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FCN series on the Payette Bibles begins

Tyndale worked on Matthews Bible from 1537

POSTED: August 10, 2014 12:05 a.m.
Micah Green/

Notice the pristine condition of each leaf of this extremely rare edition. Surprisingly, the pages to the Bibles in Payette’s collection from the 1500 and 1600s are in excellent condition, as the pages were printed on a durable and expensive linen stock paper. Note also that this Bible was printed prior to the use of verses and the print type is an old black letter gothic style.

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FORSYTH COUNTY — To say Forsyth County resident Charles Payette’s extraordinary collection of Bibles is rare would be an understatement. Many of the Bibles are one of just a handful of their kind in the world; others are thought not to exist.

An article in the June 29 edition of the Forsyth County News introduced readers to Payette and his collection, which he started acquiring 15 years ago. What began as a hobby, made possible by a successful 35-year career in the medical and insurance industries, has grown into a passion. Payette hopes to one day display his collection in a museum locally.

Beginning today, with The Matthews Bible, the FCN will highlight one or more different books from Payette’s collection over the course of the next 12 weeks. The aim is introduce the public to some of these unique and incredible pieces of history.

But to understand the Bibles within the context of their time, readers must first recall what England was like in the early 1500s. The Holy Roman Catholic Church wielded much power and influence when it came to religion, politics and everyday life for peasants and royalty alike.

In addition, the church itself was in constant turmoil, as various clergy vied for leadership and power. The inner conflict did little to provide harmony as the powers that be were in constant disagreement when it came to religious and secular matters.

While the Bible is readily available in English today, that was not the case in the early 16th century. In fact, the average person couldn’t read and therefore relied on priests to interpret the Bible.

Many priests couldn’t read the Scriptures, particularly if they were in Latin, which led to false interpretations, confusion and ill intentions.

One example can be found in the church’s then common practice of selling indulgences, assurances people could purchase to ensure their stay in purgatory was limited or even eliminated and they could move on swiftly to heaven.

Priests such as Martin Luther (1483-1546) and William Tyndale (1492-1536) condemned these practices, but neither man wanted to do away with the Catholic Church. They believed, rather, in reform.

The powerful church wasn’t interested in reform, and it certainly wasn’t interested in educating “the little people” about matters of Scripture.

Tyndale, arguably a genius who spoke eight languages, wanted Scriptures to be available to everybody and began translating the Bible into English.

While that may sound commonsensical, this was a radical idea during that time and one the church condemned in no uncertain terms. The penalty for attempting this feat or for owning Scriptures translated into English was death — specifically, death by public hanging or burning at the stake.

Tyndale, however, took the risk and began working on the translation, all while hiding and traveling in secrecy to avoid arrest and death. Unlike one previous translation, which used the Bible in Latin as its basis, Tyndale used the original Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, creating what became known as the Matthews Bible.

His work has held up to the test of time as the Bible we read today remains 83 percent Tyndale.

Though he was arrested and then strangled and burned for his “crime” in 1536, his friend and colleague Miles Coverdale (1488-1569) finished the translation. This represents the final work of William Tyndale during his lifetime and the only time he attempted work on anything outside of the New Testament, which he first produced in 1526, and Pentateuch (first five books of Moses) in 1536.

The Matthews Bible, considered by most scholars to be the first true Bible printed in English, was produced 77 years before what many believe to be the first English translation, the beloved King James Bible, in 1611. 

The importance of Tyndale’s translation cannot be understated. He essentially took the awkward “Middle English” often thought of as “vulgar” tongue, and improved it immensely.

Essentially, he formed an early form of modern English. Indeed, Shakespeare and others used this new vernacular and it formed the basis for the English language.

So if Tyndale and Coverdale translated the Bible, why is it called the Mathew’s Bible? Thomas Matthew is commonly treated as a pseudonym of John Rogers (1500-55) who was a close friend of Tyndale and the first martyr in the Marian persecution.

The Marian persecutions occurred during the reign of Queen Mary. Mary was a devout Catholic who issued a decree in January 1555 saying that all Protestants who refused to convert to Catholicism would be burned at the stake.

Since Rogers only edited Tyndale’s translation, experts believe it more probable that Matthew stands for Tyndale’s own name, which if employed, would have been punishable by death. This use of pseudonym Matthews served its purpose well, as they managed to trick Henry VIII into authorizing this Bible (a first), even though he had just recently caused the execution of its primary author.

The fact that Payette’s copy of The Matthew’s Bible First Edition collates 100 percent complete and the controversial side notes have not been obliterated makes it one of the rarest books in the world.

The Bible is full of amazing woodcuts and flourished initials, including  “W.T.,” which of course stands for William Tyndale.

It is important to remember that owning one of these Bibles meant risking death. Throughout the Bible are more than a hundred small woodcuts, almost all of which can be found in other later Bibles. There are also more than 2,000 annotations illustrating the meaning of various passages.

It’s truly quite extraordinary when you consider most people, many of them educated, couldn’t read Bibles prior to this version. 

The book was rebound by W Pratt in probably the late 18th century and was certainly bound for a person of great wealth. The elaborate binding is loaded with 24-karat gold gilt, raised panels on both covers and spine. The spine reads in gold “The Byble Translated by Thomas Matthew 1537.”

Just how many churches possessed a Matthews Bible isn’t known, but it was likely not many. After all, a majority of the 1,500 copies printed were seized and burned after an enraged King Henry VIII learned he had been tricked into its endorsement.

Had they not been destroyed, the small, country churches wouldn’t have been able to afford one anyway. Complete editions of this scarce book exceed even the Gutenberg in terms of rarity.

And the Bible managed to still play an important role in the English Reformation. It not only led the way for the first license of English Scripture, it then cleared the way for the 1539-41 Great Bible, the first English Bible authorized to be placed in a church and our feature next week.

 

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