On Translating the Old Testament: the Achievement of William Tyndale

Michael Weitzman
University College London

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If a text is to be translated, it must first be understood. The translator's understanding will depend both on his prior knowledge of the source language and on his skill in applying that knowledge to the text. However, his understanding of the text does not wholly determine the words and syntactic constructions that he will select in the target language. He has first to consider what elements of the text need to be conveyed, and to take account of the existing culture of his intended readership. In order to appreciate the achievement of William Tyndale in translating the Old Testament[1] into English, we must consider all these aspects.

The meaning of biblical Hebrew

Our knowledge of biblical Hebrew is far from perfect even today. The proper method of deciding what a word means is to examine its usage in a good number of contexts. However, the Bible is brief, and very little else has survived in Hebrew from ancient times.[2] As a result, of the different words attested in biblical Hebrew, four out of five occur fewer than twenty times in the Old Testament.[3] Indeed, about a thousand occur just once. For most words in biblical Hebrew there is not enough information in the Bible to establish the meaning, and so we are thrown back on other criteria.

Primarily, there are various forms of tradition. There are, first of all, ancient translations, the oldest being in Greek and dating from the third to first centuries BC. This is the so-called Septuagint (LXX). Rabbinic literature from about AD 200 onward includes discussion of biblical Hebrew words, much of which was summarized in the commentary by Rashi, i.e., Solomon son of Isaac of Troyes (1040-1105). Both Rashi and later medieval Jewish scholars added their own suggestions as to the meaning of the biblical text. The commentary by Rashi was utilized by the Franciscan scholar Nicholas de Lyre (1270-1349), whose running commentary on the biblical text was in turn an important aid for Luther's version.

Beyond tradition, we may also invoke comparative philology. Hebrew belongs to the group of Semitic languages, some still widely spoken (e.g. Arabic), some known primarily through a living literary tradition (e.g. Aramaic) and some recovered through archaeology (e.g. Akkadian). The similarities between these languages suggest that they all descend from a common ancestor language, lost long before the invention of writing. If a rare Hebrew word had an antecedent in that ancestor language, we may hope that cognates appear in other Semitic languages also, through which it can be explained. This has been a fruitful approach, though there are hazards in deciding which words are in fact cognate and in transferring their meanings to biblical Hebrew.[4]

Unfortunately, these many sources of information do not always lead to a clear result. Sometimes they point in different directions. Thus at Genesis 37:3 it is questionable whether Joseph's coat really was a coat of many colours. The Hebrew is plural of a word pas, which occurs in this context only. Later Hebrew has a similar-looking word, meaning 'strip'; on the other hand, Aramaic too has a similar-looking word, meaning 'palm of hand' or 'sole of foot'. The Greek translators thought of the strip, whence the many colours, and they have been followed by Tyndale (and by A.V. after him). However, Jewish tradition as handed down in Hebrew knows nothing about many colours and thinks rather of a robe with long sleeves, following the Aramaic. This approach has been accepted by REB, which clothes Joseph in a monochrome 'long robe with sleeves'. In the same way, the ešpar which David distributed to every Israelite at 2 Samuel 6:19 (and I Chronicles 16:3) is variously taken to be a piece of meat or a date-cake.[5]

The grammar and syntax of biblical Hebrew are in many ways as uncertain as the vocabulary. Even on the very first verse of the Bible there is no agreement. Tyndale has an independent sentence: 'In the beginning God created heaven and earth'. Many scholars today, however, take the verse instead as a temporal clause, in which case the Bible begins rather as follows: 'When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth was chaos and void.... then God said: let there be light.' This latter understanding goes back to Rashi, who showed that it better corresponded with Hebrew grammar: more recently it received support from the Babylonian creation epic, which likewise begins with a temporal clause;[6] it also avoids the difficulty in the traditional translation that God first created an earth of chaos. Against all this, the independent sentence has the support of the traditional Jewish cantillation and all other known authorities before Rashi; moreover, it fits well with the crisp sentences of the rest of this creation account, while the effect of the temporal clause is indeed ponderous by comparison. The tide is perhaps returning to the independent sentence, though no consensus is in sight.[7] Again, the usage of the tenses in biblical Hebrew is so puzzling that commentators cannot agree whether the poem in Isaiah 9:8-21 views the fall of Samaria as a future or a past event. Such controversies testify to the uncertainties that still surround the understanding of biblical Hebrew, and were of course even more acute in Tyndale's day.

Tyndale's written sources

We must first ask how much Hebrew Tyndale knew. There has been much debate on this question, which interlocks with the question of his dependence on Luther's translation into German, of which the first edition was published in Wittenberg in 1523, shortly before the first part of Tyndale's translation.[8]

That Tyndale never consulted Luther cannot be maintained, as we shall see and indeed as earlier studies have shown. We must ask rather what was Tyndale's normal procedure. Did he usually go straight to the Hebrew, consulting Luther on occasion only, where he felt unsure of the sense? Or did he derive his understanding of the text primarily from Luther, giving no more than a supplementary role to the Hebrew?

In the most recent extensive study,[9] Hammond reaches the latter conclusion. He affirms Tyndale's 'primary dependence upon Luther', noting how easily one could find verses where Tyndale's rendering is so close to Luther's that he may well be translating directly from the German' (p. 355). At the same time, however, Hammond finds that the Hebrew played an extensive role, above all in shaping the English syntax, for here Tyndale often departed from Luther to follow the Hebrew. Hammond thus concludes: 'What Tyndale did was to base his translation firmly upon Luther, but to modify that basis by introducing Hebraic elements' (p. 356). In other words, his normal practice was to consult both the Hebrew and Luther's translation, so that he could combine the syntax of the former with the sense of the latter.

