By Michael A.G. Haykin

The sixteenth century was one of the great eras of English Bible translation. Between 1526, when William Tyndale’s superlative rendition of the New Testament was printed, and 1611, when the King James Bible (KJB), or Authorized Bible, appeared, no less than ten English-language Bible versions were published. The translators of the KJB were quite conscious of their deep indebtedness to this beehive of translation activity that preceded their work. As they noted in the “Preface” of the KJB, drawn up by the Puritan Miles Smith (1554–1624), who had been among those responsible for the translation of the Old Testament prophets and who had also taken part in the final revision of the entirety of the Old Testament, they had not sought to “make a new translation.” Rather, it had been their “endeavour” or “mark” to “make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one.” And of those many good versions that preceded the KJB, two especially deserve mention in any sketch of the history of the KJB: Tyndale’s New Testament and the Geneva Bible.

William Tyndale and His Duty

“Widely acknowledged as the most formative influence on the text of the King James Bible,” says Alister McGrath, the New Testament of William Tyndale (c.1494–1536) comprises some four-fifths of the KJB New Testament. Tyndale’s deep-rooted conviction, formed by the early 1520s, that the Scriptures were essential to the reformation of the Church in England had led him ultimately to Germany, where he found a competent die-cutter and printer, Peter Schöffer the younger, to publish his newly-translated New Testament in 1526 at his print-shop in Worms. Schöffer initially ran off a print-run of either three or six thousand copies. The seven hundred or so pages of text of this New Testament was in a black-letter or Gothic font and printed in a compact octavo format, clearly designed to be carried with ease. There were no verse divisions, which did not come into vogue until the Geneva New Testament of 1557, but only simple chapter breaks. It was devoid of prologue and marginal notes, both of which would be found in later editions of the Tyndale New Testament and other later Tudor Bibles. Only three copies survive today: an imperfect one in the library of St. Paul’s Cathedral that is lacking the first seventy-one leaves; a copy that was owned by Bristol Baptist College, the oldest Baptist seminary in the world, since the mid-eighteenth century and that was sold in 1994 to the British Library for over a million pounds to be the centre-piece of an celebratory exhibit on the life of Tyndale; and a third copy recently discovered in the Landesbibliothek in Stuttgart, Germany.

As Henry Wansbrough has noted, Tyndale’s translation is “a staggering achievement,” for he translated the entirety of the Greek New Testament into English, without any access to other similar English-language translations, for there were none. However, when Tyndale’s version appeared in England, it received vitriolic criticism by such literary and ecclesial figures as Thomas More (1478–1535) and Cuthbert Tunstall (1474–1559), the Bishop of London, who said that it was “naughtily translated.” More, for example, criticized Tyndale for translating presbyteros by the term “elder” or “senior” instead of “priest” and for rendering ekklēsia as “congregation” and not “church.” The English term “priest” actually derives from the Greek presbyteros and is therefore not at all a translation of the Greek word. Moreover, embedded in it is the idea of one who performs sacrifice, which is hardly an associated idea of presbyteros. As for the use of congregation instead of church as a translation of ekklēsia, the latter had become solely a technical term in ecclesiastical jargon, which was hardly the case with regard to ekklēsia in the New Testament era. Moreover, Tyndale was also following the example of Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536), a friend of both Tunstall and More, who sometimes rendered ekklēsia as congregatio in his own Latin rendition of the Greek New Testament he prepared to accompany his editions of the Greek text from 1516 onwards.

Today it is clear that Tyndale had a solid handle on the Greek language, its grammar and idioms, shades of meaning and idiosyncrasies. A further example of his knowledge of Greek is found in Philemon 7, which Tyndale rightly translates, “For by thee (brother) the saints’ hearts are comforted.” The KJB translators later rendered this verse as “the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother,” taking the Greek word splanchna literally as “bowels.” But Tyndale rightly recognized that splanchna is a metaphor for “heart” and thus should not be translated literally.

Equally important was Tyndale’s impressive grasp of the words and rhythms of the spoken English of his day. He knew how to render the Scriptures into the English vernacular so that they spoke with verve and power. In fact, as David Daniell notes, what strikes a present-day reader is how modern Tyndale’s translation seems. For instance, in contrast to the KJB rendering of Romans 5:2—“we have access by faith”—Tyndale has the much more modern sounding “we have a way in through faith.” “It is a sure thing” (Philippians 3:1) is far more contemporary an expression than “it is safe” (KJB).  Or consider his punchy version of 2 Kings 4:28—he began to work on the Old Testament in early 1530s—“thou shouldest not bring me in a fool’s paradise.” The KJB version is quite sedate in comparison, “do not deceive me.”

In 1528 Tyndale allowed his name to appear in print for the first time with the publication in Antwerp of his exposition of Luke 16:1–12, The Parable of the Wicked Mammon. In his prologue “To the Reader” Tyndale noted that some people asked him why he had bothered writing the book since his Roman Catholic opponents would burn it, “seeing they burnt the gospel [that is, the New Testament],” a reference to the burning of a significant quantity of the 1526 Worms New Testament at Cuthbert Tunstall’s behest. Tyndale’s response takes us to the very heart of his understanding of his calling to be a translator: “In burning the new Testament they did none other thing than that I looked for: no more shall they do, if they burn me also, if it be God’s will it shall so be. Nevertheless, in translating the New Testament I did my duty…”

The impact of Tyndale’s doing his duty is well seen in an event that took place nearly thirty years after he wrote these words. One of his friends, John Rogers (1500–1555), who played the central role in the 1537 publication of “Matthew’s Bible” that included much of Tyndale’s translation work, was on trial for heresy. It was during the reign of Mary I (1516–1558), known to history as “bloody Mary” because of her brutal execution of nearly three hundred Protestants in a misguided attempt to take the evangelical Church of England back to Rome. Rogers’ case was being heard by Stephen Gardiner (d.1555), Mary I’s Lord Chancellor. At one point, Gardiner told Rogers: “thou canst prove nothing by the Scripture, the Scripture is dead: it must have a lively [i.e. living] expositor.” “No,” Rogers replied, “the Scripture is alive.” Undoubtedly Rogers is thinking of Hebrews 4:12, but his conviction is also rooted in the fact that Tyndale’s rendering of the Scriptures in “English plain style” had played a key role, by God’s grace, in the Scriptures becoming a vehicle of life-changing power among the English people. . . .


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The October issue, “The Living Word,” is now available!

Is Scripture inspired by God or is it merely the work of man? Peter writes, “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21). The October issue of Credo seeks to affirm the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture as doctrines that are faithful to the testimony of Scripture itself. Contributors include: Gregg Allison, John Frame, Timothy George, Fred Zaspel, Michael A.G. Haykin, Tim Challies, Matthew Barrett, Thomas Schreiner, Tony Merida, Owen Strachan, J. V. Fesko, Robert Saucy, and many others.

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