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ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS OF THE BIBLE.
The history of the English Bible has a two-fold interest. It is associated with the history of the English Church and with that of the English language and literature. In one aspect it is therefore a religious, in another a literary, history.
A peculiar and unique connection existed between the English Reformation and the translation and circulation of the Scriptures in the vulgar tongue of England. In no other counlry can the Reformation be said to have been so intimately associated with the Word of God. On the continent the great question which severed the Protestant Churches from the Church of Rome, was the doctrine of justification by Faith. At the perversions of this doctrine by the Papal Church, Luther aimed his theses. It was because he substituted the righteousness of Christ in the place of indulgences and penance and saintly intercessions, that the thunders of the Vatican were hurled at the Monk of Wittemberg. In England, however, the great question,— paramount even to the supremacy of the English king in matters ecclesiastical, — was the translation and circulation
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of the Scriptures. The history of the English prisoners and martyrs for the Faith, is the history of the translators and the readers of the Word of God in their native tongue. The Englishman who, in the 14th century,— nearly 200 years before Luther, — provoked the wrath of the Pope and called forth the persecuting zeal of papal Bishops, was a Bible translator. The Christian scholar whom Henry VIII. drove to the continent and there finally allowed to be burned at the stake, was a Bible translator. The first man for whom the fires of Smithfield were kindled by the "Bloody Mary," was a Bible translator. The time would fail us to tell of the multitudes who for the sole crime of printing, or possessing, or perusing an English Bible, "had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover, of bonds and imprisonments, being destitute, afflicted, tormented." When Great Babylon shall come in remembrance before God, to give unto her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of his wrath, not the least of her crimes will be found to be her persecutions of the translators and the readers of the English Bible.
The relation between the language and literature of England-, and the translation of the Scriptures, though different from that between the English Reformation and the English Bible, is scarcely less intimate. One of the earliest uses to which the written speech of our Saxon ancestors was put, was Bible translation. English prose has but one work earlier than the first English Bible. The gradual progress and improvement of our noble tongue may be studied with advantage in the successive versions made by British Christians; and it may be safely said that no other book has so determined the spirit and affected the style of English literature; has so served as an enduring monument and standard of the purity and the power of the English language, as the version made by order of King James, the authorized version of our daily use.
The history of these successive translations, viewed in its two-fold aspect, literary and religious, we propose to present to our readers.
As early as the second century of the Christian Era, Christian merchants brought with them to the shores of Britain the knowledge of the gospel, and seeking, it maybe, goodly pearls, for which its waters were then famous, gave to the pagan Kelts the pearl of greatest price. In the fourth century Patrick evangelized the island which has named him her patron saint. The sixth century witnessed the labors of Columba and the foundation of the monastery of Iona among the Hebrides; and near the close of the same century, in the year 596, Augustine was sent to England by Pope Gregory to preach to the Angles the good tidings which had been proclaimed by those angels, to whom, in respect/£>f their beauty, he had likened these insular barbarians. 9$ie labors of this Romish missionary were successful, and churches and convents and monasteries rose all over the island, to testify to the zeal with which the Saxons adopted the faith which he preached.
During this period the few Christians of the Western Church who read the Scriptures, read them in manuscript in ilie Latin version, made in the fourth century by Jerome, and known as the Vulgate. Few if any Hebrew or Greek manuscripts had yet found their way west of Constantinople; and, had they been possessed, they would have been but sealed books to the scholars of the British Church. These Latin MSS. existed only in the libraries of monasteries. Priests and monks alone had access to them; and on Sabbaths and feast-days doled out to the common people such meagre knowledge of the Word of life as they were either able or disposed to convey to them. Although restrained by no prohibition or fear of penalty, no one as yet thought of translating the Scriptures into the vernacular tongue.
To the Mceso-Goths, a people inhabiting the province of Mcesia, south of the Danube, belongs the honor of possessing the first translation made for the benefit of the laity of Western Europe. It was the work of Ulphilas, a Gothic Bishop, in the fourth century. But the practical spirit, the sterling good sense and the desire for popular enlightenment which characterized their Saxon brethren, our ancestors, soon enabled them to claim the second place in this goodly series of Bible translators. The Moeso-Goths and the Anglo-Saxons, separated from one another ^>y but a short interval, stand for centuries alone as the possessors of a popular version of the Scriptures.
The first efforts made by the Anglo-Saxons in this department of translation, were made in the seventh century, and like the rude beginnings of every national literature, were poetical. So singular and so unlooked for were these attempts, that the superstitious piety of that early age invented a miracle to account for them. An unlettered cowherd of the monastery of Whitby, so says the devout legend, mortified at his inability to imitate or to equal the lyrical performances of his fellow servants, retired to his couch in the Abbey grange. A heavenly visitant appeared to him in his troubled dreams, bade him sing, and silencing his confession of want of skill, gave him as his theme the origin of Created Things. At once the poetical inspiration fell upon him ; his tongue was loosed ; the task was accomplish-' ed; and remembered and recorded on his waking, gained for him the reputation of an inspired poet.
Nor did his labors stop here. Educated by the monks and admitted into their fraternity, Csedmon devoted himself to a popular paraphrase of the Old and the New Testament. Fragments of the work in its rude Saxon verse have come down to us. The monkish paraphrast has been indebted for his materials as much to his imagination as to the Scriptures. His conceptions and even his language, however, remind us not a little of the "Paradise Lost" of Milton. We know not which to admire the more, the boldness of the imagery which he employs, or the useful practical spirit which prompted him thus to popularize the facts and the doctrines of the hidden and unknown Scriptures.
But the strong common sense of our Saxon forefathers, the spirit which led their scholars to record useful .knowledge in laborious prose while other nations were producing naught but national heroic legends and warlike songs, and made them sacrifice the honor of original composition to the desire of communicating to their countrymen in their own tongue the wisdom of earlier ages, both demanded and prompted something more authentic and instructive than a poetical paraphrase.
The Saxon Church in the eighth century was not destitute of learned men fitted to translate correctly the Word of God. Then lived Bede, the monk of Wearmouth, whom the church and the world alike honor as a historian, a commentator, a Christian; but he has no better title to the epithet "venerable," which since the tenth century has been prefixed to his name, than his having been the first translator of any portion of the New Testament into the native tongue of his countrymen. With a spirit kindred to that of the beloved disciple, he selected John's Gospel, and consecrated to its translation the closing hours of his life. The evening shadows of the day of the Feast of the Ascension were gathering around him, as with failing strength, dictating to his scribe, he hastened towards the completion of the task which was to be his last. "It is now done," Baid the youth, as with faltering tones the last verse was dictated. "It is done," said the dying scholar; and with the words of the " Gloria Patri" upon his lips, he went from his work to his reward.
The feeble light of ecclesiastical tradition shines upon the labors of other less noted translators of portions of the Bible in this early period. English libraries, and the collections of English antiquaries contain many MSS. attesting the scholarship, the piety, and the zeal for the diffusion of religious knowledge possessed by these Saxon Ecclesiastics. The golden bosses and precious stones of the binding of the Durham Book, in which, in 680, Eadfrid, bishop of Lindisfarne, had copied Jerome's version of the four Gospels, have long since disappeared; but the richly illuminated parchment on which, in the 10th century, Aldred added an interlinear translation, may still be seen in the Cottonian Library of the British Museum; while the Bodleian Library of Oxford is enriched with the translation of the four Gos