Hammond amasses evidence to show how Tyndale imitated the Hebrew syntax, to great effect.[10] This very evidence, however, casts doubt on the procedure which Hammond effectively ascribes to him. If Tyndale knew enough Hebrew to be able to impose Hebrew syntax upon Luther's sense, he could more easily have translated the Hebrew directly for himself, at least most of the time. This is a far simpler, and to that extent likelier, procedure.[11] One need hardly add that Tyndale's own claim to have translated the Hebrew 'into the English word for word', and the urgency of his request from prison for his Hebrew Bible and Hebrew grammar and dictionary,[12] are less easily understood if his primary source was in fact Luther's German.

Tyndale's knowledge of Hebrew is further confirmed in the passages where he produces a translation that still resonates with the overtones of the original Hebrew. A fine example occurs in 2 Kings 4, where the prophet Elisha is offered hospitality by a childless couple, and asks the wife to name her reward. Upon her refusal, Elisha tells her that she will soon bear a son, and she replies: 'Do not lie unto your handmaid' (4:16). The promise is fulfilled; but one day the boy goes out to help his father at reaping, suddenly falls ill, and is carried back to his mother, on whose knees he dies. The mother runs to Elisha and reminds him of her first incredulous reaction to his promise. Significantly, however, she changes her original words. In verse 16 she had asked Elisha not to lie to her, using a common Hebrew word (tekazzeb). Recalling that moment in verse 28, however, she substitutes a rarer word tašleh, which means literally 'put at ease'. She thus pictures herself as having asked Elisha not to pacify her, not to humour her, not to lull her into a false sense of security. This is still tantamount to asking him not to deceive her, but the derivation from 'being at ease' adds its own pathos. A.V. has: 'Do not deceive me', which goes too fast to the point, losing the resonances of the Hebrew. REB: '(Did I not beg you) not to raise my hopes and then dash them?' better suggests the mother's grief, but loses the derivation from putting at ease. Tyndale is far superior: 'Did I not say that thou shouldst not bring me in a fool's paradise?' Here Tyndale has captured not only the plain sense but also the associations of the Hebrew word.

Of course, one has to account for the many instances where Tyndale and Luther agree in sense so closely that Tyndale might as well have translated from the German. Here, however, one must remember that Luther and Tyndale were translating the same Hebrew text, with more or less the same resources. Moreover, as we shall see, they shared the same aims, including a drive for clarity and a determination to translate almost anything rather than admit ignorance by merely transliterating. Against that background, only a small minority of the agreements between Luther and Tyndale are so striking as to prove dependence.

Tyndale's dependence on Luther, then, was sporadic. There were difficult Hebrew phrases for which Tyndale evidently felt that Luther had found the best solution. Thus for the obscure u-kyameka dob'eka at Deuteronomy 33:25, Tyndale offers 'thine age shall be as thy youth', almost exactly like Luther.[13] Again, there were difficult words for which Luther supplied Tyndale's understanding. An example is ‘aṭalep, which occurs Leviticus 11:19 and Deuteronomy 14:18 in a list of what the Bible calls unclean bird, and means a bat. Tyndale would have found the true meaning in the Septuagint and Vulgate, but preferred to follow Luther, who has Schwalbe; hence Tyndale renders: swallow. Luther — followed by Tyndale — could not see how the Bible could have found it scientifically acceptable to include a bat in the category of birds.[14] Another, rather unfortunate, borrowing from Luther is Tyndale's usual rendering 'sweet bread' for the Hebrew word maṣṣah, which properly means 'unleavened bread'. Luther calls this bread ungesdäuert 'unsoured', not unreasonably; compare LXX azumos 'which has not fermented'. Tyndale however took it as simply the opposite of sour.

Tyndale also utilized the Vulgate. A striking example occurs at I Samuel 1:5, concerning the barren Hannah on her annual visit to the temple at Shiloh, together with her husband and her fertile rival wife. The Hebrew tells us that the husband Elkanah would give her one portion of the sacrifice, and the next Hebrew word perplexingly means 'face' (Hebrew appayim). Tyndale renders: 'with a heavy cheer', evidently following Vulgate tristis. Other passages discussed below where Tyndale has followed the Vulgate are Genesis 16:13, 37:3, Exodus 13:16 and I Kings 10:28. Tyndale may also have consulted the Septuagint (which certainly exercised an indirect influence through the Vulgate) and the Latin translation of Pagninus, but as yet no clear evidence exists.

It must be emphasized, however, that Tyndale used his sources with discrimination. Detailed comparison of Tyndale with his predecessors over any stretch of text — such as Mozley's study of Jonah[15] and Daniell's on the Song of Deborah[16] — confirms that 'throughout he is his own master and, what is more, he usually comes down on the right side'.[17] This again testifies to his knowledge of Hebrew. Further confirmation comes from some idiosyncratic renderings. At Deuteronomy 33:12, for example, Tyndale translates Heb. ḥopep 'alaw as '[God) keepeth himself in the haven by him [= Benjamin]', interpreting the Hebrew verb through the noun ḥop 'haven'. Here he differs from all his predecessors,[18] probably not for the better, but it still confirms his independent knowledge of Hebrew.

It must be admitted that Tyndale could nod on occasion. For example, at 2 Kings 19:21, Tyndale's rendering 'he hath despised thee, 0 virgin daughter of Sion' (with the following verbs similarly interpreted) overlooks the Hebrew suffixes, which show the true sense instead to be: 'The virgin daughter of Zion has despised thee...' In some such instances, however, the fault may lie rather in the editing.[19]

Did Tyndale consult Jewish scholars?

