For nearly 1000 years, the Bible was only available in Latin. Although once called the “Vulgate” or “Vulgar” (i.e. common) Bible because it was in the language of the people, the people’s language had changed. Very few people actually spoke Latin: most of those who could understand the language were the clergy. The need for an English Bible was growing.
In the late 1300’s, a man named John Wycliffe, along with several colleagues, began to translate the Bible into English. He began by translating the Apocalypse (the book of Revelation), and then the Gospels. The first complete translation of the English Bible was completed before his death in 1384. The Wycliffe Bible is a literal translation from the Latin: sometimes it was so literal that it was difficult to understand (source). For example, Wycliffe translated the first paragraph of the Epistle to the Hebrews as,
“Manyfold and many maners sum tyme God spekinge to fadris in prophetis, at the laste in thes daies spak to us in the sone: whom he ordeynede eyr of alle thingis, by whom he made and the worldis. The which whanne he is the schynynge of glorie and figure of his substaunce, and berynge alle thingis bi word of his vertu, makyng purgacioun of synnes, sittith on the righthalf of mageste in high thingis; so moche maad betere than aungelis, by how moche he hath inherited a more different, or excellent, name bifore hem.”1
The second edition of the Wycliffe Bible, published shortly after his death in 1384, made a little more sense and was more widely accepted. Sir Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor of England, declared in 1528 that it was Wycliffe’s translation that caused the ban on unauthorized versions of the Bible.1 The first translation of the English Bible began a revolution in religious history.
One of the most fascinating facets in the history of the Bible is how it was produced. For centuries, the Bible (and any other book) had to be hand written. Every copy of the Wycliffe Bible was painstakingly written. It could take one monk up to a year to complete one edition of the Bible. This fact contributed to the value of the Word of God, simply because the common person could not afford their own copy. A major advancement in bringing the Bible to the masses was the invention of movable type.
The first recorded use of movable type was between 1041 and 1048, when a Chinese craftsman known as Bi Sheng made letters out of wood and pottery. Johannes Gutenberg was the first to be credited with the invention, however, when in 1445 he printed for the first time. Gutenberg printed his first Bible, a Latin Vulgate, in 1454. He printed about 150 copies and sold very quickly.2
We are fortunate enough here at Special Collections to have this facsimile (pictured above) of the Gutenberg Bible. However, one of our most rare items is a leaf of an original Gutenberg Bible. There are approximately 47 (depending on who you talk to) mostly complete copies of the Gutenberg Bible in existence today. Our original leaf came from a single fragmentary copy of a Gutenberg Bible, which A. Edward Newton separated and put into 200+ specially made “leaf books” in 1921, enabling 200 people to own one leaf rather than having one person with a pile of 200 leaves.
Come into Special Collections to learn more about the history of the Bible! If you would be interested in learning more about John Wycliffe or Johannes Gutenberg, we would recommend the following books, available at the BYU-Idaho David O McKay Library.
It cost a load of hay to rent a Wycliffe Bible for an hour.
1: The English Bible, A History of Translations. Frederick F. Bruce. 1961. Oxford University Press, New York.
2: 6,000 Years of the Bible. G.S. Wegener. 1963. Harper & Row, Publishers, Incorporated, New York.