Coverdale and some theology

On 14 November 2018, I travelled to Hull to speak to the local Theological Society (patron: the Archbishop of York). Having carried through quite a few speaking commitments lately, I decided in advance that for this one I would fit my topic to some other work I had in hand—namely, some pending revisions of an article about Miles Coverdale and his sources.

Coverdale was the translator behind the first complete English bible in print. He was subsequently given the task of producing the Church of England’s first authorized version. Both versions feature a king distributing bibles on their title page. In the 1535 bible, this is in a central panel beneath the title (below left). By 1539, it has moved to the top of the page (right), with the space below given over to the general populace who react by declaring “Vivat Rex!”, “Long Live the King”.

Titlepages of the Coverdale and Great Bibles (first editions).

I tend to think this is the kind of illustration that would satisfy Trump, were he ever to determine to authorize a bible. But one shouldn’t give him ideas.

Anyway, the core thing about Coverdale is that, unlike William Tyndale (who had been working away on bible translation for a decade or so when Coverdale’s bible appeared), Coverdale had not studied the biblical languages, i.e. Greek and Hebrew. Coverdale got round this by basing his translation on “Douche and Latyn”, as he revealed on the titlepage. He told Henry VIII that he’d worked faithfully with five different “interpreters”.

Now here is a puzzle: If you have five different sources, and they diverge, how do you decide which to use? Following the majority? And if they all disagree? On a whim? But Coverdale was working on Scripture, aiming to be faithful, so how did he go about judging what was God’s word?

That, was the starting point of my talk. And it has definitely helped me get on with those revisions.

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