Did Tyndale gain his knowledge from books alone, or did he consult living authorities? Tyndale himself has left little evidence on this point, and an intriguing question is whether his translation betrays any indication that he consulted Jewish scholars whom he might have met on the continent. Parallels between Tyndale and the traditional Jewish sources might suggest such meetings, but caution is needed. First, one must allow for the possibility that Tyndale and the Jewish interpreters, faced with the same problems in the text, independently arrived at the same solutions. Moreover, parallels also shared with Luther are not significant, since in such cases rabbinic tradition may have reached Tyndale mediately through Luther. At Leviticus 19:26, for example, Tyndale explains lo' te'onenu as prohibiting the observance of 'dismal days'. This agrees with Rashi's derivation of the verb from 'onah 'season', but also with Luther's Tage wählen, which is likelier to be the immediate source.

There are, however, occasional indications that Tyndale had Jewish contacts who enabled him to draw on tradition. Deuteronomy 6:8 and 11:18 require God's commandments to be as ṭoṭapot between one's eyes. In Jewish tradition, ṭoṭapot are ritual objects placed on the forehead and worn during prayer. In English these are known as phylactateries,[20] though A.V. renders: 'frontlets', agreeing with Pagninus: frontalia. They consist of straps attached to black boxes containing parchment scrolls, on which various paragraphs of scripture are written. Now Tyndale renders: 'papers of remembrance'. The 'remembrance' element probably comes from Luther, who has Denkmal — though Tyndale could have reached this himself, given the closely similar command at Exodus 13:9 that God's commands should be a memorial between one's eyes. But whence the papers? It seems that Tyndale took the trouble at this stage to ask a Jewish contact about the ṭoṭapot and elicited the detail, not found in any of his usual sources, that they contained scrolls.[21]

Another instance may perhaps be detected in Genesis 2:13, which names the second of the four rivers of the Garden of Eden, which is said to flow about a land called Kush in the Hebrew. Jewish tradition normally identifies Kush with Ethiopia, as do LXX, Vulgate and even Luther: Mohrenland. However, the four rivers also include the Tigris and Euphrates. Tyndale's predecessors, knowing little of the southern hemisphere, could just about believe in some mysterious place where a river that flows through Ethiopia on the one hand might meet up with the rivers of Mesopotamia on the other. But Tyndale lived in the age of discovery, and knew full well that in geographical terms Ethiopia is impossible. Hence he renders Hebrew Kush by lnde, i.e. India, which from a geographical viewpoint is rather easier, if not altogether free from difficulty. How did he justify this? There is in fact a Jewish tradition that the name Kush might refer to India rather Ethiopia, though that Jewish tradition does not relate to the Genesis passage but rather to Esther 1:1. There, King Ahasuerus is said to have reigned from Hodu unto Kush. There is no doubt that Hodu is India, but about Kush two rabbis are said to have disagreed. One identified Kush with Ethiopia, the opposite end of Ahasuerus' empire. The other, however, held that Kush neighboured on India.[22] One may imagine, then, that when Tyndale reached Genesis 2:13 he could not accept a reference to Ethiopia and asked a Jewish contact whether Hebrew Kush might indicate anywhere else. His contact produced the latter rabbi's view on Esther 1:1, which Tyndale gratefully adopted.

External theological factors

In arriving at his understanding of the text, the biblical translator must decide how far to accommodate the interpretations that have been attached to the text by the believing community for whom the translation is intended. Should the translation reflect these, or should it represent strictly the meaning of the biblical text in its original setting?

There would have been precedents for the introduction of Christian references into the Old Testament translation. Perhaps an extreme case is Jerome's Psalterium iuxta Hebraeos, which introduces Jesus in some passages where the Hebrew has a noun from the root 'save', from which the name Jesus derives.[23] Tyndale, however, resists any such temptation. At Genesis 49:10 he translates: 'The sceptre shall not depart from Juda-until Silo come, unto whom the people shall hearken', on which he comments: 'it is a prophecy of Christ'. The translation itself, however, is not Christological, and was already considered possible by certain rabbis.[24] Even Tyndale's rendering of Isaiah 7:14a as: 'Behold a virgin shall be with child' is not in itself tendentious. Even though it is accepted today that the Hebrew word 'almah need not imply virginity, Tyndale still thought 'virgin' to be its plain meaning of the word (as did the Septuagint), and he translates it likewise as virgin' in the totally different context of Genesis 24:43.[25]

The claims of form and content: Tyndale compared with the A. V.

Having reached an understanding of the text, the translator must now decide what elements should go forward to the translation. Here the problem arises of the competing demands of form and content. The word-for-word translation that would result from an attempt to reproduce the form of a text is likely to be difficult if not impossible to comprehend. At least for literary texts, therefore, ever since classical antiquity if not earlier, the ideal in translation has been to concentrate on conveying the content. However, the Bible in different because every detail in the word of God is significant, and this doctrine encouraged literal translation.[26] The phenomenon first arose among the Jews; it is already noticeable in the fragments of the biblical translation into Greek found among the Dead Sea Scrolls,[27] and reached a climax in the Greek version of Aquila. Literal translation also became widespread in the Church, as witnessed by Jerome's influential remark that in holy Scripture 'even the word order is a mystery'.[28]

Any translator of the Bible has to take a stand on the two potentially conflicting aims of communicating the content in a clear and attractive manner and of fidelity to the original form. It is true that Tyndale strove to accommodate the Hebrew form, as Hammond's studies have shown in detail. This must not, however, obscure the fact that where demands of form conflicted with those of content, Tyndale did not hesitate to opt for the latter. This is not surprising, given his ambition to make the scriptures accessible 'to a boy that driveth the plough'.[29]

A particularly helpful departure from the outward Hebrew form is Tyndale's insertion of particles which make explicit the relationships between different clauses and sentences. These relationships are left implicit in the Hebrew, which in narrative usually links sentences with the simple w- ('and'). Tyndale constantly provides signposts that are enormously helpful to the English reader: 'therefore', 'but', 'indeed', even 'and yet for all that' (1 Samuel 12:14). These essential pointers are far less frequent in A.V., which was more concerned to reproduce the form of the Hebrew; only in modern translations of the Bible do they appear on the same scale.

