Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired

Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired

by Benson Bobrick


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Next to the Bible itself, the English Bible was-and is-the most influential book ever published. The most famous of all English Bibles, the King James Version was the culmination of centuries of work by various translators, from John Wycliffe, the fourteenth-century initiator of English Bible translation, to the committee of scholars who collaborated on the King James translation. Wide as the Waters examines the life and work of Wycliffe and recounts the tribulations of his successors, including William Tyndale, who was martyred, Miles Coverdale, and others who came to bitter ends, as well as the fifty-four scholars from Oxford and Cambridge who crafted the King James Version of the Bible.

Historian Benson Bobrick traces this story through the tumultuous reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary Tudor, and Elizabeth I, a time of fierce contest between Catholics and Protestants in England.

Once people were free to interpret the word of God, they began to question the authority of their inherited institutions, both religious and secular. This led to reformation within the Church, and to the rise of constitutional government in England and the end of the divine right of kings.

Wide as the Waters is a story about a crucial epoch in the development of Christianity, about the English language and society, and about a book that changed the course of history.

"Bobrick is an exceptionally able writer of popular histories. . . . This new book is by far his most ambitious. . . . He succeeds entirely in the challenge he sets himself." (Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman, for The New York Times Book Review)

"With this compelling study, Bobrick has written an intricate and delightful prelude to any effective understanding of the evolution of modern Western democracy." (Michael Pakenham, The Baltimore Sun)

"[Wide as the Waters] . . . has the satisfying concreteness of a good novel. . . . This fast-paced nonfiction narrative is so engaging that it's likely to make a believer of any reader." (Daniel Mendelsohn, New York Magazine)

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780142000595
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/28/2002
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 392
Product dimensions: 5.56(w) x 8.52(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Benson Bobrick earned his Ph.D. from Columbia University and is the author of several books, including Angel in the Whirlwind, an acclaimed narrative history of the American Revolution.

Read an Excerpt

From Chapter Two

But all that was beyond what anyone could know. Nor, if they had known it, would all have cared. For the hunger for an English Bible had grown, and even the prospect of discord was not likely to check that yearning, with such a feast at hand. This was especially so in London and the western counties, where the successors of the old Lollards were strong. They had long treasured manuscript copies of the Wycliffe Scriptures, and so when Tyndale's work reached England in the spring of 1526, they adopted it at once as their own. The truth is, had it not seemed to come before the authorities as part of the Lutheran movement, they, too, might have received it more thoughtfully than they did.

Unfortunately, there was reason enough to suspect it. It was known that Tyndale had consorted with Luther, and it was clear to anyone placing their two translations side by side that they were more than kin. Tyndale, for example, had not only lifted some phrases from Luther's German, but had adopted his format as a whole -- including his chapter divisions, order of the books, and most of his ancillary apparatus -- "certain prefaces, and other pestilent glosses," as Henry VIII put it, "for the advancement and setting forth of his abominable heresies." The translation, however, was Tyndale's own. In addition to Luther's German, he had before him as he worked the two editions of the New Testament published by Erasmus (in 1516 and 1522); Erasmus's own Latin translation of the Greek text; and the Vulgate. He took something of value (usually what was best) from each, but the Greek remained his ultimate guide. In his own Preface, he swore on his conscience that he had translated the text as "faithfully" as he could, with a "pure intent...as far forth as God gave me the gift of knowledge, and understanding," and expressed the hope that "the rudeness of the work" would not offend those learned in the Scriptures, who he hoped would "consider how that I had no man to counterfeit, neither was help with English of any that had interpreted the same, or such like thing in the Scripture before time."

Tyndale did not mean by this (as some have supposed) that he was unfamiliar with the Wycliffe versions or declined to make use of them: moving in the circles that he did, and having been "addicted to the study of Scripture" from an early age, he had to have known them well. What he meant, as one scholar noted, was that he could not "counterfeit" (i.e., follow their general plan, as being a rendering from the Vulgate Latin only) or adopt their language, which had already become archaic and unfamiliar by his day. Even so, rhythms and turns of phrase from the Wycliffe versions found occasional echoes in his text. In his three-page Epilogue, Tyndale also appealed to the reader not to judge his pioneering work too harshly. "Count it as a thing not having his full shape...even as a thing begun rather then finished," and he promised greater concision in the future -- "to bring to compendiousness that which is now translated at the length." In fact, he would revise his translation three times with impeccable care.

