The Bible in the Renaissance - William Tyndale


In the latter part of this essay I intend to examine a sample of William Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament to show why it is such an exciting translation and has - through the medium of the King James Version - proved so enduring. First, however, I wish to discuss why the very fact of the translation was such a great and timely achievement. Because of the backlash against Lollardy, England was lagging badly behind in the matter of biblical translation; there was practically none. This has often been connected with a supposed under-developed state of literature in English. In any case, Tyndale’s achievement was that the translation which has endured into the twentieth century, and remains the unavoidable basis for any new translation, sprang fully-fledged from him. He was in a unique situation, at the joining of the ways, one coming from the Lollard tradition, that grumbling undercurrent of fourteenth century England, and the other from the burgeoning classical tradition. Each of these is represented by one of Tyndale’s great heroes, Wyclif and Erasmus.

I. England a literary backwater?

It has long been fashionable to set Tyndale’s achievement against the background of the primitive state of literature in England. English, they say, was no literary language. Even the facilities for printing were backward. There is certainly some truth in this contention, but I would suggest that it has been exaggerated and for reasons of propaganda at that. The roughness of the English language and the prevailing illiteracy were both used as arguments against translating the Bible into English. Opponents of the persistent Lollard yearning to have an English Bible used these arguments to stifle that yearning.


Certainly the cultural loss to the English language consequent on the Norman Conquest had delayed its development for several centuries. Only the French-speaking aristocracy could afford books, and French remained their language until in the mid-fourteenth century the Hundred Years War began to give French the allure of being the language of the enemy. Henry V (1387-1422) is the first king of England of whom we possess a letter written in English, though the famous scene of the English-lesson in the last act of Shakespeare’s Henry V may well exaggerate his ignorance of French.


This does not mean that no English prose existed, but simply that it was not yet considered a literary language[1]. English as a prose medium was still characterised as ‘rude’ and ‘barbarous’[2]. I would suggest that this was as much a literary convention as the truth. Sir Philip Sydney famously in 1581 laments the lack of English poetry:


It shall be but a little more lost time to enquire why England (the mother of excellent minds) should be grown so hard a stepmother to poets. Poesy thus embraced in all other places should only find in our time a hard welcome in England[3].


Sir Thomas Elyot similarly in 1531 in the Preface to The Boke named the Governour complains of the difficulty made by the poverty of the language. He in fact invented in that book such terms as ‘modesty’, ‘mediocrity’, ‘industrious’, ‘frugality’, ‘beneficence’,  but the complaint has all the marks of a literary convention.


It is possible to quote contemporary figures about illiteracy, but it is important to remember that these testimonies are suspect because their authors have an axe to grind. Thus Thomas More in his Apology (1523) is arguing that there is no point in Englishing the Bible when he makes the estimate that ‘people far more than four parts of all the whole divided into ten could never read english yet, and many now too old to go to school’. A quarter of a century later Bishop Stephen Gardiner of Winchester’s estimate is still more pessimistic when he writes (Letter, May 1547) that ‘not one in a hundredth part of the realm’ could read. These are not serious estimates, let alone reliable statistics, and evidence to the contrary may be garnered from the numerous heresy trials where possession and use of heretical books forms a regular part of the accusation, even among the artisan classes.  There were plenty of good plain works, manuals of instruction on medicine, hawking, cooking, behaviour. There were letters, such as the Paston and Stonor letters, which are often playful and merry. There was the English Chronicle, which Tyndale claims to have read as a child (The Obedience of a Christian Man, preface), and which may well have had no small influence on his purposeful, episodic style. There were devotional works, such as Walter Hilton’s Scale of Perfection, or Nicholas Love’s popular Mirror of the Life of Christ[4]. This was based on John de Caulibus’ Latin work Meditationes Vitae Christi, but Love’s own contribution to the work was considerable. It is full of warm and memorable passages which make its popularity in English still easy to appreciate.  The field was clearly open and ready for some major works in English.


Of course the academic language was still Latin. Scholars all over Europe corresponded with each other in Latin. More’s Utopia was written in Latin, and Tunstal thought it necessary to ask More explicitly to write in English when he was writing against Tyndale. As late as 1605 of the 60,000 volumes listed in the First Printed Catalogue of the Bodleian Library (facsimile edition, 1986) only 60 are in English. Similarly, of the 1,830 books listed as sold by the Oxford bookseller John Dorne in 1520, the overwhelming majority is in Latin, with only the occasional intrusion of such works as ‘Robin Hod’ or ‘balets’ (ballads). This is perhaps not so surprising for a university city. Even a popular manual of etiquette for children in the dining-room is written in Latin, Stans Puer ad Mensam, of which he sold several copies.



