The 1537 Matthew Bible: More Anglican than Not Part 1

When the sixteenth century dawned in England, there were laws prohibiting the translation of the Bible into English. It was illegal to even own or to read English Scriptures.1In 1401, under King Henry IV, parliament passed a statute called De haeretico comburendo, or On the burning of heretics, targeting Wycliffe’s followers, the Lollards. Then in 1408 came the Constitutions of Oxford, prohibiting anyone from translating the Scriptures “by his own authority.” More details are in my book The Story of the Matthew Bible (British Columbia, Canada: Baruch House Publishing, 2018), 23-25.These laws had been passed by Roman Catholic authorities in response to the Bible translations of John Wycliffe in the late fourteenth century, and were zealously enforced. The poor souls who dared to defy them were imprisoned, tortured, and burned at the stake.

In the face of this danger and persecution, God moved three friends to give us a little-known English Bible, the Matthew Bible, first published in 1537. William Tyndale translated the New Testament and the first half of the Old, while Myles Coverdale contributed the other Scriptures and the Apocryphal books. The third man, John Rogers, compiled their work, added commentaries and other features that we will see, and oversaw production.

The Matthew Bible (‘MB’) is important because, among other things, it is the “real primary version of our English Bible.”2A. S. Herbert, Historical Catalogue of Printed Editions of the English Bible 1525-1961 (New York: The American Bible Society, 1968), 18. It formed the base of the Great Bible, which was a minor revision that Coverdale himself performed. From there, it went also into the Geneva, Bishops’, and King James Versions, where it underwent further revisions. But a computer study has revealed just how much of Tyndale remains in the KJV:

New Testament scholars Jon Nielson and Royal Skousen observed that previous estimates of Tyndale’s contribution to the KJV “have run from a high of up to 90% (Westcott) to a low of 18% (Butterworth)”. By a statistically accurate and appropriate method of sampling, based on eighteen portions of the Bible, they concluded that for the New Testament Tyndale’s contribution is about 83% of the text.3David Daniell, The Bible in English (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2003), 448.

Few people are aware the KJV owes so much of its truth and language to the Matthew Bible and the translations of William Tyndale, and, also, Myles Coverdale. Fewer yet realize that the MB was essentially an Anglican Bible, made in the same spirit as the Book of Common Prayer and the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England.

William Tyndale (c. 1494-1536)

England was unsafe for an unauthorized Bible translator, so Tyndale worked in exile from hiding places on the European continent. In 1524, he began the great work of translating the New Testament from Greek into English. His circumstances were difficult. As he put it, he worked in “very necessity and cumbrance (God is record) above strength.”4In “To the Reder” [sic] in his 1526 New Testament, Tyndale wrote, “Moreover, even very necessity and cumbrance (God is record) above strength, which I will not rehearse, lest we should seem to boast ourselves, caused that many things are lacking.” Tyndale’s 1526 New Testament (Facsimile; Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers Inc., 2008), unnumbered page at the back of the book.He believed God had called him to this task, and the longevity of his translations confirms his calling. He was a learned man, a lover of God’s word, and fluent in eight languages. He worked largely alone, using the Greek and Latin texts compiled by the Dutch scholar and textual critic Desiderius Erasmus. He also had a minimal number of other resources, including dictionaries, grammars, and Martin Luther’s 1522 New Testament.

Tyndale published his New Testament in 1526. The little books, so small they could fit in your hand, were smuggled into England in bales of cotton, where people hungry for truth purchased them at great personal risk. King Henry VIII immediately outlawed the New Testament, as indeed he did all Tyndale’s books and translations, but that did not prevent the people from buying it. Neither did it deter pirate printers: within a few years there were thousands of pirated editions circulating in the country.

The New Testament once complete, Tyndale set about working with the Hebrew Scriptures, and published his translation of the Pentateuch in 1530. He gave us many enduring coinages, such as ‘mercy seat’ and ‘scapegoat.’ The ringing passages of the books of Moses that we know from the KJV are in great part Tyndale’s gift to us:

Genesis 1:1 in Tyndale’s Pentateuch (Matthew Bible): In the beginning God created heaven and earth. The earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the deep, and the Spirit of God moved upon the water.

The Pentateuch was followed by Jonah in 1531, the only prophetical book Tyndale was able to complete, and one of his favorites.