An instructive example is 2 Kings 19:3, where Jerusalem is besieged and its surrender demanded by the Assyrians. Tyndale writes: 'This day is a day of tribulation, rebuking and railing. Even as when the children are ready to be born and the mothers have no power to be delivered.' The comparison ('even as when the children are ready to be born') is no more than implicit in the Hebrew. A word-for-word translation would give: for the children are come to the birth', as A.V. renders. The Hebrew, however, was more informative to its audience than the literal English translation. Since ancient Hebrew did not mark all relationships between clauses explicitly, readers were alert to the different possibilities and well practised in identifying the relationship (e.g. comparative) for themselves. In English, however, an explicit indication is expected, without which the style becomes unnatural and the sense may be lost altogether. In this case, the sense of agony with no relief in sight emerges clearly from Tyndale, but is hard to infer from A.V. Paradoxically, A.V.'s fidelity to the form results in a sense that is in effect false to the Hebrew.

Another example is Exodus 1:6-7, where a literal translation is as in A.V.: 'And Joseph died, and all his brethren, and all that generation. And the children of Israel were fruitful and increased abundantly and multiplied and waxed exceedingly mighty; and the land was filled with them.' By contrast, Tyndale had written: 'When Joseph was dead and all his brethren and all that generation, the children of Israel grew, increased, multiplied and waxed exceedingly mighty: so that the land was full of them'. Karpman has accused Tyndale of 'significant mistakes', and regards his translation of the opening phrase of 1:6 as typical.[30] The Hebrew, she complains, means 'and Joseph died', and not 'when Joseph was dead'. In fact, however, Tyndale well knew that those words literally meant 'and Joseph died'; he had just translated the same Hebrew phrase in almost those words — 'and so Joseph died' — at the end of Genesis (50:26). That is precisely why he phrased his translation differently here: the English reader would have been puzzled to read : 'and Joseph died' a second time. In the same way, Tyndale sharpens the 'and' of the last clause in the Hebrew to 'so that', to indicate result. Karpman's criticism presupposes that any departure from literalness is wrong; Tyndale, by contrast, was alive to the needs of the English reader.

The point of these comparisons between Tyndale and A.V. is not a simplistic claim that Tyndale is superior. It is rather that the two translations differ in aim. Where the demands of form and content conflict, Tyndale gives full priority to clear and readable expression of the content; A.V. makes greater effort to reproduce the form, which is also a legitimate concern, given that in principle the form is important in its own right. No single translation can in fact convey all the essential features of the original. This point was not lost on the Karaites in the tenth and eleventh centuries, who produced a whole series of alternative renderings of the Pentateuch from Hebrew into Arabic. These renderings differed in the balance struck between literalness and intelligibility, and as well as appearing in different Arabic versions they might even be placed side by side as alternatives in a single version. Only on mastering all these renderings could the student hope to appreciate the essential features both of the form and of the content.[31]

Changes in Tyndale's translation technique over time

Some movement on the question of form versus content can be distinguished in Tyndale's own work. Certain passages of Chronicles agree in the Hebrew verbatim with parallel passages in the earlier books. In Tyndale, the renderings in Chronicles tend to be more literal; and as Tyndale must have translated Chronicles later, we may deduce that Tyndale felt increasingly able over time to concede more to the form.

Examples are here drawn from three such passages, which describe Saul's last barr (1 Samuel 31), Solomon's speech at the dedication of the Temple (1 Kings 8:12 ff), and the visit of the Queen of Sheba (1 Kings 10).

1 Sam 31:1 And as the Philistines fought against Israel, the men of Israel fled away from the Philistines...
1 Chr 10:1 And the Philistines fought against Israel. And the men of Israel fled before the Philistines...
1 Sam 31:4he was sore afraid
1 Chr 10:4 he feared exceedingly
1 Kgs 8:44 whithersoever thou shalt send them
2 Chr 6:34 the way that thou shalt send them
1 Kgs 10:5 she was astonished
2 Chr 9:4 there was no more heart in her
1 Kgs 10:7 till I came and saw it with mine eyes
2 Chr 9:6 until I came and mine eyes had seen it

Again, genitive constructions with 'of', which preserve the Hebrew word order, tend in Chronicles to replace the shorter constructions used in the earlier books: thus 'the son of Saul' (1 Chronicles 10:2) for 'Saul's sons' (1 Samuel 31:2), or 'the wisdom of Salomon' (2 Chronicles 9:3) for 'Salomon's wisdom' (1 Kings 10:4).

Tyndale's increasing tolerance for literalism sheds light on the translations of Old Testament extracts appended as 'Epistles' to his edition of the New Testament.[32] Some agree exactly with his main translation of the Old Testament, but those that differ show a greater tendency towards literalness. Examples are drawn from three passages:

(a) 1 Kings 19:3-8 [p.396]
Main: And he went a day's journey into the wilderness, and when he was come sat down under a juniper tree
Epistles: And he went into the wilderness a day's journey, and came and sat under a juniper tree
Main: thou hast a long journey to go
Epistles: thou hast a great way to go
(The Hebrew had: 'too great for thee is the way')


(b) Genesis 37:6-22 [pp. 397-8]
Main: Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren come and fall on the ground before thee?
Epistles: Shall I come and thy mother and thy brethren and fall before thee on the ground?
Main: his father noted the saying
Epistles: his father kept the thing in mind
Main: And a certain man found him wandering out of his way in the field, and asked him what he sought.
Epistles: And a man found him wandering in the field and asked him saying: what seekest thou?


