History of English Bible Translation 04 John Wycliff 1384

English Bible History - Chapter 4

John Wycliffe (1328-84)

TBible Translation English John Wycliff 1384he morning star of the Reformation dawns with the scriptures being translated into English.

English Bible History
John Wycliffe was the first person to translate the Bible in its entirety into English.  During Wycliffe's time, a dark cloud of spiritual darkness covered many parts of Europe, including England. Only popes and priests were allowed to read God's Word. It was illegal for other people to own a Bible. It was a time in which the church hierarchy as was sanctioned by the government and manipulated the lives of the people through punishment and information control. The "Christian faith" that was being enforced was not the saving faith in Christ but in the Church.  The people had faith in others whom they felt could be mediators between God and man. However, the truth would rise in time through the work of John Wycliffe and those who followed him.
Wycliffe’s Reformation Beliefs

Wycliffe was an early voice for reform in the Catholic Church.  Sometimes called "The Morning Star of the Reformation", Wycliff's teaching was considered heretical.  In addition to calling the Pope “AntiChrist”, he taught that the Church should not own property, that people should answer to the King and not the Pope as far as government was concerned, that the common people should read the Bible in their own language, the bread and wine of communion was merely a symbol of Christ's body and blood and not his actual body and blood, prayers for the dead, pilgrimages, and confessions were inventions of the Church.

What really separated Wycliffe and his followers from the general population of the time was their faithfulness to the Bible and their belief that it was the absolute truth. 

Wycliffe’s Illegal Translations

Wycliffe translated the English Bible in 1382 and it was revised after his death in 1388. The translation is based on the Latin Vulgate Bible which means it was not a primary translation - one made from original languages.  That type of translation would be done first by William Tyndale who translated the English Bible directly from Greek and Hebrew.  Wycliffe’s translation was never widely circulated because copies had to be hand-written as the printing press was not invented yet. 
In 1408, 20 years after his death, the Church forbade translations of the Bible except under license from a Bishop and condemned Wycliffe's Bible.  "Lollards" (lit. babblers), a name given in mockery to Wycliffe and his followers, were sometimes burned at the stake for their public preaching and reading from the scriptures in English. The condemned preacher's Wycliffe Bible was hung around his neck and burned with him. Over 1000 were burned between 1400 and 1557 in England alone.

A Wycliffe Bible was expensive and rare in its day.  Few in England actually had copies since a scribe could produce only one copy of the Bible in 10 months of tedious work. Nevertheless, as the first complete English translation of the Bible its place in history is secure. 170 copies of the Wycliffe Bible survive today, most of them the 1388 revised version.

The first Wycliffe Bible adhered rather strictly to the Vulgate, often translating word-for-word and retaining the Latin syntax, making it awkward to the English ear. The 1388 revision, conducted primarily by Wycliffe's secretary John Purvey, was freer in its use of English idiom, correcting much of the stilted language of the earlier version.

John Wycliff Bible Leaf

About this picture – “The beginning of the Gospel of John” in a copy of John Wycliffe's translation of the Bible. This copy was made in the late 14th century and was pocket sized, probably for the use of a wandering preacher, perhaps a Lollard. The edition contained only segments of the New Testament. This copy eventually worked its way to Wycliffe biographer John Lewis (1675-1747). The gospel begins at the large, decorated "I" and reads: ‘In þe bigynnyng was/þe word & þe word/was at god/& god was/þe word.’ Folio 2v of MS Hunter 191 (T.8.21)   Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wyclif's_Bible

Charges of Heresy

Although the Church brought heresy charges against Wycliffe three times, he avoided conviction and died of a stroke as an old man.  30 years after his death, his critics actually took his body out of its tomb and burned it at the stake after a mock trial for heresy.  According to the orders given that day, Wycliff's bones were burned to powder and his ashes dumped into a nearby brook, the Swift River. The Swift runs into the Avon River and the Avon into Severn which leads to the Atlantic Ocean.  In this figurative way, Wycliffe’s influence spread to the entire world! Although he may have been a century ahead of his time, his influence was seen in the 1500's when the reformation broke into full flame with Luther, Tyndale, Calvin, Knox and others who brought the scriptures to the common man in larger numbers.