October 10th, 2009

Tuesday 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. Why remember this one victim in particular? For my money Tyndale is the most important single writer in the English language, and I include Shakespeare. The King James Version of the Bible many of us were brought up on is very largely a minor rewrite of Tyndale’s translation. 83% of the King James New Testament is Tyndale’s; for the relevant parts of the Old Testament, it’s 75%. No other book has had anything like the KJV’s exposure to English speakers over the centuries, and it’s mainly been through Tyndale’s mind that they have approached the generally inaccessible Greek and Hebrew originals.

tyndale bible-lg

Tyndale’s wasn’t the first modern English Bible translation. That honour goes to a group of lefty Oxford dons round Wycliffe, who circulated a manuscript translation of the Vulgate around 1400. The non-existence of printing doomed their project. They also had tin ears. Listen:

Genesis 1:3 And God seide, Liyt be maad, and liyt was maad.

In Tyndale, this becomes again the great poetry I assume the Hebrew original must be:

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

It would be unfair to the KJV revisers to claim they just relabelled Tyndale’s work. Take verse 2:

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

KJV: 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 change from “empty” to “without form” is one that modern translations split on, so both are reasonable. The KJV also puts back “the face” of the water. It’s in the Hebrew and in Wyclif, it makes perfect sense as a straightforward metaphor for “surface”, and is not incidentally very beautiful. Tyndale’s omission looks like a mistake.

But why, if the KJV is a rewrite of Tyndale, was he given so little credit? The good reason 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 of these in 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 proto-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. Yes, against it. You really have to hand it to the guy. On the lethally dangerous issue of English politics of the day, and for no reason greater than his conscience, he backed 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 Tyndale made it impossible for the Protestant party to protect him from an enraged Henry, who asked the Emperor Charles V to silence this gadfly. 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.

The KJV reused even more of Tyndale’s New Testament than his Old. The Beatitudes for instance are identical. Since I’ve already mentioned one of Tyndale’s minor mistakes, let’s note one very important passage from the New Testament where he got it right and the KJV revisers wrong.

1 Corinthians 13, v. 13:

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

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

Granted that the KJV improves the poetry, dropping “even” and replacing “chief” with “greatest”. The KJV’s charity follows the Vulgate’s caritas, which on the face of it is fair enough for Paul’s agape: he obviously couldn’t use the alternative eros. But this Greek dichotomy is alien to Judaism. 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 [kind commenters tell me 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.

All users of the English language should remember our colossal debt to a man who got the biggest things right.


A longer version of this post was delivered on a local Spanish radio show. Text here.

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8 Responses to “Bill Tyndale’s Bible”

  1. dcuser says:

    “Now Hebrew, like English, has one word for love: resh.”


  2. Warren Terra says:

    dcuser has a definite point: I’ve forgotten most Hebrew, but Ahavah is a word most people with even a small vocabulary know.

    There’s also more words in English: devotion, amorousness, passion, etc.

  3. “one of the very first English Protestant reformers”
    Oh, I do like the use of the term reformer here, a nice anachronism. The church, of course, called him a heretic. But heretic is a problematic word these days, suggesting (accurately) insularity, closed-mindedness, and more than a little insanity. So we use the more anodyne “reformer” and thereby wipe out the animation behind most of Europe for over a thousand years.
    It’s an interesting issue, this whitewashing. Does even the church use the word heretic these days? Do they call the orthodox heretics or simply confused?

  4. James Wimberley says:

    Thanks for the correction, dcuser. Aberration on my part. Warren Terra: true, you can make the Greek distinction in English if you want to. But SFIK only Greek forces you to choose.

  5. James Wimberley says:

    Maynard: perhaps heretics are reformers who lose. Seriously, for my money, the latter term is more or less judgementally neutral, like revolutionary. I can call Volstead a reformer without agreeing with Prohibition, and Lenin a revolutionary without welcoming the Cheka. It you call someone a heretic, you are plainly condemning her. BTW, by saying “the church” you are accepting the Catholic position on ecclesiology. For Tyndale and Luther, the true church was what they stood for.

  6. My point, James, is that “reformer” suggests political/economic motivations — efficiency, better use of funds, better “communication” with the laity, and so on. It treats these struggles as the 15th century version of what we see around us today. Heretic suggests what strikes me as more accurate, that this was not, or at least not solely, marxist, not solely about power and wealth. Some of it, often most or all of it, was about beliefs, (very strange and ridiculous, IMHO) beliefs, but nonetheless, beliefs that were genuinely held, and that people were willing to kill and die for.
    Tyndall is not the greatest example of this, although his views on transubstantiation definitely illustrate the point, but the filioque clause, the iota nonsense, the aryans and monophysites…

    Henry “Paris is worth a mass” IV definitely shows the perpetual presence of the marxist/modern view; but it is one of my pet peeves (and a main reason I no longer watch historical movies) is the tendency to project our current ideology and worldview on the past. It is precisely for this reason that I want the use of words that, IMHO, better express what was happening. (And I would not consider heretic as a judgmental term. If you were told someone from the 17th century were an Islamic heretic who had been condemned by the grand mufti of Baghdad, would that negatively color your view of that person in any way beyond the obvious points that he and the grand mufti had disagreed?)

  7. Mark Kleiman says:

    In the sixteenth century “reform” retained its older meaning of “return to its original form” and had not yet acquired the contemporary meaning of “improve.” (As late as the late eighteenth century, Burke was able to write, “To innovate is not to reform.”) The Reformers claimed that they were returning to the practices of the “primitive church” and stripping away what they regarded as unBiblical accretions.

  8. James Wimberley says:

    Maynard: “If you were told someone from the 17th century were an Islamic heretic who had been condemned by the grand mufti of Baghdad…”
    The term presupposes that the grand mufti of Baghdad (no such person, surely) represented Islamic orthodoxy. But as you know, Islam lacks the uniquely Christian dcctrinal centralisation that makes the term of heresy at all useful. Osama Bin Ladem may consider himself the successor of the caliphs – whose doctrinal authority was always very limited – but that just proves he’s nuts. Would you call Ayatollah Khomeini a heretic because the Sunni authorities in Mecca considered him, as a leading Shia, wrong on key points of Islam? We’d both I think call the Assassins an extremist sect because of their methods and presumed beliefs. What’s the need for “heretic”?

    “Reformer” was what the early Protestants called themselves, and the usage survives in the titles of many Protestant churches (eg the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, Eglise Réformée de France). Your prescriptive interpretation of the usage is I suggest simply wrong in fact.