Sunday, February 2, 2014

Translating the Bible

There is a lot of confusion regarding translation of the Bible and, as this photo shows, there continues to be a little bit of ignorance regarding the complex history of Biblical translation. I think that Christian unity in the West will be hampered as long as these misunderstandings continue to be taught from generation to generation. I have written about the Church's role in the writing of the Bible before, so I will not go into details here - just very broad statements that I encourage further investigation into. I believe we can all learn from one another and work towards reconciling the mistakes of our past so that we can grow closer in communion. In my recent reading of the Lutheran-Catholic joint document on the commemoration of the Reformation, it is painfully obvious that Catholics and Protestants have reacted very poorly towards one another, allowing our past to dictate our future (which always ends in pain, separation, and hurt feelings). Although many non-Catholics might disagree with how the Catholic Church has interpreted the Scriptures, let us start off this conversation by acknowledging the fact that 1) Catholics are Christians and 2) all Christians feel reverence towards the Scriptures. To understand more about how the Catholic Church reveres the Scriptures, I highly recommend Dei Verbum, Verbum Domini, and at least paragraphs 101-141 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

In the early days of the Church the primary use of the Scriptures was liturgical, so it made little sense for the faithful to have a copy of them in their homes. For nearly the first 400 years of the Christian Church's existence, "the Scriptures" consisted of the Old Testament (the canon of the Septuagint) and several writings and letters that may or may not have been divinely inspired. Around the year 400, a local - then Ecumenical - council codified the canon of the Bible, including what books belonged in the New Testament. You can read more of the history here.

There is a fascinating little book entitled Where We Got the Bible: Our Debt to the Catholic Church. The book was written by a convert to the Catholic faith, one Rt. Rev. Henry G. Graham. Born in 1874, his family were firm believers in the Church of Scotland, the Kirk. Born and raised in "the Manse" - the clergy house used by the ministers - he followed in the family footsteps and became a Presbyterian minister and theologian. In fact, his family was from a long line of ministers, father-to-son, for over 200 years from 1685 until 1903. When he was fifteen years old he went to St Andrews University in 1889, graduated master of arts in 1893, and then studied divinity, graduating with a bachelors of divinity in 1896, and for a year was assistant to the professor of Hebrew. This was a devout, God-fearing, Bible-loving man - and after being attracted by her liturgy, he came to believe the Catholic faith, entering full communion in 1903. He would eventually become a priest and then a bishop. Bishop Graham would go to his eternal rest in 1959.

Bishop Graham's book is very interesting in regards to the history of the Bible (especially the English Bible). Raised believing in the misconceptions we've all heard - that the Catholic Church didn't want people to read the Bible and refused to translate it into the vernacular - Bishop Graham gave a collection of speeches in an effort to correct those misconceptions; this book is that collection of speeches.

It bothered me to see that photo of Voice of the Martyr's monument to Tyndale's "martyrdom" - it shows that the misconceptions are still there today, harming our chances of Christian unity. Taking some highlights from Graham's book, let's briefly look at Tyndale and his "martyrdom".

William Tyndale was born in 1484, studied at Oxford, and was ordained a priest. Although he admitted to being "speechless and rude, dull and slow witted," he decided he was the person to translate the Bible into Middle English. No one asked him to do this; he decided to do this on his own accord. Tyndale's contemporaries saw him as a man "who was exceedingly insulting in his manner, unscrupulous, and of a most violent temper." He "repeatedly abused and insulted Church dignitaries", he believed the Pope was the anti-Christ and whore of Babylon, and called monks and friars "caterpillars, horseleeches, drone bees, and draff." It is no surprise that the English bishops told him that he wasn't the man to translate an English Bible. Tyndale left England for the continent where he continued to work on his Bible, smuggling copies into England in 1525. Filled with anti-Catholic notes and Lutheran theology, copies of Tyndale's Bible were ceremoniously burned at St. Paul's Cross, London. In 1522 he declared, "I defy the Pope and all of his laws!"

