In the Steps of William Tyndale:
Miles Smith as Bible Translator

A Paper given at Gloucester Cathedral, 6th October 1998
by Canon John Tiller, Chancellor of Hereford Cathedral

My subject this evening is Miles Smith, former Bishop of Gloucester, in his work as one of the panel of translators who produced the King James’s Version of the Bible in English, published in 1611 and popularly known as the Authorised Version (AV).

At first sight it appears difficult to speak about Miles Smith as one who followed in the steps of William Tyndale as a Bible translator. Smith was one of a committee, working on a translation which was collaborative and consultative at every stage, whereas Tyndale worked in isolation and produced a version which bore all the hallmarks of a single genius. Smith was engaged on a task by royal command, using all the facilities which the State could provide; Tyndale went into exile to escape the wrath of the authorities, was hunted by the king’s command, and had to make do with whatever resources he could lay his hands on. Smith was rewarded for his pains with a bishopric; Tyndale found that his efforts were publicly burnt, and was betrayed, imprisoned and executed for his earthly reward.

Even if we forget the difference in the circumstances and look solely at their respective work as translators, it is still hard to establish any real connection between these two scholars. As is well known, Tyndale’s great work was incomplete at the time of his death, and the parts of the Old Testament which lay untouched were principally the wisdom literature and the prophets. Smith’s main contribution as a translator to the King James’s Version was the prophetic books. So it follows that the opportunities are few or non-existent for discovering how each of these two learned men approached the problems of rendering particular Biblical texts into English.

Having said all that, I want to stick to my title!

First let me say something about the life of Miles Smith. He was born in Hereford and educated at Oxford, where he graduated BA in 1573, MA in 1576, BD in 1585 and finally DD in 1594. In 1580 he was made a prebendary of Hereford, a preferment which he retained for the rest of his life, even after he became a bishop. Up to his elevation to the episcopate he was also a canon residentiary, and for two periods (1591–93 and 1608–12) undertook the duties of claviger. The surviving claviger’s accounts reveal a neat and orderly script from the pen of Smith. At his death in 1624 he still owned a small house near the Canon’s Bakehouse in the vicinity of Hereford Cathedral. We may thus claim that, despite his other connections, he was a lifelong Herefordian.

Smith gained a widespread reputation for his knowledge of ancient languages. Wood reported that ‘Chaldaic, Syriac and Arabic were as familiar to him as his own native tongue’. The author of the biographical preface to his published sermons (1632) enlarged on his skill in the Biblical languages, and illustrated this with the story of what happened at evensong one day in Hereford Cathedral:

Being requested by the dean of the same church to read the first lesson, he yielded thereunto, and having with him a little Hebrew Bible, he delivered the chapter from it in the English tongue plainly and fully to that learned and judicious auditory.

I love the reference to the Hereford Chapter as a ‘learned and judicious auditory’! But there is extant evidence of Smith’s proficiency in the ancient languages. At his death he left to Hereford Cathedral Library several of his books, consisting of works in Hebrew, Chaldee and Arabic, and these contain a number of marginal notes in his own hand, mostly in Latin but including some in Hebrew. Furthermore his scholarship extended beyond the text of the Old Testament to the Targums and rabbinic commentaries.

With this reputation it is not surprising that he was invited to join the teams of translators assembled in Oxford, Cambridge and Westminster to undertake the revision of the English Bible. And it is important to note that the task was a revision, not a new work. To quote from the instructions issued to the teams:

The ordinary Bible read in church, commonly called the Bishops’ Bible (is) to be followed, and as little altered as the truth of the original will permit. ... These translations (are) to be used when they agree better with the text than the Bishops’ Bible: Tyndale’s, Coverdale’s, Matthew’s, Whitchurch’s (viz. the Great Bible), (and) Geneva.

As is well known, these translations constituted the mainline succession of English Bibles in the sixteenth century. Coverdale, Matthew and the Great Bible were basically Tyndale with the missing parts supplied. The Geneva made fresh use of sources, but was still identifiably within the Tyndale tradition. The Bishops’ Bible, created by the Elizabethan hierarchy to avoid the use in church of the tendentious glosses of the Geneva, and its contentious translations of important ecclesiastical terms such as church and bishop, was in turn a revision of the Great Bible.