By the year 1534 Tyndale was living in Antwerp, where Rogers and Coverdale were too. Here he revised and fine-tuned his New Testament. He wrote prologues to some of the New Testament books, including a lengthy one on Romans that he translated largely from Martin Luther. He also added brief commentaries and notes in the margins, which he called “declarations” and “lights.” A final, minor revision of his New Testament followed in 1535, and this is the version that John Rogers took into the Matthew Bible.

Tyndale also completed Joshua through Chronicles of the Old Testament but was then betrayed to enemies and captured. After a sixteen month imprisonment in Vilvoorde he was condemned as a heretic under an edict promulgated by Emperor Charles V to criminalize Lutherans. In October of 1536, still a young man about forty-two years old, he was degraded (stripped of priesthood in the Roman Church), strangled, and burned at the stake.

And thus did William Tyndale give his life, so that we could have God’s word.

John Rogers (c. 1500-1555), aka Thomas Matthew

John Rogers met Tyndale in Antwerp. Here Tyndale and Coverdale converted him from Roman Catholicism, and the three men worked together closely during 1534-35. After Tyndale’s capture, Rogers took his work and set out to publish an annotated Bible as a comprehensive resource for the English Church. As mentioned, for the Scriptures Tyndale had not completed, Rogers used the Old Testament and Apocryphal translations of Myles Coverdale, taken from his 1535 Bible (discussed below). He also added a lengthy “Table of Principal Matters” (as I call it), which was a compendious concordance of Bible doctrines and teachings translated from the French Bible of the Reformer Pierre Olivetan. It had a truly “sweet” introduction:

As the bees diligently do gather together sweet flowers, to make by natural craft the sweet honey: so have I done the principal sentences [doctrines] contained in the Bible. The which are ordained after the manner of a table, for the consolation of those which are not yet exercised and instructed in the holy Scripture.

Rogers also added over two thousand marginal commentaries called “The Notes.” Some were his own, and others were taken from Tyndale’s 1534 New Testament, Luther’s Bible, and elsewhere. In the Old Testament, many of his notes interpreted Hebrew idioms that are commonplace now, but were evidently new to sixteenth-century English readers, such as what it means to “pour out your heart” or to “be the apple of (someone’s) eye.” In addition to all this, he added summaries upon every chapter of every book of the Bible, including each Psalm.

Rogers did a yeoman’s job of compiling, editing, and organizing this large volume, and very shortly published it in 1537. When it arrived in England, Lord Thomas Cromwell recommended it to King Henry, who licensed it almost immediately. Cromwell and Archbishop Cranmer then both issued injunctions to the clergy requiring English Bibles to be set up in the churches.5For transcripts of the injunctions of Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer see Bishop Burnet, History of the Reformation of the Church of England, (London: Richard Priestley, 1820), Vol. I, Pt. II. Parish records show purchases of both Coverdale’s and Rogers’ Bibles,6J. F. Mozley, Coverdale and His Bibles, (1953; repr.; Cambridge, England: James Clarke & Co, 2005), 173. and the unthinkable came to pass: English Scriptures were now read and heard in the Church.

Rogers wrote a dedication to King Henry in his Bible, but he signed it as “Thomas Matthew,” and the cover leaf also stated that the translator was Thomas Matthew. This, of course, explains why it is referred to as the Matthew Bible or Matthew’s Version. The subterfuge was meant to conceal Tyndale’s involvement since his translations had been banned. Nonetheless, we see God’s providence, and perhaps his humor, in that the illegal work was received in England and licensed for the Church by the very king who had outlawed it. As the Scripture says, no prophet is accepted in his own country (Luke 4:24), but, also, the least shall be the greatest (Luke 9:48): despite official condemnation, Tyndale’s translations have informed every major Bible since he died a “heretic.”

How or why Rogers chose the pseudonym ‘Thomas Matthew’ remains a mystery, but the biblical inspiration, the names of Jesus’ two disciples, is obvious. I have speculated that the ‘T’ of Thomas stands for Tyndale and the ‘M’ of Matthew for Myles. Coverdale’s involvement also needed to be concealed, of course, to secure the perception of authorship by Mr. Matthew.

