- The Five Books of Moses translated by Everett Fox
Harvill, 1024 pp, £25.00, March 1996, ISBN 1 86046 142 5
When William Tyndale had completed his 1526 New Testament he set about learning Hebrew and translated from the original, with the aid of Luther’s version, the five books of Moses, the Pentateuch, which he issued in 1530. The signs are that Tyndale’s immersion in its patriarchal narratives and legal codes transformed his doctrinal views – in contrast to Luther, who tended always to regard the Old Testament as an embarrassment at best and a Jewish conspiracy at worst – and inaugurated that strange elevation of the Old Testament which still marks English and American culture. One element of this is easy to understand: the best stories in the Bible are in the Old Testament. Their influence has been immense, ranging from the Old and New World puritans who saw their travails clearly reflected in the Israelites’ journey out of Egypt into the Promised Land, to the First World War soldiers who read into Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son their elders’ easy tolerance of the huge casualty figures.
More difficult to explain is the attraction of Old Testament law. After all, as the New Testament repeatedly makes clear, Christ came to sweep all the legalism and ritual away. And yet, when the Old Testament was given to the people in their vernacular it was found strangely attractive, not only in England but across Europe. Indeed, one of Luther’s motives for scorning the Old Testament was his apprehension at its use by peasant rebels who were calling for a reversion to total observance of Mosaic law, in a new fundamentalism. Some were even having themselves circumcised, he reported.
In England the response was less extreme but much deeper. By the time he had finished his Pentateuch Tyndale had no doubt that he was translating something equal in value to Christ’s teaching. Bizarre as it seems, he even describes Deuteronomy as a gospel in his preface to that book of laws, blessings and curses. During the 17th century, as Christopher Hill has amply demonstrated, it was the Old Testament, in law almost as much as in narrative and prophecy, which acted as a major determinant in political debate. For the imitation of Christ read, in England and America, the imitation of Moses.
Tyndale translated at a phenomenal rate. Although he had to keep on the move to forestall arrest, he probably took little more than a couple of years to translate the Pentateuch. Everett Fox, at the entrance to his Pentateuch, proudly announces that his has been a labour of 25 years. Fox does supply a full and thoughtful commentary and notes – Tyndale’s few notes tended to be of the Sod the Pope variety – but he had something which Tyndale did not: the bedrock of translation which, originating with Tyndale, makes up the Renaissance English Bible. For all of its six committees of translators and its several years in the making, it is a fair estimate that for some two-thirds of the Bible Tyndale’s translation forms at least 75 per cent of the text of the 1611 Authorised Version.
Tyndale’s Pentateuch opens with a bang: ‘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 on the water.’ By 1611 this had been tweaked a bit, but not radically transformed: the heaven and the earth in verse one, without form and void for void and empty in verse two and the addition of in the face of before the deep and the waters (now in the plural). The majority of these changes represent a literalising process. Tyndale himself was a fairly conservative translator, but the process of revision in the 16th century, running through the 1560 Geneva Bible to the Authorised Version, had as much to do with trying to get closer to the grammar and syntax of the original as with semantic accuracy: hence the addition here of definite articles, the turning of singular into plural and the addition of in the face of to render the Hebrew alp’nei, a formula derived from the word poneh, meaning ‘face’ but often used, as Tyndale’s translation conveys, with little more strength than the prepositional upon.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.