(c) 1 Kings 17:17-24 [p. 400]
Main: and he stretched himself upon the lad
Epistles: and he measured the child
(Although the latter reflects more accurately the etymology of the Hebrew form wavitmoded, the resulting sense is far less appropriate)
Main: God's man
Epistles: a man of God

The later translations occasionally show an improvement in Tyndale's Hebrew knowledge. Thus at 1 Kings 8:33 Israel is envisaged as defeated in battle, yet Tyndale writes that they would 'praise' the name of God, following the usual sense of the Hebrew wehodu. When he came to translate the same text at 2 Chronicles 6:24, he had learnt a further sense for the Hebrew, and renders: 'confess thy name'. Again, at 1 Kings 19:6 the main translation renders 'uggat reṣapim as 'a loaf of broiled bread', while the rendering in the Epistles is more accurate: 'a cake baken on the coals'.

The expectations of the reader

Apart from the balance between form and content, other decisions must be reached before the Bible translation can be written. First, the need for intelligibility relates not only to individual verses but also to extended passages. This raises the problem that much of the Old Testament, as well as the New, bristles with inconsistencies so difficult as to have convinced many that the existing text of the Bible has been edited together from a number of different sources. One does not have to read very far in the Bible before encountering that sort of problem. For example, Genesis 1 states that God created the beasts on the fifth day, and mankind — male and female — only later, on the sixth day of creation. One is therefore surprised to read in Genesis 2 that God created Adam (verse 7) and only then created the beasts to ease Adam's loneliness (verse 19), before finally creating Eve (verse 22). Should the translator reproduce such inconsistencies, or try to smooth them over?

Tyndale was evidently anxious to spare his readership such difficulties. In Gen 1-2 he solves the problem by rendering Genesis 2:19: 'And after God created all manner of beasts of the field', so imposing the order of Gen 1 — beasts before mankind — even though that sense would normally have required a rather different Hebrew text. The same solution appears in Luther, from whom Tyndale seems to have learnt the importance of overall consistency.[33] A modern critic might prefer the translator to preserve the discrepancies, as clues to the putative origin of the text; but Tyndale was aiming at a translation that could be readily understood, and to that extent he was prepared to 'improve' on the original. Another example appears in Genesis 19:14, where we hear of Lot attempting to save his sons-in-law who had married his daughters; yet in verse 8 of this chapter Lot's two daughters still seem to be living with him, because he offers them to the town'' Once again Tyndale is aware of the contradiction, which he solves by rendering in 14: 'his sons-in-law who should have married his daughters', which is a legitimate rendering of the Hebrew but not the most obvious one. Once again the same solution — found in Luther.[34]

Another decision for the translator is whether to translate everything, or to leave certain elements (e.g., obscure words, place names or specifically Israelite institute untranslated. Tyndale's policy on translation is maximalist, and here he again agrees with Luther. Thus the type of wood from which Noah made his ark is called goper in Hebrew, and, as it had not been identified, A.V. was content to transliterate: 'gopher wood'. However, Tyndale refuses to be beaten and so renders 'pine wood', evidently on the basis of Luther's Tannenholz, which is in turn presumably a guess based on this wood's combination of lightness and strength. Likewise, in Numbers 6 Tyndale will not speak of a Nazirite, which would be a mere transliteration of the Hebrew nazir; a translator must translate, so he renders: 'abstainer' (so Luther: Verlobte). At 1 Samuel 17:2 he cannot leave any part of the place name 'emeq ha-'elah untranslated, and so renders: 'Oakdale, again agreeing with Luther (im Eichgrunde).

A more subtle question concerns the associations that the translation is likely to ever in its intended readership. An example of a translation affected by this motive is the rendering 'unicorn' which Tyndale took from the Septuagint in order to render the Hebrew word re'em. The Septuagint translators must have known that this creature had more than one horn, since at Deuteronomy 32:17 the Hebrew speaks of the horns of the re'em, and the biblical references (especially Job 39:9-12) point rather to the wild ox. However there are passages where Israelites or even God himself are compared to the re'em notably at Numbers 23:22, 24:8: and to Greek readers, despite its overtones of majesty in the ancient Near East, the wild ox apparently called up instead the same association as our 'bull in a china shop'. It seems then that the Greek translators' choice of unicorn was intended to retain the overtones of dignity, whatever the price in zoological accuracy.[35] In adopting this translation, Tyndale — and A.V. after him — may likewise have been concerned about associations, though their motive may instead have been simply the prestige of the Septuagint (or of the Vulgate, which likewise has unicornis).

The expectations of the readership may also have been a consideration in the abandonment by A.V. of Tyndale's rendering at Genesis 16:13b. The subject of this chapter is Hagar, the slave-girl who became Abraham's concubine and eventually bore his first son. Being ill-treated by Abraham's wife Sarah, Hagar fled to the desert. There she met an angel, who promised that her unborn child would produce countless descendants. Upon this encounter, Hagar exclaimed: 'Thou art the God that lookest on me'. However, her next phrase, i.e., Genesis 16:13b, has long troubled interpreters. The opening words clearly mean: 'Have I also here seen...', while the final word means 'the one who sees me'. Between them stands the Hebrew word ’aḥare, which almost always functions as the preposition 'after', though it was originally a noun meaning 'back'.[36]

The Vulgate adopted the primary sense 'back' for ’aḥare, and so rendered: profecto hic vidi posteriora videntis me. Tyndale follows this closely: 'I have of a surety seen here the back parts of him that seeth me'. This translation picks up a Hebrew idiom known from Exodus 33:23. There, Moses had asked God : 'Show me thy glory', and God had replied: 'There shall no man see me and live'. God offers, however, to place Moses in a cleft of rock, and then to pass by, covering the cleft with his hand. "Thereafter, God promises: 'I will take away mine hand and thou shalt see my hack: but my face shall not seen'. Seeing God's back may mean that, although mortals cannot see God, one can sometimes look back at events and know that God was present, just as one sees the wake of a ship and knows that the ship itself was there. Whatever the precise theological meaning the the existence of the idiom of seeing God's back is established by the Exodus passage and both the Vulgate and Tyndale point up the connection by using the same words in both passages.[37] Hagar is thus declaring that God has looked upon her, and although, like any other mortal, she cannot look upon God, her experience has left her convinced at God was with her. In the Hebrew idiom, she has seen God's back. This understanding is unique in making good sense of the existing Hebrew text,[38] and Tyndale did well adopt it.