A real factor of backwardness in England was in the matter of printing, which was far less advanced than on the continent. Caxton learnt printing as late as 1471/2 in Cologne, and it was not until 1477 that he published at Westminster the first book to be printed in England. For contrast we may compare the printing of biblical translations on the continent. A German bible was printed already in 1466, and before Caxton’s first English book there were already bibles printed in Italian (1471), French (1474) and Dutch (1477), to be closely followed by printed versions in Catalan (1478) and Czech (1488). The sophistication of Greek printing, which had long been common on the continent in Italy and Switzerland, and certainly the magnificent Complutensian Polyglot Bible, now virtually ready for publication in Spain, was light-years beyond English standards. The market remained small, and before he embarked on a book Caxton was always careful to ensure that he would be able to cover his costs, securing patrons to cover the costs for 23 of his 77 printed books. After Caxton’s death in 1491 there remained only two printers of any note, Richard Pynson and Wynkyn de Worde, who were responsible for 70% of the English output[5].

II. The Lollard heritage

However, the major factor militating against biblical translation in England was clearly the backlash against Lollardy. The provision of the scriptures in the vernacular had been one of the principal aims of Wycliffe and his followers. In 1408, as part of the reaction against Wycliffe, the Constitutions of Oxford, at the instance of Archbishop Arundel of Canterbury, had forbidden any translation of the Bible into English 'whether in the time of John Wyclif or since' unless it was approved by the diocesan. Special permission was occasionally given to specific persons to possess a translation of the Bible, and some translations did survive well into the sixteenth century, though they were never diffused by the new invention of printing. How widespread these were it is impossible to tell, but in 1529 Sir Thomas More differentiates between on the one hand the translation of the 'great arch-heretic Wycliffe' who 'purposely corrupted the holy text' and on the other 'Bibles fair and old written in English which have been known and seen by the bishop of the diocese'. It was to fill the resultant gap of a genuine version of vernacular scriptures and provide for meditation and spiritual reading on gospel themes that Nicholas Love’s Mirror of the Life of Christ was intended, for it was written in the years immediately after the prohibition of translation of the Bible. In the Memorandum at the beginning, Love states that Archbishop Arundel ‘commanded by his metropolitan authority that it be published universally for the edification of the faithful and the confutation of heretics or Lollards’.


After the abortive march on London of Sir John Oldcastle in 1414 there was no more public manifestation of Lollardy, but this merely meant that it went underground. ‘Lollardy became a pertinacious rather than a heroic faith, occupying quiet groups of tradesmen and artisans, but here and there attracting a few priests, merchants and professional men’[6]. Nevertheless, Lollardy was continually felt to remain a danger, and the witchhunt against it continued. The term seems to have been used in general for any heterodox opinions[7]. In 1458 the statutes of King’s and Queen’s Colleges, Cambridge, were modified to require an oath against the heresies of Wyclif and Pecock, and in 1476 the university of Oxford assured the king that a search for Pecock’s and Wyclif’s books had been made and that a few had been burnt[8]. As late as 1523 Tunstall wrote of the current unorthodox tendencies, ‘It is no question of pernicious novelty; it is only that new arms are being added to the great crowd of Wycliffite heresies’[9]. Indeed Richard Hilles held that a young man burnt in 1541 for Lutheran heresies had in fact merely held the opinions of ‘our Wycliffe’[10]. Lollardy seems to have merged almost seamlessly into Lutheranism, and in the early years of the sixteenth century investigations for heresy continue to turn up the same themes: John Godwyn is reported in 1504 to have held that images are only ‘stokkis and stones’, pilgrimages are pointless and so is confession to a priest. John Whitehorn of Letcomb Bassett near Newbury was arraigned in 1508, when he had a hidden English Bible, and said that the eucharist was ‘pure brede and nowght else’[11].


For our theme it is significant that Lollardy seems to have been concentrated in a number of local centres. There were occasional outbreaks in London[12], but we hear of it most often in East Anglia, the Chilterns round High Wycombe, Marlow, Henley, Reading. There was another concentration in West Oxfordshire round Burford, Standlake and Asthall, and considerable activity in Bristol. None of this is far from Tyndale’s views[13], nor from his geographical area. The religious authorities were sensitive to such tendencies and ready to pounce. Just how jumpy they were may be seen in the precautions taken by the bishops against the arrival of heretical books in the country. In December 1524 the booksellers of London were called together by Tunstall and warned against importing or selling Lutheran books. Again in February 1525 they were called together by Wolsey and solemnly harangued. To look ahead, one of the most amusing and ludicrous incidents of the reaction to Tyndale’s translation was in 1529 when Tunstall, finding the policy of burning the books as they arrived in England to be insufficiently effective, arranged for his agent Augustine Packyngton, whom he had met at Antwerp, to buy up Tyndale’s whole stock. This effectively cleared Tyndale of debt, ‘so the bishop had the books, Packyngton the thanks and Tyndale had the money’[14].

