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
"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
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.
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. …