So there was a lineal connection between all these translations, which was maintained in the new work. When it was ready, Miles Smith was the one who wrote the Preface to the reader, sadly omitted from most modern editions of the AV, but recently printed in the latest number of the Tyndale Society Journal. In it he writes:

Truly good Christian reader, we never thought from the beginning that we should need to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one; but to make a good one better.

Here then we have the first ground on which we can describe Miles Smith as following in the footsteps of William Tyndale. The AV belongs to the same family of translations, of which Tyndale’s was the fountain head. It has been calculated that in the New Testament, the AV preserved 90% of Tyndale’s work. Of course, we can do no comparison of the part Smith himself translated, because as I’ve already noted, Tyndale left no work on the Old Testament prophets, apart from a text of Jonah which was not incorporated in any later Bible. But Smith was clearly part of an enterprise which was deliberately intended from its inception to build on the Tyndalian legacy, not to ditch it.

We know that Miles Smith wrote the Preface to the King James’s Bible because it is mentioned in the biographical preface to the 1632 edition of Smith’s published sermons. In this we are told:

He began with the first, and was the last man of the translators in the work: for after the task of translation was finished by the whole number set apart for that business, being some few above forty, it was revised by a dozen selected ones of them, and at length referred to the final examination of the learned Bishop of Winchester and Doctor Smith, who happily concluded that worthy labour. Which being so ended (Smith) was commanded to write a Preface, and so he did in the name of all the translators, being the same that now is extant in our church Bible, the original whereof I have seen under his own hand.

The reference to ‘church Bible’ here is significant. Like the Great Bible and the Bishops’ Bible before it, the King James’s Bible was ‘appointed to be read in churches’, as every title page indicates. Professor Greenslade wrote in the Cambridge History of the Bible that ‘strictly speaking the AV was never authorised, nor were parish churches ordered to procure it. It replaced the Bishops’ Bible in public use because after 1611 no other folio Bible was printed’. So this was the version which, from the date of its publication, people became used to hearing read from the lectern in church during the service, and after 1662 the Epistles and Gospels for Holy Communion in the Book of Common Prayer (though not the Psalms) were also put into this translation.

However, Bibles were not only read in church, and the evidence is that for some time the smaller quarto editions of the Geneva translation continued to be popular for use in the home. This was not only a matter of translation. The Geneva version was equipped with many study aids, maps and charts as well as the notes which offended King James. In fact there is evidence that for some time in the seventeenth century this version was referred to as the ‘study Bible’ to distinguish it from the ‘church Bible’, the AV.

I think this explains one mysterious fact about the AV. In his Preface to the new translation Smith uses the Geneva version when he quotes Scripture. This is odd, to say the least. Why should one of the scholars who has just invested a considerable part of his time and energy over a number of years to producing what was intended to be a better translation, then quote from an existing version in his own introduction to it? I suggest it was because he had the Geneva, or study Bible with him in his study, and it was therefore to hand. And that continued to be the normal state of affairs for some time among the Jacobean clergy.

I have said that Smith bequeathed a number of his books to Hereford Cathedral Library when he died. Their very nature as dictionaries, grammars, commentaries and Biblical texts in the ancient languages raises the question of whether these might have been the very copies used by Smith when he was working on the AV. I therefore looked through them to see what evidence might remain of the use he made of them. As I said earlier, they do indeed contain marginal notes in Smith’s hand. However, the beautiful five-volume edition of the Hebrew OT printed by Etienne in Paris between 1539 and 1544, complete with wide margins for notation, is sadly devoid of any markings. Moreover, the volumes which contain the most frequent notes by Smith were all acquired by him after 1611. In one way this is of course disappointing. But I think on reflection it establishes a second way in which he was akin to Tyndale. He had a true gift for and love of languages. His translation work was not just something he assumed for the duration of the project and then put aside on entering his bishopric. It is clear that he was a lifelong student.

Indeed, such was his facility that I suspect he thought of Scripture in Hebrew and Greek, and only subsequently in an English translation. He belonged to an age of great flowering in the study of ancient languages in the English universities. There is a third comparison here with Tyndale. When the sixteenth-century translator was at university, England had just felt the great impetus to the study of Greek occasioned by the presence of Erasmus at Cambridge between 1511 and 1514. At that time there were apparently no more than two persons in England who had any knowledge of Hebrew. Tyndale had to learn his on the Continent. Smith belongs to a time when chairs in Hebrew had long been established at Oxford and Cambridge, and it was becoming appreciated that the study of other oriental languages, notably Syriac, but also Arabic and others, might provide gateways into some of the more obscure passages of the Massoretic text of the OT. Smith began a sermon on the letter to the Hebrews with an Arabic gloss on one of the words in his text, which no doubt impressed the congregation!