It would be hard to overpraise the literary merits of what he had done. Much of his rendering would later be incorporated into the Authorized or King James Version, and the rhythmical beauty of his prose, skillful use of synonyms for freshness, variety, and point, and "magical simplicity of phrase" imposed itself on all later versions, down to the present day. Ultimately his diction became "the consecrated dialect of English speech."

Here is Tyndale's translation of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-16), familiar to every English ear:

When he saw the people, he went up into a mountain, and when he was set, his disciples came to him, and he opened his mouth, and taught them saying: Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are they which suffer persecution for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye when men revile you, and persecute you, and shall falsely say all manner of evil sayings against you for my sake. Rejoice, and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven. For so persecuted they the prophets which were before your days.

Ye are the salt of the earth: but and if the salt have lost her saltness, what can be salted therewith? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill, cannot be hid, neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick, and it lighteth all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your father which is in heaven.

And here is Tyndale's opening to the Gospel of St. John:

In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God: and the word was God. All things were made by it, and without it, was made nothing, that was made. In it was life, and the life was the light of men, and the light shineth in the darkness, but the darkness comprehended it not.

The translation was a tour de force. Nothing like it, in fact, had been seen since the Bible had been translated into the elegant, classical Latin of St. Jerome. But the authorities were blind to its virtues. Bishop Tunstall declared that he could find two thousand errors in it, and soon "dreadful and penal" statutes made it a serious crime for anyone to own, sell, or otherwise distribute a copy of the work. Merchant ships were boarded and searched to prevent its importation; the London's German Steelyard was raided and scoured for stock; and not long after the first copies reached London, Wolsey sponsored a second bonfire of all heretical books under the great crucifix known as the Rood of Northen before the gate of St. Paul's.

But the books kept coming, and on the 24th of October 1526, Tunstall issued the following decree:

By the duty of our pastoral office we are bound diligently, with all our power, to foresee, provide for, root out, and put away, all those things which seem to tend to the peril and danger of our subjects, and specially the destruction of their souls! Wherefore, we having understanding, by the report of divers credible persons, and also by the evident appearance of the matter, that many children of iniquity, maintainers of Luther's sect, blinded through extreme wickedness, wandering from the way of truth and the Catholic faith, craftily have translated the New Testament into our English tongue, intermingling therewith many heretical articles and erroneous opinions, pernicious and offensive, seducing the simple people, attempting by their wicked and perverse interpretations to profanate the majesty of Scripture, which hitherto hath remained undefiled, and craftily to abuse the most Holy Word of God, and the true sense of the same; of the which translation there are many books imprinted, some with glosses, and some without; containing, in the English tongue, that pestiferous and most pernicious poison, dispersed throughout all our diocese, in great number....Wherefore we....do charge you, jointly and severally (the Archdeacons), and by virtue of your obedience....that within thirty days' space...they do bring in, and really deliver unto our Vicar-General, all and singular such books as contain the translation of the New Testament in the English Tongue.

A few days later, the Archbishop of Canterbury issued a similar mandate, as more books were gathered up, carted to St. Paul's, and publicly cast into the fire. "No burnt offering," wrote the papal legate, Lorenzo Campeggio, at the time, "could be better pleasing to God."

The alacrity with which Tyndale's work was disseminated throughout England, however, was itself cause for alarm, because it implied the existence of a formidable network of believers willing to defy the decrees of both Church and state. The underground book trade was also fed by a number of pirate editions rushed off the press in Antwerp to meet demand. Between 1525 and 1528 at least eighteen thousand copies of Tyndale's New Testament, in both quarto and octavo editions, were printed, concealed in corn ships and bales of merchandise, and brought into English ports. Many were confiscated; but a substantial number still found their way through clandestine cells of sympathetic reformers into more appreciative hands.

Unable to prevent their circulation by force, the government tried to stop their production overseas. Letters were dispatched to officials in the Netherlands (including Princess Margaret, aunt of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and regent of Brabant) to enlist their cooperation; Tunstall, meanwhile, had decided to buy up copies in large quantities on the Continent so as to destroy them before they were shipped. En route from an embassy with Sir Thomas More to Cambray, he detoured to Antwerp, where he approached a cloth merchant by the name of Augustus Packington, who was thought to know the main sources of supply. Packington said he could help him, and Tunstall promised to pay him handsomely for every copy he could get. As it happened, Packington and Tyndale were friends. So he went to Tyndale and told him, with amusement, that he knew someone willing to take every unsold copy of his work off his hands. "Who?" said Tyndale. "The bishop of London," said Packington. "Oh, that is because he will burn them." "Yea," said Packington. "Well, I am the gladder," said Tyndale; "for these two benefits shall come thereof: I shall get money of him for these books, to bring myself out of debt, and the whole world shall cry out upon the burning of God's word." And so forward went the bargain -- "the bishop had the books, Packington had the thanks, and Tyndale had the money." Tyndale (through Packington) even got Tunstall to buy up the standing type to prevent a reprint, and used the money to prepare a new and improved edition of his work -- at Church expense.

