Miles Coverdale: how to read the Bible

Posted in Blog, Christianity, Devon

One bishop of Exeter who particularly deserves to be remembered is Miles Coverdale (1487-1569) who, in 1535, completed the first translation of the whole Bible into English.

When Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII’s principal adviser, drew the king’s attention to the new translation, Henry followed his usual custom of submitting the matter to a team of experts – in this case a team of bishops – before making up his own mind. However the bishops whom he instructed to read the new translation had various criticisms to make of it on the basis of how Coverdale had rendered certain sections of the Bible. When they took a long time in coming to a decision the king summoned them to his presence and gave them an opportunity to voice their reservations.

‘Well,’ said the king, ‘but are there any heresies maintained thereby?’

The bishops had to admit that they could find no heresies in the new Bible.

‘If there be no heresies,’ said the king, ‘then in God’s name let it go abroad among our people.’

And so the English could for the first time read the whole Bible in their own language.

Although Coverdale is one of the most remembered bishops of Exeter (if only from 1551 to 1553) he was not actually as fine a scholar as William Tyndale for whom Coverdale worked for a time as assistant and proof reader. For Coverdale was not an expert in Hebrew and Greek but based his translation of the Bible on earlier versions in German and Latin.

Coverdale was very good however at colloquial expressions some of which were incorporated into later editions of the English Bible. Translating Psalm 73:11 he wrote, ‘Tush, say they, how could God perceive it?’. Actually he tended to overdo the use of ‘Tush’, inserting it for vividness where the original gives no warrant for it, as in 1 Thessalonians 5:3 which he rendered as ‘For when they shal saye: Tush, It is peace, there is no daunger, then shall sodden destruction come upon them.’ One wonderful expression of Coverdale’s was retained in the 1611 ‘Authorised’ version of the Bible: in the master’s faithful commendation of his faithful stewards in the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:21, 23) Coverdale wrote ‘enter thou into the joy of thy Lord’.

There is one piece of advice that Coverdale has left us which we do well to remember. Included in his note entitled ‘The Translator to the Reader’ he wrote this: ‘But whosoever thou be that readest scripture, let the Holy Ghost be thy teacher, and let one text expound another unto thee. As for such dreams, visions and dark sentences as be hid from thy understanding, commit them unto God, and make no articles of them [in other words, base no doctrines upon them]. But let the plain text be thy guide, and the Spirit of God (which is the author thereof) shall lead thee in all truth.’

In 1559, Miles Coverdale took part in the historic consecration of Matthew Parker as Archbishop of Canterbury. But for the last ten years of his life he took little part in public affairs although he did remain a popular preacher locally. Perhaps he could not reconcile his strong Puritan convictions with many features of Queen Elizabeth’s broadminded religious settlement. Remarkably, considering the turbulent times in which he lived, he did survive to the grand old age of 82.