King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
'To make a good one better': translating the Bible

From Erasmus to Coverdale

Erasmus’s paraphrases and commentaries on the EpistlesErasmus’s paraphrases and commentaries on the EpistlesThe influence on the English Bible of the Dutch humanist theologian Erasmus (14661536) was profound.

In 1516 Erasmus’s Greek New Testament – the first complete Greek New Testament to be printed – was published in Basel, drawing on surviving Greek manuscripts and, where these were deficient, on the Latin Vulgate text. In his preface Erasmus urged the translationof the Bible into as many languages as possible, that its teachings might become the common inheritance of all.

Erasmus’s Greek New Testament was the principal source for William Tyndale’s English translation, printed in Worms, Germany, in1526 – the first printed edition of the New Testament in English. Tyndale’s work was done in exile, Biblical translation being still forbidden in England, and was fiercely denounced by Thomas More (ironically, himself a friend of Erasmus), largely for its supposed Lutheran inspiration.

After Henry VIII’s break with Rome, however, the English government’s attitude towards Biblical translation underwent a complete volte-face, Thomas Cromwell, who replaced More as lord chancellor, being strongly in favour of the production of an English Bible. Tyndale’s revised version of the NewTestament was printed in Antwerp in 1534 and a copy presented to Henry’s then queen, Anne Boleyn. Tyndale, however, was subsequently imprisoned on the orders of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, convicted of heresy and hanged at Vilvorde, near Brussels, in 1536.

It was Tyndale’s fellow exile and assistant, Miles Coverdale (1488–1568), who was responsible in 1535 for the first complete Bible to be printed in English (though it was not printed in England but in Antwerp). Coverdale, unlike Tyndale, was not well versed in Hebrew or Greek and thus relied heavily on Tyndale’s New Testament, as well as on the Latin Vulgate and Luther’s German Bible. His was the first English Bible to separate the books of the Apocrypha from the rest of the Old Testament, on the stated grounds that they contain passages ‘repugnant unto the open and manifest truth in the other books of the Bible.’

Thomas Cromwell was favourably disposed towards Coverdale’s work and instructed him in 1537 to take charge of a revision of his translation, copies of which would be printed in Paris and shipped to England, where every church was commanded by royal injunction to have one on display and the clergy urged to ‘provoke, stir and exhort every person to read the same.’ This was the Great Bible (so named because of its large folio format), eventually printed in London in 1539, the Parisian authorities having impounded the printed sheets and condemned the translation as heretical.

On display is a 1549 English edition of Erasmus’s paraphrases and commentaries on the Epistles; the Biblical passages (‘The texte’) are given in the Great Bible version.

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