History of the English Bible: The Matthew’s Bible of 1537

This is the fourth in my little series on the History of the English Bible. The Matthew’s Bible is known as the first complete Bible in English from the original languages.  As a categorical statement this needs a lot of qualification, which we will examine here.  The first thing of course, is that the Matthew’s Bible wasn’t by Matthew’s. In fact, that only Thomas Matthews know at this time was a Lutheran fish monger in Antwerp, who perhaps had his name borrowed (probably without his direct knowledge) for the third of the great English Bibles.

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Perhaps the most obscure of all of the Seven Bibles is the Matthew’s Bible (1537). From the common name of the Bible; which was a complete fabrication, there was no such person as Thomas Matthews, to whom it was inscribed; to its publishing (the actual publisher of the first edition is unknown) the Matthews Bible is both obscure and important marker in the pathway from Tyndale to the King James.

The pseudonym of Thomas Matthews, was used by John Rogers[1] (1500–55), but why is open to some speculation. The first thing is who was Rodgers? Rogers took his BA from Pembroke Hall at Cambridge in 1526. From 1532–34 he was Rector of Holy Trinity the Less parish in London. It would appear that this was not exactly a front line posting. By 1606 the church was reported to be falling apart and was maintained with scaffolding. The entire parish was destroyed in the Great London Fire of 1666 and the church, although included in Christopher Wren’s master rebuilding plan of 1670 was never rebuilt. He moved to Antwerp in 1534 to become a chaplain to the English speaking community. English merchants had a significant community in the “free city.” At this time Antwerp was free from direct imperial control and was a commercial and trading center for Europe with several different communities of which the English were prominent.[2] Given the cosmopolitan nature of the city, Antwerp had a very tolerant policy towards religion.

While in Antwerp Rogers became an associate of William Tyndale and Myles Coverdale working on Tyndale’s Bible translation. By about 1537 he had renounced his Catholic orders (and Catholicism as a whole) and married a Flemish woman, the neice of Jacob van Meteren, a merchant who had been supporting Tyndale’s work. After Tyndale’s death in 1536 Rogers continued translation work although the exact relationship he had with Coverdale at this time is rather difficult to determine. In 1537 Archbishop Cramner was able to secure a royal license to print a new edition of Coverdale’s Bible. Later in the same year Rogers received a license, against orchestrated by Cramner to print 1500 copies of his Bible. Coverdale had, by this time, been employed by Cromwell and Cramner to supervise the creation of the Bible that Henry VIII had authorized, which would be The Great Bible.

By 1538 Rogers and his wife had moved to Wittenberg where he finished his MA in 1540. During this time he became a good friend of Philip Melanchthon. From 1544–48 he was the pastor of a Lutheran congregation in Meldorf. In 1548 he returned to England, translated Melanchthon’s work Considerations of the Augsburg Interim, into English, became a prebendary (a senior member of the clergy who was supported by a local parish) at St. Paul’s and a lecturer in divinity (theology). Although a Protestant of the Lutheran branch he had also opposed the “radical” Reformation mainly the Anabaptists. Despite an appeal from John Foxe he had refused to assist Joan of Kent (d. 1550) and called her punishment of burning at the stake, “sufficiently mild” for her anabaptist heresy.

However, with the death of Edward VI and Mary I’s assent to the throne in 1553 Rogers was no longer safe. Immediately Rogers preached an inflamatory sermon at Paul’s Cross which affirmed the “true doctrine” that was taught during Edwards’ reign and also had undiplomatic words for the Catholic church. The result was he was arrested, tried at Smithfield and burned at the stake (like Tyndale he had probably been strangled first and his remains were burned). Despite not helping John Foxe in 1550, Foxe still included a brief account of Rogers in his Book of Martyrs and there is an illustration of his being burned.[3] Rogers goes down as the first Protestant martyr to die ins of the five year terror of Queen Mary and her religious (if not more) consort, Cardinal Reginald Pole.

But what of his version of the Bible? The Matthew’s Bible was a revision of Tyndale and an updating of the portions of the Old Testament that Coverdale had done, this time using Hebrew sources, of which Rogers had some facility. However, there is no indication that Rogers actually did any of the translation, except for the Apocryphal Song of Manasses. Daniell speculates that what happened was that when Tyndale was arrested his unpublished translations of the Old Testament from Joshua to Second Chronicles were rescued from the arresting agents by John Rogers. Rogers then got those sections into print in The Matthew’s Bible. Daniel states, that “for the first time moreover, there appeared an English translation of the nine historical books ending at 2 Chronicles made from the Hebrew.”[4] He concludes that “this was the work of Tyndale is now beyond doubt.”[5] The rest of the Old Testament and Apocrypha were Coverdale.