III. Erasmus and the revival of Greek

Doctrinal suspicion was, then, one were factor militating against translation of the Bible into English. There were also factors which made such a move appropriate and indeed inevitable. The phenomenon of the revival of classical learning is too well-known to require documentation. However, since it was at Oxford that Tyndale received his formation, a sketch of that revival at Oxford will not be out of place.


The beginning of Greek in Oxford seems to have been at the hands of Emmanuel of Constantinople, who already taught Greek there in 1462. John Farley and William Grocyn signed their names in the university letter-book in Greek letters in 1464 and 1476 respectively; if one may judge from modern schoolboy behaviour, this argues less rather than more knowledge of Greek. In the 1490s both Grocyn and William Lily found it necessary to go to Florence to gain an adequate knowledge of Greek, and John Colet’s famous lectures on Romans in 1496-99 were still based on the Latin text. Cambridge seems to have been more advanced than Oxford. Some would date the Greek graffiti in the monastic cells of Magdalene College before 1500, but even there the breakthrough was taking place during the whole course of the first two decades of the century. Erasmus was in Cambridge 1511-1514, thoroughly bored and complaining about the quality of the beer. In 1518 the university’s first Reader in Greek was appointed, while Thomas More was encouraging Oxford to emulate its sister university. Erasmus wrote to the President of the newly-founded Corpus Christi College: he numbered the College inter praecipua decora Britanniae on account of its bibliotheca trilinguis[15]. But this was no serious evaluation of the extent of Greek learning. Its flattery is shown up in its true colours by the chance observation that in 1537 the only Hebrew book in the library catalogue was that classic Hebrew grammar, Reuchlin’s De rudimentis hebraicis.


More to the point is the invaluable book-list of John Dorne for 1520, which inevitably gives a picture of what people in Oxford were reading in that year. It was a fairly comprehensive bookshop, selling ballads in quantity (perhaps the equivalent of modern airport-bookstall trash), 8 copies of the notorious Albertus De Secretis Mulierum (which Tyndale castigates as clerical pornographical reading), a couple of lives of St Catherine and of St Margaret, as well as the scholastic works which must have been the standard text-books of the time (including a big text of the Sentences for 3/4). A lot of Latin classical texts were being read. Many copies of Tully, especially De Officiis, were sold, but also a good number of other authors, such as Ovid, Vergil, Lucan, Sallust, Terence. There is, however, quite a clutch of Greek texts: Aesop, Aristophanes’ Plutus, Lucian, Dionysius Areopagita (uncertain whether in Greek or Latin), and a big Greek dictionary for the price of 6/4. There is even an Alphabetum Ebraicum, though at a price of 2d this cannot have been a very extensive work. There are two valuable indications of the buzz-interests of the day. First, the clutch of indications already of Lutheran controversy: several copies of Luther’s De Potestate Papae were sold for 3d each. One investigative purchaser got to the heart of the controversy by buying (for a shilling) this work, plus the Resolutio, plus the Responsio Lutheri. The very next year, in 1521, one of Bishop Longland of Lincoln’s first actions was to attempt to protect the minds of the susceptible young students of Oxford by ordering ‘these corrupt works as Luther and others’ to be sought out in the Oxford bookshops.


The second important indication of what was afoot at Oxford just after Tyndale went down is the large number of books by Erasmus sold. David Daniell calculates that one in every seven customers bought a book by Erasmus[16]. Besides his theoretical works, the Adagia, the Colloquia and the Enchiridion, interest centres on the extraordinary hunger for his grammatico-rhetorical works; these will have been important in training any rhetorician or translator; chief among them are two. De utraque verborum ac rerum copia has some valuable writing on the use of synonyms, advising the user to observe the difference of nuance between them (Lib I, fol VII), giving lists of synonyms, e.g. near-synonyms for the negative,  non, haud, neque, haudquaqaum, neutiquam, minime, minus, parum (Lib I, fol XXVI)[17]. Of this book, De Copia, John Dorne sold 16 copies in the year. Of another grammatical work by Erasmus, De Constructione Verborum (actually by William Lily, first High Master of St Paul’s School, and revised by Erasmus) he sold a staggering 30 copies in the year. These must have been text-books in the hands of every student, showing the importance of such literary exercises, an invaluable propaedeutic for any translator. Practice in saying the same thing in several different ways is an essential training for a translator.


