Tyndale and the English Bible

The martyred genius who brought the Word to the people

History sometimes fails to recognize the brilliance of a true pioneer, glorifying those who profit from his innovation while conveniently forgetting the source.

William Tyndale (1494?-1536), who first translated the Bible into English from the original Greek and Hebrew text, is one such forgotten pioneer.

As David Daniell, the author of the latest biography of Tyndale, writes, “William Tyndale gave us our English Bible” and “he made a language for England.”

“Jehovah,” “scapegoat,” “the salt of the earth” and “Ask and it shall be given you. Seek and ye shall find. Knock and it shall be opened unto you” — these familiar words and phrases are just a part of Tyndale’s significant contribution to the development of English.

And as the preface of the Revised Standard Version, completed in 1952 and regarded as one of the best English translations of the Bible available, states, the work of Tyndale became the foundation for subsequent English versions of the Bible.

In fact, large portions of the renowned King James Version of 1611 are actually Tyndale’s own sentences. His contribution, however, goes unrecognized by most readers.

Tyndale’s driving force was the conviction that ordinary people should be able to read the Bible in their own language and that the Bible alone should determine the practices and doctrines of the church.

But he had to pay dearly for his accomplishment: He was executed for making the Bible in English accessible for the first time to the masses, an act that the Roman Catholic Church and officials of a Catholic mentality within the Church of England feared would lead to people using the word of God to evaluate the existing order and to conclude that there was no biblical justification for such an order, thus sparking a religious and social revolution.

“Tyndale is one of the few truly important people in history,” says Kenzo Tagawa, one of Japan’s leading Bible scholars. “The vernacular Bible became a dynamo for social transformation. It showed people that all human beings were created equal before God and that people owed each other nothing but love.”

In 1997, Tagawa published “Shomotsu to shite no Shinyaku Seisho” (The New Testament As a Book), which devoted many pages to Tyndale. The 800-page scholarly book sold more than 10,000 copies within a short period of time, but Tagawa was astounded to find that very few people knew about Tyndale.

He therefore decided to translate Daniell’s book “William Tyndale” (Yale University Press, 1994) to help disseminate information about Tyndale in Japan, a task that took him three years to complete.

The 788-page-long translation, titled “Uiriamu Tindaru” (William Tyndale) and subtitled “Aru Seisho Honyaku-sha no Shogai” (The Life of a Bible Translator), was published earlier this year by Keiso Shobo Publishing Co. in Tokyo.

“From any angle, the King James Version is nothing more than a revision of Tyndale’s translation, especially as far as the New Testament is concerned,” Tagawa says. “The members of King James I’s committee had no intention of producing a new translation of the Bible. Instead, they intended to make a revision of existing translations. This is basic knowledge shared by all biblical scholars.

“My sense of justice told me that it was unforgivable that a version based on literary borrowing had become more famous than the original. That was my motivation for translating Daniell’s book.”

Tagawa, a Protestant, obtained his doctorate at the University of Strasbourg in 1965 for his dissertation “Miracles et evangelie” (“Miracles and Gospel”), which focused on the Gospel of Mark and the evangelist’s own thoughts. For more than 30 years, he has been writing a detailed commentary on Mark’s gospel, the first volume of which appeared in 1972, and has recently embarked on a Japanese translation of the whole New Testament.

Tagawa added to the value of Daniell’s book by appending a chronology, some 140 translator’s notes and a 50-page afterword.

He says that a “decisive” thing happened when Tyndale translated the Bible into English.

“What is important about Tyndale is that through Tyndale’s work, written English became English-like English,” he says, referring to the fact that Tyndale’s writing conformed more closely to the syntax inherent to English than to that of Latin.

“Tyndale’s accomplishment can be clearly seen if you compare his English with English written by Thomas More, a contemporary of Tyndale’s who was on the side of those denouncing and persecuting Tyndale and other Reformers.

“More’s English is Latin written in English. Tyndale’s English is English written in English. You can understand English only when it is written in accordance with English syntax.”

Tyndale, a priest originally from Gloucestershire, at first tried to translate the New Testament in London, but having encountered resistance from Church authorities, found that “there was no place to do it in all England.” So he started living in Europe in self-imposed exile.

In 1526, he printed his English translation of the New Testament in Worms, Germany, and many copies were smuggled into England. The revised edition was published in 1534 with prologues and notes — the same year that King Henry VIII became the head of the Church of England, breaking from the Roman Catholic Church.

