William Tyndale — the man who gave England her Bible (3)
One of the more tantalising enigmas of Tyndale’s earliest months on the Continent concerns whether or not he spent time in Wittenberg and whether he conferred with Martin Luther.
It is an attractive idea and modern Protestants enjoy the thought of their two heroes locked in earnest discussion. Luther was then in his prime, while Tyndale was just out of his 20s.
The case for a spell in Wittenberg depends entirely on a cryptic entry in a university register. There is an entry under Guilelmus Daltici. This may be a reference to Tyndale, if two assumptions are both correct. The first is that he was sufficiently safety conscious to want to register his name as Daltin and the second is that a bored, deaf or incompetent clerk transcribed it as Daltici.
Finding a printer
At any rate, whether he spent time in Wittenberg or not, Tyndale clearly worked at enormous speed. Without the peace, stability or array of linguistic tools that a modern translator expects to enjoy, and being constantly on the move, Tyndale was ready to go into print with a completed New Testament in summer 1525, within a year of leaving England.
He had found a printer in the Rhineland city of Cologne, Peter Quentell. Unfortunately the printer sent a messenger to tell him his work was about to be impounded by the authorities.
A certain John Dobneck, whose surname in Latin was Cochlaeus, also had work pending at the same print shop and overheard something from the tradesmen that excited his curiosity and led him to ply them with drink.
They told him that England was on the point of turning Lutheran, for two Englishmen were on the verge of producing an English version of the New Testament that would soon be on sale in England. And that it was being printed in this very workshop!
The other Englishman, incidentally, was one William Roye, who ultimately proved to be an embarrassment and whose talent for plagiarism would not have survived modern views of intellectual property!
It was now a race for time. All that had been completed so far in what is now known as the Cologne fragment was Matthew’s Gospel up to chapter 22 (in the middle of what later became v.12).1
Tyndale and Roye got to Quentell’s workshop ahead of the authorities and fled the city. In due course, copies of the bulk of Matthew’s Gospel went on sale in England. They were loose bound, in quarto size, with woodcut illustrations similar to those in Luther’s September Bible.
Modern historians sometimes take Tyndale to task for his marginal notes, but most of the marginal notes of the Cologne fragment are explanatory rather than aggressive. Even so, mere elucidation can have all the force of dynamite! For example, Tyndale’s note on Jesus’ response to Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi, in chapter 16 and what later became verse 18, is that ‘every Christian man and woman is Peter’.
Disseminating the Scriptures
We associate the ancient cathedral city of Worms with Luther’s heroic stand before the Imperial diet in 1521, and properly so. It was also the place where Tyndale found another printer, Peter Schoeffer. Early in 1526, not quite two years after Tyndale had left England, he saw a complete New Testament — the first ever translated directly from the common, first century Greek into the common English tongue of the 16th.
This time it was printed in octavo, so that it was portable and easily concealed inside bales of cloth and even the sleeves of a coat. Printed in what was known as bastard type, there was no prologue, notes or illustrations, just the bare text of the Word of God and small illuminations at the start of each book.
Copies were already on sale in London and the south east of England by February 1526. A bound copy cost two shillings and eightpence and an unbound copy one shilling and eightpence. Sums as low as these meant that even relatively poor people could sometimes own a copy between them.
There is evidence that groups of people, only one of whom was literate, would club together to buy a Testament between them, which they would then read together in secret.
Only three copies of the Worms New Testament (1526) have survived, all from the same print run. Of these, only one is complete. There was an epilogue where Tyndale asked the reader to ‘count it as a thing not having his full shape, but as it were born afore his time, even as thing begun rather than finished’,2 followed by a promise, if God permits, to produce a revision and then three pages of errata.
For the ploughboy
Tyndale always seems to have had his ploughboy in mind. Even today, the 500 or so words most commonly in use among native English speakers are apparently those which can be traced back to the Germanic roots of our language prior to the Norman Conquest.
Tyndale often seemed to make a conscious choice of monosyllables. When someone writes of ‘the poor, the maimed, the lame and the blind’ we know who he has in mind. An author who writes of ‘the impecunious, the disfigured, the limping, with the addition of the sightless’ is merely drawing attention to himself.
When a word with several syllables is used, it comes at the end of a phrase, so that the sense of weight is increased: ‘Come for all things are ready’; ‘I pray thee have me excused’; ‘Then was the good man of the house displeased’; ‘Lord it is done as thou commandest’.
Tyndale not only knew Greek, he was able to convey his understanding in rugged and plain English. ‘Let not your heart be troubled’ may not be quite how we say things nowadays, but compare it with the anodyne bathos of the Good News Bible’s ‘Do not be worried or upset’, and it is like heart of oak.
Nearly five centuries later, many of Tyndale’s coinages have proverbial status in English: ‘the signs of the times’; ‘the spirit is willing’; ‘live and move and have our being’; ‘fight the good fight’, and many more besides.
The Worms New Testament is the foundation upon which almost every subsequent English translation of the New Testament scriptures has been built, at least until recent times.
This is particularly evident in the case of the version that has been ‘the Bible’ in most of the English-speaking world, for most of the intervening centuries. The Authorised Version of 1611 was published 80 years closer to our time and the men who sat on King James’ committees had the good sense to leave most of Tyndale’s work unaltered.
According to one estimate, as far as the New Testament is concerned, roughly 80 per cent of the AV is Tyndale. Where the later version did make alterations, it is often Tyndale who appears the more modern.
Tyndale favours plain English phrases like ‘evil doers’ over against Latinisms like ‘malefactors’. Another contrast is that King James committees, for reasons of ecclesiastical politics, were instructed to take a conservative approach to words where Tyndale had been more radical 80 years before.
For example, Tyndale rendered the Greek ecclesia not as ‘church’ but as ‘congregation’, placing the emphasis not on religious premises but the people of God. Presbuteros he rendered not as ‘priest’ but as ‘senior’ (he was later to amend this), which took the emphasis away from connotations of sacrifice.
Agape he translated not as ‘charity’ with its overtones of almsgiving, but simply as ‘love’. The AV backtracked on each of these three and went with Tyndale only on his translation of metanoia, where it is rendered ‘repent’ instead of the traditional ‘do penance’.
In terms of strict accuracy Tyndale was in the right. It is disappointing to observe that when conditions were much safer, the men who came later obscured the meaning of the Greek, while Tyndale’s commitment to accuracy and clarity was to prove literally incendiary.
Within months, copies of the New Testament were finding their way across the North Sea, stowed amid the cargoes of intrepid cloth merchants who took fearful risks in so doing.
It was not long before they were on sale in London, Oxford, Cambridge and much further afield, even in Scotland. Under God, a lonely bachelor living far from home and family, unsure of what a knock on the door might mean, was causing a spiritual earthquake in his native land.
The English had lived in Britain for a thousand years, but it was only now that anyone with a modest income and able to read, or persuade a literate friend to read to him, could hear the tenderness of Jesus’ words in Matthew 11.
‘Come unto me all ye that labour and ar laden, & y will ese you. Take my yoke on you & lerne of me for y am meke and holy in herte: and ye shall find ese unto youre soules. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light’.3
On the other hand, it would not be long before the full weight of official disapproval fell on this new breed of Bible men. Soon both Testaments and those who bought them were being committed to the flames.
To be continued
1. The first edition of the New Testament in English to have numbered verses was the Geneva translation of 1557, following Stephanus’ Greek New Testament of 1551.
2. D. Daniell, William Tyndale, a biography (Yale, 1994), p.146.
3. The New Testament translated by William Tyndale (1526); ed. W. R. Cooper, (2000), p.26.