Book explores history of the English Bible
“Wide as the Waters” by Benson Bobrick
“Next to the Bible itself, the English Bible was (and is) the most influential book ever published, it gave every literate person complete access to the sacred text. Only in England was the Bible in any sense a national possession, in that it seemed to exist apart in English as an original work of art.”
Thus does the author, Benson Bobrick, state in his prologue of “Wide as the Waters: the Story of the English Bible and the Revolution it Inspired.” This scholarly and very readable work puts forth the premise that the English Bible, through its various translations, helped create an insular independence on the island that would first lead to the questioning of the authority of Rome (the Church) over the King, then the Monarchy over the People (Parliament), and would eventually lead to a democratic tradition that would be inherited in Great Britain and America.
His first chapter deals with John Wycliffe in the 14th Century and his two translations of the Bible into the lay language of the people. At this time, much had happened in Europe that would revolutionize the future. The Black Death had wiped out two thirds of the population (changing the notion of feudalism because of the shortage of labor, thus leading to peasant revolts). The rise of nationalistic states further developed colloquial languages: English became the official language of the court and nation. The rise of universities educated more men than young nobles (Chaucer was a student under Wycliffe). And, last but not least, the conflicts within the Catholic Church itself (the Babylonian Captivity, Great Schism, selling of indulgences, profiteering from relics, etc.) that ultimately lead to the Reformation one hundred and fifty years later. This is not to say that Wycliffe did not have challenges in translating the Bible (it was considered heresy at the time and being put to death was the outcome), but his work was the first in Britain to be widely circulated.
We next jump to the 16th century and the convoluted period of the Tudors. Here we get the translations of William Tyndale and Miles Coverdale. The advent of the printing press, which allowed far more circulation, and the resurgence of Greek and Hebrew scriptures make these translations the most scholarly at the time. The problem faced by Tyndale and then Coverdale had to do with politics, and the dynastic ambitions of Henry VIII (leading to the English Reformation) plus the legitimacy of Elizabeth I, hence their lives also became forfeit as the reader learns that none of these were “authorized translations” of “the Book.” This would rectify itself with the next monarch and the greatest of all translations into English.
The King James Version (which lead to the Standard Revised Version, much in use today) was one of the largest endeavors at the time and is considered the greatest work of English Literature. This time it became a fully authorized version supported by the crown and, as such, was not delegated to one individual but committees of eight to ten men responsible for various assigned sections (almost sixty scholars and Protestant Church men). The author goes into great detail on the credentials of these men and the success of their assignments.
In his final chapter, Bobrick enters into the 17th century and the political ramifications of divine right Monarchs versus the rise of the peoples rights through Parliament. Here the reader will understand the nuances of the English Civil War, Cromwell with the Puritans and the Glorious Revolution. The result was that no future monarch would rule without consent of Parliament and the people, which then transferred to America (“As Wide as the Waters will be”).
If this seems confusing, do not worry. The author, in his appendixes, has a chronology, evolution of the various translations, and examples of comparative translations, which will show you how the English language has evolved. An enjoyable and instructional read.
– Brad Winans is a sales associate at Neighbors Bookstore in the Village Center.