History of The English Bible: Roman Catholic Church, John Wycliffe, John Hus, and the Lollards
AD 1382 The first hand-written English language Bible manuscripts of the complete Bible were produced by John Wycliffe (1320-1384), an Oxford professor, scholar, and theologian. Wycliffe, (also spelled ‘Wycliff’ and ‘Wyclif’), was well-known throughout Europe for his opposition to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, which he believed to be contrary to the Bible. With the help of his followers, called the Lollards, and his assistant Purvey, and many other faithful scribes, Wycliffe produced dozens of English language manuscript copies of the scriptures. They were translated out of the Latin Vulgate, which was the only source text available to Wycliffe. John Wycliffe is considered the main precursor of the Protestant Reformation. The Pope was so infuriated by his teachings and his translation of the Bible into English, that 44 years after Wycliffe had died, he ordered the bones to be dug-up, crushed, and scattered in the river!
One of Wycliffe’s followers, John Hus, actively promoted Wycliffe’s ideas: that people should be permitted to read the Bible in their own language, and they should oppose the tyranny of the Roman Catholic Church that threatened anyone possessing a Non-Latin Bible with execution. In Constance on July 6, 1415, having been condemned by the Council of Constance in an unfair trial, Hus fell upon his knees, and with a low voice he asked God to forgive all his enemies, and declared, “God is my witness that I have never taught that of which I have been accused by false witnesses. In the truth of the Gospel which I have written, taught, and preached, I will die today with gladness.” Then followed his degradation; he was enrobed in priestly vestments and again asked to recant; again he refused. With curses, his ornaments were taken from him, his priestly tonsure was destroyed, and sentence was pronounced that the Church had deprived him of all rights and delivered him to the secular powers whereupon he was burned at the stake with Wycliffe’s manuscript Bibles used as kindling for the fire. The last words of John Hus were that, “In 100 years, God will raise up a man whose calls for reform cannot be suppressed.” Almost exactly 100 years later, in 1517, Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses of Contention (a list of 95 issues of heretical theology and crimes of the Roman Catholic Church) into the church door at Wittenberg. Thus, the prophecy of Hus had come true! Martin Luther went on to be the first man to print the Bible in the German language. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs records that in that same year, 1517, seven people were burned at the stake by the Roman Catholic Church for the crime of teaching their children to say the Lord’s Prayer in English rather than Latin.
Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1450’s, and the first book to ever be printed was a Latin language Bible, printed in Mainz, Germany. Gutenberg’s Bibles were surprisingly beautiful, as each leaf Gutenberg printed was later colourfully hand-illuminated. Ironically, though he had created what many believe to be the most important invention in history, Gutenberg was a victim of unscrupulous business associates who took control of his business and left him in poverty.
Nevertheless, the invention of the movable-type printing press meant that Bibles and books could finally be effectively produced in large quantities in a short period of time. This was essential to the success of the Reformation – delivering the people from heretical theology and doctrine.
In the 1490’s, another Oxford professor, and the personal physician to King Henry: the 7th and the 8th, Thomas Linacre, decided to learn Greek. After reading the Gospels in Greek, and comparing it to the Latin Vulgate, he wrote in his diary, “Either this (the original Greek) is not the Gospel, or we are not Christians.”
The Latin had become so corrupt that it no longer even preserved the message of the Gospel, yet the Church still threatened to kill anyone who read the scripture in any language other than Latin, though Latin was not an original language of the scriptures. (Hebrew and Greek is the original language of the scriptures).
In 1496, John Colet, another Oxford professor, and the son of the Mayor of London, started reading the New Testament in Greek and translating it into English for his students at Oxford, and later for the public at Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. The people were so hungry to hear the Word of God in a language they could understand, that within six months there were 20,000 people packed in the church and at least that many outside trying to get in! (Sadly, the enormous and beautiful Saint Paul’s Cathedral today: typical Sunday morning worship attendance is only around 200 people and mostly tourists). Fortunately for Colet, he was a powerful man with friends in high places, so he amazingly managed to avoid execution.
William Tyndale (1494-1536) was the Captain of the Army of Reformers, and was their spiritual leader. Tyndale holds the distinction of being the first man to ever print the New Testament in the English language taking advantage of Gutenberg’s movable-type press. Tyndale was a true scholar and a genius having received his Masters degree in 1515 at the age of twenty-one. He was so fluent in eight languages; Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Spanish, French, Italian, English, and German, that it was said one would think any one of them to be his native tongue. He is frequently referred to as the ‘Architect of the English Language,’ (even more so than William Shakespeare) as so many of the phrases Tyndale coined are still in our language today.
A clergyman hopelessly entrenched in Roman Catholic dogma once taunted Tyndale with the statement, “We are better to be without God’s laws than the Pope’s.” Tyndale was infuriated by Roman Catholic heresies, and he replied, “I defy the Pope and all his laws. If God spare my life ere many years, I will cause the boy that drives the plow to know more of the scriptures than you!”
The authorities banned Tyndale’s translation. A friend, Philips, who was the agent either of Henry VIII, or of English ecclesiastics, or possibly both, betrayed Tyndale. Tyndale was arrested and tried for heresy and treason in a ridiculously unfair trial, and convicted. Tyndale was strangled and burnt at the stake in the prison yard on October 6, 1536 – two years after the ‘Church of England’ (Anglican Church) had been founded. His last words were, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.“
The ‘Church of England’ was founded in 1534 when the Parliament of England declared King Henry VIII the head of the church, not the Pope (Act of Supremacy).
Note: Title of ‘Pope’ usage commenced 607 AD.
The Roman Catholic Church placed the Bible on the index of forbidden books in 1229 AD. Canon 14:
“We prohibit also that the laity should be permitted to have the books of the Old or New Testament; unless anyone from motive of devotion should wish to have the Psalter or the Breviary for divine offices or the hours of the blessed Virgin; but we most strictly forbid their having any translation of these books.”
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