Coverdale's Bible

From the article "Version, Authorized" by Edward Hayes Plumptre in Dr. William Smith's Dictionary of the Bible, comprising its antiquities, biography, geography, and natural history; revised and edited by Prof. H.B. Hackett, with the cooperation of Ezra Abbot. (4 volumes. Cambridge: Riverside Press, and Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1881). Volume 4, pp. 3429, 30.

A complete translation of the Bible, different from Tyndale's, bearing the name of Miles Coverdale, printed probably at Zurich, appeared in 1535. The undertaking itself, and the choice of Coverdale as the translator, were probably due to Cromwell. Tyndale's controversial treatises, and the polemical character of his prefaces and notes, had irritated the leading ecclesiastics and embittered the mind of the king himself against him. All that he had written was publicly condemned. There was no hope of obtaining the king's sanction for anything that bore his name. But the idea of an English translation began to find favor. The rupture with the see of Rome, the marriage with Anne Boleyn, made Henry willing to adopt what was urged upon him as the surest way of breaking forever the spell of the Pope's authority. The bishops even began to think of the thing as possible. It was talked of in Convocation. They would take it in hand themselves. The work did not, however, make much progress. The great preliminary question whether "venerable" words, such as hostia, penance, pascha, holocaust, and the like, should be retained, was still unsettled (Anderson, i. 414). 1 Not till "the day after doomsday" (the words are Cramner's) were the English people likely to get their English Bible from the bishops. (ibid, i. 577). Cromwell, it is probable, thought it better to lose no further time, and to strike while the iron was hot. A divine whom he had patronized, though not, like Tyndale, feeling himself called to that special work (Preface to Coverdale's Bible), was willing to undertake it. To him accordingly it was entrusted. There was no stigma attached to his name, and, though a sincere reformer, neither at that time nor afterwards did he occupy a sufficiently prominent position to become an object of special persecution. 2

The work which was thus executed was done, as might be expected, in a very different fashion from Tyndale's. Of the two men, one had made this the great object of his life, the other, in his own words, "sought it not, neither desired it," but accepted it as a task assigned to him. One prepared himself for the work by long years of labor in Greek and Hebrew. The other is content to make a translation at second hand "out of the Douche (Luther's German Version) and the Latine." 3 The one aims at a rendering which shall be the truest and most exact posible. The other loses himself in weak commonplace as to the advantage of using many English words for one and the same word in the original, and in practice oscillates between "penance" and "repentance," "love" and "charity," "priests" and "elders," as though one set of words were as true and adequate as the other (Preface, p. 19). In spite of these weaknesses, however, there is much to like in the spirit and temper of Coverdale. He is a second-rate man, laboring as such contentedly, not ambitious to appear other than he is. He thinks it a great gain that there should be a diversity of translations. He acknowledges, though he dare not name it, the excellence of Tyndale's version, 4 and regrets the misfortune which left it incomplete. He states frankly that he had done his work with the assistance of that and of five others. 5 If the language of his dedication to the king, whom he compares to Moses, David, and Josiah, seems to be somewhat fulsome in its flattery, it is, at least, hardly more offensive than that of the dedication of the A.V., and there was more to palliate it. 6

An inspection of Coverdale's version serves to show the influence of the authorities he followed. 7 The proper names of the Old Testament appear for the most part in their Latin form, Elias, Eliseus, Ochozias; sometimes, as in Esay and Jeremy, in that which was familiar in spoken English. Some points of correspondence with Luther's version are not without interest. Thus "Cush," which in Wyclif, Tyndale, and the A.V. is uniformly rendered "Ethiopia," is in Coverdale "Morians' land" (Psalm 68:31; Acts 8:27, etc.), after the "Mohrenlande" of Luther, and appears in this form accordingly in the Prayer Book version of the Psalms. The proper name Rabshakeh passes, as in Luther, into the "chief butler" (2 Kings 18:17, Isa 36:11). In making the sons of David "priests" (2 Sam 8:18), he followed both his authorities. Episkopoi are "bishops" in Acts 20:28 ("overseers" in A.V.). "Shiloh" in the prophecy of Genesis 49:10 becomes "the worthy," after Luther's "der Held." "They houghed oxen" takes the place of "they digged down a wall" in Gen 49:6. The singular word "Lamia" is taken from the Vulgate as the English rendering of Ziim ("wild beasts" A.V.) in Isa 34:14. The "tabernacle of witness" where the A.V. has "congregation" shows the same influence. In spite of Tyndale, the Vulgate "plena gratia" in Luke 1:28 leads to "full of grace;" while we have, on the other hand, "congregation" throughout the New Testament for ekklesia, and "love" instead of "charity" in 1 Cor 13. It was the result of the same indecision that his language as to the Apocrypha lacks the sharpness of that of the more zealous reformers. Baruch is placed with the canonical books, after Lamentations. Of the rest he says that they are "placed apart" as "not held by ecclesiastical doctors in the same repute" as the other Scriptures, but this is only because there are "dark sayings" which seem to differ from the "open Scripture." He has no wish that they should be "despised or little set by." "Patience and study would show that the two were agreed."