Yet A.V. rendered quite differently: 'Have I also here looked after him that seeth me?' A.V. thus takes ’aḥare, in the usual sense of 'after', even though this makes little sense. Evidently, however, A.V. preferred it to Tyndale's translation, which gave good and indeed profound sense (at least on reflection) but was liable to offend readers by using bodily terms of God. In Germany too, Luther had first translated Genesis 16:13b on the same lines as the Vulgate, but revised to an opaque translation based on 'after' rather than back'.[39] The same distaste for 'back' has driven most authorities. like A.V., to understand ’aḥare, as 'after', but without success, at least in relation to the Hebrew text as it stands.[40]

Such, then, were the issues that Tyndale had to address before he selected the words and constructions that would express the sense in English. The effect of that final text has been ably discussed elsewhere, and little need be added to the treatments by Hammond and Daniell of Tyndale's feel for the potentialities of the English language, and his ability to produce vigorous prose by virtue of, rather than despite, his loyalty to the Hebrew.[41]

A quincentenary retrospect

Tyndale never expected his to be the final translation of the Old Testament into English. He knew full well that knowledge of the meaning of the Bible would continue to progress, and also that the English language would steadily change.

Progress has indeed been made since Tyndale's day in the understanding of biblical Hebrew. Words sometimes come to be better understood through careful examination of the contexts where they stand. For example, the two Hebrew roots nus and baraḥ, which both mean 'flee' and were long regarded as total synonyms, are now differentiated: baraḥ denotes a precautionary flight before the onset of danger, while nus indicates a rout.[42] Likewise, Hebrew tiroš, which was taken to mean 'wine' exclusively, has been shown to include 'grape' also.[43] In such cases, the nuances were discovered through careful examination of the contexts where the words occur, i.e. through evidence that had always been present in the text.

In other instances, progress has come through comparison of related languages. For example, Hebrew possesses the frequent verb yada‘ meaning 'to know', but in a few cases the translation 'know' does not fit at all well. One such is Judges 8:16, where Gideon seizes some men who had taunted him, and takes briars and thorns with which, the Hebrew says: wayoda‘. On the basis of the traditional sense of the verb, thi, should be rendered: 'and he caused them to know'; but that sense seems inadequate, suggestion has been made, on the basis of the Arabic verb wada‘a, that Hebrew possess a second root yada‘, meaning 'to be submissive', or in its causative form 'to humiliate'. Hence many translate wayoda‘ in Judges as 'and he humiliated [= punished] them'.[44] Interestingly, Tyndale has: 'and all to tear them therewith', agreeing with earlier translators, before the philological support through Arabic had been provided.[45] A.V.'s rendering, which keeps to the traditional understanding, is tame by comparison: 'and with he taught the men of Succoth'.

Occasionally, progress has been made through archaeological discovery. At 1 Samuel 13:21, for example, we learn that the Israelites, lacking the necessary technology, had to go down to the Philistines in order to have their agricultural implements sharpened. . Hebrew text goes on with three words which were impenetrable until this century we-hayetah ha-peṣirah pim, which may be partially translated: 'and the pressing was pim'. For more than two thousand years, nobody knew what pim was. The traditional commentators thought of pe, 'edge of sword', whence Tyndale: 'as oft as the edges were blunt'. This, however, is to ignore the second Hebrew word, which has some such sense as 'pressing' and cannot be connected with bluntness. The solution came through the discovery in the Holy Land, starting at the beginning of this century, of ancient weight inscribed with the Hebrew letters pym. These suggested that the mysterious biblical pim was a weight, or an amount of silver of that weight used as currency. The examples excavated weighed a little under 8 grammes, or two-thirds of a shekel. The 'pressing' would then mean a monetary charge, whence the translation: 'and the charge was one pim'.[46] Were it not for chance archaeological discovery, this passage would have remained obscure.

It is worth adding that the understanding of biblical Hebrew has not always advanced in a straight line. Thus at 1 Kings 10:28 and 2 Chronicles 1:16, which describe Solomon's international trade in horses, a Hebrew form miqwe twice occurs. This term could be analyzed in two quite different ways: either the mi- could be the preposition 'from', in which case the remaining qwe represents a place name, or else the initial mi- may be an integral part of a common noun. The former possibility is attested by the Vulgate (de Coa) and Luther's first edition (von Keva).[47] Tyndale too has a place name: 'And Salomon's horses came out of Egypt from Keva: the merchants fetched them from Keva at a price.[48] However, Luther later rejected the place name for the bland allerlei Ware... dieselbe Ware, guessed from the context. A.V. likewise banished the place name from the English Bible, preferring a common noun: 'linen yarn'. The reason was that nothing was known of any place called Keva or the like. Time, however, has vindicated Tyndale's choice. The records of the Assyrian emperors of the eighth and ninth centuries BC, discovered in recent times, mention a region called Que, located in Asia Minor and later called Cilicia.[49] The place name has been duly restored in all modern translations.

