The Myth of the Catholic Church and Vernacular Scriptures

OK. One invariably hears accusations lodged against the Catholic Church of having locked up the bible prior to the Reformation, the implication being that either the Church was trying to keep the people in ignorance, or from seeing that the Church was in fact teaching a bunch of doctrines contrary to the “Word of God.” This accusation can take a million and one forms, but it is generally trying to imply what has already been said. This charge, besides being flat-out false, fails to take into account the historical situations that were happening. These include the fact that most people were illiterate, and that there were no printing presses. Consequently, translation and copying of the scriptures into the vernacular languages was costly endeavor, in terms of time and money. And once the translation was made, barely anyone could read it anyway. This argument also fails to take into account that the initial translation of the scriptures into Latin was a translation from an unknown language to the vernacular…which was Latin. OK. But having said all of this, it nevertheless remains a patently false assertion that the Reformers (Wycliff et al.) were the first to translate the scriptures into the vernacular. In fact, the Church most responsible for said translation was…the Catholic Church. The following quotations are taken from Henry G. Graham’s book, “Where We Got the Bible”, and in his chapter entitled, “Vernacular Scriptures Before Wycliff”.

“We know from history that there were popular translations of the bible and Gospels in Spanish, Italian, French, Danish, Norwegian, Polish, Bohemian, and Hungarian for the Catholics of those lands before the days of printing, but we shall confine ourselves to England to refuter once more the common fallacy that John Wycliff was the first to place to place an English translation of the Scriptures in the hands of the English people in 1382…

We may safely assert, and we can prove, that there were actually in existence among the people many copies of the scriptures in the English tongue of that day. To begin far back, we have a copy of the work of Caedmon, a monk of Whitby, at the end of the 7th century, consisting of great portions of the bible in the common tongue.

In the next century we have the well-known translations of Venerable Bede, a monk of Jarrow, who died while busy with the Gospel of John. In the same (8th) century, we have the copies of Eadhelm, Bishop of Sherborne; of Guthlac, a hermit near Peterborough; and of Egbert, Bishop of Holy Island; these were all in Saxon, the language understood and spoken by the Christians of that time. Coming down a little later, we have the free translations of King Alfred the Great, who was working at the psalms when he died, and of Aelfric, Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as popular renderings of Holy Scripture like the Book of Durham and the Rushworth Gloss and others that have survived the wreck of ages.

After the Norman conquest of 1066, Anglo-Norman or Middle English became the language of England, and consequently the next translations of the Bible we meet are in that tongue. There are several specimens still known, such as the Paraphrase of Orm (about 1150) and the Salue Animae (1250), the translation of William Shoreham and Richard Rolle, hermit of Hampole (died 1349). I say merely “specimens”, for those that have come down to us are merely indications of a much greater number that once existed, but afterwards perished.

We have proof of this in the word of Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England under Henry VIII, who says, “The whole Bible long before Wycliff’s day was by virtuous and well-learned men translated into the English tongue, and by good and godly people with devotion and soberness well and reverently read” (Dialogues III). Again, “The clergy keep no Bibles from the laity but such translations as be either not yet approved for good, or such as be already reproved for naught, as Wycliff’s was. For, as for old ones that were before Wycliff’s days, they remain lawful and be in some folk’s hand. I myself have seen, and can show you, Bibles, fair and old, which have been known and seen by the bishop of the diocese, and left in laymen’s hands and women’s too, such as he knew for good and Catholic folk, that used them with soberness and devotion.”

But it will be said, that is the witness of a Roman Catholic. Well, I shall advance Protestant testimony also.

The translators of the Authorized Version, in their preface, referring to previous translations of the Scriptures into the language of the people, make the follow9ng important statements. After speaking of the Greek and Latin versions, they proceed, “The godly-learned were not content to have the Scriptures in the language which themselves understood, Greek and Latin…but also for the behoof and the edifying of the unlearned which hungered and thirsted after righteousness, and had souls to be saved as well as they, they provided translations into the Vulgar for their countrymen, insomuch that most nations under heaven did shortly after their conversion hear Christ speaking unto them in their mother tongue, not by the voice of their minister only but also by the written word translated..”

As all these nations were certainly converted by the Catholic Church, for there was then no other to send missionaries to convert anybody, this is really a valuable admission. The translators of 1611, then, after enumerating many converted nations that had the vernacular Scriptures, come to the case of England and include it among the others. “Much about that time” (1360), they say, “even in our King Richard the Second’s days, John Trevisa translated them into English, and many English Bibles in written hand are yet to be seen that divers translated, as it is very probable, in that age…So that, to have the Scriptures in the mother tongue is not a quaint conceit lately taken up, either by the Lord Cromwell in England [or others]…but hath been thought upon, and put in practice of old, even from the first times of the conversion of any nation.” This testimony from the preface (too little known) of their own Authorized Bible, ought surely to carry some weight with well disposed Protestants.

Moreover, the “Reformed” Archbishop of Canterbury, Cranmer, says, in his preface of the Bible of 1540, “The Holy Bible was translated and read in the Saxon tongue, which at that time was our mother tongue, whereof there remaineth yet divers copies found in old abbeys, of such antique manner of writing and speaking that few men now be able to read and understand them. When this language waxed old and out of common use, because folks should not lack the fruit of reading, it was again translated into the newer language, whereof yet also many copies remain and be daily found.”

Again, Foxe, a man that Protestants trust, says, “If histories be well examined, we shall find, both before the Conquest and after, as well as before John Wycliff was born as since, the whole body of Scripture by sundry men translated into our country tongue.” …

There is no need, it seems to me, to waste further time and space in accumulating proofs that the Bible was known, read, and distributed by the Catholic Church in the common language of the people in all countries from the seventh down to the fourteenth century. I have paid more attention to the case of England because of the popularity of the myth about Wycliff having been the first to translate it and to enable the poor blinded papists, for the first time in their experience, to behold the figure of the Christ of the Gospels in 1382.”

Graham then goes on to list other proofs for other nations other than England. So enough of this silly myth.


~ by Rob on September 28, 2006.

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