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Tyndale's Bible

[delivered on Nerja Players radio show, 8 October 2009; the general feeling was that it was a bit too highbrow]

Two days ago was the anniversary of the martyrdom of William Tyndale, one of the very first English Protestant reformers, strangled and then burnt in Flanders in 1536. Very sad, you say, it was a terrible time, but why remember this one victim in particular? The reason is simple: for my money Bill Tyndale is the most important single writer in the English language, and I include Shakespeare. The English language deployed by Shakespeare and every other writer since is inconceivable without the translation of the Bible into colloquial English that Tyndale carried out single-handed in the 1520s, working directly from Greek and Hebrew, on the run and in exile in Germany and Flanders. It was a huge achievement to do this at all: but Tyndale managed it at an extraordinarily high level of both accuracy and literary quality. The King James Bible – the famous Authorised Version many of us were brought up on - is very largely a minor rewrite of Tyndale. 83% of the King James New Testament is Tyndale's; for the relevant parts of the Old Testament, it's 75%. I propose to read you a few extracts that bring this out: this is a secular radio show, so please listen to them just as the great literature they are.

Genesis Chapter 1 Tyndale, 1534

1 In the begynnynge God created heaven and erth.

2 The erth was voyde and emptie ad darcknesse was vpon the depe and the spirite of god moved vpon the water

3 Than God sayd: let there be lyghte and there was lyghte.

4 And God sawe the lyghte that it was good: and devyded the lyghte from the darcknesse

5 and called the lyghte daye and the darcknesse nyghte: and so of the evenynge and mornynge was made the fyrst daye.

You can hear that the tone and rhythms of this are obviously very close to the familiar KJV. Let's look at a few details, going both back and forward a bit. Please bear with me for a little more historical background. If we number the first major English translations of the Bible, Tyndale's is no 2 and the KJV no.7. We'll forget for now about the four Protestant and one Catholic translations between Tyndale and the KJV, but we should look at Number 1, Wyclif's bible of around 1400, produced by a group of left-wing Oxford dons, circulated in a few manuscript copies, and promptly banned.

Here's the same passage:

Genesis Chapter 1 Wyclif, ca. 1400

1 In the bigynnyng God made of nouyt heuene and erthe.

2 Forsothe the erthe was idel and voide, and derknessis weren on the face of depthe; and the Spiryt of the Lord was borun on the watris.

3 And God seide, Liyt be maad, and liyt was maad.

4 And God seiy the liyt, that it was good, and he departide the liyt fro derknessis; and he clepide the liyt,

5 dai, and the derknessis, nyyt. And the euentid and morwetid was maad, o daie.

Tyndale rightly thought this would not do. First, Wyclif and company translated from the Vulgate, a 5th-century translation into Latin mainly by St. Jerome, so adding Chinese-whispers errors. Wyclif adds mistakes of his own, adding “from nought” in the first verse, an orthodox theological gloss that is simply not present in the Hebrew text (I have no Hebrew and rely here on Young's literal translation). Second, the English language had changed: “clepid” was standard in Chaucer's time, but a century later sounded as strange to ordinary people as it does to us today. Third, the left-wing Oxford dons had tin ears. The meaning comes across, but you would never guess that this is great poetry. Tyndale claimed he didn't rely on Wyclif at all; even if this is an exaggeration, his translation is clearly very different, and in literary terms a huge improvement, indeed a masterpiece.

The KJV revisers reused most of Tyndale's work, but did more than just relabel it. Take verse 2:

Genesis Chapter 1 KJV, 1611

2: And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

The first change is from “empty” to “without form”. Modern translations split on this one, so both are reasonable; The KJV is more striking. The KJV also puts back “the face” of the water. It's in the Hebrew and in Wyclif, it makes perfect sense – “face” is just a metaphor for “surface” - , and is very beautiful; Tyndale's omission looks like a mistake.

At this point it's natural to wonder why, if the KJV is a rewrite of Tyndale, he was given so little credit. There's a good reason and a bad reason. The good one is that Tyndale never finished the Old Testament. He only completed the five books of Moses and Jonah, leaving drafts of about half the rest which his followers apparently rescued and used, to an unknown extent, in the complete Protestant Bibles that followed. Miles Coverdale who edited the first complete English Bible of 1539 had no Hebrew and claimed for public consumption he just translated from the Vulgate. So when I read Coverdale's 23d psalm,

Psa 23:4 Though I shulde walke now in the valley of the shadowe of death, yet I feare no euell,

and ask myself whether this is the work of a self-confessed journeyman or of a known genius, I don't find it hard to choose.

