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The following paragraphs are taken from the article "English Versions" by Sir Frederic G. Kenyon in the Dictionary of the Bible edited by James Hastings, and published by Charles Scribner's Sons of New York in 1909.
The history of the English Bible begins early in the history of the English people, though not quite at the beginning of it, and only slowly attains to any magnitude. The Bible which was brought into the country by the first missionaries, by Aidan in the north and Augustine in the south, was the Latin Bible; and for some considerable time after the first preaching of Christianity to the English no vernacular version would be required. Nor is there any trace of a vernacular Bible in the Celtic Church, which still existed in Wales and Ireland. The literary language of the educated minority was Latin; and the instruction of the newly converted English tribes was carried on by oral teaching and preaching. As time went on, however, and monasteries were founded, many of whose inmates were imperfectly acquainted either with English or with Latin, a demand arose for English translations of the Scriptues. This took two forms. On the one hand, there was a call for word-for-word translations of the Latin, which might assist readers to a comprehension of the Latin Bible; and, on the other, for continuous versions or paraphrases, which might be read to, or by, those whose skill in reading Latin was small.
The earliest form, so far as is known, in which this demand was met was the poem of Caedmon, the work of a monk of Whitby in the third quarter of the seventh century, which gives a metrical paraphrase of parts of both testaments. The only extant manuscript of the poem (in the Bodleian) belongs to the end of the tenth century, and it is doubtful how much of it really goes back to the time of Caedmon. In any case, the poem as it appears here does not appear to be later than the eighth century. A tradition, originating with Bale, attributed an English version of the Psalms to Aldhelm, bishop of Sherborne (died 707), but it appears to be quite baseless, (See A.S. Cook, Biblical Quotations in Old English Prose Writers, 1878, pp. xiv-xviii). An Anglo-Saxon Psalter in an eleventh century manuscript at Paris (partly in prose and partly in verse) has been identified, without any evidence, with this imaginary work. The well-known story of the death of Bede (in 735) shows him engaged on an English translation of St. John's Gospel [one early manuscript (at St. Gall) represents this as extending only to John 6:9; but so abrupt a conclusion seems inconsistent with the course of the narrative], but of this all traces have disappeared. The scholarship of the monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow, which had an important influence on the textual history of the Latin Vulgate, did not concern itself with vernacular translations; and no further trace of an English Bible appears until the ninth century. To that period is assigned a word-for-word translation of the Psalter, written between the lines of a Latin manuscript (Cotton MS Vaspasian A.I., in the British Museum), which was the progenitor of several similar glosses between that date and the twelfth century; and to it certainly belongs the attempt of Alfred to educate his people by English translations of the works which he thought most needful to them. He is said to have undertaken a version of the Psalms, of which no portion survives, unless the prose portion (Psalms 1-50) of the above-mentioned Paris manuscript is a relic of it; but we still have the translation of the Decalogue, the summary of the Mosaic law, and the letter of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:23-29), which he prefixed to his code of laws. To the tenth century belongs probably the verse portion of the Paris manuscript, and the interlinear translation of the Gospels in Northumbrian dialect inserted by the priest Aldred in the Lindisfarne Gospels (British Museum), which is repeated in the Rushworth Gospels (Bodleian) of the same century, with the difference that the version of Matthew is there in the Mercian dialect. This is the earliest extant translation of the Gospels into English.
The earliest independent version of any of the books of the Bible has likewise generally been assigned to the tenth centry, but if this claim can be made good at all, it can apply only to the last years of that century. The version in question is a translation of the Gospels in the dialect of Wessex, of which six manuscripts (with a fragment of a seventh) are now extant. It was edited by W. Skeat, The Holy Gospels in Anglo-Saxon (1871-1877); two manuscripts are in the British Museum, two at Cambridge, and two (with a fragment of another) at Oxford. From the number of copies which still survive, it must be presumed to have had a certain circulation, at any rate in Wessex, and it continued to be copied for at least a century. The earliest manuscripts are assigned to the beginning of the eleventh century; but it is observable that Ælfric the Grammarian, abbot of Eynsham, writing about 990, says that the English at that time "had not the evangelical doctrines among their writings ... those books excepted which King Alfred wisely turned from Latin into English" [preface to Ælfric's Homilies, edited by B. Thorpe, London, 1843-46]. In a subsequent treatise (Treatise Concerning the Old and New Testament, ed. W. Lisle, London, 1623) also (the date of which is said to be about 1010, see Dietrich, Zeitsch. f. hist. Theol. 1856, quoted by Cook, op. cit., p. lxiv.) he speaks as if no English version of the Gospels were in existence, and refers his readers to his own homilies on the Gospels. Since Ælfric had been a monk at Winchester and abbot of Cerne, in Dorset, it is difficult to understand how he could have failed to know of the Wessex version of the Gospels, if it had been produced and circulated much before 1000; and it seems probable that it only came into existence early in the eleventh century. In this case it was contemporaneous with another work of translation, due to Ælfric himelf. Ælfric, at the request of Æthelweard, son of his patron Æthelmær, ealdorman of Devonshire and founder of Eynsham Abbey, produced a paraphrase of the Heptateuch, homilies containing epitomes of the Books of Kings and Job, and brief versions of Esther, Judith, and Maccabees. These have the interest of being the earliest extant English version of the narrative books of the Old Testament. [The Heptateuch and Job were printed by E. Thwaites (Oxford, 1698). For the rest, see Cook, op. cit.]
Frederic G. Kenyon
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