William Tyndale — the man who gave England her Bible (5)
In the period between the completion of the Worms New Testament and the opening round of his duel with Sir Thomas More, Tyndale acquired the mastery of Hebrew.
In view of everything else taking place in his life, the speed with which he learned his eighth language was little short of astonishing.
It is highly unlikely that he did so before he left England. The number of Hebraists there was tiny. In the 1520s it is probably true to say that the majority of Englishmen did not know that there was a language called Hebrew, far less that it had anything to do with the Bible.
It is probable that Tyndale had access to Johannes Reuchlin’s pioneering Rudiments of Hebrew and possibly a copy of the Complutensian Polyglot.1 It also seems that he had access to the work of an Italian scholar named Pagninus, who in turn had consulted medieval Jewish scholars such as Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac (or Rashi).
By January 1530, Tyndale had put his new skill to good use and produced a slim volume, again published by Hoochstraten of Antwerp. This was the book of Genesis.
For the very first time a literate English person could read: ‘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’.2
There is a striking freshness when compared with the Wycliffite later version: ‘In the beginning God made of nought heaven and earth. And forsooth the earth was idle and void, and darkness 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’.3
The whole Pentateuch appeared later in 1530. Seven years later, in 1537, a year after Tyndale’s death, a thick folio Bible appeared which claimed to be ‘set forth with the King’s most gracious licence’ — the first English Bible to be published with royal permission.
It also claimed to be the work of one Thomas Matthew. This was a false name. ‘Matthew’s Bible’ was in fact the product of John Rogers, who was to become the first Protestant martyred during the reign of Mary Tudor.
Rogers made use of Tyndale’s material virtually unaltered. There is compelling internal evidence for concluding that the historical books of the Old Testament, from Joshua to 2 Chronicles, were also the work of William Tyndale and that they had survived when the translator himself was seized and transported from Antwerp to Brussels, in 1535.
Hebrew to English
It follows that Tyndale managed to translate almost half the Old Testament Scriptures from Hebrew into English. In doing so, he reached the conclusion that Hebrew went into English much more happily than it did into Latin.
‘The properties of the Hebrew tongue agreeth a thousand times more with the English than with the Latin. The manner of speaking is both one, so that in a thousand place thou needest not but to translate it into the English word for word, when thou must seek a compass in the Latin…’4
We see this in his use of constructions that employ ‘the noun of the noun’, such as ‘the fat of the land’ and ‘the beasts of the field’.
Though a considerable scholar, he would not call a ploughboy an agricultural labourer. English is a language unusually rich in synonyms; the translator or the author can often choose from a selection of words derived from a variety of sources — the original Anglo Saxon root stock, which often tend to be words of one syllable; the later Norman French; and also words derived from ecclesiastical Latin.
Whenever he could, Tyndale opted for shorter, older words of Anglo Saxon derivation. Thus, when translating Exodus 15, he could have borrowed from Norman French and said that the Lord is a ‘martial man’, or from Latin and said that he is a ‘military man’, or a even a ‘legionary’. Instead, he chose to say, ‘the Lord is a man of war’.
In the same way, the fact that Tyndale was not working through the prism of the Vulgate meant that he could avoid what were often known then as ‘inkhorn words’. The Latin scrutamini scripturas almost demands to be rendered ‘scrutinise the Scriptures’, but Tyndale, working straight from the original, rendered it as ‘search the Scriptures’.
His concern to produce a translation of the Bible that would make sense to the ordinary English reader prompted him to make coinages that are still with us — English versions of Hebrew terms such as ‘mercy seat’, ‘Passover’ and ‘scapegoat’.5
It was he who introduced ‘Jehovah’ as a transliteration of the Hebrew Tetragrammaton (YHWH) to English readers (it had been introduced in Latin in 1516). He even tried sometimes to find English equivalents for Hebrew place names. There is a ‘Moregrove’ in Deuteronomy 11 and a ‘Saltdale’ in 2 Chronicles 25, though the names of Hebrew animals and birds sometimes defeated him.
‘Urim and Thummim’ he translated as ‘light and perfectness’. His verbs of action sometimes have a remarkable vigour about them. The Lord ‘trounced’ Sisera. David’s grateful song of triumph in 1 Samuel 22 records of his enemies, ‘I wasted them and so clouted them, that they could not arise but fell under my feet’ (1 Samuel 22:39).6
As with his New Testament, the men who served on King James’ committees were largely content to lift Tyndale’s material wholesale into the Authorised Version (AV), but where contrasts do occur it is usually the AV which looks the more sedate.
In the account of the temptation, the AV tells us that the serpent told the woman, ‘Ye shall not surely die’, which is ponderous compared with the dismissive contempt that Tyndale puts into the serpent’s voice, ‘Tush, ye shall not die’.
The AV has Joab’s fictitious wise woman of Tekoa fearful that the death of her son might ‘quench my coal’ (2 Samuel 14:7), whereas Tyndale renders it ‘quench my sparkle’. The description of the young David in 1 Samuel 16 is that he was ‘brown with goodly eyes’, rather than the AV’s ‘ruddy and withal of a beautiful countenance’.
In Genesis 31, Tyndale has Laban say, ‘Thou wast a fool to do it’, whereas King James’ committees opted for, ‘Thou hast now done foolishly in so doing’.
In Leviticus, the frequent and formulaic ‘and the Lord spake unto Moses’ of the AV is often ‘and the Lord talked with Moses’ in Tyndale’s version. ‘Trumpet year’ may sound a prosaic name for a septennial Jewish festival, but it does translate a Hebrew word, whereas ‘Jubilee’ merely anglicises it.
One issue that often exercises Bible translators is how far a particular word in the source language should be uniformly translated by the same word in the receptor language.
It is worth noting in this connection that Tyndale was sometimes willing to opt for variety, translating the Hebrew word ‘b’rith’ as ‘testament’, ‘bond’ and ‘appointment’, as well as ‘covenant’.
One other important consequence of Tyndale’s acquisition of Hebrew deserves to be noted. This was his revision of the New Testament, which came out in 1534. It was printed in octavo by Martin de Keyser in Antwerp and was the first of his Bible translations to bear his name on the title page.
He concluded that there was scope for such a revision because his Hebrew studies had helped his understanding of the many quotations from and allusions to the Old Testament that there are in the New.
There was also something that is perhaps more subtle, his enhanced appreciation of the way that an educated Hebrew mind like that of Paul functioned when writing in Greek.
One evident change from the earlier Worms New Testament was that he had settled on ‘elder’ instead of ‘senior’ as his preferred translation of presbuteros, though his prologue contained an irenic note to this effect: ‘whether ye call them elders or priests, it is to me all one: so that ye understand that they be officers and servants of the word of God’.7
To be continued
1. This was a splendid resource produced at the university of Alcala in Spain on the orders of Cardinal Ximenez. It had the Vulgate, Septuagint and Hebrew Scriptures in parallel columns, and so helped scholars with the comparative study of different texts.
2. D. Daniell, William Tyndale, a biography (Yale, 1994), p.283.
3. Cited in Ibid, p.284.
4. William Tyndale’s doctrinal treatises (1850), edited for the Parker Society by Henry Walter, pp.148-9.
5. It would intrigue Tyndale to discover that this noun is now used as a verb.
6. Cited in Daniell, Op Cit, p.342.
7. Cited in Ibid, p.321.