English, in the Beginning
Marks, Laurence, The Independent (London, England)
CAN an authoritarian government so obliterate the life's work of a revolutionary artist that he is unknown to posterity? In the late 1940s the Russian modernist painter Alexander Rodchenko, persecuted and silenced under the Stalinist terror, came to believe that he had been erased beyond reclaim from the collective memory of his countrymen. He died too soon to witness his reinstatement.
This month the quincentenary is being celebrated of a writer who has come close to suffering the fate Rodchenko feared: William Tyndale, translator in the 1520s and 1530s of the first printed Bible in English. Yale University Press has published a new biography by David Daniell, former director of Shakespearian studies at University College, London. On 28 September, an exhibition (including the only complete surviving copy of his 1526 New Testament) opens at the British Library. On 6 October there will be a service at St Paul's.
Tyndale's name never disappeared. Most of us remember him vaguely from our schooldays as one of the early Bible translators who prefigured the great Authorised Version of 1611. There is a dashing statue of him (he looks like Gregory Peck) near the Victoria Embankment in London. But he has been at best a shadowy presence in our literature, ignored except by a few Hebrew and Greek scholars and Bible historians.
He was a revolutionary innovator when autocratic governments were trying to stamp out dissent. In Catholic Europe he was hunted, imprisoned and murdered (as Catholic dissidents were themselves to be hunted in Reformation countries later in the century) and his travRU(CChe 1611 translators borrowed freely from him. About four-fifths of their New Testament and much of the Old is in his words. Many striking phrases that have entered the language from the Authorised Version ("Fight the good fight", "Am I my brother's keeper?" "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak", "Salt of the earth") were coined by Tyndale. But, even so long after the victory of Protestantism in England, these scholars seem to have thought it impolitic to acknowledge their subversive forerunner. Tyndale remained a non-person.
This month's commemoration ought to help place him where he belongs: as a major literary artist (second only, perhaps, to Shakespeare in 16th-century England) and one of the makers of our language and our civilisation.
He grew up in Gloucestershire in an influential land-owning family. He studied Greek, Latin and classical rhetoric (that is, composition) at Oxford, probably learnt Hebrew in Germany and became a priest. His preaching, like the theological essays he published throughout his short life, got him into trouble.
In England the Bible, in the fourth-century Latin translation called the Vulgate, was the monopoly of the Church. Although vernacular Bibles in German, Italian, French, Czech, Dutch and Catalan had been printed in the decades following Gutenberg's invention of moveable type in the late 1430s, reading the Bible in English was still prohibited. A few hand-written copies of English translations from the Vulgate, made by the religious reformer John Wycliffe and his followers in the 1380s, circulated in expensive samizdat editions.
Tyndale determined to defy the authorities and publish an English Bible directly translated for the first time from the Hebrew and Greek. "If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost,' he told a horrified colleague.
With money from a London cloth merchant he sailed for Germany, aged 30. He lived a hand-to- mouth existence on the run from government spies. The first complete English edition of his New Testament was printed in Worms in 1526 and bootlegged across the North Sea to England. The first five books of his Old Testament, printed in Antwerp, followed in 1534 and others (death prevented him from completing it) later. …