It was into this atmosphere that young William Tyndale - admittedly, just a decade earlier, though we may assume that not everything had changed in the course of the decade - arrived from the borders of Wales in the early years of the century, taking his BA in 1512 and MA in 1515. What the methods of linguistic training were in those years we can devine somewhat from the book-sales catalogued above. We know more about theological studies. In the Preface to The Obedience of the Christian Man (1529) Tyndale has some hard remarks to make about scholastic disputations which were presumably the staple fare in Oxford. One complaint is that scripture may be studied only after several years of previous study: ‘Ye drive them [students] from God’s word and will let no man come thereto until he have been two years master of arts’ (Parker edition, p.156-7). What he thought of that study may be gathered from another comment: ‘Of what text thou provest hell, another limbo patrum and another the assumption of our lady, and another shall prove of the same that an ape hath a tail’ (p. 158-9). His basic complaint is that this is putting the cart before the horse, or as he put it, measuring the meteyard by the cloth (p. 153). The scripture should provide the yardstick for understanding of the Fathers, not vice versa, as was so often the case. A mere glance at the staple material for theological study, the Glosses, will show that this complaint was not without justification. Only too often scholastic theologians worked backwards to the scriptural text through the glosses[18]. On the contrary, argues Tyndale, once readers have learnt how to read scripture itself, ‘if they go abroad and walk by the fields and meadows of all manner doctors and philosophers, they could catch no harm: they should discern the poison from the honey and bring home nothing but that which is wholesome’ (p. 149).

IV. Tyndale after Oxford

Foxe’s Book of Martyrs mentions laconically and without further detail that after Oxford Tyndale went to Cambridge. Speculation about his activities there and possible contact with heretical groups there are fruitless; we have no information other than this simple, perhaps inaccurate, mention by Foxe. To judge, however, by his impatience with the traditional theology and from his own pugnacious and argumentative temperament, he will not have avoided the first buds of Lutheran influnce there. By contrast with this guesswork, Tyndale’s activities at his next post provide an invaluable picture of his temperament and state of mind. It is the immediate preface to his work as translator of the Bible.


After his time at university Tyndale secured a place as tutor to the children of a Gloucestershire squire, Sir John Walsh, a man of substance who was twice High Sheriff of  the county. Foxe tells a couple of stories about Tyndale during this period which show the development of his passionate concern to provide the text of the Bible to every man. The first is the story of a confrontation between Tyndale and a learned country cleric who held that Canon Law was more important than scripture. This is a confrontation between traditional attitudes and the impetus of Lollardy which had been smouldering in the countryside for a century and a half.


Master Tyndale happened to be in the company of a certain divine, recounted for a learned man, and in communing and disputing with him he drave him to that issue, that the said great doctor burst out into these blasphemous words, and said, 'We were better to be without God's laws than the pope's.' Master Tyndale, hearing this, full of godly zeal and not bearing that blasphemous saying, replied again and said, 'I defy the pope and all his laws', and further added that, if God spared him life, ere many years he would cause the boy that driveth the plough to know more of scripture than he did.


Important here is Tyndale mention of the ploughboy. This must surely be a reminiscence of Erasmus’ preface to his 1516 first printed edition of the Greek New Testament[19]. There Erasmus wrote about the farm worker singing the scripture:

I could wish that all women should read the Gospel and St Paul’s Epistles. I wish the farm worker might sing parts of them at the plough and the weaver might hum them at the shuttle, and the traveller might beguile the weariness of the way by reciting them.


Tyndale expresses the same idea, but with his own customary vigour and clarity. This brings us to the second profound influence on Tyndale at this time. Foxe (Book of Martyrs, 1838 edition, volume 5) recounts that his employer, Sir John, kept a good table, so that 'there resorted to him many times sundry abbots, deans, archdeacons with divers other doctors and beneficed men'. Master Tyndale 'spared not to show unto them simply and plainly his judgement in matters, and lay plainly before them the open and manifest places of the Scriptures, to confute their errors and confirm his sayings' to such good effect that 'at length they waxed weary, and bare a secret grudge in their hearts against him'. The secret of Tyndale’s devastating effectiveness was surely Erasmus. During this period Tyndale  translated Erasmus' Enchiridion Militis Christiani and presented it to his master and lady[20] - with significant effect on the Walshes’ social life!  'After they had read well and perused the same, the doctorly prelates were no more so often called to the house, neither had they the cheer and countenance when they came as before they had'. Erasmus, already the intellectual guru of Europe, provided the academic backbone for the varied yearnings of Lollardy. Tyndale’s programme is strikingly similar. It must be remembered that Tyndale was already in one of the heartlands of Lollardy, giving regular open-air sermons in Bristol, less than a dozen miles from his position in Little Sodbury, on what is now College Green. The secret of Tyndale is that he was the combination of the rural dissatisfaction of Lollardy with the academic dissatisfaction of Erasmus and the Renaissance. A couple of examples must suffice of sentiments expressed in the Enchiridion which can be paralleled in a dozen depositions from the investigations into Lollardy:


against pilgrimage: ‘Would you like to win the favour of Peter and Paul? Imitate the faith of the one and the charity of the other and you will accomplish more than if you were to dash off to Rome ten times’ (Collected Works, University of Toronto Press, vol 66 [1988], p. 71).

against veneration of the saints: ‘You worship the bones of Paul preserved in a relic casket but do not worship the mind of Paul hidden in his writings’ (p. 72).

against superstition: ‘I am ashamed to mention with what superstition many of them [priests and theologians] observe silly little ceremonies instituted by mere men’ (p. 74).