Progress in the understanding of the Old Testament has also come through new discoveries of Hebrew biblical manuscripts, notably the Dead Sea Scrolls. Thus, for example, the 'lion' (’ryh) which refused to fit into Isaiah 21:8 now seems a scribal error for 'he that sees' (hr’h).[50] There is also greater awareness that the Hebrew text has a long history, and that the Septuagint and other ancient versions are not simply interpretations of the Hebrew text now preserved by the Jews, but may rather reflect ancient variant readings.[51] Even so, the Hebrew text still has a high degree of uniformity, and the main problem for the translator lies rather in establishing the sense. Most new renderings result from emending the dictionary rather than the texts.[52] In this respect, of course, the Old Testament presents very different problems from the New.

Another reason that Tyndale's translation could not suffice in itself is that different approaches are possible to the various issues of policy. In his day the most urgent need was for ready intelligibility, but a case can also be made for a translation that preserves more of the form. This could be used side by side with a more idiomatic translation, rather in the manner of the Karaites. Some literal translations have been well appreciated, such as the German translation by Buber and Rosenzweig,[53] to say nothing of A.V. Again, Tyndale's policy of translating at almost any cost, even where no real clue is available to the meaning of the Hebrew, could not be final.

Moreover, of course, what was effective language in Tyndale's day is not necessarily still so. With the passing years, most of his work retains its clarity, and has even gained in dignity. Some, however, is inevitably less easily understood. To take a trivial instance, in Isaiah 62:12 the Hebrew promises that the city of Jerusalem will be called deruṣah sought after', and Tyndale translates: 'thou shall be called a haunted city'. This was suitable in Tyndale's day, but to the modern reader a haunted city rather suggests a ghost town.

For all these reasons, the translation of the Bible can never stand still. Each generation must apply itself anew. One is reminded of the repainting of the Forth Bridge. The work never ceases. And yet those who repaint the Forth Bridge cannot compare in achievement with those who put it up in the first place. It is to the latter that we may aptly compare William Tyndale, who made the Hebrew Bible accessible in the English language for the very first time, and who — with all due respect for that metal bridge — execit monumentum acre perennius.


