Revive Our Hearts Podcast

A Light in the Dark

Nancy Leigh DeMoss: I looked around my study the other day and realized that I have—in just that one room—scores of copies of the Bible . . .

Leslie Basham: This is Nancy Leigh DeMoss.

Nancy: . . . in dozens of different translations, sizes, formats, colors. Just Bibles everywhere. I'm so grateful for those Bibles. Many of them are like this one. Their covers are kind of dog-eared, markings in the pages. I can go back through those Bibles and kind of see a history of my spiritual journey. I've read different ones at different times in different seasons. But it's easy, having all of those Bible as we do in our country, to take it for granted, isn't it? and to forget that many people in the world still do not have in their own language? For centuries, many people did not have the advantage of being able to have a personal copy of the Scripture as we do today.

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss for Tuesday, May 3. Where did your Bible come from? I'm not talking about a bookstore or website. How did Hebrew and Greek documents become the English book you hold in your hands? Nancy is going to review the fascinating story in the series, How We Got Our English Bible.

Nancy: We're celebrating this year the 400th anniversary of the 1611 version of the King James Bible by sharing some highlights of the story of how we got the English Bible that we hold in our hands today in its various translations. It's a  fascinating story. But it's also as I have found—doing some digging and research in recent weeks—it's a moving story. We're going to see over these next few days, the price that men paid to translate and to distribute the Bible so we could read it today in our mother tongue, our native language.

In the introduction to the facsimile of the Wycliffe New Testament that we're going to talk about today, the author said that,

No literary work has had so much influence on the English language as the translation of the Bible. Yet, the cost for providing the English speaking people with a Bible must be counted in the blood of the men who sought to translate it.

We're going to see that over these next couple of days. For those of you who weren’t with us yesterday, let me just reset here for a moment. 382 AD was the year that one of the church fathers named Jerome translated the New Testament, and later the Old Testament, from the original Greek and Hebrew languages into Latin. The Latin Vulgate is what that Bible was called.

For most of the next 1000 years, church officials refused to let the Bible be translated into any other language. Thankfully, throughout that 1000 year period, as always, God preserved a remnant—a small number of people who held to the truth, and who kept the Christian faith alive during those spiritually dark centuries. Humanly speaking, those individuals—that remnant—is the reason that we hold the English Bible in our hands today.

Now as part of that remnant, in the mid-1300s, a little less than a 1000 years after Jerome had translated the Bible into Latin, God raised up a man in England whose name was John Wycliffe. Some of you are nodding your head. You've heard that name. Wycliffe Bible translators are named after John Wycliffe. Wycliffe was an Oxford professor, scholar, and a theologian.

As Wycliffe studied the Scriptures, he developed grave concerns about abuses that were taking place within the church. He began to challenge teachings that he knew were contrary to the Scripture. For example, He opposed the sale of indulgences. He dared to question the authority of the pope and other church leaders. For doing so, He was ultimately fired from his position at Oxford. 

Wycliffe believed that Scripture was the absolute authority. He was convinced that the way to expose error and to show the truth was for people to be able to read the Bible in their own language. 

Wycliffe and his coworkers worked hard over the first couple of years to translate the Bible. Wycliffe, along with his associates, were the first to translate entire Bible into English, or for that matter, into any other modern European language. He translated the Bible from the Latin Vulgate that had been translated 1000 years earlier by Jerome. He translated the Bible from the Latin Vulgate rather than from the original Greek and Hebrew, because in those days there were no Greek and Hebrew texts available. The Latin text was the only text he had. He completed the New Testament in 1380 and the Old Testament in 1382—1000 years after Jerome had translated the Bible into Latin.

So for the first time, the Bible was available in English. However, you have to keep in mind that this was more than 60 years before invention of the printing press, so the translation was done entirely by hand. Every copy took 10-12 months of painstaking work by copyists. Every single copy took up to a year to write out by hand.

Of course that meant that the cost to buy one of these copies was huge. It's estimated that to buy one of these translations was equivalent to a pastor’s salary for entire year! Would you be willing to pay an entire year's salary to have a copy of Scripture? Aren't you thankful that the price has gone down; that the Bible is available to us for so little cost today?

Well, thousands of copies were made and were disseminated throughout England. After the translation was finished, Wycliffe organized groups of followers who were poor Oxford scholars, known as Lollards, to go throughout England, and to take with them the copies of these Bibles. They would read the Bible to to the people in English. They would preach the Bible. They would teach basic Christian truths that people had never heard  before.

“The entrance of your words gives light. It gives understanding  to the simple” (Psalm 119:130).

The people who had been in darkness, in blindness for all these years, and all they've ever known is what the church told them the Bible said—which in many cases was corrupt teaching designed to keep the control of the church over the people—the people now hearing the pure Word of God for themselves, they treasured the Scripture. One writer said,

If only a single copy was owned in a neighborhood, these hard-working laborers and artisans would be found together, after a weary day of toil, reading in turn, and listening to the words of life; and so sweet was the refreshment to their spirits, that sometimes the morning light surprised them with its call to a new day of labor, before they thought of sleep.1

Well, these Lollards, reading the Wycliffe Bible, had a huge impact on the common people. But the established church authorities were furious, because they saw their control over the people being threatened, so they severely persecuted Lollards and those who followed them.

