500 years ago, the only Scripture that was legally available in England was the Latin Vulgate. Genesis chapter 1 opened as follows:
In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram. Terra autem erat inanis et vacua et tenebrae errant super faciem abyssi, et spiritus Dei ferebatur super aquas. Dixitque Deus: Fiat lux. Et facta est lux.
If you moved in certain circles, you may also have had access to John Wycliffe’s outlawed, handwritten Bible of 1382, which translated this Latin:
In the beginning God made of nought heaven and earth. Forsooth the earth was idle and void, and darknesses were on the face of depth: and the Spirit of the Lord was born on the waters. And God said, Light be made and light was made.
In 1500, there was no Hebrew tradition in England. Hebrew texts were simply not available. Yet in 1532, exiled in Antwerp, William Tyndale published his translation of Genesis, from Hebrew, into English like this:
In the beginning God created heaven and earth. The earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the deep, and the spirit of God moved upon the water. Then God said: let there be light and there was light.
The difference of 150 years of change in the way English was spoken does not alone account for the difference between Wycliffe’s and Tyndale’s versions. Nor is it just that Tyndale translated from Hebrew rather than Latin. Tyndale translates with a clarity and simplicity, combined with an engaging sense of rhythm and poetry. Tyndale captured the heart and wealth of the English language and brought it into God’s service. His achievement was stunning.
Although the King James Version of 1611 retained most of Tyndale’s work verbatim in the New Testament, the translators saw fit to ‘improve’ his Old Testament as follows:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. 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. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
This ‘improvement’ is less clear. It re-introduces expressions like ‘face of the deep’, which follow the Hebrew literally, but mean little in English. The KJV litters the text with ‘and’, again following the Hebrew, but in my opinion, making for poor English. Tyndale, though 80 years older than the KJV, reads, even today, more naturally than the KJV.
Clarity and naturalness are indeed the outstanding hallmarks of Tyndale’s work. Yet there is so much more! This is the man who coined expressions that are still in everyday use, such as ‘my brother’s keeper’, ‘go the extra mile’, ‘the apple of his eye’, filthy lucre’ and ‘the still small voice’. He employed contemporary terms like the word for missing an archery target, ‘to sin’. He also invented a range of terms expressly for his purpose, such as ‘atonement’, ‘mercy seat’ and ‘loving kindness’.
Tyndale had at least as much impact on the development of the English language as Shakespeare. Translators are in considerable awe at what he achieved, despite the most appalling circumstances.
Those circumstances included the fact that the English authorities banned all translation of the Bible into English. They had done so in fact since 1408, after the death of Wycliffe. In the late 1520s, English church authorities started burning what they regarded as heretical books, including early versions of Tyndale’s New Testament in English. They then started to burn leaders of the Reform movement such as Thomas Binyan (1531) and John Frith (1533). Tyndale had already fled to the continent in 1524, settling eventually in Antwerp. Even so, Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor at the time, kept up a ferocious attack on him. The blessing of exile for Tyndale was that he had access to Hebrew texts and learning and could translate with some freedom.
So who was this remarkable man? Born around 1494 to a relatively well-to-do family in Gloucestershire, with good connections to the wool trade, William Tyndale clearly benefitted from a good early education. In 1506, he went to Oxford University, where he studied Theology and learnt both Latin and Greek. He eventually became a priest. He was evidently horrified at the lack of knowledge of the Scriptures by his fellow priests. He would have been well aware of Erasmus working in Cambridge at that time, but it is not clear that the two ever met. The publication of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament in 1516 was a highly significant moment in the history of Bible translation. Quite how Tyndale learnt Hebrew and quite how he turned into such an astute master of the English language remains a matter of speculation.
He published a translation of the New Testament in 1526, a revision in 1534, and the Pentateuch in 1530. He clearly translated other Old Testament books, but it is not certain exactly what he translated and what others – such as Miles Coverdale – completed after his death.
Tyndale should have been safe in Antwerp, but he was betrayed to the Imperial authorities in Brussels by an unscrupulous fellow Englishman. After more than 400 days in prison, and despite an attempt by Thomas Cromwell to have him released, he was eventually condemned as a heretic. He was strangled and then his body was burnt. Foxe’s 1563 Book of Martyrs recounts that his final words were, ‘Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.’
In 1539, Henry VIII authorised and funded the ‘Great Bible’ – basically Tyndale’s work completed by Coverdale and others – requiring it to be read and made available to all in every church in the land. Tyndale’s final prayer had been quickly and poignantly answered.