Around 1530, Tyndale produced his Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) in Antwerp and by May 1535 finished translating the historical books of the Old Testament.

The preface of the Revised Standard Version describes Tyndale’s suffering as a pioneer: “He met bitter opposition. He was accused of willfully perverting the meaning of Scriptures, and his New Testaments were ordered to be burned as ‘untrue translations.’ ”

Tyndale was finally betrayed by a Henry Phillips, an acquaintance, into the hands of his enemies and imprisoned at Vilvoorde Castle near Brussels. He was interrogated by Catholic heresy-hunters and in October 1536 was strangled with a hempen noose before the public and burned at the stake.

In understanding why Tyndale had to be killed, one has to understand the impact vernacular Bibles had on society in general, Tagawa says.

He explains that by reading the Bible in their own language, people found that it contained no theoretical justification for social and economic rule by the Roman Catholic Church.

“Until the Reformation, the Bible was monopolized by the Roman Catholic Church,” he says. “Only a limited number of intellectuals were able to read Vulgate (a Latin version of the Bible prepared by St. Jerome in the fourth century and the official biblical text of the Roman Catholic Church).”

The impact of the vernacular Bibles was all the greater because at the time Christianity permeated all aspects of society; people thought in Christian language and created and ran social institutions in accordance with Christian doctrines, Tagawa explains.

A look at the Peasants’ War in Germany (1524-25) provides a concrete example of the effect the vernacular Bibles had, Tagawa says.

“By reading the Bible, the people learned, for example, that rivers were created and given to all humanity by God. In letters addressed to territorial princes, German peasants asked them to show exactly what part of the Bible said that rivers should belong to the princes as their private property. This way, ordinary people gained strong confidence in themselves.

“But Tyndale shared the same fear as Martin Luther — that the spread of vernacular Bibles would lead people to revolt, not only against holy authority, but also against secular authority.

“That’s why Tyndale wrote ‘The Obedience of a Christian Man.’ As this shows, his thinking was Lutheran.”

In the book, Tyndale calls on Christians to obey not only God but also their kings and governors.

Despite Tyndale’s conservative approach to the existing social order, Tagawa believes that the principle he established for interpretation of the Bible — that the meaning of its texts must be taken “literally” — is still relevant today.

“Tyndale’s principle put an end to allegorical interpretation of biblical texts, whereby the Roman Catholic Church read its own doctrinal ideas into the texts,” Tagawa says.

“Today, the importance of this principle must be upheld all the more. With the spread of structuralism, many students in various academic domains have started reading their own, often just cheap and banal, ideology into literary and historical texts under the name of ‘interpretation.’ By doing so, they are deviating from or bending the original meaning of the text.

“We must uphold the importance of accurately determining the meaning of each word in the text and discovering the historical background behind it.

“Modern biblical studies started with the Reformation. Biblical scholars have inherited Tyndale’s principle and spirit. Their basic posture is the same as Tyndale’s. The only difference is that a large amount of knowledge has accumulated over several centuries of research.”

Tagawa points out that after the Reformation, Protestants succumbed to an orthodoxy that held that all the books and sentences of the Bible were expressions of a single coherent message.

“But accumulated research by biblical scholars has shown that the New Testament contains a wide range of different thought. Christianity is like a gigantic river into which various types of thought flow,” Tagawa says.

Touching on the treatment of Tyndale by history, Tagawa admits that it is an exaggeration to say that Tyndale has been obliterated from the face of history. But he has not, he believes, been paid due honor and respect. This, he explains, has its roots in the political situation of 16th-century England. “At first, King Henry VIII was not a supporter of the Reformation. But he knew that it was politically wise for England to become independent from Roman authority. Quite a politician, he changed his position in a clever way,” Tagawa says.

“After the Anglican Church was established, the powers that be in England wanted to claim the English Bible as their own. But it was an embarrassing fact that the person who originally produced it was Tyndale, whom the authorities of England had left to his fate when he was imprisoned at Vilvoorde Castle.

“The English Bible ended up being handed down from generation to generation with the tacit understanding that no one would ask who its originator was.”

Academic biographies of Tyndale are surprisingly scant: Previous to Daniell’s, the most recent was J. F. Mozley’s, published in 1937.

Daniell says the Oxford English Dictionary also treats Tyndale unfairly.

