Leland Ryken, Wheaton College
This essay is a historical study. That may seem anomalous in a journal devoted to current translation issues and practices, so a word of explanation is in order. One of the functions of inquiring into the history of English Bible translation is that it can clarify the essential principles of Bible translation. When the issues are distanced from us in time, we can see some things more clearly because they are unclouded by contemporary crosswinds.
More important than the clarifying power of distance, though, is the authority that attaches to historical precedents. This authority may or not be completely valid, but it is a fact that in the current debate between rival translation philosophies an appeal to historical precedents is considered important. Both literal translators and dynamic equivalent and colloquial translators probe the past to find examples of their own preferred style of translation.
The current debate about William Tyndale
It is obvious that we live in a day of debunking. On the Bible translation scene, advocates of colloquial English Bible translations regularly and rigorously debunk the King James Version. In turn, it has become common for these debunkers to attempt to drive a wedge between the King James Version and William Tyndale’s translation work nearly a century earlier.
More specifically, the claim is made that the King James translators spoiled Tyndale by refining his style. Eugene Peterson, the author of The Message, has, of course, led the charge, but he is not alone. Predictably, the claim is made that Tyndale produced a colloquial translation while the King James translation is elegant. Peterson claims that the King James translators “desecrated language upwards” [Eat This Book (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 162].
The most famous statement that Tyndale made about Bible translation, next to his dying prayer that God would open the king of England’s eyes, is a comment that he made about wanting the plowboy to know the Bible better than the Catholic priests. I will quote the statement shortly and then analyze it, but as a lead-in to that, I need to note that translators in what I call the “modernizing” camp claim that Tyndale in a single utterance endorsed (1) a colloquial style for an English Bible, (2) an uneducated reader as the assumed audience for an English Bible, and (3) a dynamic equivalent philosophy of translation (buttressed, of course, by a few famous examples from Tyndale’s actual translation). My thesis in this article is that Tyndale’s plowboy statement has been extravagantly misinterpreted and that none of the three conclusions I listed in the previous sentence is warranted.
Exactly what did Tyndale say?
Tyndale’s plowboy statement is recounted in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. The context of the statement itself disproves the use to which modernizing translators put it. Tyndale had uttered the statement before he had even begun his work of translating the Bible. The occasion of the statement was not Bible translation per se. Instead, the statement occurred as part of the debate about whether the pope or the Bible is the ultimate authority for religious belief and practice.
Upon graduating from Oxford University, Tyndale returned to his native Gloucestershire and assumed the position as the schoolmaster in the Catholic household of Sir John Walsh. Tyndale was an early Reformer whose views brought him into heated debates with the local clergy. Tyndale was appalled at the ignorance of the Catholic clergy. Additionally, he was convinced of the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura on the question of religious authority. I propose that these two things, the biblical ignorance of the clergy and the question of biblical authority, are the context for Tyndale’s statement about the plowboy.
We can hear these two themes of biblical ignorance among the clergy and the authority of Bible in the statement that I now quote:
There dwelt not far off a certain doctor, that he been chancellor to a bishop, who had been of old, familiar acquaintance with Master Tyndale, and favored him well; unto whom Master Tyndale went and opened his mind upon divers questions of the Scripture: for to him he durst be bold to disclose his heart. Unto whom the doctor said, “Do you not know that the pope is very Antichrist, whom the Scripture speaketh of? But beware what you say; for if you shall be perceived to be of that opinion, it will cost you your life.” Not long after, 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 drove him to that issue, that the said great doctor burst out into these blasphemous words, “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, “I defy the pope, and all his laws;” and added, “If God spared him life, ere many years he would cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture than he did.” The grudge of the priests increasing still more and more against Tyndale, they never ceased barking and rating at him, and laid many things sorely to his charge, saying that he was a heretic.
We should note first what is not going on here. The statement about the plowboy is not a comment about Tyndale’s preferred style for an English Bible. It is not a designation of teenage farm boys as a target audience for a niche Bible. In fact, the account does not even mention translation of the Bible into English. Foxe’s account makes it clear that the subject of debate at this early stage in Tyndale’s career was the question of papal authority vs. scriptural authority. When the priest asserted a strong view of papal authority and denigrated the authority of the Bible, Tyndale responded by making an implied case for the Bible as the authority for Christian belief and conduct. We should not overlook Foxe’s follow-up comment about “the grudge of the priests.” The plowboy statement is part of a debate with Catholic priests over papal authority, not on the style of an English Bible.
Therefore, what did Tyndale mean in his famous plowboy statement? First, he implicitly asserted the right of the laity to the Bible. The plowboy is a representative of the whole of English society. Tyndale’s statement is not a comment about English style but about how widely Tyndale wanted the English Bible to be disseminated in English society. Even the humble working class should have access to the Bible.
Secondly, Tyndale was making a statement about how much of the Bible he wanted the laity to know. His statement, to quote again, is “that he would cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture than [the priest] did.” The typical priest knew the snatches of Scripture that were embedded in the liturgy, the mass, and choral music, and he would have known it in Latin.
What I most want to challenge is the view that Tyndale was an ally of what I call modernizing and colloquializing English Bibles that have proliferated since the middle of the twentieth century. Whatever we conclude about Tyndale’s preferred style in an English translation is something we need to deduce from his actual translation, not from his statement about the plowboy.
Tyndale’s plowboy statement is a virtual Rorschach inkblot [interpretation] in which modern translators sees what they themselves believe about English Bible translation. In turn, Tyndale is such a towering figure that if one can claim him for one’s side in the translation wars, it is, in fact, a victory. I submit that Tyndale’s plowboy statement should not be allowed to lend any support whatever to dynamic equivalent and colloquial translations. Exactly where Tyndale stood on questions of essentially literal vs. dynamic equivalence and dignified vs. colloquial style needs to rest on his actual translation of the Bible.