Christian Living

Spiritual Life

Underprized: William Tyndale and the English Bible

From the very first words of Scripture we learn that God has a voice. Creation and redemption live agreeably and prosper together in that voice. It is, therefore, no real surprise that it should come to us in splendor, and at a height that often makes us reach. We have all memorized parts of the Bible at some time or other—a verse here, a passage there—directly or indirectly. Consider the following phrases from the King James Bible [KJB]:

Behold the Lamb of God

I am the way, the truth, and the life

Take, eat, this is my body

Give us this day our daily bread

For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory

Blessed are the poor in spirit

Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling

I am not ashamed of the Gospel

A man after God’s own heart

Death, where is thy sting?

The glory of the Lord

I am the vine, and ye are the branches

Be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might

In my father’s house are many mansions

Seek, and ye shall find

With God all things are possible

In him we live, move, and have our being

Be not weary in well doing

Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith

Behold, I stand at the door and knock

Let not your hearts be troubled

The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak

For my yoke is easy and my burden is light

Fight the good fight

2011 was the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible (1611). And it is only right that we celebrate. According to scholars, the King James Bible continues to hold its place with the works of William Shakespeare as the greatest work of prose in the English language.

The offspring of a poetic age, the KJB is part of our deepest cultural memory, and after 400 years, this great Bible not only remains a testament to what has proven excellent in our linguistic past, it has allowed God to speak to us in his accustomed beauty and highness, and with an English voice.

But that is not the whole story.

Truth is, each of the passages above had their beginning not with the King James translators, but in the translation of William Tyndale some eighty-five years earlier, at a time when an English translation of the Bible was not only against the law in England, it was punishable by death.

While it certainly deserves the honors it has received, the King James Bible gets the applause that rightfully belongs to William Tyndale (1494-1536). 90% or more of the King James New Testament is Tyndale’s translation, and most often word for word.

Tyndale also translated roughly a third of the Old Testament (Genesis – II Chronicles, and Jonah). The following are Tyndale translations: Let there be light, Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh, In the cool of the day, Am I my brother’s keeper, Let my people go, Entreat me not to leave thee, The Lord bless thee and keep thee, A small still voice.

Any study of Tyndale’s wordcraft must also include his single word innovations such as: Jehovah, thanksgiving, passover, intercession, holy place, atonement, Mercy seat, judgement seat, chasten, impure, longed, apostleship, brotherly, sorcerer, whoremonger, viper, and godless.

What is dumbfounding to me, and which is the point of this article, is how hidden Tyndale remains, how misprized, and how thoroughly uncelebrated.

In his 2011 book, The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible, renowned literary critic and Yale professor, Harold Bloom, said that “Nearly everything memorable in the English New Testament is the achievement of the matchless William Tyndale and not of the early Christian authors. ... No honest critic able to read the koine original could resist the conclusion that Tyndale throughout transcends his proof-text [original ms] to a sublime degree.” In his book, Jesus and Yahweh, Bloom, vociferously non-Christian, says also that William Tyndale is the “only true rival of Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Walt Whitman as the richest author in the English language,” that only Shakespeare’s prose “is capable of surviving comparison with Tyndale’s.”

This is an endorsement of the first order.  

A memorial was placed in Vilvorde (Belgium) near the spot where Tyndale was martyred (there is a William Tyndale Museum in Vilvorde as well). In London, a statue of Tyndale was erected in 1884, and a stone monument overlooks the town of North Nibley, Gloucestershire, England, where he is thought to have lived as a child. He has been given a day of recognition by the Anglican Church (October 6), and a brief prayer (collect proper). These honors are well deserved, doubtless, but for his contribution to the English language, to English thought and piety, for all he has done to effect growth, aesthetics, motion, architecture and sound of the English language, Tyndale has been given what amounts to a formal nod, a gold watch, and a citation for his service.

What fascinates me perhaps even more about William Tyndale are the conditions by which he translated the Bible. He was outlaw. His translation was outlaw. His very thoughts were outlaw. He was exile. He lived in poverty. He was continually hunted, and therefore he was forced to be on the move continually. And yet these elements, far from crippling the text, only empowered it. There is something magnificently alive in Tyndale’s translation of Romans 8:35.

Who shall separate us from the love of God? shall tribulation? or anguish? or persecution? or hunger? or nakedness? or peril? or sword? As it is written: For thy sake are we killed all day long and are counted as sheep appointed to be slain. Nevertheless in all these things we overcome strongly through his help that loved us.  

The life Tyndale was forced to live was not unlike the Paul he translated. Much more than an exercise of the mind, his translation represents a kind of linguistic empathy. There is a certain cooperation between Tyndale and Paul in all that Greek. Indeed, something lives in Tyndale’s Paul beyond mere equivalents of language.

William Tyndale’s story is one of true greatness, and yet he continues to suffer a curious injustice. Compared to English writers of greater name, but much less weight per pound, he is magnificently underprized, and thus remains in a kind of exile.

Eventually his life was demanded of him. He was held in the dungeon of a castle in Vilvorde, Belgium for 500 days. He was denied both light and visitors. He suffered a mock trial, was led to a scaffold, strangled, and then burned at the stake. No symbol went unused. By strangling Tyndale, the Church thought to silence him forever.

They were wrong.

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