Anglican historian Canon Dixon wrote, "If the clergy had acted thus [burning Tyndale's Bible] simply because they would have the people kept ignorant of the Word of God, they would have been without excuse. But it was not so. Every one of the little volumes containing portions of the sacred text that was issued by Tyndale contained also a prologue and notes written with such hot fury of vituperation against the prelates and clergy, the monks and the friars, the rites and ceremonies of the Church, as was hardly likely to commend it to the favor of those who were attacked." The bishop of London declared that he easily found 2,000 errors in Tyndale's Bible, while St. Thomas More wrote a treatise against it, saying that "to find errors in Tyndale's book was like studying to find water in the sea."

Burning copies of books perceived to be detrimental to the faith and the security of the state was common in this time period. Luther would burn copies of Canon law and the papal bull from Pope Leo. Calvin would burn every copy of Servetus' Bible in Geneva he could find because he viewed some parts of that translation as unorthodox. Sadly, this is what we all did.

Tyndale's translation was so corrupt that the secular forces of Britain felt compelled to act - nearly twice as many royal proclamations as ecclesial ones were given denouncing Tyndale's copy. In 1531, Henry VIII would eventually publish an edict demanding that Tyndale's version be "utterly expelled, rejected, and put away out of the hands of the people." Not having the desired effect, in 1543 Henry VIII would once again pass a law "for the advancement of true religion and for the abolishment of the contrary," and demanded that the "crafty, false, and untrue translation of Tyndale" (among other works of falsehood) "shall be clearly and utterly abolished, extinguished, and forbidden to be kept or used in this realm." Still not being satisfied with the results, in 1546 Henry VIII would demand that all copies of Tyndale's and Coverdale's Bibles be publicly burned.

As for Tyndale's burning at the stake, it was not because he translated the Bible into English. Graham's book (and those of other authors) will testify to the fact that accurate vernacular Bibles and passages were available for centuries before the Reformation. Fr. Dwight Longenecker wrote, "The Catholic Church approved of Gutenberg's German Bible in 1455. The first printed Flemish edition came out in 1477. Two Italian versions of the Bible were printed in 1471, and a Catalan version came out in 1478. A Polish Bible was translated in 1516, and the earliest English version was published in 1525. Most of these were editions of the entire Bible. Individual books had appeared in the vernacular centuries earlier. The first English-language Gospel of John, for example, was translated by the Venerable Bede into Anglo-Saxon in the year 735." Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, in researching this posting I had to sift through pages and pages of websites hailing Tyndale as a hero, a martyr, a "man whose eyes were opened to the errors of the Roman Catholic Church" and "a man who died so we could have the Bible." Dozens of pages claimed that "translating the Bible into the vernacular was punishable by death in the Roman Catholic Church" even though that couldn't be further from the truth.

Tyndale would be tried by secular authorities in 1536, being condemned to death for heresy by the Holy Roman Emperor. Just 46 years later, the Douay-Rheims New Testament would be released - a Catholic English translation - followed by the Old Testament in 1609, two years before the King James Version.

It is a sad chapter in the Christian church that we've had these moments, especially moments which cost people their lives. May God have mercy on William Tyndale's soul. Still, we must honestly and humbly explore these events if we're ever to fulfill the prayer of our Lord that we all may be one. It was not a crime to translate the Bible into the vernacular and Tyndale was not executed for doing so. History can easily prove that the Church had provided Bibles, passages, and partial copies in the vernacular for centuries before the Reformation. The problem with Tyndale's copy (and others produced in that time period) was that purposeful mistranslations were allowed to be used in order to attack Catholic theology. I would suppose that if accurate translations were provided without biased notes, and the people started to reject the faith, then that would be a different story; however, that is not what happened. Tyndale filled his copy with angry vitriol aimed at everything Catholic that he saw, regardless of how inaccurate his translation was. Sadly, in those days a person deemed to having heretical views was considered a threat to the state, so many people - Catholic and Protestant - paid with their lives at the hands of secular governments in order to supposedly keep the peace. May God always grant us the grace to never return to such barbaric times. And may God also grant us the grace and humility to forgive one another for these past grievances so that we may discover the truth about one another, engaging in dialog and brotherhood until we can once again sit at the same Eucharistic table.