The next we hear of Tyndale is the decisive move to break the jinx on translations of the Bible into the vernacular. He offered himself in 1520 as a translator to that noted humanist and friend of Erasmus, Cuthbert Tunstall, Bishop of London. Tunstall, however, refused his request, on the grounds that he had no room for him in his household, a feeble excuse. The subsequent history makes it quite clear that Tunstall was a dedicated opponent of Bible translation. Tyndale’s own fiery temperament may well have played a part in is rejection, and even the reputation he had won himself in Gloucestershire. It is striking that as his sample submission to Tunstall Tyndale chose so luxuriantly and artificial a rhetorical author as Isocrates. In any case, it was this refusal which pushed Tyndale into exile and into the arms of the Lutheran theologians. Tyndale had clearly already given thought to the requirements of biblical translation. It would be intriguing to know how long Tyndale had held so strongly, as he writes in The Obedience of a Christian Man,


The Greek tongue agreeth a thousand times more with the English than with the Latin. The manner of speaking is both one, so that in a thousand places thou needest not but to translate it into the English word for word, when thou must seek a compass in the Latin, and yet shall have much work to translate it well favouredly, so that it have the same grace and sweetness, sense and pure understanding with it in the Latin, and as it hath in the Hebrew. A thousand parts better may it be translated into the English than into the Latin.

V. Tyndale as translator of the Bible

The outline of Tyndale’s actual career as translator of the Bible can be quickly rehearsed. It is an exciting story of sixteenth century intrigue and skullduggery on which I do not propose to delay. The outline may be read in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and a fuller, more rounded account in Professor Daniell’s biography of Tyndale. I propose to give no more than a sketch, before going on to make a few suggestions about the qualities of the translation itself.


Having been cold-shouldered by Tunstall, Tyndale went abroad to Flanders in April 1524, to pursue his objectives in the more tolerant air of the continent. He first set about translating the New Testament, and by the summer of 1525 he had got as far as printing the middle of Matthew chapter 22 at Cologne, when the authorities set out to arrest him. However, he fled to Worms, where he finished and published the New Testament. This he revised in 1534, not long before he was kidnapped and incarcerated.  It should be well known that he was, at the instigation of the English authorities, garrotted in 1536, and his body burnt at the same stake. The only other fragment of biography I shall offer is a quotation from a letter written to the prison governor shortly before his execution. It shows his undaunted spirit and his continuing passion for language and translation. It is still the same Tyndale sitting in prison as sat in the ale-house to confront the learned cleric.


I suffer greatly from cold in the head and am afflicted with perpetual catarrh. I ask to have a lamp in the evening; it is indeed wearisome sitting alone in the dark. Most of all I beg and beseech Your Clemency to urge the Commissary that he will kindly permit me to have the Hebrew Bible, Hebrew grammar and Hebrew dictionary, that I may pass the time in that study.


Tyndale’s First Translation of the New Testament

Finally I wish to offer some remarks about this first printed translation of the New Testament, Mt 1-22. I believe the focus on this short section of text is quite sufficient to illustrate the qualities of Tyndale’s achivement. Little is to be gained by repeating the more general assessments, for example of C.S. Lewis in the Oxford History of English Literature, vol. 3 (Clarendon Press, 1954) p. 205-207, or David Daniell’s wide-ranging survey in the preface to his edition of Tyndale’s New Testament (1989). It would be possible to list the household words coined by Tyndale (C.S.Lewis lists ‘passover’, ‘long-suffering’, ‘scapegoat’, and also - wrongly - ‘peacemakers’). It would be possible to enumerate the expressions drawn from Tyndale’s translation which have become proverbial in the English language (‘the powers that be’, ‘the fat of the land’, ‘not unto us, O Lord, not unto us’). It is necessary to point out the calculation that, for the portions of the Bible translated by Tyndale, between 70% and 80% of the King James Version is verbatim Tyndale’s version. I am well aware that I leave out of discussion many fascinating topics which deserve attention in a lecture on Tyndale in the series The Bible at the Renaissance. Two topics I will mention summarily before considering the original piece of translation:


1. When Tyndale’s translation reached England, Thomas More, the leading literary figure of his time in England and enjoying an international reputation, was commissioned by Tunstall to attack it. He attempted to pillory it as ‘Luther’s Testament’. This is a fair comment only as regards the theological notes, which were highly dependent on Luther. With regard to the translation it is clear to me that Tyndale acted as any sensible translator of a much-translated text will do: he consulted and made use of existing versions, while retaining his own independence. In some places he agreed with Luther, in others he did not[21]. To give but one example, Tyndale corrects Mt 3.3 to ‘the voice of a cryer in wilderness’ where Luther has ein ruffende stymme, ‘a voice crying’, as though the participle bow/ntoj agreed with the fwnh,.


