The Bible in English

By David Daniell

Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.

2003. 900 pp., $40.00. ISBN 0-300-09930-4

“This book is about how important the Bible in English has been in the life of Britain and North America”—this is the opening sentence of the Preface of this massive book. It further states the aim of the book: “to begin in a small way to put English Bibles back into the picture, and challenge some assumptions.” Indeed, this author repeatedly challenges prevailing assumptions throughout the book.

Never in my fifty years of book reviewing have I encountered a book with so many commendable features and, at the same time, with a number of decidedly less-than-commendable features. I was intrigued by the author’s intent and thoroughness in covering the entire range of the English Bible. He begins with a chapter concerning the Bible in Britain from the earliest times to AD. 850. The earliest citation is the translation into Old English by Alfred in the years between 946 and 968. and of the Latin Lindisfarne Gospels dating from approximately 698 when it was made by the scribe Eadfrith.

This masterpiece of early medieval bookmaking is one of the few early Gospel books to have survived complete, and its beauty is breathtaking. Its translation was into a broad precursor of today’s English called Old English and, more particularly in the Northumbrian dialect. (Old English was the language of most of England for seven centuries, beginning when the Anglo-Saxons arrived in about 450 and continuing until the twelfth century.)

Daniell then moves the story along, citing Jerome’s Vulgate in the 400s and its gradual spread and domination, to the legends of Christians in the English Islands not long after Christ’s ascension. This author is at his best as he traces with commendable specificity the evidence toward the Old English that culminates in the Lindisfarne Gospels gloss. The author reflects an enormous range of acquaintance with pertinent materials.

He proceeds chronologically, noting King Alfred’s law codes, which, while short, present the “oldest passage of continuous prose translation from the Bible into English that we have, written some fifty years before the long Lindisfarne glosses to all the Gospels.” He then moves on citing the Paris Psalter which has the Latin and English texts in parallel columns, noting that this is a translation, not a gloss.

He then proceeds, noting presumably every example of the progress from Old English to Middle English. This brings the author in chapter 5 to “The Wyclif (’Lollard’) Bibles” and to the beginnings of the Bible in English that are more widely known. He notes that “Before 1401, no one in Britain died for reading or hearing the Bible in Old or Middle English.” This was soon to change when a new English statute against heresy included reading, not just owning, even a scrap of Scripture that was not in Latin. Daniell says, “It seems unlikely that Wyclif himself pen in hand, translated any of ‘his’ Bible.” To this chapter is added a curious appendix titled “The Enigma of John Trevisa” in which it is proposed, with no clear documentation, that this John was the translator of the generally ascribed Wyclif Bible.

The story continues with remarkable detail through the successive years of Tyndale, Coverdale, etc., etc. What this reviewer found to be of questionable wisdom, as a worthy part of this story, were several extended elaborations of, for example, Handel’s Messiah story, due to its extensive use of Scripture, or the life and work of artist William Blake. At one point Daniell declares simply that the ministry of the Baptist Missionary Society cannot he described at greater length yet devotes much space to Handel and Blake whose works in music and art are noteworthy but border on the peripheral in regard to the history of the Bible in English. This creates considerable unevenness in the book’s impact upon the reader.

This reviewer would have expected much clearer sentences from a professor of English than such randomly selected examples as these: “After that late nineteenth-century American revision, first in this chapter must stand one of the most successful, the American re-working of it,” or “Unusually, after publication the committee was kept in being, and received criticisms and comments,” Such language, along with the author’s continual insertions of personal, and frequently negative, opinions, spoils the flow of this very noteworthy story.

As the reader can see from this review, the poor writing quality is a major distraction from the story this book sets out to tell. I can only conclude that this very generally reputable publisher lacked either the courage and/or the gifted editor that this manuscript needed.