The Bible's Reformation Translating the Bible into Common Language Was a Cloak-and-Dagger Enterprise in the 16th Century. but the Legacy and the Language of Those Efforts Endure Today

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Each of the two fragile, leather-bound books showcased at The New York Public Library fits easily in the palm of one's hand - surprisingly small for tomes of such importance.

Their histories are dramatic: These faded maroon volumes have spent more than 450 years on the lam. Their translator was burned at the stake for heresy.

Yet their legacy is enduring: On their skin-thin pages are printed some of the most beautiful and most common phrases uttered by English-speakers today. The books are the only two complete copies of William Tyndale's 1526 translation of the New Testament that remain. The first English translations from the original Greek, they are displayed together for the first time in a new exhibit, "Let There Be Light: William Tyndale and the Making of the English Bible," at The New York Public Library. They arrive at a time of rising public interest in spirituality. Numerous religious books have hit the bestseller lists. A variety of Biblical studies are under way independent of any church, such as Bill Moyer's television series on Genesis. Several universities have mounted exhibitions related to the Bible. These events have "focused a great deal of popular attention on the Bible," says Richard Hays, a New Testament professor at Duke University's divinity school in Durham, N.C. "But," he says, "I think there's always been a great deal of interest in the Bible." In fact, the library expects the display, which opened Feb. 22, to be a blockbuster. "This should be a major, popular exhibit," says the library's president, Paul LeClerc. The exhibit highlights the influence the Bibles have had on the English language and literary traditions - reaching well beyond religious study. The words Tyndale chose to tell the story of the gospels are familiar to all English-speakers, religious or not. Phrases such as "signs of the times," "eat, drink, and be merry," and "the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak" all come from Tyndale's work. "It's behind so much common speech," says Mervyn Jannetta, head of the English Antiquarian Collections at the British Library and co-curator of the New York exhibit. "These words cannot be improved upon - or else why would they have survived?" he asks. The quality of Tyndale's work was so enduring that a full four-fifths of his translation was copied nearly 100 years later into the King James version of the Bible, the most popular English version. This fact is even more remarkable when one considers that Tyndale, a Roman Catholic priest, was burned at the stake for his work. Tyndale's mission, as he described it, was to "cause the boy that driveth the plough to know more of the scriptures" than most of the clergy of the day. Reaching everyman In the early 1500s, England was far behind the rest of Europe in permitting the Bible to be translated into the vernacular. Tyndale's work was seen by church leaders as a purposeful undermining of church and monarchy authority. …