Daniell’s conjecture of how Tyndale’s draft translations for the nine historical books in the OT got into print is certainly possible, and at is the most plausible explanation to account for the Old Testament section. Greenslade acknowledges Tyndale as the translator of the section. He also notes that the entire Bible was “composite version.”[6] The Matthew’s Bible was a mixture of Tyndale’s New Testament, Pentateuch, Joshua thru Second Chronicles; the rest of the OT was Coverdale with “some revision to the middle of Job and only the slightest thereafter.”[7]

Interestingly there are some 2000 notations, mainly on the text. They include many of Tyndale (although the prefaces and more controversial notations were removed), some notations from Coverdale, and some likely from Rogers himself. There were also notations from Luther, Erasmus, Bucer, and other European scholars. This had the effect of making it “from the Hebrew,” as opposed to Coverdale’s Bible, so it appealed to scholars.

The Bible, probably produced in Antwerp, was dedicated to “The King’s Majesty and to Queen Jane” and in the preface it claims to be “purely translated into English by Thomas Matthew.” There are several possible reasons for the false name. It couldn’t be called the “Tyndale” because he was a recently executed heretic and Henry would still not be willing to license a work with Tyndale’s name on it. The common explanation is that Rogers feared for his life and wanted to hide his identity. However, this isn’t entirely plausible since Rogers was in no particular danger and Coverdale was now working on a new English Bible in the open and with the approval of the King and his chief ministers (Cromwell and Cramner). There is also a notation that the king’s Privy Council knew well early on that Matthews was an alias for Rogers.[8] It is more probably that the subterfuge was both known to and approved by Henry, which allowed his to have an English Bible in print (which by now was a high priority) while at the same time not be seen approving of a work by Tyndale.

The Bible in English had now gone from an entirely outlaw affair only a decade earlier (1526) to the point where two English Bibles could claim approval and license for printing and sale by the king himself. The Matthew’s Bible, was a singularly important work, although history would make it obsolete in a brief time. John Rogers was not so much a translator, although he could translate, as an editor. He was able to, at an opportune time, put together a Bible, which was an improvement on the Coverdale. While it was not completely “from the original” in the Old Testament, it was a noticeable improvement over Coverdale’s work from the German, Swiss, and Latin.

Greenslade notes,

There were now [1537] two complete Bibles in circulation, Coverdale’s (1535 and 1537—the quarto claiming to have the king’s license) and the Matthew (1537, 1500 copies printed). The former could not satisfy the scholars, not being made from the originals; the later would offend the conservatives by its notes and its origin, for Tyndale’s share must soon be detected.[9]

It would simply not do to have competing English versions available as this played into the objections of the Catholic and conservative wing of the church that claimed without singular control over the Bible a “free for all” would develop (which of course, in the modern era would be the case). The answer, in the minds of Cromwell and Cramner, and now affirmed by Henry VIII was that an entirely new work be produced. Edited by the ever-dependable Myles Coverdale, the next Bible on the scene would have as it’s name something befitting the king who authorized it, The Great Bible.

 

NOTES:

[1] Rodgers was the first Protestant martyr (1555) under the persecutions of Queen Mary (1515–58) and Cardinal Reginald Pole (1500–58) who were attempting to re-establish the Catholic Church in England after the death of Edward VI. Interestingly, both died within hours of each other on Nov 17, 1558.

[2] Antwerp and it’s enormous port (still one one of the largest in the world) operated much the way Shanghai did prior to World War II as a “treaty port.” It was to the mutual benefit of various nations to keep the port open and operating and keep commerce flowing.

[3] John Foxe (1517–87) wrote the Actes and Monuments in 1563. More popularly known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. It went through four editions and contained the largest number of woodcut drawings of any book to that date (60). It was presented as a history of the protestant church, highlighting its persecution by Catholicism (particularly the reign of Mary) in England and Scotland. His work is based in history, that is all the people he discusses did in fact die, often horribly, as martyrs (although the account of King John being poisoned by priests is a stretch); however, Foxe was an apologist and propagandist and his work has to be viewed in that light. His work is largely reliable as a history of those times, if not exaggerated at times for effect, from a protestant viewpoint.

[4] David Daniell, The Bible in English (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 193.

[5] Ibid. Daniell makes reference to his own work in support of this conclusion, William Tyndale: A Biography (New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 1994), 333–57.

[6] S. L. Greenslade, The Cambridge History of the Bible: The West from the Reformation to the Present Day (Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press, 1963), 150.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Daniel, Bible in English, 196.

[9] Greenslade, Cambridge, 150..