Homage to Tyndale

J.B. Trapp

  • Tyndale’s New Testament edited by David Daniell
    Yale, 429 pp, £18.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 300 04419 4
  • Tyndale’s Old Testament, being the Pentateuch of 1530, Joshua to II Chronicles of 1537 and Jonah edited by David Daniell
    Yale, 643 pp, £25.00, October 1992, ISBN 0 300 05211 1

The woodcut below by Hans Holbein the Younger, made some time before 1526, shows clearly and succinctly what the Reformation – as far as its religious aspects can be disentangled from its political – was all about. Christ is offering to an eagerly approaching group of wide-eyed laymen of all degrees, particularly lowly degrees, the pure, clear light of the New Testament, beaming from a candle on a candle-stick round whose column cluster St Paul and St Peter, and whose base is supported by the symbols of the Evangelists. Groping their purblind way from the light, their backs turned to it, towards a pit, is a group of scholars and dignitaries, chiefly churchmen, headed by the Pope. Aristotle, the scholastics’ darling, is tumbling into the pit to join Plato, his pagan philosophical predecessor. The lesson is clear: Scripture and Scripture only is what counts. All things necessary for salvation are contained in it, accessible to all who approach it, through Christ, with humility, faith and love. No need for the interpretations of the ages, the tradition of the Church and its doctors, who are all part of a great conspiracy to keep the word of God from the laity and to exalt their own honour.

All very well, but how were the laity to come by the true word, delivered long ago in good, grave signification by the Holy Ghost? What language did the Holy Ghost write? The Vulgate of St Jerome, made largely from the Greek Septuagint, translated from the Hebrew for the Old Testament and from the original Greek of the New, was sanctified by use in the Western Church for more than a thousand years. It was a translation into Latin, which required learning and the help of interpreters to construe. Vernacular versions existed, in various European languages, but most were partial and had been made from the Latin. The English Wicliffite translations of the end of the 14th century had been prohibited from circulation since the beginning of the 15th. Moreover, they were in manuscript and so relatively few.

Two things in particular changed the situation: the revival of Greek and, for the Old Testament, of Hebrew as well, and the advent of printing. It became possible to discover what those who had written the Testaments had actually written as distinct from what St Jerome had made them say and what the Church had said St Jerome had made them say, to translate it and to make it available in large, printed numbers. If, in the process, it was discovered that the famous proof-text for the Trinity in I John was attested by almost no Greek manuscripts, though it existed in all Latin texts, manuscript and printed, what was to be done? It is, says modern scholarship, probably a late interpolation, designed to combat heretical denial of the doctrine. Leave it out? In 1516, Erasmus, in the first Greek New Testament to be published, provoked scandal by doing just that, and had to put it back in. Greek, however, was even less accessible than Latin in an England where, as Thomas More calculated in 1533, only about half the population could read even their own language. Erasmus, like the founder of sacred comparative philology, Lorenzo Valla in Italy in the 1440s, annotated his text in Latin; he also supplied a Latin translation.

Discretion was thus preserved. Valla’s purpose was professional, humanist, philological. Erasmus, discovering Valla’s treatise in the monastery library at Parc, near Louvain and publishing it in 1505 (the year after he had published the base text for his notion of a philosophy of Christ, the Manual of a Christian Soldier), gave it a new dimension along with increased circulation. The way to a reform of religion and morals, he was clear, was imitation of the manners and customs of the primitive church, where all was simplicity and sincerity, not pomposity and outward show, mere observance. By this time and to this end Erasmus had determined to be a sacred philologist, to occupy himself chiefly with Greek, to get at the true meaning of the New Testament (he always rather mistrusted the Old, and Hebrew). So he edited the Greek and translated it into Latin, so that the learned could judge, and his parallel New Testament ran into many editions. It also ran into trouble. He sometimes translated the Greek ekklesia, for example, not as ecclesia, ‘church’, but as congregatio, in the interest of expressing a sense of Christian community; he sometimes used the Latin word resipiscire, ‘repent’, to emphasise the need for candour, true contrition, rather than poenitentiam agere, ‘do penance’, with its connotation of a sacrament. Most famously, he used the word sermo, ‘discourse’, to translate the Greek logos, ‘word’ or ‘speech’, in the first clause of St John’s Gospel, a particularly holy text, instead of the Vulgate’s hallowed verbum. Mountains of defence were raised, some of them by Thomas More, to justify all this – and all in Latin.

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