2. More’s objections centre round three translation options, Tyndale’s preference for ‘senior’ or ‘elder’ instead of ‘priest’, for ‘congregation’ instead of ‘church’, and for ‘love’ instead of ‘charity’. There is, of course, a hidden agenda, the legacy of Lollardy, for at least the first two of these. Tyndale’s versions are all thoroughly defensible translations. It is simply a matter of emphasis on one particular set of theological overtones rather than another, and More’s objections are heavy with the overtones of ecclesiastical tradition, which is precisely what Tyndale meant to avoid..


‘Priest’ is, of course, a corruption of presbu,teroj but in Christian parlance ‘priest’ includes the concept of a sacrificing priest. A sacrificing priest is far from the New Testament usage of the word, where the word retains the organisational and communitarian sense of ‘elder’, or (as Tyndale translated it) ‘senior’, the original, classical Greek usage of the word. The presbu,teroi are simply members of the council of elders. In this item of translation Tyndale is certainly true to the original meaning of the New Testament.


Similarly ‘congregation’ as a translation of evkklhsi,a deliberately avoids the ecclesiastical overtones of ‘church’ and returns to the Old Testament overtones of a group called together, called out of a mass. No doubt the lollard objection to everything ecclesiastical was Tyndale’s reason for refusing the word and preferring ‘congregation’. It is perhaps a little heavy and latinate for the Hebrew hwhiiiy lhq, but on the whole fits at least the Pauline contexts better than ‘church’. ‘Church’ does not suggest a local grouping and does suggest an entity far more developed than the Pauline local Christian assembly. When the King James Version reverts to ‘church’, this is principally a statement of which theological overtones it wishes to emphasize.


The case of ‘love’ seems to me rather different. The preference for ‘love’ over ‘charity’ is part of Tyndale’s preference for English words over latinate ones. It also enables Tyndale to distinguish between two Greek words used in the New Testament, avga,ph and ca,rij. The latter is etymologically cognate with ‘charity’ and also with ‘grace’; accordingly Tyndale translates it sometimes ‘grace’ and sometimes (correctly) ‘thanks’. It seems to me that ‘love’ renders far better the meaning and feel of dsx, which stands behind the Greek avga,ph.

I would suggest that in this case Tyndale’s preference is partly a preference for the fresh and direct English word, partly a rejection of the whole medieval structure of the institutional Church associated with ‘charity’.


In these three matters, then, although Tunstall might legitimately claim that Tyndale’s New Testament was ‘naughtelie translated’[22], it was also accurate.


I wish finally to draw attention to three qualities of Tyndale’s version of Matthew 1-22. Before doing that I must stress what a staggering achievement it is to have translated the whole of the New Testament without precedent. This is an achievement which no English-speaker has subsequently been able to do. Not only does any responsible translator consult the work of predecessors, but the very rhythms and modes of expression have been shaped by Tyndale through the King James Version. Every subsequent version of the Bible in the English language, no matter how fresh and original it claims to be, must be, and indeed is, indebted to Tyndale. This makes his version unique, at any rate in English. He himself had no such model in English, though he certainly used Luther’s German and - as we shall see - must have received at least echoes from the Wycliffian Middle English translation. Neither of these could solve his translation-problems for him.


1. The first quality I wish to stress is the rhythmical quality of the language. For this the beatitudes may serve as an example (I modernise the spelling throughout, both for Tyndale and for Wyclif):


Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they which hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Blessed are the maintainers of peace, for they shall be called the children of God.

Blessed are they which suffer persecution for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are ye when men shall revile you and persecute you and shall falsely say all manner of evil sayings against you for my sake. Rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven.


It is tempting here to enter into an exposition of the balance and rhythm of the original Greek (the first eight beatitudes composed in two fours corresponding  to each other in verbs and word-count, and the whole bracketed by the banner, ‘for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’), but that is not my subject. Tyndale’s version is so familiar that we take it for granted, which only reinforces the point.  Tyndale’s second 1534 version makes only two changes, from ‘maintainers of peace’ to ‘peacemakers’, which is more accurate for eivrhnopoioi, as well as more rhythmical, and removing the future from ‘shall revile you’ (an odd grammatical mistake, made also in ‘shall say’, which is perpetuated in the KJV[23]). The KJV makes only two further changes, inserting ‘do hunger and thirst after righteousness’ (which seem to me rhythmically inferior and linguistically unnecessary) and preferring ‘are persecuted’ to Tyndale’s  ‘suffer persecution’, a pedantic change which slightly diminishes the force.