The bad reason for the deliberate, and almost Stalinist, editing out of Tyndale's contribution is politics. Taking time out from his modest project to translate, single-handed and while on the run, a huge and hugely important book written in two horribly difficult ancient languages, Tyndale published a pamphlet in 1530 against Henry VIII's divorce, You heard me right, against it. You really have to hand it to the guy. On the explosive and dangerous issue of English politics of the day, and for no reason greater than his conscience, he was backing the Catholic party at Henry's court against the Protestant one. The Catholics already hated him as a dangerous heretic and one pamphlet wasn't going to change that. But by making Henry furious, Tyndale made it impossible for the Protestant party to protect him. So Henry asked the Emperor Charles V to silence this gadfly, and Charles duly obliged. While Henry lived, practical English Protestants like Coverdale had to keep their distance from Tyndale; and the same held under Elizabeth, whose legitimacy depended on that of the divorce. James had no parallel dynastic objection, but he wouldn't have approved of the radicalism of some of Tyndale's translations on the early Church: congregation rather than church for ekklesia, elder rather than priest for presbyter. The pattern of suppression was set.

As we've seen, the KJV reused even more of Tyndale's New Testament than his Old. There's no point in my reading you the Beatitudes for instance, because they are identical in Tyndale and the KJV. I've already mentioned one of Tyndale's mistakes. Here are two passages from the New Testament where he got it right and the KJV revisers wrong. Here's a verse from Matthew 6 about prayer:

Matthew 6:7 KJV

But when yee pray, vse not vaine repetitions, as the heathen doe. For they thinke that they shall be heard for their much speaking.

And Tyndale:

7 And whe ye praye bable not moche as the hethe do: for they thincke that they shal be herde for their moche bablynges sake.

The KJV's “vain repetitions” is a High Table put-down, making Jesus into someone very like the establishment KJV revisers, such as Dr. John Reynolds, the President of my old college, Corpus Christi. “Babbling” is the salty insult of a street-corner preacher. The Greek here is the onomatopoeic battologhshte, so modern translations follow Tyndale. Baby-talk and street-corner it is.

Here's another and vastly more important one, from St. Paul's great hymn in 1 Corinthians chapter 13, verse 13:


And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these [is] charity.

and Tyndale:

Now abideth fayth hope and love even these thre: but the chefe of these is love.

We'll grant that the KJV improves the poetry, dropping “even” and replacing “chief” with “greatest”. The key point is charity, where the KJV follows the Vulgate's caritas. The KJV revisers were not simply making a reactionary mistake on political grounds. The Greeks distinguished between different forms of love, eros for sexual love and agape for friendship and unselfishness. St Paul, writing in Greek, had to choose, and used agape. But Paul, Luke, and their immediate audiences were Jews like Jesus. Greek was just a utility international language to them, as English is to a Dutchman today. Their thinking wasn't saturated in the Greek classics but in the Hebrew Old Testament, the Tanakh. Now Hebrew, like English, has one word for love: resh [my mistake, apparently it's ahavah]. Sexual love, friendship, and unselfishness are sides of the same coin. The central affirmation of Jewish and later Christian faith, the Shema, from Deuteronomy 6, makes this explicit. Here it is in Tyndale:

Heare Israel, the Lorde thy God is Lorde only, and thou shalt loue the Lorde thy God with all thyne harte, with all thy soule and with all thy myght.

And of course the KJV uses “love” here too. Using charity in the Corinthians passage makes faith into something you do with your nice, respectable, Church of Englandy bits, not all of you, including your brain and guts and genitals, as Deuteronomy fiercely requires. It's pretty obvious that St. Paul means this wider, deeper sense. So modern translations follow Tyndale: love it is.

I've said enough to convince you I hope that William Tyndale from Dursley in Gloucestershire was a huge literary talent and not only a figure in the history of religion. I claimed that he was in fact a more important writer than Shakespeare – not a greater one, just more influential. The week-in, week-out exposure of much of the English population over four centuries to what is essentially Tyndale's Bible far exceeds their exposure to Shakespeare, who is anyway far more difficult. The commonplace phrases the powers that be, the salt of the earth, a law unto themselves, the signs of the times, fight the good fight, a multitude of sins, and many others are all his.

And though I can't prove it, I think Tyndale's Bible introduced a new tone into English literature. Here's an example of good prose by his contemporary and enemy Thomas More, from Utopia:

A life of pleasure is either a real evil, and in that case we ought not to assist others in their pursuit of it, but on the contrary, to keep them from it all we can, as from that which is most hurtful and deadly; or if it is a good thing, so that we not only may, but ought to help others to it, why, then, ought not a man to begin with himself?

This elegant, antiphonal, balanced style, based on Latin models, has of course also been very influential in later English writing, especially in prose. But when Milton writes poetry in it, we find it very strange. The Bible, through Tyndale's empathy, brought us the wholly different aesthetic ideal of the ancient Hebrews: dense, nervy, muscular, epigrammatic. “Let there be light. And there was light.” Subsequent English poetry in particular has I suggest been deeply imbued by it. “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow/Beats on this petty pace from day to day”: don't you catch an echo?

In any case, let us remember our colossal debt to a man who got the biggest things right.