But after Queen Mary ascended the throne in England, Rogers was seized, imprisoned, and identified as using the alias ‘Matthew.’ He was examined for heresy and condemned as a “Child of Wickedness” for “detestable, horrible, and wicked offences of Heretical Pravity and Execrable Doctrine.”7John Foxe, Acts and Monuments of the Christian Church, 1684 edition (facsimile; Litchfield Park, Arizona: The Bible Museum, 2008), Vol. III, 103. As a result, in 1555 our second Detestable Heretic went to the stake. He was burned alive in Smithfield, leaving behind a wife and ten children, one still sucking at the breast.

Our foundational English Bible was, therefore, given to us anonymously, by men who cared not for their names, but only died for the truth they wanted us to have. They bore their cross and followed in the footsteps of their Lord. The Matthew Bible is the true fruit of martyrs’ pens—the word of God purchased with blood, and the only English Bible so to be.

Myles Coverdale (c. 1487-1569)

Coverdale was the only one of the Matthew men who died naturally, but he endured no less than three exiles abroad to escape persecutions under both King Henry and Queen Mary. During his first exile, he worked with Tyndale in Hamburg and assisted him in translating the Pentateuch. Later the men met up again in Antwerp, where they joined with Rogers. It was here that Coverdale worked on his 1535 Bible, which Henry received and licensed in England in early 1536, a full year before Rogers’ Bible was allowed. The reception of Coverdale’s Bible by the king was a momentous historical event, but is often overlooked. Coverdale must be credited with translating the world’s first whole printed English Bible, and the first to circulate lawfully in his country.8Herbert’s Catalogue shows a printing of Myles Coverdale’s Bible in 1537 just before Matthew’s version, in which the title page says it was “set forth with the Kynges moost gracious licence.”(Herbert, Cat., 17-18.) But though this is (apparently) the first express mention of a license in his Bible, we know Henry actually allowed it the previous year.

A natural question to ask is why Coverdale set about to make a Bible in the first place, since he knew Tyndale was already on the job and was better gifted in the biblical tongues. He addressed this directly in his 1535 preface. First, he longed for England to have her own Bible and saw that while other countries had theirs, England was still without. He also saw that “them of ripe knowledge” who “with all their hearts” wanted to give England a Bible, had not been able to do so due to the adversity they faced.9“Myles Coverdale unto the Christian Reader,” prologue to his 1535 Bible, Remains of Myles Coverdale, ed. George Pearson, Cambridge: The University Press, 1846 (facsimile; LaVergne, TN, USA: BiblioLife, LLC), 12-13. This must be a reference to Tyndale. Coverdale knew his friend’s life was threatened by enemies who wanted him dead, and that he might not live to finish his translation. Furthermore, even if he did live, his work would be outlawed and routed out. A Bible from someone else stood a better chance of acceptance. What’s more, the time was ripe: once his Bible got to England, he could count on the assistance of his long-time friend, the great reformer Thomas Cromwell, to advance it. In the providence of God, Cromwell was now chief minister to Henry VIII.

Coverdale translated mainly from the German Bibles that were newly available, and therefore his work benefited from Martin Luther’s clarity and understanding. Of course, he had access to other helps, and he conferred with Tyndale. But then Tyndale was captured, and it became evident that Coverdale had chosen wisely. In the end, it must be acknowledged that it was he who brought everything to fruition. Without Coverdale, England would indeed have been left without a whole Bible. But now she received two: his own and, also, the Matthew Bible, which was made complete with his translations.

In the year 1569 Coverdale died, an aged man full of good fruit, in his home in England. He is especially remembered for his Psalms, which were used in the Book of Common Prayer, and where they remain to this day.

The Matthew Bible: An Anglican version

The 1537 Matthew Bible is the most manifestly Anglican and (small ‘c’) catholic English Bible we ever received. It reveals the reverence for tradition and the ancient Church that characterized the early Reformation. In his commentaries, Rogers often referred to the teaching of the Church fathers, including Augustine, Hilary, Ambrose, and Chrysostom. He even went out of his way to defend the perpetual virginity of Mary.10Roger’s note on Matthew 1:25 says Jesus was called Mary’s first son “not because she had any after, but because she had none before.” His polemical notes were milder and fewer in number than has been falsely alleged, and for the most part were confirmed in the Articles of Religion, such as those that argued against purgatory or defended salvation by grace alone.

