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We have a young man, who is had been on the run from the Catholic church for many years, all the while working as a printer and a translator of the English Bible. Many times, there was a pounding at the door, only to find that this translator and his apprentice has left moments earlier. The Catholic Church viewed the Bible in the language of the common people as illegal literature, because the people were too illiterate to understand the Word of God. The Bible had been locked up in the dead language of Latin for almost a thousand years. Who was the translator? He was William Tyndale, i.e., “God’s Outlaw,” who had been pursued by the false friend of the Catholic Church, as though he were the worst criminal on the planet in the early 16th-century. While King James is credited with the most popular Bible that has ever been published, it was actually William Tyndale who should be credited, because the 1611 King James Version was 97 percent Tyndale’s English translation. The Word of God has had many enemies since the first book, Genesis, was published, some 3,500 years ago.
The clergy was extremely bitterly opposed to Tyndale’s translation. Why? The Latin Vulgate had a tendency of veiling the sacred text for 500 years, while Tyndale’s translation from the original Greek conveyed the Bible’s message in clear language to the people of England for the first time. For instance, Tyndale chose to translate the Greek word agape as “love” instead of “charity” in 1 Corinthians chapter 13. He rendered the Greek word ecclesia as “congregation” as opposed to “church” so as to emphasize worshipers, rather than church buildings. This took the power back from the church and gave it to the people. The last in a series of unpleasant events that finally made the Catholic Church feel that they could not continue to accept William Tyndale’s translation, not his existence was when he replaced “priest” with “elder” and used “repent” rather than “do penance.” Tyndale in so doing stripped the clergy of their assumed priestly powers. David Daniell says in this regard: “Catholic revisionists are not there; Purgatory is not there; there is no aural confession and penance. Two supports of the Church’s wealth and power collapsed. Instead, there was simply individual faith in Christ as Saviour, found in Scripture.” (William Tyndale—A Biography, 58) That was the difficulty that Tyndale’s translation place on the Catholic Church and modern-day scholarship fully endorse the correctness of his word choices.
Between 1526 and 1528, Tyndale moved to Antwerp. It was here that he felt a little safe among the English merchants. There he wrote The Parable of the Wicked Mammon, The Obedience of a Christian Man, and The Practice of Prelates. Tyndale never abandoned his translation work. Another step toward the accuracy of Tyndale’s translation was the fact that he was the first to use God’s personal name, Jehovah, in an English translation of the Hebrew Old Testament Scriptures. The divine name appears over 20 times. It would also be used 4 times in the 1611 King James Version as well.
Eventually, the Englishman Henry Phillips cunningly inveigled himself into Tyndale’s confidences. “Henry Phillips was the third and last son in the family … Phillips threw himself into the company of the English merchants, and by his silver tongue and golden hand won the confidence of all except Thomas Poyntz, the man who gave Tyndale safe lodging in Antwerp. It was not long before Tyndale, who was frequently invited to dine with the merchants, found himself in the same company, and Henry Phillips had come face to face with his prey. Unsuspecting, the reformer felt attracted to the easy manner and eloquent speech of the young student lawyer, and before long he invited him to the Poyntzes’ home. There he dined, admired Tyndale’s small library, warmly commended his labors, and talked easily of the affairs in England and the need for reform. He even stayed overnight. Thomas Poyntz had misgivings about the relative stranger, but when Tyndale assured him of the man’s Lutheran sympathies, he put his doubts aside. This was the greatest mistake Tyndale ever made.” As a result, in 1535, Tyndale was betrayed and taken to Vilvorde Castle, which was six miles north of Brussels. There he was imprisoned for sixteen months.
The castle of Vilvoorde had been erected in 1374 by one of the dukes of Brabant, and since it was modeled upon the infamous Bastille, built in Paris at about the same time, its moat, seven towers, three drawbridges and massive walls made it an impregnable prison. The castle was used as the state prison for the Low Countries, and Tyndale was thrown into one of the foul—smelling, damp dungeons with nothing for company but the lapping moat, the squabbling moorhens outside, and the dripping walls and scurrying rats inside. Here, in his solitary darkness, Tyndale waited for the end.
William Tyndale like others before him and others who would come after him would give his life, so that the people of England could have an accurate Bible translation. He paid the ultimate price, but he also gave us the priceless gift! Dr. Leland Ryken of Wheaton College helps us better appreciate just what we received from Tyndale,
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 a 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 the 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 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 see 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.
By 1538, King Henry VIII for whatever reason came to order that Bibles be placed in every church in England. While William Tyndale was not given the credit, the translation that was decided upon was essentially his Bible. In this way, Tyndale’s translation work was so well-known and cherished that it “determined the fundamental character of most of the subsequent versions” in English. (The Cambridge History of the Bible) As much as 90 percent of the Tyndale translation was transferred directly into the 1611 King James Bible. And so, it was that William Tyndale was martyred (gave his life) for the honor of giving a Bible that could easily be understood to the people of England. What a price he had paid, however; it was a priceless gift! Tyndale with his skills and gift of language had done his work well; he had made the Word of God known to the common people. Tyndale and others before and after him had worked with the shadow of death towering over their heads. However, by delivering the Bible to many people in their native tongue, they opened up before them the possibility, not of death, but of life eternal. As Jesus Christ said in the Tyndale Bible, “This is lyfe eternall that they myght knowe the that only very God and whom thou hast sent Iesus Christ.” (John 17:3) May we, therefore, know the value of what we can now hold in our hands and may we diligently study God’s Word.