We read, for example, from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, this description:

The Lollards were tracked to the lonely, unfrequented places where they met, often under shadow of night, to worship God. Neighbor was made to spy upon neighbor; husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters, were beguiled or forced to bear witness against each other. The Lollards’ prison again echoed with the clanking of chains; the rack and the stake once more claimed their victims.2

One of the common charges brought against these faithful believers, these Lollards and their followers, was not only that they possessed a copy of a Wycliffe Bible, but as you read Foxe's Book of Martyrs, you see that another common charge was their ability to quote passages of the Scriptures from memory. You remember, most of them still didn't have their own copy. So they would hear it, and they would remember it. They could quote huge portions of the Scripture from memory because it was so precious to them.

Well, the Lollards and those who were their followers were willing to pay to hear and to have the Word of God. It was so dear to them that they were willing to the pay the price, in many cases, of their lives. In the 20 years after Wycliffe’s death, many Lollards were burned at the stake, some with their Bibles hanging from their necks to be burned with them. They loved the Word of God.

You and I cannot imagine having to get permission from political and religious leaders—who in those days were often one in the same—in order to translate, print, or distribute Bibles. That was the case in this era. The impact of Wycliffe Bible, which first came out in the late 1300s, the first English language Bible, was huge. For the first time, lay people did not have to rely on the clergy to tell them what the Bible said. They could hear the Bible in their own language. They could read it for themselves. As a result, they began to challenge unbiblical teachings of the established church. 

As we've said, the church leaders were threatened by this. So by 1408, reading the Bible in English was outlawed in Britain. Anyone who owned a copy of the Bible in English risked their freedom and even their life. So there was still no common language Bible available for the person in the pew. The priests still had Jerome’s 4th century Latin Vulgate. But to the people it was still a “forbidden book.”

I'm just giving you highlights of all of this. But I’ve spent the last couple of weeks buried in this research, reading the accounts. I'll just say, this is hard for us to fathom. But it was the culture, it was the millieu in which the people in this era lived. The Bible was a forbidden book in Britain! We're not talking about some foreign pagan country. We're talking about the English speaking country of Britain. All this because the authority of the church depended on lay people being ignorant of what the Bible really taught.

Again, these early people who knew and had the Bible in English were willing to take the risk of threats of freedom and of their lives to get the Bible out. John Hus is an example of this. He was one of Wycliffe’s followers. He was Czech priest and reformer. He challenged the tyranny of the church. He challenged its control that kept people from owning and reading the Bible in their own language. In 1415 he was burned at the stake. I've been at the place where it actually happened in Prague. He was burned at the stake with Wycliffe’s Bibles used as kindling for the fire. Hard to imagine.

In that same year, more than three decades after Wycliffe’s death, church leaders condemned Wycliffe for heresy, they decreed that his books should be burned. Then 13 years later, 43 years after his death, his remains were dug up and burned, and his ashes scattered in the Swift River. So intent was the church on keeping the people from having the Scripture.

So for 130 years after Wycliffe’s Bible, there were no new translations. The Latin version was corrupted by church leaders in their attempt to maintain control over the people, and protect their pocketbooks. The church leaders were getting rich on selling these indulgences to the people, and in other ways keeping them in bondage. So the church threatened to kill anyone who read the Scripture in any language other than Latin, even though Scripture not originally written in Latin. To read the Scriptures in any language other than Latin was to do so at threat of death.

Now, in this period there came two important developments. Again, you can see the hand of God in this. In the 1450s, a man named Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press. You remember that the first book ever printed was a copy of the Bible in Latin, the Latin Vulgate—which you remember was translated by Jerome in 400 AD. That was the first book ever printed. 

The impact of this invention was monumental on all of culture, but particularly on the spread of Christianity. Because until that time, all copies of the Bible were all made by hand. So the printing press made it possible for affordable copies of Bibles and books to be produced in much shorter period of time, and in larger quantities, making possible wider distribution.

In God’s providence, this invention of the printing press helped to spread the Word of God and to fuel the message and impact of the Reformation that was about to take place. In fact, one author said,  “Once the Bible was available, the flames of Reformation were unquenchable.”

So that was one development, the invention of the printing press. But there was another development that took place. You remember from about 500-1500 AD Latin was the dominant language for scholars. But in the mid-1400s people began to study the classics. This is the influence of Renaissance. People began to study the classics, including Greek and Hebrew languages. I'm talking about scholars. They began to study not only Latin, but Greek and Hebrew, the languages in which the Scripture was originally written. This was an important development in God's providence in the mid-1400s.

