In 1537 another edition of the English Bible appeared, Matthew’s Bible. Now there were two versions of the Bible in English making their way through England. Matthew’s Bible was translated into English by “Thomas Matthew,” a pen name for John Rogers, an associate of William Tyndale, who would later be burned at the stake in 1555. While the text of Matthew’s Bible was not controversial, the marginal notes most certainly were. England and her church were neither Protestant nor Roman Catholic and thus the distinctly Protestant notes threatened to lead readers to embrace the theology and practice of the Reformers. Consequently, Cromwell suggested a revision of Matthew’s Bible be taken up in order to “render it generally more acceptable” (Bruce, 67). That translation? The Great Bible. The Great Bible, sometimes referred to as Cranmer’s Bible because of his preface to it, would become the Bible appointed for reading in all the churches. Again Cranmer and Cromwell combine efforts and thus The Great Bible became an “icon of a godly state and church under their supreme head…The social ordering of England was thus affirmed every time the Great Bible was opened on a church lectern” (McGrath, In the Beginning, 97).
Not surprisingly the work of revising Matthew’s Bible fell to Miles Coverdale, the man, as you will remember from last week, who was responsible for producing the first complete edition of the English Bible. To give you a feel for how closely these early translations of the Bible into English were related, consider a couple of quotes from F.F. Bruce and Alister McGrath.
Although the title of the Great Bible suggests that it was the product of consultation between “divers excellent learned men”, it was actually Coverdale’s revision of Matthew’s Bible. In other words, it was Coverdale’s revision of John Rogers’ revision of Tyndale’s Bible, so far as Tyndale’s Bible went (Bruce, 70).
The translation of the text offered by the Great Bible is best seen as a judicious blend of Tyndale and Coverdale, with the offending note of Mathew’s Bible removed (McGrath, 95).
One interesting departure from Tyndale and the Lutheran order of the books of the NT—an ordering which places Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation at the end of the Bible expressing Luther’s questions concerning their inspiration—was the adoption the ordering offered by Erasmus in his 1516 Greek NewTestament.
The Great Bible was published in 1539 and subsequently revised in 1540 by Coverdale. Five further editions would be published between 1540 and 1541. It became the official Bible of England. The title-page reads, “This is the Byble apoynted to the use of the churches.”
One interesting thing that emerges from this study of the History of the English Bible is how the political climate of the day affects the religious climate. Indeed, they cannot be separated for the church exists in cultures. That said, we ought not to miss how God providentially uses the political goings-on for the good of the church. Some in our day have sought to discredit translations of the Bible because the impetus for some of them is nothing more than greenbacks. Maybe so, but commercial motivation is no more disqualifying than political motivations. Translations of the Bible don’t fall out of the sky and thus they emerge in particular places and contexts and above all of that God rules supreme.