The achievement of this may be seen by comparison to Wycliffe’s version, which lacks both rhythm and balance (I have ventured to italicise elements where Tyndale’s version seems to me a significant improvement - and Tyndale’s ‘suffer persecution’ suggests that he was familiar with the Wycliffite version):


Blessed ben poor men in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven is herne.

Blessed ben mild men, for they schulen welde the earth.

Blessed ben they that mournen, for they schulen be comforted.

Blessed ben they that hungren and thristen righteousness, for they schulen be fulfilled.

Blessed ben merciful men, for they schulen get mercy.

Blessed ben they that be of clean heart, for they schulen see God.

Blessed ben peacable men, for they schulen be cleppid Goddis children.

Blessed ben they that suffren persecution for rightfulness, for the kingdom of heaven is herne.


2. A second quality on which I would like to dwell is the vigour and directness of language, a quality which one would expect from someone whose directness of speech had early got him into trouble[24]. Striking in this respect is the reply of Jesus to the Rich Young Man who wanted to enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt 19.18 To. Ouv foneu,seij( Ouv moiceu,seij( Ouv kle,yeij). In the 1534 revision Tyndale eventually reaches the splendid, ‘Break no wedlock, kill not, steal not’. He changes the order and simplifies. It is hardly surprising that KJV backs off to ‘Thou shalt do no murder, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not steal’, returning almost exactly to Tyndale’s earlier rendering. This directness occurs again and again, recreating especially the vigour of the sayings of Jesus. ‘Ask and it shall be given to you. Seek and you shall find. Knock and it shall be opened unto you’ sharpens the Wycliffian ‘Ask ye... Seek ye... Knock ye’. Immediately afterwards the KJV weakens Tyndale’s vigorous ‘whosoever asketh receiveth’ into ‘everyone that asketh receiveth’ in the interests of pedestrian accuracy (pa/j)[25].


3. A third delightful quality of the translation is its humour. Here I must depart from my chosen text of Mt 1-22 in order to indulge in my two favourite pieces of Tyndale’s light-heartedness. One is the serpent to Eve, where the serpent begins the seduction of Eve with the splendid but quite unjustified, ‘Tush, ye shall not die’. In the KJV this fades to the dully respectable, ‘Ye shall not surely die’ (Gen 3.4). Another delightful touch is the relaxed al fresco feeling at the Feeding of the Five Thousand in Mark 6.40, when the crowd sits down ‘here a row, there a row’, a free rendering of  prasiai, prasiai, spurned by the KJV’s sober ‘they sat down in ranks’. Finally, Tyndale is certanly enjoying himself in the story of the Canaanite Woman’s Daughter (Mt 15.21-28), who comes to Jesus and says, ‘“My daughter is piteously vexed with a devil (kakw/j daimoni,zetai - KJV  ‘grievously vexed’)”. And he gave her never a word to answer (KJV ‘but he answered her not a word’).’ Tyndale also catches perfectly the wit and playfulness of the exchange by ‘It is not good to take the children’s bread and cast it to whelps (kuna,rioij, so KJV, dully, ‘dogs’).’ On the other hand the impatience of Jesus is brilliantly rendered by ‘why are your minds cumbered because ye have brought no bread?’ (Mt 16.8 - not quite fair for ti, dialogi,zesqe evn e`autoi/j and toned down by KJV to ‘Why reason ye among yourselves?’). For accuracy Tyndale’s first translation of the Bible from Greek into English has been surpassed, for its spirit and verve it remains supreme.


[1]A useful survey is given in H.S. Bennett, Chaucer and the Fifteenth Century [Oxford History of English Literature, vol 2], (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1947), chapter 7.

[2]R.F.Jones, The Triumph of the English Language (1953), chapter 1, cf. I.A. Gordon, The Movement of English Prose (1966), p.95-101.


[3]An Apology for Poetry, ed. Geoffrey Shepherd (Nelson, 1965), p.131

[4]Its popularity is shown by the number of times it was printed: by Caxton 1484 and 1490, by Pynson and de Worde in 1494, by Pyson again in 1506 and four more times by Pynson before 1530. It survives in 56 complete (or once complete) versions, which is equalled only by Walter Hilton’s Scale of Perfection.

[5]H.S. Bennett, English Books and Readers, 1475-1557 (1969), p. 188

[6]A.G.Dickens, The English Reformation, (Batsford, 1989), p. 49

[7]Anne Hudson, The Premature Reformation: Wycliffite texts and Lollard history (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1988, p. 446), ‘The term lollard had, as was evident from examples in the last chapter, come by the mid-fifteenth century to be a generic term for ‘heretic’.