The Matthew Bible contained the Church Calendar along with an Almanac to calculate the dates of moveable feasts for the years 1538-57. Rogers, as Coverdale and Tyndale had also done, simply assumed that life would be organized around the Calendar, as it had been for centuries. At the back of the volume was a “Table … Wherein ye shall find the Epistles and the Gospels after the use of Salisbury.” Tyndale had the same thing in his 1534 New Testament and even translated the traditional Old Testament passages for reading on the “holy days,” as he called them.

These features of the Matthew Bible, together with its calm though not dogmatic acceptance of episcopacy and the general tenor of its teaching, fit it well for the Church that Cromwell and Cranmer were attempting to build. But not everyone appreciated it. The Roman Catholics objected to the notes, and so, to appease them, Cromwell produced the Great Bible, which contained no notes. But the Puritans objected to everything. As a result, they took it upon themselves to make major revisions and produced the Geneva Bible in 1560 – which contained many of their own notes and created far more controversy and uproar than the peaceable Matthew Bible ever could have.

Moderns often assume the Geneva Bible was a close cousin to Matthew’s version, but nothing could be further from the truth. Its eschatology, ecclesiology, and much more, departed far from the beliefs of the Matthew men (and early Reformers such as Martin Luther). It taught a different form of “Protestantism,” and, despite its great clamor against Roman Catholicism, actually drew closer to it. In the next part of this article, we will investigate some of the issues and show how the Matthew Bible followed the via media, the true Anglican way.

Continued in The 1537 Matthew Bible: More Anglican than Not – Part 2 (coming soon). Learn the dramatic story of the blood-bought 1537 Mathew Bible, a story of courage and faith: 

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1. In 1401, under King Henry IV, parliament passed a statute called De haeretico comburendo, or On the burning of heretics, targeting Wycliffe’s followers, the Lollards. Then in 1408 came the Constitutions of Oxford, prohibiting anyone from translating the Scriptures “by his own authority.” More details are in my book The Story of the Matthew Bible (British Columbia, Canada: Baruch House Publishing, 2018), 23-25.
2. A. S. Herbert, Historical Catalogue of Printed Editions of the English Bible 1525-1961 (New York: The American Bible Society, 1968), 18.
3. David Daniell, The Bible in English (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2003), 448.
4. In “To the Reder” [sic] in his 1526 New Testament, Tyndale wrote, “Moreover, even very necessity and cumbrance (God is record) above strength, which I will not rehearse, lest we should seem to boast ourselves, caused that many things are lacking.” Tyndale’s 1526 New Testament (Facsimile; Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers Inc., 2008), unnumbered page at the back of the book.
5. For transcripts of the injunctions of Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer see Bishop Burnet, History of the Reformation of the Church of England, (London: Richard Priestley, 1820), Vol. I, Pt. II.
6. J. F. Mozley, Coverdale and His Bibles, (1953; repr.; Cambridge, England: James Clarke & Co, 2005), 173.
7. John Foxe, Acts and Monuments of the Christian Church, 1684 edition (facsimile; Litchfield Park, Arizona: The Bible Museum, 2008), Vol. III, 103.
8. Herbert’s Catalogue shows a printing of Myles Coverdale’s Bible in 1537 just before Matthew’s version, in which the title page says it was “set forth with the Kynges moost gracious licence.”(Herbert, Cat., 17-18.) But though this is (apparently) the first express mention of a license in his Bible, we know Henry actually allowed it the previous year.
9. “Myles Coverdale unto the Christian Reader,” prologue to his 1535 Bible, Remains of Myles Coverdale, ed. George Pearson, Cambridge: The University Press, 1846 (facsimile; LaVergne, TN, USA: BiblioLife, LLC), 12-13.
10. Roger’s note on Matthew 1:25 says Jesus was called Mary’s first son “not because she had any after, but because she had none before.”

Ruth Magnusson Davis is a retired lawyer and a student of early modern English, the Reformation, and, especially, the 1537 Matthew Bible. In 2009 Ruth founded the New Matthew Bible Project, dedicated to gently updating the Matthew Bible for today. The New Testament of the NMB was published as The October Testament in 2016. In 2018, Ruth published The Story of the Matthew Bible, the first book ever to give the full story of this forgotten Bible and the three men who made.


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