About a year later, Sir Thomas More was interrogating one of Tyndale's confederates, George Constantine, and wanted to know where some of the English exiles got their financial support. He was so eager to ascertain this that he promised Constantine a virtual pardon in return for any tip. Constantine asked More if he was sure he wanted to know the truth. "Yea, I pray thee," said More. "Truly, then," said Constantine, "it is the bishop of London that hath holpen us; for he hath bestowed among us a great deal of money in New Testaments to burn them, and that hath been, and yet is, our only succour and comfort." "Now by my troth," exclaimed More, "I think even the same, and I said so much to the bishop, when he went about to buy them."

Even so, it was hard for Tyndale to see his work condemned. "They did none other thing than I looked for," he wrote in 1527, putting as brave a face on the matter as he could. "No more shall they do if they burn me also. If it be God's will it shall so be." In his own estimation, however, he was not a heretic but a reformer, and insisted that he had never written anything, "to stir up false doctrine or opinion in the Church, or to be the author of any sect, or to draw disciples after me, or that I would be esteemed above the least child that is born. But only out of pity and compassion which I had, and yet have, on the darkness of my brethren, and to bring them to the knowledge of Christ."

Of the original octavo edition of Tyndale's New Testament, only three copies remain; and of the quarto edition begun at Cologne and completed at Worms, only one fragment survives, consisting of thirty-one leaves with a prologue, a list of New Testament books, the text of Matthew to 22:12, and a woodcut of an angel holding an inkstand into which the saint dips his pen.

Copyright © 2001 by Benson Bobrick

Table of Contents

Chapter 1Morning Star21
Chapter 2Martyr79
Chapter 3Protestant, Catholic, Bishop, Queen139
Chapter 4King199
Chapter 5The Common Wealth267
Appendix 1Chronology298
Appendix 2The Evolution of the English Bible300
Appendix 3Comparative Translations301
Appendix 4The King James Translators, by Company and Assignment313
Appendix 5Richard Bancroft's "Rules to Be Observed in the Translation of the Bible"316

What People are Saying About This

Simon Winchester

Bobrick is an exceptionally able writer of popular histories....This new book is by far his most ambitious....He succeeds entirely in the challenge he sets himself.
— Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman

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Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Bobrick does an excellent job in this history of the Bible in English. It is more readable than other books published on the same subject, but maintains a high standard of scholarship. While Bobrick's theory may be arguable, no doubt the translation of the Greek and Hebrew scriptures into the 'vulgar tongue' was revolutionary. Wide as the Waters is a perfect way to 'dive in' to more in-depth study of Bible history, and will give the researcher a good foundation to build on.
NielsenGW on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
While not as nuanced as Nicolson¿s God¿s Secretaries, Bobrick casts a wider net over the Englishmen who deigned to translate the Latin Bible¿Wycliffe, Tyndale, et al. He includes more materials from contemporary writers and shows how each successive generation added a new layer onto the Bible, ending with the King James Version. Complete with appendices containing a side-by-side comparison of the translations, this was a very well-put-together volume.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Benson Bobrick relates the valiant struggle of the early Protestant theologians who try to liberate God's word from the tight clutches of the Holy Catholic Church by making His word readily available for the masses (no pun intended) to read and interpret for themselves within their own native tongue--English. This absorbing book is primarily an historical account of the valiant clergymen of England who were the first to undertake careful and methodical translations of the existing holy texts from the original Latin and Greek into the common English language, in order to produce the holy canon that we today call the Bible. By contrasting pertinent Catholic and Protestant theological views of the time, Bobrick compellingly motivates the passions of Wycliff, Tyndale and others who struggled to open up God's word to the people, despite the relentless and lethal threats from leaders of both the Catholic church and the monarchical government they so heavily influenced. He adroitly weaves historical context throughout the Bible's development, including the waxing and waining of Catholic influence over English rulers. He concludes that if the struggle for freeing God's word for a broader audience had not succeeded, the lack of religious freedoms would not have subsequently generated the impetus for the revolutionary ideas of individual freedoms that sparked the French and American revolutions. I highly recommend this thought-provoking and absorbing book, regardless of the denomination of your religious leanings.