[8]J.L. Catto, ‘Theology after Wycliffism’ in History of the University of Oxford, vol 2 (Oxford 1992), p.278.

[9]In a letter to Erasmus Complete Works of Erasmus (University of Toronto Press, vol 10, p.26).

[10]Letters (Parker Society, 1846, vol 1, p.221)

[11]Anne Hudson, The Premature Reformation (Clarendon Press, 1988), p. 468

[12]In 1511 Archbishop Warham condemned Agnes Trebill of Kent as a heretic. She said that the bread and wine were unchanged after the consecration, and disapproved of confession, pilgrimages and the worship of saints (C. Sturge, Cuthbert Tunstal (1938), p. 128).

[13]Heretical elements included objection to the eucharist (‘not the veray body of Criste but a commemoration of Cristis passion, and Cristis body in a figure’) to images (‘hit wer as good offer a candell to a owll in the wode as to a image of our Lady’) and to pilgrimage (‘folks go on pilgrimage more for the green way than for any devotion’), see Anne Hudson, The Premature Reformation, p. 468-9.

[14]Hall’s Chronicle, p. 763.

[15]Letter 990 in Collected Works of Erasmus, VI (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982)

[16]William Tyndale, a biography (Yale University Press, 1994), p. 396, note 31). Any writer on Tyndale must be vastly indebted to this admirable book, and to Professor Daniell’s editions of Tyndale.

[17]The popularity of this work struck me when I looked for it in the Bodleian. The standard modern copy is missing, but there are editions published in 1513, 1514, 1517, 1519 (two editions), 1521 (two editions), 1526, 1528, 1532, 1535, etc. Similarly De Constructione Verborum features editions of 1513, 1514, 1515 (two), 1516, 1521 (two), 1522 (three editions) in Bodley’s catalogue. These are chance holdings; there may be many more editions.

[18]My colleague Anthony Marett-Crosby pointed out to me two examples, Gen 2.21 and 2 Cor 5.13. In the former case the Glossa Ordinaria interprets Adam’s ‘deep sleep’ as elevation to the angelica curia; consequently both Albert and Aquinas interpret Adam’s experience as rapture to God’s presence. In the latter case Aquinas interprets the verse in the light of an unrelated saying of Augustine attached to the verse by the Glossa Ordinaria. The Vulgate verse includes ‘sive mente excedimus’, meaning ‘if we have been unreasonable’. The gloss relates to it Augustine’s definition of ecstasy, ‘excessus mentis’, and Aquinas then concludes that Paul had two experiences of ecstasy, described respectively in 2 Cor 5 and 2 Cor 12.

[19]The reaction to this in some circles was not dissimilar to that of Tyndale’s learned divine. The Professor of Philosophy at Louvain could see no point in returning to the Greek text, on the grounds that the Latin Vulgate could not possibly be wrong since it had been approved by the Councils of the Church.

[20]The first published English translation of this appears in 1533. There seems no reason to suppose that this was Tyndale’s translation, the manuscript of which may still be languishing in Gloucestershire.

[21]F.F. Bruce (The English Bible, Lutterworth Press, 1961, p.36) gives the itneresting opinion that Tyndale was a better Greek scholar than Luther, who did, after all, have Melanchthon to help him.

[22]As Humphrey Monmouth reported to Wolsey, Harl. 425, f.11)

[23]The verbs are aorist subjunctive, not future, as is clear from eiv,pwsin

[24]Homely images come readily to Tyndale. I treasure especially two in the Preface to The Obedience of a Christian Man, the accusation that George Ioye ‘playeth boo pepe and in some of his books putteth in his name and style and in some keepeth it out’. The humour of the age is reflected also in ‘as the fox when he has pissed in the grayes [badger’s] hole challengeth it for his own’. These have the same earthy countryman’s wisdom as the scintillating animal proverbs of the Rylands MS 394, e.g. ‘The catte wolle fysshe ete, but she wol not her fete wete’ or ‘while the welp playes, the old dog grennys’ (W.A. Pantin, ‘Medieval Latin and English Proverbs from the Rylands Latin MS 394' [BJRL 14 (1930), p.81-114]).

[25]There are, of course, occasions where Tyndale seems to have made a simple mistake, which is corrected by KJV. One can hardly defend on grounds of vigour ‘if the salt have lost her saltness, what can be salted therewith?’ for evn ti,ni a£lisqh,setai at Mt 5.13, and KJVcorrects to ‘wherewith shall it be salted?’ The 1525 vesion contained a few curious errors which were corrected in 1534, e.g. ‘fiftyfold’ for ‘sixtyfold’ in the parable of the Sower (Mt 13.8), the price of the ointment at Bethany being given as ‘200 pence’ instead of 300 (Mk 14.5).