February 27, 2012 3:13:00 PM
The words and phrases are familiar to everyone, even an old infidel such as myself: "Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil;" "Seek and you shall find;" "Judge not that you not be judged;" "My brother's keeper." If you think these are from the venerable King James Version of the Bible, you are half right. The words are there, but as in so many cases, the KJV translators kept the words of translation previously written by William Tyndale. Tyndale also created the neologisms (well, they were "neo" back then) "Passover," "beautiful," and "Jehovah." He invented "network," too. In fact, most of the KJV's words can be traced to Tyndale, and the tone, cadence, and idiom of the book are his, too. In fact, a case could be made that Tyndale was forging English into a language for written literature. He was almost forgotten in last year's celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the KJV, so it is good to be reminded of just what he accomplished in his translations and in his scholarly, quietly heroic life. Tyndale: The Man Who Gave God an English Voice (Thomas Nelson, Inc.) is by David Teems, who has written books of devotions and a biography of King James himself. It may well be that the devout get more out of this biography than I did, but it is a welcome tribute showing just how much any of us, religious or not, who use English are in Tyndale's debt.
There is not a lot of documentation for Tyndale's life; although his biographers are sure he went to Oxford, for instance, they are not all sure he went to Cambridge afterwards. He was born in (or about!) 1494 in Gloucester, and perhaps his family were successful landowners, which would explain his entrance into Oxford. Gloucester was the site of an abbey that contained a vial of Jesus's blood, a spur for pilgrimage, although it was later exposed as a fraud. Still, "As sure as God's in Gloucester" was proverbial, even though the religious chain-of-command in the diocese did not have a good reputation; the bishops, indeed, were Italians who never set foot in England, but got their pay for it anyway. The priests, as in other regions, probably were paying a fee to live openly with concubines; flouting the law of celibacy helped church coffers, and the locals didn't mind because they thought their wives and daughters safer.
Some priests at the time hardly even knew Latin. They could intone the words without knowing what they meant, and this made no difference. Even the miracle of the Eucharist changing bread and wine into actual body and blood could be accomplished by a priest who didn't know what he was saying, because the miracle was via Christ, and wasn't dependent on how much a linguist or how worthy in general the priest was. The church, in other words, had a stake in keeping such things mysterious, and even did not want people to be reading the Bible on their own. If you didn't have express permission from a bishop, you could not legally read the Bible in English, much less translate it. Wycliffe had translated the Bible in the fourteenth century, and it was so popular that the church and the government allied to it could do nothing but ban vernacular Bibles and burn the ones they could find. Erasmus, who the author says gave the original nudge that brought about the Reformation, wrote, "... Christ wishes His mysteries to be published as widely as possible. I would wish even all women to read the Gospel and the Epistles of St. Paul." Erasmus had translated the Greek New Testament from the Latin, and welcomed further translations into different vernaculars. Erasmus was very much a man within the Catholic Church, and favored reform from within. Luther, however, used Erasmus's work to bring out a German Bible, and Luther, of course, favored a break from Rome.
It isn't entirely clear how the translation bug bit Tyndale, but it was his life's work. Tyndale was more on the side of Luther than of Erasmus about alliance toward Rome (though it should be remembered that all three were exceptionally devout men.) Involved in an argument with another clergyman, Tyndale heard the man proclaim, "We had better be without God's laws than the Pope's." This got Tyndale's furious rejoinder, "I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!" Tyndale had gone through the correct procedures to seek the permission of a bishop to work on his translation, but he was denied. Tyndale was to carry out his work secretly, turning Erasmus's Greek into English in London, keeping his head down until he had to exile himself to Europe. In 1525 Tyndale's New Testament was assembled at the printer's in Cologne; it was illegal to print such things there, too, but it was also lucrative. The book was smuggled into England hidden within boxes of other books or within bales of cloth, and Henry VIII and his associated clerics went ballistic. Book-burning was ordered, and they would have burned Tyndale if they could have caught him.
Eventually, Sir Thomas More became Tyndale's great opponent. Teems has respect for More, who was of course to be martyred when he didn't do the religious bidding of Henry VIII, but the picture here is of a man driven to obsessive fear by Tyndale's translation and ideas. More has in this volume little of the liveliness and good humor others have seen in him, and which were cinematically portrayed in A Man for All Seasons. More liked the prospect of burning heretics, and was in charge of such burnings before he started fretting about Tyndale and the English Bible. He wrote about Tyndale, "It is enough for good Christian men to abhor and burn up his books, and the likers of them with them." He would have been delighted to have been responsible for Tyndale being burned up, but since Tyndale was out of reach, More could only write responses about the translation (he said that searching for errors in it was similar to searching for water in the sea) and about Tyndale's teachings for the reform of the church. Tyndale was convinced, mostly by his examination of the Bible itself, that people were redeemed by faith, that it was wrong to pray to saints, that there was no purgatory, and other pillars of Reformation thought. He wrote books and pamphlets about these beliefs, and the works made More furious. Among More's many replies are the Confutation of Tyndale's Answer of 1532, which is twice as long as Moby Dick, and according to Teems is an acid, hate-filled, repetitive rant.
More didn't catch Tyndale (there had been an unsuccessful plot to kidnap him and bring him back to England), but Tyndale, after ten years of careful covert behavior, was betrayed and caught. Both he and More were in their respective jails at around the same time, and both were killed for their beliefs. Tyndale is by far the more attractive figure here. He certainly practiced as he literally preached, living a frugal, even unworldly, life and constantly assessing it by how closely he could make it to a Christ-like ideal. He was kind, and he was generous; his betrayer, Henry Phillips, under mysterious employ from England, asked Tyndale for a loan, and got it, whereupon Tyndale invited him out to dinner, where Phillips pointed Tyndale out to officers who arrested him. He was imprisoned near Brussels and burned at the stake in 1536. His crime was not his translations, but the "heresies" which he advocated and to which his earnest study of the Bible had led him.
Teems cannot give us the personality of the man except by his works and letters, and he generously quotes from such sources. It is clear that Teems finds Tyndale an inspiration, and many will read this book as a devotional, although there are plenty of scholarly parts at some odds with the inspirational ones, and some of the adult language used by the religious pamphleteers will embarrass the prim. (Speaking of scholarly: this book sorely needs an index.) Teems has an easy and good-humored style; he explains, for instance, the surprise that Luther and his hammered theses were not merely a local complaint about the church, but instead created "a viral marketing storm." Tyndale was an admirable force, if you think the Reformation was admirable, and he had a writing style that has been compared even to his successor Shakespeare (and Shakespeare borrowed from him). Teems in an accessible book shows him as a foundation of English language and religious thought.