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.

When Martin Luther in 1522 translated the New Testament into German he used both Erasmus’s Greek and his Latin versions, as well as the Vulgate, to guide him: and he introduced German versions of some of those Erasmian words – Gemeinde was his rendering of congregatio, for example. The result was a milestone in the development both of the Reformation and of the German language. The danger he represented to the Church had already been recognised in England. His books had been publicly burned in 1521, and Henry VIII – assisted by Thomas More, who had previously, in a learned Erasmian context, been inclined to pooh-pooh the threat – had defended the doctrine of the Seven Sacraments. The year after Luther’s Testament, More published pseudonymously, on his own account, a Latin refutation of Luther as scurrilously worded as anything that Luther ever wrote (it was the custom of the time). There is no doubt that More could already see that the lines had been drawn, or that his attitude towards disturbers of the ordered peace of the Church as well as of the realm progressively hardened after that time: in the epitaph that he composed for himself in 1532, after his resignation of the Chancellorship, he declared that he had always been ‘grievous’ to thieves, murderers and heretics. In 1526, he descended on the German merchants in London who were importing and distributing heretical literature and in the years that followed he detained and sternly interrogated English booksellers and heretics – though he did not, by his own account, flog heretics in the way that John Foxe the martyrologist claimed. Between March 1528, when his friend and bishop Cuthbert Tunstal requested him to refute heretical works in English, and the end of 1533, when he turned to devotional writing before and during his last imprisonment, he wrote the best part of a million words to disprove the errors of the Reformers and the caesaropapists. He had a hand, too, in the framing of proclamations against heretical books.

Chief among the writers of these and among More’s English antagonists was William Tyndale, Luther’s chief English disciple – if it is fair to call anyone so combative and individual the disciple of anyone. In the preface to his translation of the Pentateuch, made in 1530, Tyndale tells us how he had determined to translate the New Testament because ‘I had perceived ... that it was impossible to establish the lay-people in any truth, except the scripture were plainly laid before their eyes in their mother-tongue, that they might see the process, order, and meaning of the text: for else, whatsoever truth is taught them, these enemies of all truth [i.e. the hierarchy] quench it again, partly with the smoke of their bottomless pit ... and partly in juggling with the text ... ’ He had the Greek to do it, just as, later, he had the Hebrew for the Old Testament. Like many, he believed not only that translation from Erasmus’s Greek text would give the plain gospel truth, but that the close structural relationship that existed between Greek and the vernacular – much closer than with Latin – would be an additional surety. Knowing from Erasmus that Tunstal had a reputation for learning, he came up to London from Gloucestershire, bearing a sample translation from Isocrates, and sought a place in the Bishop’s household in order to render the New Testament. The Bishop’s support was necessary because of those 15th-century prohibitions of unlicensed versions, as well as to keep body and soul together. There was no room in the entourage of that stubborn Nimrod, as Tyndale came to call Tunstal. With the help of a London merchant, he took himself to Germany and the ambience of Luther to produce, often in want and difficulty, a fire-new English version, the first to be made from the original language. It was a remarkable feat. He and his associate began to print it at Cologne in 1525; they were denounced and fled up the Rhine to Worms, where in 1526 production in another format was completed. The book reached England early in 1526, and the authorities at once moved against it. Copies were bought up – thereby providing money to reprint, as Tyndale taunted – or confiscated by Tunstal’s archdeacons. Along with other writings repugnant to sound doctrine, they were ceremonially burned.

To More and the hierarchy, this was right. The translation was so faulty, so heretical, that it ought to be destroyed and a new one prepared: to mend this one would be like sewing up the holes in a net, said More. Tyndale retorted that he had only to forget to dot an i to be accused of heresy. There was clearly no room for compromise: neither this More of the 1520s nor Tyndale was a man for all seasons, let alone our present ecumenical one. Both had been made what they were by Luther. Besides his translation, Tyndale had written other heretical works, all of them, the translation included, much influenced by Luther; More had been brought to see the danger to Christendom represented by the German reformer.

Tyndale valued none of his writings as highly as his New Testament. Later he offered, if only Henry VIII would allow a plain translation to be distributed among his people, to give over all other activity and put himself in the King’s hands. This was rash, to say the least. There is no doubt that he would have burned, unrepentant, along with his book, if hands could have been laid on him. In the event, he did not reach his mid-forties and never returned to England but, betrayed by an English agent, was imprisoned, and in 1536 strangled and burned at the stake near Brussels by the Imperial authorities, in spite of efforts to save him by the English secular arm. He had been able meanwhile to answer More in abusive kind, to revise his New Testament translation twice and to translate substantial portions of the Old Testament and revise that translation as well.

