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ET Comment – Tyndale’s legacy

January 2011

Tyndale’s legacy

In 1611 the Authorised Version of the Bible was completed. Four hundred years on, we stand back, and in this article by Rt Rev. John B. Taylor, admire a marvellous translation largely achieved through William Tyndale’s sacrificial labours.

‘What finally do we say of Tyndale’s legacy to the English-speaking world? First and foremost there was the unique contribution that he made to the formation of English as a literary language. Before he set to work on his translation few writers in England attempted to express their ideas in anything but Latin.

‘English as a spoken language was just too down-market. Thomas More wrote his Utopia in Latin: it was the language of scholarship and had a dignity to which English was believed unlikely to attain. But Tyndale was striving not so much to impress as to inform.

‘He wanted the teachings of Scripture to be available to the common man in language he could hear and understand, even if he could not yet read. Furthermore he came to the early conclusion that English was a better vehicle for the rugged simplicity and directness of koine [common] Greek and Hebrew than Latin ever was.

 

Better in English

‘He wrote: “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 places thou needest not but to translate it into the English word for word, when thou must seek a compass (a circuitous phrase) in Latin … A thousand parts better may it be translated into the English than into the Latin”.

‘So he did his best to ensure that his language was plain and unpretentious, preferring Anglo-Saxon forms to Latinisms. There was an asceticism, a frugality about his language, but there was also beauty and colour, without literary affectation. And there was rhythm. A sentence or a phrase needed to sound right as well as convey the correct meaning.

‘It was intended to be read out loud (as Hebrew always had been). He doubtless remembered that the Hebrew word for “to read” was the same as “to cry out”, “to call”. So the ear was more important than the eye, and maybe that is why so much of what he wrote has been effortlessly committed to memory by generation after generation of Bible readers.

‘Most would admit that our loss of the Authorised Version being read in schools and churches has resulted in incalculable impoverishment to our nation’s memory. Fortunately much has lived on in the Revised Version, the RSV and the NIV, but they will never be quite the same [Editor’s note: this article was written in 1995].

‘David Daniell sums it up as follows. If Luther gave to Germany its language, so Tyndale’s New Testament: “gave to English its first classic prose. Such flexibility, directness, nobility and rhythmic beauty showed what the language could do. There is a direct line from Tyndale to the lucidity, suppleness and expressive range of the greatest English prose that followed…

Plain sense

‘“The later poets – Shakespeare above all – showed that English was a language which could far outreach Latin in stature: but Tyndale and his successors made an English prose which was a more than worthy vehicle for the most serious matter of all”.

‘And all, I dare to say, because he never forgot the ploughboy for whom he was writing. Secondly, there was his use of Scripture, a concern which dominated the prologues he wrote to each of the books of the Bible he translated.

‘On Genesis for instance he said: “This comfort shalt thou evermore find in the plain text and literal sense. Neither is there any story so homely, so rude, yea or so vile (as it seemeth outward) wherein is not exceeding great comfort…

‘“As thou readest therefore think that every syllable pertaineth to thine own self, and suck out the pith of the scripture, and arm thyself against all assaults”.

‘With words like these he jettisoned the criteria applied to the Bible by the contemporary church. Instead of the allegorical or other tangential approaches to hermeneutics, he plumped firmly for the “plain text and literal sense”.

‘In his prologue to the book of Jonah he elaborated this approach: “But thou reader think of the law of God how that it is altogether spiritual, and so spiritual that it is never fulfilled with deeds or works, until they flow out of thine heart, with as great love toward thy neighbour … as Christ loved thee and died for thee, for no deserving of thine … ”

 

Spirituality

‘“And of the gospel or promises which thou meetest in the scripture, believe fast that God will fulfil them unto thee, and that unto the uttermost jot, at the repentance of thine heart, when thou turnest to him and forsakest evil”.

‘These and other prologues introduce the reader to a style of biblical devotion which was little known in the sixteenth century, though it soon became a tradition which we have been fortunate to inherit.

‘He was not of course the only voice to speak in those terms, for they reflect the biblical spirituality of the Reformers, which inspired his translation of the Scriptures and reinforced his desire to make the text plain to whoever it was who was reading it’.

Taken from ‘William Tyndale: Bible Translator’ by John B. Taylor,

Anvil12.1:35-43