WHEN English cleric William Bedell went to Ireland in 1627, he found a very puzzling situation. Ireland, a predominantly Catholic country, was ruled by Protestant Britain. Protestant Reformers had already translated the Bible into local languages all over Europe. Yet no one seemed interested in translating it into Irish.
Bedell felt strongly that the Irish people “ought not to be neglected till they can learn English.” He set out to produce a Bible in the Irish language. But he met with bitter opposition, particularly from Protestant sources. Why was that?
OPPOSITION TO THE USE OF IRISH
Bedell made it his business to learn Irish himself. He encouraged students to use Irish when he became provost, or head, of Trinity College in Dublin and when he later became the bishop of Kilmore. As a matter of fact, when Queen Elizabeth I of England founded Trinity College, she did so to produce ministers who could teach her subjects the Bible’s message in their mother tongue. Bedell tried to make that happen.
In the Kilmore diocese, by far the majority of people spoke Irish. So Bedell insisted on having ministers who could speak Irish. He made his appeal in the spirit of the apostle Paul’s words at 1 Corinthians 14:19, which says: “In a congregation I would rather speak five words with my mind, that I might also instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue,” that is, in a language little understood.
But influential authority figures made every effort to stop him. According to historians, some asserted that the use of Irish was “dangerous to the State” and others suggested that it was “against the interests of the Government.” Some felt that it was in the interests of England to keep the Irish in ignorance. In fact, laws were enacted that required the Irish to abandon their own language and customs and to learn English and follow English ways and manners.
BEDELL’S BIBLE PROJECT
Bedell was not deterred by such dictatorial views. Early in the 1630’s, he started translating the recently published English-language Bible (the King James Version of 1611) into Irish. He wanted to produce a Bible that was understandable to as many people as possible. He felt strongly that the poor people could not search the Scriptures to find the way to everlasting life as long as the Bible remained a sealed book to them.
Bedell was not the first to see this. Some 30 years earlier, another bishop, William Daniel, had seen how difficult it was for anyone to learn what the Bible taught when it came, as he put it, “in the cloud of an unknown tongue.” Daniel had translated the Christian Greek Scriptures into Irish. Bedell now took on the task of translating the Hebrew Scriptures. What is known as Bedell’s Bible includes both his work and William Daniel’s earlier work. As things turned out, Bedell’s Bible
Bedell, a qualified Hebrew scholar, enlisted two native speakers of Irish to help with the translation from English into Irish. As they progressed with their work, Bedell, along with one or two trusted helpers, painstakingly checked and revised each verse. For reference, they consulted an Italian translation made by Swiss theologian Giovanni Diodati, as well as the Greek Septuagint and a precious old Hebrew Bible manuscript.
The team followed the lead of the translators of the King James Version (many of whom Bedell would have known personally) and included God’s personal name in a number of places in their Bible. For example, at Exodus 6:3, they rendered God’s name “Iehovah.” Bedell’s original manuscript is preserved in Marsh’s Library, Dublin, Ireland.
Bedell completed his project about 1640. But he could not immediately publish it. Why? For one thing, he still faced unrelenting opposition. Detractors vilified Bedell’s chief translator, hoping thus to discredit his work. They even maliciously had him arrested and imprisoned. As if that were not enough, Bedell found himself in the middle of a bloody and bitter anti-English rebellion, which broke out in 1641. Local Irish people protected Bedell for a time despite his English origins because they recognized his genuine concern for them. Eventually, however, rebel soldiers imprisoned him in very poor conditions. No doubt this hastened his death in 1642. He never saw his work published.
Bedell’s work almost perished completely when his home was ransacked and destroyed. Thankfully a close friend managed to rescue all his translated documents. In time, Narcissus Marsh, who later became the archbishop of Armagh and the primate of the Church of Ireland, got hold of them. He received financial support from scientist Robert Boyle and courageously published Bedell’s Bible in 1685.
A SMALL YET SIGNIFICANT FORWARD STEP
Bedell’s Bible did not receive worldwide acclaim. Still, it was one small yet significant step toward better Bible understanding, especially for people who spoke Irish
“When we read Bedell’s Bible, we heard the words of the Bible in our mother tongue. This was a crucial key that opened the way for me and my family to learn the wonderful truths found in the Scriptures”
Bedell’s Bible has continued to help lovers of truth to do that right up to modern times. One speaker of Irish, who in relatively recent times learned what the Bible really teaches, says: “When we read Bedell’s Bible, we heard the words of the Bible in our mother tongue. This was a crucial key that opened the way for me and my family to learn the wonderful truths found in the Scriptures.”