Coverdale and the First Complete Printed English Bible

THE first complete Bible printed in English gave no indication of the name of the one who published it. Its translator was Miles Coverdale, and his translation appeared in 1535. At the time, his friend William Tyndale was in prison for some of the scholarly work he had done in connection with translating the Bible. Tyndale was executed the following year.

A portion of Coverdale’s translation was based on Tyndale’s work. How did Coverdale succeed in having his translation printed and avoid execution, when other Bible translators of the day paid with their lives? What did Coverdale finally accomplish?

Seeds Are Sown

Miles Coverdale was born in Yorkshire, England, likely in the year 1488. He studied at Cambridge University and was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1514. His interest in reform was kindled by Robert Barnes, his tutor. Barnes fled to continental Europe in 1528. Twelve years later this Reformer was burned at the stake by church leaders.

By 1528, Coverdale had started to preach in church against the unscriptural Catholic practices of image worship, confession, and the Mass. Because his life was then in danger, he left England for the Continent, where he spent some seven years.

In Hamburg, Germany, Coverdale stayed with William Tyndale. The two worked together in their shared desire to produce a Bible that could be read by the people. During this time, Coverdale learned much from Tyndale about the art of Bible translating.

Time for Change

Meanwhile, the scene in England was changing. In 1534, King Henry VIII openly defied the authority of the Catholic pope in Rome. He was also open to the idea of making the Bible available to the people in English. In time, Coverdale undertook the task. Coverdale was a master of English expression but lacked the linguistic skills of his friend and mentor, Tyndale, who was fluent both in Hebrew and in Greek. Coverdale revised Tyndale’s translation, working from Latin and German versions.

Coverdale’s Bible was printed in Continental Europe in 1535, the year before Tyndale’s execution. It included a gracious, somewhat flattering dedication to King Henry. Coverdale assured Henry that the Bible excluded Tyndale’s footnotes, which were considered contentious because, among other things, they drew attention to unscriptural teachings of the Catholic Church. So Henry gave his consent for the publishing of the Bible. The tide had begun to turn.

In 1537, Coverdale’s Bible reappeared in two editions, which were printed in England. In the same year, a version called  Matthew’s Bible, printed in Antwerp, combining the work of Tyndale and Coverdale, was approved by King Henry.

The king’s principal adviser, Thomas Cromwell, backed by Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, soon saw the need for a revised edition of Matthew’s Bible. So he again appealed to Coverdale to revise the complete manuscript. King Henry licensed this new version in 1539 and ordered copies of it​—called the Great Bible because of its size—​to be put in churches for all to read. This Bible was received with joyful enthusiasm countrywide.

Coverdale’s Legacy

Following the death of Henry VIII and the accession of his successor, Edward VI, Coverdale was appointed bishop of Exeter in 1551. However, when Catholic Queen Mary succeeded Edward to the throne in 1553, Coverdale was forced to flee to Denmark. Later he moved to Switzerland, where he continued his work. He also published three English editions of what is commonly called the New Testament, with Latin text as study aids for the clergy.

An unexpected aspect of Coverdale’s Bible is the omission of the divine name in the form “Jehovah.” Tyndale used the name of God over 20 times in his translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. In the book Coverdale and His Bibles, J. F. Mozley observes: “In 1535 Coverdale rejected the word [Jehovah] altogether.” Nonetheless, he did subsequently include God’s name, Jehovah, three times in the Great Bible.

Coverdale’s Bible, however, was the earliest English Bible to feature the Tetragrammaton​—the four Hebrew letters that make up the divine name—​at the head of its title page. Significantly, this was the first Bible to group all the Apocryphal books into an appendix rather than have them scattered among the books of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Many of Coverdale’s unique expressions and words have been used by later translators. The phrase “the valley of the shadow of death” at Psalm 23, verse 4, is an example. The word “loving-kindness” in verse 6, says Professor S. L. Greenslade, is “a special word to distinguish God’s intrinsic love for his people from love in general and from mercy.” The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures​—With References uses the same word, adding the footnote: “Or, ‘loyal love.’”

Coverdale’s Great Bible “was the culmination of all the work in English Bible-making . . . from the day that Tyndale set about his translation of the New Testament,” says The Bibles of England. Essentially, it was Coverdale’s translation that helped to make it possible for English-speaking people of his day to read the Bible.

[Pictures on page 11]

Tetragrammaton, left, from the title page of a 1537 edition

[Credit Line]

Photo source: From The Holy Scriptures of the Olde and Newe Testamente With the Apocripha by Myles Coverdale

[Picture Credit Line on page 10]

From the book Our English Bible: Its Translations and Translators