The bloody history of the Bible: why owning, printing or even reading the word of God could be lethal

The Murderous History of Bible Translations by Harry Freedman reveals the fraught story of the famous text.

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In 1411, the then archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, wrote to Pope Gregory XII about the condition of the Catholic Church. In his letter, as he looked back on recent threats to Catholicism, Arundel allowed himself some remarks about a dangerous nemesis: the “pestilent and wretched John Wyclif, of cursed memory, that son of the old serpent”.

Wycliffe, he wrote, had “endeavoured by every means to attack the very faith and sacred doctrine of the Holy Church, devising – to fill up the measure of his malice – the expedient of a new translation of the Scriptures into the mother tongue”.

When Arundel wrote those words the phenomenon of Bible translation was almost new to England. An Anglo-Saxon version by Bishop Eadfrith, subsequently known as the Lindisfarne Gospels, was written in the 7th to 8th centuries but ­beyond that there had been nothing. With the arrival of Wycliffe’s English rendering, “the Gospel that Christ gave to the doctors and clergy of the Church” – as an anonymous contemporary of Arundel put it – had “become vulgar and more open to lay men and women who can read than it usually is to quite learned clergy of good intelligence. And so the pearl of the Gospel is scattered abroad and trodden underfoot by swine.”

Wycliffe’s undertaking marks the point at which the story of Bible translation begins to get murderous. When his great work appeared in England in the late 14th century, it led to a series of proscriptions – issued throughout Europe – against the making and owning of vernacular versions of the Scriptures. In 1415 Jan Hus, a Czech follower of Wycliffe, was burned at the stake, with copies of Wycliffe’s Bible used as kindling for the fire. In the early 16th century a resident of Norwich was executed for the crime of having a piece of paper bearing a vernacular transcription of the Lord’s Prayer. And in 1536 the scholar William Tyndale was subjected to a botched strangling, then burned at the stake, for producing his magnificent English translation of the Bible.

Instead of beginning The Murderous History of Bible Translations with a detailed consideration of the forces that propelled Wycliffe to engage in his immeasurably influential act of scholarship, Harry Freedman devotes the first third of the book to a chronological survey of his subject, from the 2nd or 3rd century BC, when in Alexandria the Old Testament was first translated from Hebrew into Greek, to the appearance of a Slavic version in the 9th.

In some ways this portion of the book is necessary. It introduces the two texts on which the later, violent history of Bible translation depended (the Koine Greek ­Septuagint, which probably emerged from the translation made at Alexandria, and St Jerome’s Latin Vulgate of 382AD); it also features some entertaining anecdotes and detail. I did not know that we owe the phrase “to fast” to a 4th-century Gothic translation of the Bible for which the translator, Ulfilas (“Little Wolf”), had to invent an alphabet; and it was instructive to be reminded that the 3rd-century ascetic Origen, on encountering a verse in Matthew in praise of those who live as eunuchs, assiduously embarked on an act of auto-castration.

For the most part, however, the early history of the translated Bible was almost entirely non-violent, and Freedman’s broad survey of it is marred by a frustrating lack of argument. This shortcoming afflicts the rest of the book, which goes on to consider the nature of Bible translation from around 1300 to the early 1600s, as well as its development from the mid-17th century to the 20th. The second part is more successful, if only because it marks the sole occasion on which Freedman deals in any detail with the lethal consequences of making, importing, printing, owning and reading translations of the Bible.

In England and in northern Europe, this story becomes that of the Reformation: the foundation of the modern world. Yet Freedman dispenses with it in 70 pages. Consequently, his account of the struggles of Wycliffe and the Lollards, and of Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German, feels perfunctory. The same goes for his account of Tyndale’s translation – a work that cost Tyndale his life, provided the makers of the King James Bible with ­almost 90 per cent of their final text, shaped the lineaments of the English language and became one of the foundations of modern English prose.

The stylistic ineptitude on display in Freedman’s pages suggests that he has tried hard to reverse that achievement. When his prose is not so full of clichés as to border on parody (in the space of three pages, we get “smelt a rat”, “left much to be desired”, “times were changing”, “a new age was dawning” and, wonderfully, “stuck to his guns as far as the bigger picture was concerned”), it manages to meet the additional challenge of uniting cliché with nonsense: “The translated Bible, quite unwittingly, sat at the heart of events.”

The cumulative effect of such deficiencies makes what might and should have been a focused, inspiring and engaged study of the sanguinary history of Bible translation feel vague, dispiriting and at times frivolous. The figures at the heart of Freedman’s book undertook work of great care, labour, risk and sacrifice. They ought to be honoured accordingly. 

Translations: Power, Conflict and the Quest for Meaning by Henry Freedman is published by Bloomsbury Continuum, 256pp, £20

This article appears in the 15 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of the golden generation