The Writings of J. F. Mozley – Coverdale and his Bibles

A book review by Dr. Herbert Samworth

 

This is the second of the three books written by J. F. Mozley. The first, the Life of William Tyndale, was reviewed previously. The title of the second book is Coverdale and His Bibles. While it is quite different from the life of Tyndale it is very valuable.

Before we begin our review of this book, it would be good to state that taken together, these two books give us the history of the translation and printing of the English Bible until the year 1560. It was in that year that the Geneva Bible was first printed. Coverdale and His Bibles takes up the account in 1535, the year that Tyndale was imprisoned.

Coverdale and his BiblesEven the title of the book Coverdale and His Bibles is somewhat of a misnomer because the work of Coverdale was built on the foundation that Tyndale laid. So the person and work of William Tyndale is never far from the situation.

But what about the work itself? Let us first look at the basic outline of the book. Mozley begins with a biographical sketch of Coverdale’s life and work. In contrast with Tyndale, we could say that the life of Coverdale was rather prosaic. However, that would be unfair to the man because he was willing to endure exile and hardship for the sake of the Gospel. Although he did not die as a martyr as did Tyndale, had it not been for the intervention of the King of Denmark, Coverdale’s life would have ended in the fires of Smithfield during the reign of Mary Tudor.

There were certainly highlights to his life. He has the honor of the first one to print a complete edition of the Bible in English. The fact that it is known as the Coverdale Bible is testimony to his work. There is also good reason to believe that he made some contribution to the Geneva Bible although how important we are unable to say. Certainly he had a high reputation among his peers and was unwilling to capitalize on his record of having printed the complete Bible. He sided with the Puritan faction and refused positions of honor in the English Church under Elizabeth because of his conviction. Perhaps the fact that in later life he was referred to as “Father Coverdale” bears testimony to the respect that he had earned from his generation.

If we are permitted to apply the word “heroic” to summarize the life of William Tyndale and we justly can do so, we have with good reason the right to apply the word “faithful” to the life of Miles Coverdale. In linguistic talent and knowledge of Biblical languages, Tyndale bore the palm. However, in the use of the English language, it is not disrespect to Tyndale to state that Coverdale often proved to be more conversant. Thus we can see in the providence of God that it was Tyndale who showed the way and Coverdale followed and solidified the work.

After giving a brief overview of Coverdale’s life, Mozley sets the scene in a chapter that he calls between Tyndale and Coverdale. Even before Tyndale’s imprisonment, Coverdale had proved to be a valuable assistant. Many are convinced that Coverdale had worked closely with William Tyndale in Hamburg at the home of Mrs. Emerson while the translation work on the books of Moses was completed.

Be that as it may, during the period between Tyndale’s arrest and martyrdom, Coverdale published the first complete English Bible. For the New Testament he used Tyndale’s G.H. edition that is considered to be the most accurate and the last one revised by Tyndale himself. For the books of Moses he made use of Tyndale’s Pentateuch first printed in 1530 and reprinted in 1534 although the only changes were in the book of Genesis. For the remaining parts of the Bible, the historical books from Joshua to Ezra, the poetical books and the Prophets, Coverdale translated them from the German and Latin. In all Coverdale had five sources: William Tyndale (English), Martin Luther (German) and three Latin versions (Vulgate, the Zurich version of 1531 and Paginus of 1528).

For many years there was a controversy as to where the book was printed. For a period of time scholars thought it had been printed in Zurich by Christopher Froschover. Later the cities of Marburg and Cologne in Germany were suggested. Mozley himself favored Cologne and that it had been printed by John Heil (Soter) and Eucharius Hertzhorn (Cervicorn) printers in that city. However, in recent years Antwerp has been favored because the Coverdale Bible contained woodcuts that have been traced to the city.

At times the question has been raised as why Coverdale failed to acknowledge any contribution that Tyndale made. After all, Coverdale used Tyndale’s Pentateuch and New Testament wholesale. However, we must remember that Tyndale was in prison at the time of printing and any mention of his name or his part in the Bible would be injurious to his cause.

After the description of the Coverdale Bible, Mozley deals with the year 1537. That was a significant year because two complete English Bibles were printed. The first was a revision of Coverdale’s own version of 1535 but the second was the so-called Matthew’s Bible edited by John Rogers. Mozley states some interesting things concerning these two Bibles that are not found elsewhere. There is an intriguing question that still awaits a definitive answer. That question concerns which was the first Bible that was permitted by King Henry VIII to circulate freely to the English people. In reality three Bibles vie for that honor: the Coverdale Bible of 1535, the Coverdale Bible of 1537, and the Matthew’s Bible. Perhaps that question will never receive a final answer but certainly the first three translators: Tyndale, Coverdale, and Rogers made contributions to that end.

After the completion of his second Bible and the account of the Matthew’s Bible, Mozley makes reference to Coverdale’s diglot editions of the New Testament in English and Latin of 1538. In reality, there were three. One edition Coverdale disowned because it was so badly printed, another edition was hastily corrected and printed but with another person’s name, and finally an edition printed by a French printer in the latter part of 1538.

What was the purpose of these New Testament diglots? It was to vindicate the accuracy of the translation. Although the New Testament was available in the Greek language, most people were more familiar with the Latin Vulgate. The early translators of the Bible into English were often charged with false translations of critical words. With the New Testament before him in two languages, the discerning reader could see that the translation was faithfully done.

Mozley does an excellent job in describing the authorization and printing of the Great Bible of 1539. Tyndale’s prayer, uttered at his death, that God would open the King of England’s eyes was fulfilled. Not only had Henry VIII permitted the Bible to circulate freely to the people, he required that every church have a Bible of the largest size placed in it both for the reading of the Scripture and other copies to be set up where people could come and read it for themselves or to have it read to them.

The Great Bible was originally scheduled to be printed in France because of the superiority of the French printers. However, the professors of the Sorbonne protested and the work was halted. Coverdale and others managed to recover many of the printed sheets and transferred the printers and the presses to England where the work was completed in 1539. Mozley does an excellent job in describing the events of that time. He also gives a succinct summary of the seven editions of the Great Bible that were printed between the years 1539 and 1541.

For each of the major Bibles that Mozley mentions (Coverdale, Matthew’s, and Great Bible), he gives excellent descriptions by comparing selected verses and sections to note both how it was translated and how it reads. While this may not appear to be very interesting, the opposite is true. It demonstrates how the translators sought for the exact word in English to translate faithfully the source language. It is also a brief overview how many of the words that are familiar to us first came into use.

Mozley also devotes two chapters to the history of the Great Bible during the reign of Henry VIII and the reigns of Edward VI and Mary Tudor. It is an interesting fact of history that while Mary did not permit the Great Bible to be reprinted in her reign, neither did she proscribe people from reading it.

In summary Coverdale and His Bibles is a great book. While it is not possible to claim for it the same sense of history that we encounter in the life of Tyndale, it manifests the same character as does Coverdale himself, faithfulness to history and gratitude to God for the Bible in a language we can read and understand.

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