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Treasures of the Rare Books and Special Collections Library: Bibles

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The Rare Books and Special Collections Library holds a number of early editions of the Bible in a variety of languages. Among the rarer items are the following two examples.
Coverdale Bible
Zurich : C. Froschover, 1550.
Coverdale Bible. Click to enlarge.

In 1534, the new English Church with Henry VIII as its head, petitioned , at the Convocation of Canterbury, for an English translation of the scriptures to be produced. By denying the supremacy of the Papacy, Henry had raised the scriptures above the authority of Rome, making it imperative that they be published. The King, as supreme ecclesiastical head reserved the sole right to authorize publication of the English Bible. It was Miles Coverdale (1488-1568) who was to produce this, the first complete translation being published in 1535.

Coverdale, born in Yorkshire and educated at Cambridge, was an Augustinian Friar. His patron was Thomas Cromwell. As his beliefs moved more and more towards the Reformation however he was forced to leave England and spent many years on the Continent. It is known that in 1529 for example, he was in Hamburg where he assisted William Tyndale with his translation of the Pentateuch.

Coverdale's Bible was printed, probably at Marburg, in 1535, and was inscribed to Henry, "our Moses". Coverdale sent copies of his Bible to England for review by the King. Henry VIII turned it over to various Bishops for comment. When they replied that it contained many errors Henry asked if it contained any heresies. Answered in the negative it was given Royal permission to circulate.Two editions printed in England were issued in 1537, one of which claims Royal licence, the rupture with Rome now being complete. Though Henry changed his mind about it after he had Anne Bolyen, who strongly supported it, executed, the book itself was not prohibited.

Coverdale is quite open about the sources from which he worked - the Latin Vulgate, Luther, Tyndale's New Testament, the Latin version of Pagnini, and Zwingli's Zurich Bible of 1531. On the title page he says it "was faithfully and truly translated out of Douche [i.e German] and Latyn". He does not profess to have translated from Greek or Hebrew originals.He reprinted Tyndale=s text almost without alteration but from Chronicles to Malachi his own translation forms the text. Coverdale wrote beautiful melodious prose, no more so than in the Psalter which was used in the Book of Common Prayer and has come down to today. While in revision of this book in 1662, the Gospels, Epistles and other portions of scripture were taken from the Authorised version, the Psalms as translated by Coverdale were retained as being smoother, and more amenable to musical treatment. Many of the most famous phrases such as "Thou anointest my head with oil", "the valley of the shadow of death", "sufficient unto the day", and "I am as sounding brass" all come from Coverdale.

Owing to his unaggressive character he was never officially condemned as a heretic, so his Bible was allowed to circulate freely. Coverdale returned home and in 1551 became the Bishop of Exeter. His episcopal career was shortlived however for on the accession of Mary in 1553 he was deprived of his see. He was allowed to leave the country on the intercession of the King of Denmark and did not return until 1559, after the death of Mary.

Some sixty-five copies of the 1535 edition are known to survive, none of which are complete. Many other editions were to be issued, the one shown here is a copy of the second edition of 1550.

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