For example, the OED fails to record “fellowship” in the sense of exhortation (usually rendered “I pray thee”) as used by Tyndale, and attributes the first use of some words to Miles Coverdale’s Bible of 1535, the Bishops’ Bible of 1568 or the Douay Bible of 1609, a Catholic translation, when they should be attributed to Tyndale, according to Daniell.

“Tyndale was a genius because he understood that good written language must fulfill two goals: First, it must flow smoothly and be easy to understand, and second, it must leave a clear impression on readers,” Tagawa says.

“If you read his translation with modern spelling, it just streams into your head without any hitch.”

The situation in which Tyndale found himself is comparable in one sense to the Meiji Era in Japanese history, when the people were struggling to create a modern written language appropriate for modern society, Tagawa points out.

“In the years when Tyndale was translating the Bible, English had not yet been established as a written language. He had two tasks: to establish the written language and to select English words appropriate for Bible translation. It is a surprising accomplishment that he wrote English that is so clear and so easy to understand.”

In the eyes of experts, the claim by revisionist historians that Tyndale’s Bible translation was simply based on Martin Luther’s German translation is completely wrong, according to Tagawa.

“That Tyndale’s translation is his own original work can be easily seen if you compare parts of Luther’s translation, where Luther supplied words not found in the original Greek or Hebrew text, and the corresponding parts in Tyndale’s translation,” Tagawa says.

“It becomes crystal clear either that such parts of Tyndale’s translation are closer to the original text or that Tyndale used his ingenuity in translating the original text.”

In his book, Daniell contends that 90 percent of the New Testament in the King James Version is attributable to Tyndale. But Tagawa believes this to be an exaggeration.

“Although it is impossible to calculate such a thing statistically, we may safely say that 70 percent of the King James Version’s New Testament came from Tyndale. And a large part of the remainder came from the Geneva Bible,” he says.

The Geneva Bible was produced by Protestants from England who lived in exile in Geneva, the center of Calvinism, during the reign of Queen Mary I, the daughter of King Henry VIII and a Catholic. The Protestants had absorbed the academic achievements of Calvinist Bible scholars.

“About 70 percent of the Geneva Bible’s text depends on Tyndale’s translation. Therefore, in sum, Tyndale’s influence on the King James Version is very strong, and an extremely large portion of the text in the King James Version’s New Testament comes from Tyndale,” Tagawa says.

Tagawa points out that the scholars on the committee approved by King James I were not working directly from Tyndale’s translation, but rather from the Bishops’ Bible, the Geneva Bible and Vulgate.

The Bishops’ Bible, published in 1568, was a revision of the Great Bible, which was completed in 1539 for use on the pulpits of the Anglican Church. This Bible was itself a revision of Thomas Matthew’s Bible of 1537, which included Tyndale’s New Testament and the Pentateuch and the historical books of the Old Testament translated by Tyndale.

“The history of the English Bibles shows how Tyndale’s name became hidden. But it is clear that readers of the King James Version are reading Tyndale’s translation without realizing it,” Tagawa says. “This is the main reason why people cannot properly appreciate his achievements.

“Although the Greek text on which the King James Version is based has defects from the viewpoint of today’s textual criticism, I have to emphasize that it is an excellent translation and that most of its excellence is attributable to Tyndale,” he adds.

Tagawa sums up the characteristics of the King James Version’s New Testament.

“First, overwhelming parts of it are Tyndale’s translation. Second, some parts were revised and improved due to progress in the understanding of the Greek language. Third, it adopted the policy of almost mechanical word-for-word translation,” Tagawa says.

He points out that the biggest defect of the King James Version is the fact that its editors mechanically changed aorist, a sort of past tense in Greek, into the English present perfect.

Aorist in Greek refers to a past action without indicating whether it is completed, continued or repeated.

“The present perfect in the King James Version strikes those who know Greek as very odd. Tyndale knew that there is no one-to-one correspondence between Greek and English tenses. In translating Greek aorist, Tyndale used various tenses, in most cases the past tense, depending on the meaning and context of the text.”

One of the most interesting and informative aspects of Daniell’s book is its discussion of Thomas More as a person who led the English forces against the Reformers, opposing Luther and Tyndale and the latter’s English translation of the Bible.

“Daniell shows the negative side of More, which is meaningful because it is not well known,” Tagawa says.

