Monday, January 07, 2013

Is there really a ‘Wife-Beater’s Bible’?

An e-mail correspondent recently sent me a list of famous Bible misprints and mistranslations of which the Wicked Bible probably contains the most famous.

This list informed me of the existence of the ‘Wife-Beater’s Bible’ in these words:

“Wife-Beaters’ Bible” (Matthew’s Bible, 1537): A footnote to I Peter 3:7 is rendered “And if she be not obedient and healpeful unto him, endevoureth to beat the fear of God into her head, that thereby she may be compelled to learn her duty and do it.”

Since I have the Hendrickson facsimile of the Matthew’s Bible I turned to it, and found no such reference. There are, however, references to this Bible at various points on the web, e.g.  Paul Gardner, Parchment and Pen Blog, Marcus Tutt, and (currently) Wikipedia.

I am sceptical as to whether there ever was such a Bible, but am asking all you sapientes out on the Web whether you can find hard textual evidence to rid me of my doubts.

My reasons for scepticism include, but are not limited to, the following:

1) The various pages referencing this all appear to use very similar wording, sometimes including context, which is a feature of internet myths, and suggests a single online textual source.

2) Use of the word ‘footnote’ for a time when notes were marginal suggests a lack of familiarity with the period.

3) The syntax ‘endevoureth’ (3rd person for 2nd), spelling (probably confusing devour and endeavour), and idiom ‘to beat the fear of God into her head’ suggest a modern, relatively uneducated, origin for the wording.
4) What would it mean for a footnote to be ‘rendered’?

5) It would require significantly different printings of the Matthews Bible in 1537.

6) It’s the sort of drivel our age likes to invent and believe about the Bad Olde Dayes.

So, friends, is there any evidence for the existence of such a version? Can anyone trace the origin of the hoax?


Based on the Metzger reference in Ryan’s comment I’m now convinced that some such thing existed, though it is rather different from what is found in the various sources I noted above. The spelling above is not original. The reference to a ‘footnote’ is an anachronism. It did not occur in a 1537 Bible and is not a Matthews Bible, but what it is is less clear. Metzger says it’s closer to Tyndale than Taverner and his mention of Coverdale doesn’t make it clear that Coverdale was actually a textual source. So it’s not a hoax as I first thought, but just a very corrupt version of a historical core.

Next question: where can I see a copy?

Here is what Metzger has to say:

“Edmund Becke’s Bibles (1549; 1551)In the short reign of Edward VI, the open Bible came once again into favor, and some fourteen Bibles and thirty-five New Testaments were printed. These were reprints of Tyndale,Matthew, and Taverner, some of them of interest only for the light they throw on the liberties that publishers felt free to take with books and parts of books in producing a “hybrid” edition. One such printer/publisher was Edmund Becke, who also tried his hand at some desultory revising. Occasionally called “Bishop Becke’s Bibles,” these comprise essentially Taverner’s Old Testament and Tyndale’s New Testament, compiled by John Daye and revised and edited by Becke.

The edition of 1549 is printed in a rather peculiar black-letter type in double columns. The majority of the notes are gathered together after the chapter to which they pertain. Present also are Tyndale’s prologues, including the long prologues to Jonah and Romans (eleven pages)and that to the New Testament.

The edition of 1551 includes 3 Maccabees in the Apocrypha. A cut of the Evangelist appears before each Gospel, and at the beginning of the dedication stands a woodcut initial,representing Becke offering his book to the young king, Edward VI, and instructing him in the duties of his high station.

Becke’s alterations in this edition of the New Testament are deplorable. By reverting in nearly every instance to Tyndale’s version, he has done injustice to Taverner by perpetuating mistakes that the latter had corrected.

Both editions contain the notorious “wife-beater” note on 1 Peter 3:7, where men are exhorted to live with their wives “according to knowledge.” Becke explains this to mean

that taketh her as a necessary helper, and not as a bond servaunt or bonde slave. And if she be not obedient and healpeful unto hym: endeavoureth to beate the feare of God into her heade, that therby she maye be compelled to learne her dutye and do it. But chiefely he must beware that he halte not inanye parte of hys dutye to her warde. For hys evyll example shall destroye more than all entruccion she can give shall edifye.”

UPDATE 2 -  Here it is:


  1. Yes, see

  2. Bruce Metzgar in his book The bible in translation, Ancient and English versions has a reference to it. You can note it here:

    The reference is on page 35.

  3. Thanks, Ryan. Excellent link which I've referenced in an update.

  4. Yes, it appears legit, though the edition is often mis-cited on the web, making impossible to track. Fortunately, Metzger gives the right cite. The correct citation is

    The Byble, that is to saye, all the Holye Scripture, in whiche are contayned the Olde and New Testament / truly and purely translated into Englishe, & now lately with great industry & diligence recognysed.

    Matthew, Thomas. (author)
    Imprynted at London : By John Wyghte ... : vi. day of Maye, M.D.L.J. [i.e. 6 May 1551]
    English [42], cxii [i.e. ccxxiv], clv [i.e. cccx], cxc [i.e. ccclxxx], cii [i.e. cciv], cxlix [i.e. ccxcviii], [2] p.

    It's available on EEBO (Early English Books Online), image number 553 out of 575.

  5. Thanks Stephen (though for me it was image 713 of 738). I'll post above.

  6. A further question is: what does this actually mean? It seems clear to me that the note is talking (albeit in an incredibly unhelpful way to modern ears) about *instruction* and not actual physical violence. This could be confirmed by studying the use of the idiom "to beat something into someone's head" in 16th century English, and perhaps by close examination of this Bible's annotations on other passages such as Ephesians 5:22-33 where husbands are commanded to bestow the same physical care on their wives as they do on themselves.

    If anyone has time for such diverting researches, I'd be delighted to read the results.

  7. You're welcome! Great site by the way.

  8. I agree with anon that the meaning is not obvious. Is it envisaging smiting the head as a method of instruction? Probably not. A culinary metaphor? If the meaning is not physical the question is how it came to be circulated in more recent times. Did Metzger just spot it during his general reading ...?

  9. Endevoreth is not 3rd person for 2d: it's parallel with taketh, really 3rd

  10. It think we may be totally misunderstanding Becke. I think his trying to say your wife is your helper, not your slave (whom one might try to beat into submission if the slave is not helpful or obediant). To take him to be actually suggesting beating the fear into her goes directly against what he says is the husband's chief duty of protecting her (his duty to her warde). He says any witholding of this protection would do more harm than all the encouragement he can give her (certainly beating her would be more evil in her eyes than withholding protection from her would be).

  11. PJ: You have a slight error in your transcription that can cause confusion, "For hys evyll example shall destroye more than all entruccion she can give shall edifye." It should say "all entruccion HE can give shall edifye".
    His evil example (of withholding protection (or maybe general care for her)) will outweigh any good instruction he gives her.

  12. Peter,
    I saw a copy of this Bible while I was still in Cambridge.

    At that time I wrote a short post on my blog. I remember that I had some difficulty tracing this particular edition.

    Here are some better pictures.

  13. A copy of this wife-beater's bible is now on display at Passages in Springfield. I saw it a week ago.

  14. It's in all the Tyndale New Testaments printed by Day or Day & Seres between 1548 and 1551, plus the 1549 Matthew Bible revised by Becke, and a 1551 Great Bible New Testament printed in Worcester. The part that follows, where honoring one's wife is equated with abstaining from sex is from Erasmus' In novum testamentum annotationes.