By Sidney K. Ohlhausen
A quirk in history means English-speaking Catholics must go to France to trace the origins of the Bible printed in their language.
Penal laws during Queen Elizabeth's reign in the 16th century deprived English Catholics of freedom to practice their religion. Masses had be to said in secret. Those who refused to attend services in the established Church of England were called “recusants” and were subject to prosecutions.
Many recusants fled the island to maintain their faith. A major refuge for these exiles was the town of Douai (Anglicized to “Doway” and, later, “Douay”) where an English college had been established by Father (later Cardinal) William Allen to train priests.
Now part of France, Douay at the time was under the Spanish dominions of the Catholic King Philip II, former Prince Consort of Queen Mary Tudor and an ally of English Catholics. Since Catholic books were suppressed in England, Douay also became a major publishing center. Well-armed in the battle of words with their religious adversaries across the channel, English Catholic recusants produced a major body of literature emanating continuously from Douay and other cities on the continent, such as St. Omer and Antwerp.
According to one source, a total of 930 Catholic books in English were printed on the continent or secretly in England from 1558 to 1640.
It was during this period that Douay scholars produced the one work that would do the most to memorialize the name of their college throughout the English-speaking world: the Douay version of the Bible.
Actually, work on the Bible began in the city of Rheims, where the college had relocated temporarily in 1578. The principal translator was Father Gregory Martin, who had joined the exiles at Douay in 1570 so he could freely practice his religion. He began work on the translation in 1578, assisted by Father Allen and others. Father Martin used the Vulgate (the Latin translation of the Bible) as his basis. An accomplished scholar in Hebrew and Greek, he consulted early texts in those languages, as well as earlier English sectarian translations before arriving at his own final text. The result was the translation that would become the basis for Catholic Bibles in the English language for nearly the next four centuries.
Due to limited resources, only the New Testament was published first, in 1582. It included an extensive body of apologetic annotations written in the controversial tone typical of the time and refuting common biblical interpretations that had been used against the Catholic Church. It was called the Rheims (Anglicized to Rhemes) New Testament for the city of publication. The Old Testament was later published in two volumes in 1609-1610, after the college had returned to Douay.
That's why the complete Bible is known as the Douay-Rheims, or simply the Douay, Bible.
Copies of the Rheims New Testament were smuggled into England despite official proscription, and it immediately caused concern among leaders of the established church. Their dedication to widespread circulation of the Bible did not extend to Catholic translations. Rheims became the subject of several critical works. One recurring criticism was for its use of obscure words, such as “exinanited” in Philippians 2:7. (A modern translation reads: “Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.”)
As explained in the preface, some words of the sacred text do not have precise English equivalents. Rather than risk changing the original sense, it was decided to simply Anglicize some Vulgate words. To assist the reader, a glossary of such terms was appended to the text. Despite the wave of criticism, the overwhelming merit of Father Martin's scholarship prevailed. Translators of the King James Version of 1611 even borrowed renderings from Rheims. Many of the obscure words mentioned in the glossary—”neophyte” and “resuscitate,” for example—are now in everyday use.
An urgent prayer at the end of the Rheims New Testament dramatically expresses the hopes and concerns of English Catholics at the time:
“ . . . Come Lord Jesus quickly, and judge betwixt us and our Adversaries, and in the meantime give patience, comfort, and constancy to all that suffer for Thy name, and trust in Thee. Lord God our only helper and protector, tarry not long. Amen.”
(from Catholic Heritage magazine, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc.)
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