Anyone who called the new New Testament Tyndale’s Testament was, More wrote, perpetrating a misnomer: it should better be known as Luther’s Testament. Doctrinally, this was true enough. Tyndale was hardly influenced, if at all, by the old Lollard, Wicliffite translations. In his treatment of certain words, More objected, he had shown his evil intention to cut away all sacramental observance, as well as the tradition of the Church, setting up his own fallible, individual judgment against an authority that had been for fifteen hundred years under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the true and faithful interpreter of Scripture. More especially objected to Tyndale’s removal of the sacramental dimension by using ‘senior’ for ‘priest’ – a literal translation of the Greek presbyter – additionally offensive because it made God’s representative sound like some Italianate courteous signor; to his rendering of the Greek agape by ‘love’ instead of by ‘charity’ and so to his not distinguishing true, sacred love from the ‘lewd love that is between Fleck and his mate’; and to his ‘congregation’ for ‘church’. Tyndale argued fiercely, too, for ‘acknowledge’ rather than ‘confess’ and ‘repentance’ rather than ‘penance’, citing the example of Erasmus – More’s darling – for the last. To More he retorted that ‘senior’, ‘elder’ and ‘priest’ were all one to him, provided it were agreed that these are the officers and servants of God, to be obeyed as long, and only as long, as they preach and rule truly. For him the important thing was that we should trust God and keep our covenant in faith with him, so that he would keep it in return with us. On love of God and love of neighbour as oneself hung all the law and the prophets.

‘Seek out what law God will have thee do,’ Tyndale wrote à propos of Jonah, ‘interpreting it spiritually without gloss, and feel [it] in thy heart ... ’ More replied that this was to lead souls to eternal punishment, and: ‘I would not only my darling’s books but mine own also, help to burn them with mine own hands, rather than that folk should – though through their own fault – take any harm of them, seeing that I see them likely in these days so to do.’ Tyndale’s riposte was direct, and infinitely less tortuous (this is less than half More’s sentence) in its syntax. The conspiracy to prevent men from reading Scripture was ‘not for the love of your souls, which they care for as the fox doth for the geese ... insomuch as they permit and suffer you to read Robin Hood, and Bevis of Hampton, Hercules, Hector and Troilus ... ribaldry, as filthy as heart can think.’

The positions of Tyndale and More were, it has often been pointed out, both poles apart and remarkably close. On social matters, they were often in complete agreement, such as over the iniquities of enclosures of common land and the use of it to support sheep instead of human beings, which More treats in the first book of Utopia. On theological affairs they were, however, irreconcilably opposed. More protested that he had no objection to a translated New Testament, provided it were authorised and issued at the right time, which he did not define. Tyndale, disbelieving and enraged at the treatment his translation had received, equipped the new edition of 1534 with inflammatory marginal notes; throughout his writings the anti-clerical tone not unnaturally increases in intensity after the burnings of 1526. In 1534, too, he turned on his former associate George Joye who, Greekless, had presumed to revise his translation on the basis of Latin and issue it, playing boo peep, or pissing like a fox in a badger’s sett, as Tyndale put it, to assert territorial rights.

He was right to feel indignant. What he had achieved, single-handed, persecuted, living hand-to-mouth, was quite simply superb, a new, direct, deeply moving, simply expressed English rendering, from scratch, of the base text of Christianity, together with a large portion – all but the prophetic and poetical books, if David Daniell is correct, as he almost certainly is, in attributing to Tyndale the translation he prints of Joshua to II Chronicles – of the Old Testament. Tyndale’s translation lies at the base of almost all subsequent English renderings, the Authorised Version of 1611 included, until the 19th and 20th centuries, until the New English Bible and the Revised English Bible of the 1960s and 1989 respectively. Every age, it may be supposed, gets the translation it deserves: the blandness of these last two attempts seems to bear out the old clerical-donnish joke that only bishops are improved by translation, where Tyndale’s one-man, plain sinewy, supple, lively version belies it.

