Translators and Translations of the Anglo Saxon Bible

Ian Williams

copyright 2000

Definition and Problems Associated with Translation

The Anglo Saxon translations of the Bible were made from the Vulgate, which was written in Latin and accessible only to the educated members of the clergy. Old English translations tended to be conceptually based; that is, they were not necessarily precise renderings of Latin words into Old English words. So, the word translation may refer to glosses of particular words into Old English, explications of sentences, or loose paraphrases of particular passages. Furthermore, translators such as Bede, Aldhelm, and Aelfric were uncertain about the limits of the Bible—which books should be included and which omitted. Thus, most monks and priests who could read saw only single books and extracts from the Bible. Moreover, many religious leaders would rely on commentaries, which means that their congregation received knowledge third-hand.

Important Figures in the Translation of the Bible:

Caedmon (c. 680 AD) included paraphrases of Biblical passages in his poetry. The passage of the creation in Genesis is the only one that survives. At least two other poets are believed to have followed Caedmon’s example by writing poems based on passages from Daniel and Exodus. The poem based on Exodus is an unusually close translation for the time, it closely paraphrases each phrase from Chapter 12:17 to Chapter 14.

The Book of Psalms was one of the first Biblical books to be translated from Latin. Aldhelm (639-709), the first bishop of Sherborne, is usually regarded as the first English translator of the Psalms into Old English. Old English translations of the Psalms were popular because they were commonly used to train priests. Bede was one of the first teachers who taught Latin by using the Vulgate. The young priests wrote English glosses into their Psalters to aid their studies. There is a wide variation in the quality of these glosses. For example, Psalms 1-50 were translated into English in the Paris Psalter in adequate verse, while Psalms 51-150 were less poetic.

Like the Psalms, the Gospels of the New Testament were popular among the Anglo Saxons. Bede (c. 673-735) understood Latin and diligently translated portions of the New Testament. It is reported that his last moments were spent translating the Bible into Old English, and that his last words were the last words of the Gospel of John. Unfortunately, Bede’s Old English translations have not survived.

King Alfred the Great (849-889) was also a translator of the Psalms, as well as the book of Exodus. His diligence is comparable to that of Bede, since both men died while translating portions of the Bible. As a Biblical translator, Alfred is most famous for his paraphrase of the Ten Commandments, which he placed at the beginning of his own laws as a preface

Aldred glossed portions of the Vulgate by writing English between the lines of the Latin text. Aldred notes the work of an earlier translator, Eadfrith (698-721), whose translations and illustrations are known as the Lindisfarne Gospels of the late seventh-century. The Rushworth and the West Saxon Gospels are beautifully illustrated manuscripts that appear later (they are usually dated around the early eleventh-century).

Aelfric (c. 955-1020) is the most important figure in the history of the Bible during Anglo Saxon times. Like the poet Caedmon, Aelfric took great liberties when translating the Gospels by omitting parts as he saw fit (Ludlow 50). For example, in Genesis, he omits lists of names and difficult passages. He produced the bare outlines of the Biblical stories while displaying skillful prose, poetic rhythm and an adept use of rhetorical figures. One of Aelfric’s greatest achievements is the Heptateuch, which consists of the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy), Joshua and Judges. The authorship of certain books, which were assumed to be translated by Aelfric, has now been challenged. However, one can be certain that Aelfric did translate the first part of Genesis, the end of Numbers, Joshua and Judges. Aelfric was also author of Catholic Homilies and the Lives of the Saints, which were written in English, and served as histories of Christianity.

The Anglo Saxon Bible in Context

The Anglo Saxons accepted the Scriptures to be divinely inspired. The Bible’s physical properties, as well as its very words were sacred, and any alteration to the Bible, including translation, was viewed as a potential threat to the authority of its message. In contrast to modern approaches to literary criticism, the Bible was the standard whereby the Anglo Saxons judged other texts. As one writer notes: "In our century, we have been urged to read the Bible as literature. In dealing with the early English, we must turn the phrase about: the Anglo-Saxons tended to read all literature as the Bible and judged all writing by the standards that they found implicit there" (Shepherd in Lampe 369). This literal view of the Bible also extended into the notion of history. For example, some kings succeeded in tracing their genealogies back to Adam.

After the Norman Conquest of 1066, the English language changed so radically that previous Old English translations could no longer be understood. At the time of the invasion, translations of the Bible ceased and Latin versions regained dominance. The Bible again became inaccessible as religious leaders saw danger in the interpretations of the masses. But, eventually, there were Anglo-Norman versions of the Psalter, Proverbs, and Kings. The first complete English Bible appears in the early 1380’s in response to John Wyclif’s belief that the common person should be able to read the Bible in his own language.

For further reading

Biggs, Frederick M. "Bible in Old English Literature." Medieval England: An Encyclopedia. Ed. Paul E. Szarmach, Teresa Tavormina, and Joel T. Rosenthal. New York: Garland, 1998.

Blair, Peter Hunter. The World of Bede. London: Martin Secker and Warburg, 1970.

Bruce, F. F. History of the Bible in English 3rd Ed. London: Lutterworth, 1979.

Diamond, Robert E. The Diction of the Anglo-Saxon Metrical Psalms. Netherlands: Mouton and Company, 1963.

Greenfield, Stanley B. A Critical History of Old English Literature. London: University of London, 1965.

Hurt, James. Aelfric. New York: Twayne, 1972.

Lampe, G. W. H., ed. The Cambridge History of the Bible. 2 Vols. London: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Liuzza, R. M., ed. The Old English Version of the Gospels. Early English Text Society Ser. 304. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Love, R.C. "Biblical Translation: Poems." Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Ed. Michael Lapidge, John Blair, Simon Keynes, and Donald Scragg. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.

Ludlow, William L. The Story of Bible Translations. New York: Vantage, 1990.

Marsden, Richard. "Bible." Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Ed. Michael Lapidge, John Blair, Simon Keynes, and Donald Scragg. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.

Morrell, Minnie Cate. A Manual of Old English Biblical Materials. Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 1965.

Raw, Barbara C. "Bible, Illustrations." Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Ed. Michael Lapidge, John Blair, Simon Keynes, and Donald Scragg. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.

Ward, Benedicta. The Venerable Bede. London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1998.

Westcott, Brooke Foss. A General View of the History of the English Bible: 3rd Ed. New York: Macmillan, 1922.