“More produced an abusive, 1,000 page denunciation of Tyndale. He wrote it in English, though, which indicates that he himself realized the power that writing in English, rather than Latin, had come to have.”

These days, there are signs that Tyndale is finally being rehabilitated and his achievements acknowledged.

Daniell’s Tyndale biography has been released in paperback, and last year the British Library published an original-spelling edition of Tyndale’s New Testament of 1526.

“The Obedience of a Christian Man,” Tyndale’s main work apart from his translations, is now available from Penguin.

The Catholic University of America started publishing Tyndale’s collected works last year.

“These days, many Catholics are trying to reconcile with Protestantism, which was the target of oppression by the Catholic Church. Interestingly, the first book published by the Catholic University of America is Tyndale’s answer to the accusation by More.

“This is an encouraging sign. But I would like to ask: ‘What have Protestant scholars in the English-speaking world been doing to save Tyndale from historical neglect and oblivion?’

“Suddenly many of Tyndale’s works are being published. It may be that it took a very long time for people to correctly appreciate his greatness.”

Rendering unto Tyndale

Gospel of Mark 12, 13-17

Tyndale’s New Testament of 1534 (modern-spelling edition)

And they sent unto him certain of the Pharisees with Herod’s servants, to take him in his words. And as soon as they were come, they said unto him: master we know that thou art true, and carest for no man, for thou considerest not the degree of men, but teachest the way of God truly: Is it lawful to pay tribute to Caesar, or not? Ought we to give, or ought we not to give? He understood their simulation, and said unto them: Why tempt ye me? Bring me a penny, that I may see it. And they brought. And he said unto them: Whose is this image and superscription? And they said unto him, Caesar’s. And Jesus answered and said unto them: Then give to Caesar that which belongeth to Caesar: and to God, that which pertaineth to God. And they marvelled at him.

King James Version (Authorized Version) of 1611

And they send vnto him certaine of the Pharises, and of the herodians, to catch him in his words. And when they were come, they say vnto him, Master, we know that thou art true, and carest for no man: for thou regardest not the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth. Is it lawfull to giue tribute to Cesar, or shall we giue, or shal we not giue? But he knowing their hypocrisie, said vnto them, Why tempt yee mee? Bring me a penny that I may see it. And they brought it: and saith vnto them. Whose is this image and superscription? And they said vnto him. Cesars. And Iesus answering, said vnto them, render to Cesar the things that are Cesars: and to God the things that are Gods. And they maruailed at him.

(Words in bold depend more on the Geneva Bible of 1560 than on Tyndale. Words in bold italic are peculiar to the King James Version. The remainder is from Tyndale.)

(Source: “Shomotsu to shite no Shinyaku Seisho” (The New Testament As a Book), by Kenzo Tagawa, Tokyo, 1997)

Tyndale vs. More

William Tyndale (from “The Obedience of a Christina Man”)

Who slew the prophets? Who slew Christ? Who slew his Apostles? Who the martyrs and all the righteous that ever were slain? The kings and the temporal sword at the request of the false prophets… Wherefore suffered the prophets? Because they rebuked the hypocrites which beguiled the world and namely princes and rulers and taught them to put their trust in things of vanity and not in God’s word… Wherefore slew they Christ? Even for rebuking the hypocrites: because he said, woe be to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven before men (Matthew 23) that is, as it is written (Luke 11), Ye have taken away the key of knowledge… They will suffer no man to know God’s word but burn it and make heresy of it: yea and because the people begin to smell their falsehood they make it treason to the king and breaking of the king’s peace to have so much as their Pater Noster in English.

Thomas More (from Book Three of the “Confutation” as quoted by David Daniell in “William Tyndale”)

And he (God) shall not send such fond fellows as would be so shameless without any miracle showed, to bid all the world believe them upon their bare word, in the understanding of holy scripture, against all holy saints and cunning doctors of fifteen hundred years passed, and bear men in hand that all is open and plain, and prove it by nothing else but by that there is no place of holy scripture so hard, but that them self can expound it in such wise that it shall serve them shameful for jesting and railing against god and all good men… and to set forth vice in boldness of faith, and to praise lechery between friars and nuns, and call it matrimony, and thus make mocks of holy scripture solemnly, with such open shameless abominable blasphemy, that if the zeal of god were among men that should be, such railing ribalds that so mock with holy scripture, should at every such exposition have an hot iron thrust through their blasphemous tongues.

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