destroyed.
The state of the 14th century Roman Catholic Church was just as turbulent. Seven popes chose to stay in Avignon in France (instead of Rome) where they became dependents and puppets of the French king from 1309 to 1377. Accusations of abuse of power and unrestrained extravagance hounded the popes of Avignon. The Bible was still in Latin Vulgate at that time, and could only be understood by the clergymen. The people, naturally, were dependent on the clergymen for translation and interpretation.
John Wycliffe’s Translation of the Bible
During the mid-1300s, a brilliant English scholar and theologian named John Wycliffe rose from Oxford. He preached and wrote against the abuse of power and extravagant living by the pope and the clerics in 14th century Europe. His ideas were considered heretical by the Avignon pope, and he was condemned as such in 1377. Although he was forbidden to preach his “heretical” beliefs, Oxford University still allowed him to lecture on other subjects until 1381.
John Wycliffe wanted the common people to know God’s word, so he started the difficult task of translating the Bible from Latin Vulgate to Middle English. He was not alone in this task as his follower Nicholas Hereford translated some parts of the Old Testament up to the book of Baruch. Wycliffe, meanwhile, translated the Apocrypha and the New Testament. Others completed the translation of the rest of the Bible even after Wycliffe’s death in 1384. The whole book was organized and revised by John Purvey.
The controversy of John Wycliffe’s teachings echoed into the early 15th century. He and a Czech priest named Jan Hus were both condemned as heretics. The council also ordered John Wycliffe’s bones to be exhumed and burned. The ashes were later scattered on the Swift River as punishment for his “heresies.”
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Bruce, F. F. History of the Bible in English. Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2002.
Estep, William Roscoe. Renaissance and Reformation. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1986.
Stone, Larry. The Story of the Bible: The Fascinating History of its Writing, Translation & Effect on Civilization. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010.
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