In the introduction to his modernised versions of Tyndale, Dr Daniell charges headlong against all those who have hindered us from reading Tyndale plain, including the modern translators who provide such poor substitutes. No one, he points out, not even Shakespeare, has reached as many readers as Tyndale, direct or mediated. Tyndale’s English has never been surpassed for simplicity, directness, vigour, vividness, denunciation and – paradoxically – tenderness. In controversy he is never as scurrilous or as wearisome as More can be, nor – to be fair – has he the humour and talent for banter of More at his best. He is too intense for that; he writes from the heart. His language is as full as Hamlet of the quotations which became the clichés of generations: ‘die the death’, ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’, ‘the Lord’s anointed’ and many more, are all his. Sometimes Luther helped him to it: ‘mercy-seat’, for example; or hindered him: ‘sweet bread’, for another. One cannot read him for a paragraph together without being amazed at his power and effectiveness.

What happened to his translations is instructive. His New Testament was not printed in England in his lifetime: his name first appears on the revised version of 1534, printed in Antwerp, re-revised a little before his murder. In July 1535, a few months after this edition had been published, Tyndale’s old antagonist More was murdered. Erasmus died in his bed, pacific to the last, almost exactly a year later, and three months later still Tyndale was executed. Luther survived until 1546, Henry VIII died in 1547. Tyndale’s translation continued its life, however. Before he died he was – unawares, it seems – one of the ‘five sundry interpreters’ used by Miles Coverdale, still out of England, at Cologne, to produce the first complete English Bible to be printed, in 1535. Two years later, probably at Antwerp, his revised New Testament, his Pentateuch and Jonah – and, as is generally accepted, Joshua to II Chronicles – were reprinted by his former associate John Rogers, in the version known as ‘Matthew’s Bible’. Its title-page proclaims it printed ‘With the King’s gracious licence’, as do editions, the first to be printed in England, of Coverdale in the same year. A revision by John Taverner was published in this country in 1539. It was rapidly superseded by the Great Bible of the same year, printed – but for technical rather than ecclesiastical reasons – at Paris, with its splendid woodcut title-page, the Bible ‘of the largest volume’, to be set up in churches so that ‘parishioners may most commodiously resort to the same and read it’, according to Thomas Cromwell’s injunction of 1538. Tyndale’s point had finally been carried in this revision of Coverdale, on the title-page of which an enthroned Henry VIII hands down the word of God to Thomas Cranmer, who delivers it to the clergy and to Cromwell, who delivers it to the laity. Tyndale’s ‘scribes and Pharisees, wicked and spiteful Philistines’, the bishops, had at last got their come-uppance.

If Tyndale’s renderings lie behind all those subsequent versions, it has not been so easy to come by them in their pure and original form: they were not reprinted as such between the mid-16th century and the Victorian era. Bagster’s English Hexapla of 1841 printed the revised New Testament of 1534, as did Weigle’s Octapla more than a century later, in 1962. There were facsimiles, and an old-spelling edition of the Pentateuch in 1884 (reprinted 1967). The Rev. Henry Walter published modern-spelling editions of the other works, and the Bible prefaces, in 1848-50, under the auspices of the Parker Society for the Publication of the Works of the Fathers and early Writers of the Reformed English Church – part of the movement that produced the first modern editions of John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments of the English Church. In 1938, a slightly belated commemoration of Tyndale’s death was issued under the auspices of the Royal Society of Literature, in the form of an old-spelling edition by N. Hardy Wallis of the 1534 text, with variant readings from 1526. That this was still in print thirty years later seems to bear out Dr Daniell’s contention that Tyndale’s own voice has not had the hearing or his book the circulation that either deserves. He and Yale University Press have given Tyndale’s masterpiece a handsome and welcome new chance, in modernised spelling, with a glossary, and succinct and generous introductions. It is a plain text such as would have delighted Tyndale, well-designed, well-printed, well-bound and modestly priced. The modernising has been done with tact and skill enough to muffle residual hankerings for Tyndale’s own spelling. These volumes certainly make him more accessible. It may even be hoped that the old-spelling edition so long discussed as a counterpart to the Yale Edition of Thomas More may one day eventuate. Since we have Wallis, we can afford to wait for that – and the Bible translations are incomparably more desirable to have, especially in such an agreeable form, than the works of religious controversy.

Dr Daniell has paced his labour so that his new biography of Tyndale, the first since the good one of J.F. Mozley in 1937, which is now in need of revision, shall appear in 1994, the quincentenary of the presumed date of his hero’s birth. If in specialised matters, such as the amount of Greek commanded by John Colet, Dean of St Paul’s and friend to Erasmus and More, and on competence in Hebrew in the England of the 1520s, his views may be in need of some reconstruction, his biography is one to look forward to.