[1]This is a Christian term, derived from 2 Corinthians 3:14, where God's old and supposedly obsolete covenant (to which 'testament' is equivalent) with the Jews is contrasted with his new covenant with the Church. Moreover, the Old Testament in Christian usage implies a chronological arrangement of the books, from the past (history) through the present (prayer, wisdom) to the future (prophecy). Although neither feature is intrinsic to the Hebrew Scriptures, the term Old Testament can appropriately be applied to Tyndale's work.
[2]See G. I. Davies, Ancient Hebrew Inscriptions: Corpus and Concordance (Cambridge, 1991).
[3]See F. I. Andersen and A. D. Forbes, The Vocabulary of the Old Testament (Rome, 1989). Here, 8,253 different words (or, more properly, morphemes) are listed on pp. 33-263, and of these only 1,629 occur twenty times or more (pp. 267-447). There are limits to precision, since the delimitation of the different lexical items is not straightforward, nor is it always clear to which item a given biblical Hebrew form belongs.
[4]J.Barr, Comparative Philology and the Text of the Old Testament (Oxford, 1968).
[5]The latter is supported by L. Koehler, 'Äschpār Dattelkuchen', Theologische Zeitschrift 4 (1948), pp. 397-8. English versions from Tyndale to REB, however understand it as a portion of meat.
[6]'When on high the heaven had not been named/firm ground below had not been called by name...' See J. B. Pritchard ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts (Princeton: 3rd edition, 1969), pp. 60-61.
[7]The arguments are carefully surveyed by C. Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary (trans. J. J. Scullion, London, 1984), pp. 93-7, who comes down the side of the independent sentence. NEB preferred the temporal clause: 'In the beginning of creation, when God made heaven and earth...', but offered the indenpendent sentence in a footnote. REB has gone back to the independent sentence. agreeing almost exactly with Tyndale: 'In the beginning God created the heaven, and the earth.'
[8]Luther is quoted here from the 1523 edition, but with modernized spelling. Tyndale is cited after D. Daniell ed., Tyndale's Old Testament, being the Pentateuch of 1530, Joshua to 2 Chronicles of 1537, and Jonah (New Haven and London, 1992).
[9]G.Hammond, 'William Tyndale's Pentateuch: its Relation to Luther's German Bible and the Hebrew Original', Renaissance Quarterly, 33 (1981), pp. 351-85.
[10]Ibid.; see also his book, The Making of the English Bible (Manchester, 1982), pp. 16-67. Further instances where Tyndale has interpreted the Hebrew text independently of Luther are discussed by D. Daniell, William Tyndale: A Biography (New Haven and London, 1994), pp. 306-18.
[11]Hammond himself admits that 'Tyndale possessed a relatively sophisticated knowledge of Hebrew' ('Tyndale's Pentateuch', p. 363), though in his Making of the English Bible he describes Tyndale's knowledge of Hebrew (and Greek) as 'it not rudimentary, certainly limited' (p. 17). This ambivalence may betoken some unease with the compromise that he struck between regarding Luther and the Hebrew as Tyndale's primary source.
[12]D.Daniell, William Tyndale, pp. 229, 379.
[13]Luther: dein Alter sei wie deine Jugend, itself evidently based on Vulgate: sicut dies iuventutis tuae, ita et senectus tua. Contrast REB: 'and may [your] strength last as long as you live'.
[14]Similarly in the Syriac (Peshitta) version, all but one manuscript have replaced 'bat' by 'peacock'.
[15]J.F. Mozley, 'Tyndale's Knowledge of Hebrew', Journal of Theological Studies, 36 (1935) pp. 392-96.
[16]Daniell, William Tyndale, pp. 344-7.
[17]Mozley, op. cit., p. 396. Mozley adds that 'in essential accuracy to the Hebrew he is superior to Luther, the Vulgate and the Septuagint, and not inferior to Pagninus'.
[18]Most prefer an image of covering (cf. Hebrew ḥuppah). Hence Vulgate: tegens, Luther: über ihm halten, REB: 'shields him'.
[19]E.g. 'twelve days' instead of 'eleven days' at Deuteronomy 1:2.
[20]The phulaktēria of Matthew 23:5.
[21]At Exodus 13:16, however, Tyndale had written 'a thing hanged up', following Vulgate: appensum quid.
[22]Babylonian Talmud Megillah 11a. On the latter view, the point is that Ahasuerus' hold over his whole empire was no less tight than his hold over the two neighbouring provinces.
[23]Fischer et al. eds., Biblia Sacra iuxta Vulgatam Versionem (Stuttgart, 1969). pp. 771-955 (odd pages only), at Psalm 51:14, 79:9, 85:5, 95:1, 149:4. In all but the last, the traditional Latin numbering is one Psalm behind.
[24]Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 98b.
[25]At Exodus 2:8 Tyndale renders &#lsquo;almah by 'maid'.
[26]S.P. Brock, 'Aspects of Translation Technique in Antiquity', Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies, 20 (1979) pp. 69-87.
[27]D.Barthélemy, Les devanciers d'Aquila (Leiden, 1963).
[28]Epistle no. 57; see J. P. Migne ed., Patrologia Latina, 22 (1859), col. 571.
[29]Daniell, William Tyndale, p. 1.
[30]D.M. Karpman, 'William Tyndale's Response to the Hebraic Tradition', Studies in the Renaissance, 14 (1967), pp. 110-30.
[31]M.Polliack, 'Alternative Renderings and Additions in Yeshu'ah ben Yehudah's Arabic Translation of the Pentateuch', Jewish Quarterly Review, 84 (1993-4). pp. 209-26.
[32]D.Daniell ed., Tyndale's New Testament, translated from the Greek by William Tyndale in 1534 (New Haven and London, 1989), pp. 391-408.
[33]Luther achieves the same effect by using a pluperfect verb: Denn als Gott der Herr gemacht hatte... For this sense, the Hebrew would normally place the verb after the subject rather than (as here) before.
[34]Luther: Und redete mit seinen Eidarnen, die seine Toehter nehmen sollten.
[35]L.W. Schaper, 'The Unicorn in the Messianic Imagery of the Greek Bible', Journal of Theological Studies, 45 (1994), pp. 117-36.
[36]So 2 Samuel 2:23 ’aḥare haḥanit 'the back of the spear'.
[37]Thus Vulgate has posteriora and Tyndale has 'back parts' in Exodus also. It does not matter that the form of the Hebrew word is slightly different ( ’aḥore) in Exodus.
[38]Whether the present Hebrew text is original or a pious revision of an older text where Hagar declared that she had seen God, is a separate question.
[39]Luther understood Genesis 16:13b similarly in his first edition (gewisslich hie hab ich den Rucken gesehen des, der mich sahe); however, he used different language in Exodus (wirst du mir hintennach sehen) and so provided no clue to the idiom. His revised translation of Genesis 16:13b is cloudy: gewisslich hie hab ich gesehen den, der mich hernach angesehen hat.
[40]Rashi understood: 'Have I seen angels here, after seeing them in Abraham's house?' However, the references to angels and to Abraham's house, which are essential to this interpretation, are not in the text. The version of the Jewish Publication Society of America reads: 'Have I even here seen Him that seeth me?', as if the troublesome Hebrew word could be ignored. A common emendation gives: 'Have I indeed seen God and still live after that vision?', but departs markedly from the Hebrew text; see J. Skinner, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Genesis (Edinburgh. 2nd edition, 1930), p. 289.
[41]Hammond, Making of the English Bible, pp. 16-67; Daniell, William Tyndale, pp. 302-6, 340-57.
[42]This discovery is ascribed to Z. W. Heidenheim (1757-1832) by N. Leibowitz, Studies in Bereshit (Genesis), (trans. A. Newman, Jerusalem, 1976), p. 290.
  1. Naeh et al., 'Tiroš — Wine or Grape'? A Case of Metonymy', Vetus Testamentum, 44 (1994), pp. 115-19.
[44]Similarly at Isaiah 53:11 the Servant is said in NEB and REB to justify the mans through his humiliation or suffering, rather than through his knowledge as in older translations. On the whole question, see J. A. Emerton in Zeitschrift fur die alttes tamentliche Wissenschaft, 81 (1983), pp. 189ff.
[45]So already the Aramaic version, and Vulgate: et contrivit cum eis argue comminu, viros Succoth. Compare Luther: reissen. Pagninus: confregit.
[46]This suggestion was published by E.1. Pilcher, 'A New Hebrew Weight', Quarterly Statement of the Palestine Exploration Fund (1914), p. 99. Pilcher makes it clear, however, that the suggestion was due to Mr Samuel Raffaeli, who had acquired the third example known of the pim weight.
[47]LXX has the place name in Kings only, and Pagninus has it in Chronicles only. In Kings, Pagninus writes: et congregatio neotiatorum regis accipiebant netum in precium. Here he thinks successively of the verb qwh 'gather together' and tiqwah 'cord'
[48]So Tyndale at 1 Kings 10:28. The translation at Chronicles also has the place name but is phrased, as usual, more literally.
[49]Pritchard, pp. 279-83.
[50]Compare A.V.: 'And he cried, A lion' with REB: 'Then the look-out cried'.
[51]E.Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis, 1992).
[52]For example, at Job 24:20, the reason for the difference between NEB: 'the worm sucks him dry' and A.V.: 'the worm shall feed sweetly on him' is not that the former have emended the text (Hammond, Making of the English Bible, p.11); rather, they understand the Hebrew root mtq not in the traditional meaning ('sweet') but in the sense of a similar-looking Aramaic word ('suck').
[53]See, e.g., M. Buber and F. Rosenzweig, Die fünf Bucher der Weisung (Berlin, 1930).

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