What has been stated practically disposes of the claim which has sometimes been made for this version of Coverdale's, as though it had been made from the original text (Anderson, i. 564; Whitaker, Hist. and Crit. Enquiry, p. 58). It is not improbable, however, that as time went on he added to his knowledge. The letter addressed by him to Cromwell (Remains, p. 492, Parker Soc.) obviously asserts, somewhat ostentatiously, an acquaintance "not only with the standing text of the Hebrew, with the interpretation of the Chaldee and the Greek," but also with "the diversity of reading of all texts." He, at any rate, continued his work as a painstaking editor. Fresh editions of his Bible were published, keeping their ground in spite of rivals, in 1537, 1539, 1550, 1553. He was called in at a still later period to assist in the Geneva version. Among smaller facts connected with this edition may be mentioned the appearance of Hebrew letters -- of the name Jehovah -- in the title-page (yhwh), and again in the margin of the alphabetic poetry of Lamentations, though not of Psalm 109. The plural form "Biblia" is retained in the title-page, possibly however in its later use as a singular feminine. There are no notes, no chapter headings, no divisions into verses. The letters A, B, C, D in the margin, as in the early editions of Greek and Latin authors, are the only helps for finding places. Marginal references point to parallel passages. The Old Testament especially in Genesis has the attraction of wood-cuts. Each book has a table of contents prefixed to it. 8


1. A list of such words, 99 in number, was formally laid before Convocation by Gardiner in 1542, with the proposal that they should be left untranslated, or Englished with as little change as possible (John Lewis, Complete History of the Translations of the Holy Bible and the New Testament into English, 3rd ed. London, 1818. Chapter 2. Also S.P. Tregelles, "Historical Account" in The English Hexapla, London: Bagster, 1841. Page 105.)

2. It is uncertain where this version was printed, the title-page being silent on that point. Zurch, Cologne, and Frankfort have all been conjectured. Coverdale is known to have been abroad, and may have come in contact with Luther.

3. There seems something like an advertising tact in this title-page. A scholar would have felt that there was no value in any translation but one from the original. But the "Douche" would serve to attract the Reforming party, who held Luther's name in honor; while the "Latine" would at least conciliate the conservative feeling of Gardiner and his associates. Whitaker, however, maintains that Coverdale knew more Hebrew than he chose, at this time, to acknowledge, and refers to his translation of one difficult passage ("Ye take your pleasure under the oaks and under all green trees, the children being slain in the valleys," Isa 57:5) as proving an independent judgment against the authority of Luther and the Vulgate (Hist. and Crit. Enquiry, p. 52).

4. "If thou [the reader] be fervent in prayer, God shall not only send thee it [the Bible] in a better [version] by the ministration of those that began it before, but shall also move the hearts of those that before meddled not withal"

5. The five were probably -- (1) the Vulgate, (2) Luther's, (3) the German Swiss version of Zurich, (4) the Latin of Pagninus, (5) Tyndale's. Others, however, have conjectured a German translation of the Vulgate earlier than Luther's, and a Dutch version from Luther (Whitaker, Hist. and Crit. Enquiry, p. 49).

6. He leaves it to the king, e.g., "to correct his translation, to amend it, to improve it, yea, and clean to reject it, if your godly wisdom shall think necessary."

7. Ginsburg (App. to Coheleth) has shown that, with regard to one book at least of the Old Testament, Coverdale followed the German-Swiss version printed at Zurich in 1531, with an almost servile obsequiousness.

8. A careful reprint, though not a facsimile, of Coverdale's version has been published by Bagster (1838).