In the late 1400s, 1496 a man named John Colet, who was an Oxford professor, started reading the New Testament in Greek. For 1000 years before this, people weren't able to do this. They didn’t even have access to those Greek texts for hundreds of years. But those old languages were revived. This Oxford prof started reading the New Testament in Greek and translating it into English for his Oxford students, and then for the people who came to hear him preach at St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Let me read to you a little description of what happened when the Scripture started to be read in English in that St. Paul's Cathedral. One writer says, 

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!3

People were hungry for the Word of God, to hear it in their own language.

Also as part of this revival of the ancient Greek and Hebrew languages, in 1516—which is a date you are familiar with as what we know as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation—a man named Erasmus published a Greek and Latin parallel New Testament. Remember for years, the clergy had only read the Bible in Latin. Now they could read it in Greek and Latin. The Latin that Erasmus used was not the corrupted Vulgate. It was freshly translated from the original Greek, which showed importance of going back to original languages to have an accurate translation of God's Word.

So Erasmus was the first to print Greek New Testament. At the same time in 1517, Martin Luther—who as you know was posting his 95 theses there on the door at the University of Gutenberg—translated and published the Bible in the common language of the German people. We have a woman here today who told us that her mother language is German. The first German translation took place in 1517, done by Martin Luther. But the church continued to oppose these translations into the common languages, into the modern European languages. The church was adamantly opposed to the people getting the Bible in their own language.

In 1519 a man named Christopher Shoemaker was burned alive for this charge. He was accused of having gone to the house of John Say, and “read to him, out of a book, the words which Christ spake to his disciples.”4 For having gone to someone else's house and read to that person a portion of the Scripture in English, Christopher Shoemaker was burned alive.

As I read some of those stories, I thought about that passage in 2 Timothy 2, where the apostle Paul, near the end of his life would be martyred for his faith. He said,

Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound!

Paul says, "I'm bound; I'm in chains. I'm considered a criminal for proclaiming the gospel of Christ, but the Word of God is not bound." Thank God that nothing, no bishop, no priest, no church leader, no political leader, no king can ultimately keep the word of God imprisoned. So Paul said,

Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory (vv. 8-10).

Aren't you glad for the John Wycliffes, the John Hus's, the Martin Luthers, the John Colets, those who preached and proclaimed the word of God and made it available to us in our language so that the Word of God could be released into the English speaking world for our sake, so that we also could obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, our Lord? Amen.

Leslie: The English Bible on your shelf came at a great price. Nancy Leigh DeMoss has been showing us why we can be so grateful every time we open the Bible and read it for ourselves. That message is part of a series called, How We Got Our English Bible.

Nancy, one listener told us they didn't think they'd be interested in a series that contained so much history. But she got pulled right in, intrigued by the content.

Nancy: Leslie, it was so encouraging to hear not only from that woman but many others in the audience that day who were just spellbound by this story of how we got our English Bible. I hope this series shows all of us how precious a thing it is to have a copy of God's Word for ourselves.

Leslie: Yesterday, you told us about the CD Hidden in my Heart. It's a very effective way for meditating on God's Word.

Nancy: That CD is so effective that at a recent meeting to discuss offering that CD to our listeners, several of our staff broke out into one of the songs on the CD. They've listened to this CD, Hidden in my Heart, so much that they've memorized this Scripture set to music.

Song:

Rest quietly.
Rest in His loving arms
For He is watching over you.
Ever faithful, ever true.
So be still my soul.
Be still and know that He is God.

Nancy: When you send a gift of any amount to Revive Our Hearts this month, we'll send you that CD, Hidden in my Heart. I want to remind you that your gift at this time is really important to the ministry. Because we are a listener-supported broadcast, we're only able to stay on the radio as long as listeners provide the financial support that makes it possible.

We're getting ready to wrap up the books on another fiscal year at the end of May. We're doing that while praying about a number of opportunities to expand the message and outreach of Revive Our Hearts. One of the opportunities I’m most excited about is the chance to broadcast Revive Our Hearts to the Spanish speaking world. We're eager to ramp up our efforts in this area as God provides the funding. That's just one of the many opportunities before us.

So we're asking God to provide $350,000 here in May. That will allow us to make us some important ministry decisions for our new fiscal year. It will also help sustain our broadcast expenses over the summer months, when response tends to be a little bit lower.

So would you ask the Lord what part He would want you to have in helping us reach that goal? If you've never supported Revive Our Hearts before, you have a chance to make a really big difference. That's because this month, some friends of the ministry are doubling the gifts of every new supporter up to a matching challenge amount of $60,000. That means your gift will be doubled if you've never given before to Revive Our Hearts.

Whether you've given before or not, when you contribute, be sure to ask for the CD, Hidden in my Heart. Just give us a call at 1-800-569-5959, or visit us online at  ReviveOurHearts.com.

In the 1500s, a brilliant scholar named William Tyndale was condemned to death. His crime? Translating the Bible from Greek and Hebrew to English. His final words were a prayer. And that prayer was answered just a few years after his death. Hear the whole story tomorrow on Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss is an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

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