Tyndale's New Testament

By Bridgman, Joan | Contemporary Review, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Tyndale's New Testament


Bridgman, Joan, Contemporary Review


FORGET the fourth Harry Potter book, the publishing sensation of this year is the second edition of William Tyndale's New Testament first published in 1526. This is an original spelling edition edited for the Tyndale Society by W. R. Cooper and published by the British Library. ([pound]15.00. ISBN 07123-4664-3.) It has, astonishingly, in its first week, outsold Joanne Rowling's Goblet of Fire in the British Library bookshop. Perhaps this is not surprising because the British Library gave the book its launch in July this year and have given its display pride of place and this publication far outshines any other in importance. To have this edition published in its original pocket book format and to acknowledge Tyndale as its translator four hundred and seventy-four years after its first appearance is an extraordinary event. Tyndale's work of translation of part of the Old and all the New Testament makes up over eighty per cent of the Authorized Version of the Bible. But the New Testament came first and the debt of the English-speaking world to Tyndale is at last acknowledged.

He is the mainly unrecognised translator of the most influential book in the world. Although the Authorised King James Version is ostensibly the production of a learned committee of churchmen, it is mostly cribbed from Tyndale with some reworking of his translation, largely to make it more grand and formal so that it might be read more sonorously in great churches. His huge contribution has been air-brushed out as effectively as an inconvenient politician in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Coverdale's Bible, the Great Bible, the Bishop's Bible, the Geneva Bible and the King James Bible itself all derived directly or indirectly from Tyndale. As the late Enoch Powell, an outstanding Greek scholar and Tyndale Society member, so powerfully has said, all these versions altered and over-layed, but never extinguished the splendour which the English language had revealed under Tyndale's hands. It is the first time that this ground-breaking translation has been published in exactly the same format as the first edition of 1526, of which only two complete copies survive. The book launch, attended by scholars, members of the Tyndale Society and at least one Member of Parliament, accompanied with champagne and nibbles and conviviality, must have been in marked contrast to the furtive emergence of that first edition.

There can be no other book with such a dramatic publishing history. The first edition appeared in 1526 and Tyndale had to flee to Europe to get the book published at all. The church of the time forbade the Bible's production in English, believing translation into the vernacular to be a challenge to its authority. It was judged heretical to read or own a copy of this book. People were burnt at the stake for this 'crime' or even hearing it read aloud. Copies had to be smuggled into England in barrels and casks, sometimes in bales of cloth and had to be circulated secretly. Any copies found were publicly burnt at St. Pauls, where the Bishop of London had refused Tyndale permission to work on his translation. He preached against it when it was published, maintaining that it contained 2,000 errors. His objections may be boiled down to the translation of four key words which might bear an anti-clerical interpretation -- 'congregation' for 'ecclesia', 'elder' for 'presbyter', 'repent' instead of the Greek for 'do pe nance' and 'love' instead of 'agape' or 'charity'.

The buying up of New Testaments by the church for burning had its farcical side. The Bishop commissioned a mercer called Packington to buy up New Testaments directly from the Dutch. Packington told Tyndale who was pleased with the arrangement. As Foxe recounts in his Book of Martyrs: '... the bishop had the books, Packington had the thanks and Tyndale had the money'. Tyndale needed money to pay his debts and fund further revisions of his translation. He also thought that 'the whole world would cry out upon the burning of God's word'. …

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