The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, the New Testament in Greek. In the fourth century, a scholar named Jerome translated both Testaments into Latin. In time this translation, the Vulgate, became the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church. The priests studied and cited it long after Latin ceased to be a living language. This meant that almost no one except for members of the clergy was able to read the Scriptures for himself. In all things the layman was to accept the pronouncements of the priests as authoritative.
This deplorable situation continued until the 14th century when John Wycliffe, a brilliant scholar at Oxford, sponsored the first translation of the Bible into English. The Catholic Church violently opposed this threat to its power. Wycliffe’s supporters were hounded, imprisoned, tortured, burned to death. In 1428, according to papal orders, Wycliffe’s remains were exhumed and burned. The ashes were poured into the Swift, a little river flowing through Wycliffe’s hometown of Lutterworth in England.
This bitter assault failed to suppress the new English translation. Many working people bought whatever portions of the Bible they could afford. In his excellent book Wide as the Waters, Benson Bobrick says that a man might give “a load of hay for a few chapters of St. Paul or St. James” (p. 73). The few who dared to read the English Bible openly were burned. So the next time we pick up our English Bible, let’s pause to give thanks for the amazing treasure in our hands and the freedom to read it privately or publicly.
A Reading from Wycliffe’s Bible
In the beginning was the word, and the word was at God, and God was the word. This was in the beginning at God. All things were made by him, and without him was made nothing, that thing that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men; and the light shineth in darknesses, and darknesses comprehended not it (John 1:1-5).