In his study of the Jacobean episcopate entitled Prelate as Pastor, Kenneth Fincham gives Miles Smith a rather low rating as a bishop. He describes him as ‘indolent’, and compares him unfavourably with contemporaries such as Robert Bennet of Hereford and Arthur Lake of Bath and Wells, who organised preaching classes for their clergy. But Gloucester already had some such provision, and his biographer tells how Smith often attended the Tuesday lecture in the Cathedral ‘by the gravest orthodox and conformable preachers within his Diocese’. The words ‘orthodox’ and ‘conformable’ are code words referring to Calvinist clergy who did not separate themselves from the establishment or refuse to conform to the Prayer Book.

At Smith’s funeral, the preacher Thomas Prior, sub-dean of the Cathedral, recalled how he ‘heard him discourse sweetly of the certainty of salvation, and of perseverance in grace: comfortable truths so much opposed by papists, Arminians, and carnal gospellers’. Here again are clues to the identification of Smith as a preacher of Calvinist orthodoxy, now under threat from the rising power of the Arminians within the Church of England.

In 1616, when Smith had been Bishop for four years, Gloucester acquired a new Dean, one William Laud, already identified as an Arminian. Like most deans, Laud set about restoring the fabric of his cathedral; he also launched an appeal for a new organ. Much more controversially, in January 1617 he obtained the assent of his colleagues on the Chapter ‘that the communion table should be placed altarwise at the upper end of the quire, close unto the east wall, upon the uppermost steps, and also as it is used in the King’s Majesty’s Chapel, and in all or the most part of the Cathedral Churches of this realm’.

It appears that Laud had neither sought nor obtained the consent of his Bishop to this change. The sub-dean, Thomas Prior, and the Bishop’s Chaplain, John White, seem to have approached the Chancellor of the Diocese on what steps might be taken to reverse Laud’s action. There was talk of summoning the Court of High Commission to send a delegation to enquire into the matter. Laud appealed for help to Bishop Richard Neile of Lincoln, a fellow Arminian and influential at Court; he also wrote to Miles Smith alleging that the King had specifically charged him with carrying through a reform of the Cathedral, as though it were likely that James would have kept the diocesan bishop in the dark about this. Throughout the controversy it appears that Laud was deliberately fudging the distinction between a royal mandate to restore the fabric, and his own desire to carry through a liturgical reordering.

This is not the place to pursue the course of this particular controversy, but it does remind us that Smith was no stranger to theological dispute. We can overdraw the picture of the learned translator rewarded with a comfortable bishopric. Both he and Tyndale, however much they would have preferred to have concerned themselves with their work of translating and expounding the Scriptures, were inevitably drawn into conflict. If Tyndale had Thomas More to contend with, Smith had William Laud.

The survival of Laud’s version of the doings in Gloucester Cathedral has given an appearance of ineffectiveness to Smith’s episcopate. Clearly he was not a great activist or man of politics, and certainly no ‘meddler’ of the Laudian type. As a scholar he preferred his books. But Fincham’s charge of ‘indolence’ is going too far. There are the copious cross-references in his Arabic lexicon of 1613, and the masses of marginal notes in his Arabic NT of 1616 and his Arabic Pentateuch of 1622 to demonstrate his assiduousness as a Biblical scholar.

Yet he was after all a bishop and chief pastor, and therefore Kenneth Fincham’s allegation that Miles Smith consistently neglected to preach during the twelve years of his episcopate must be taken seriously. Fincham suggests that Smith’s fifteen posthumously published sermons were preached while he was still a canon of Hereford. But it would be very surprising if a commemorative tribute to the late Bishop of Gloucester did not contain sermons he had preached in the diocese. Indeed, the volume is introduced as containing sermons ‘which gravely fell from the lips of this worthy bishop’! Moreover, the texts of Scripture on which the sermons are based do not support Fincham’s suggestion. For the first five contain three which are quoted in the Geneva version, with two in Smith’s own rendering. The final ten quote the AV in all but two cases, where again Smith has his own translation, supported by reference to the Hebrew. Therefore it looks very much as though these sermons are printed in chronological order, and two-thirds of them at least must have been preached after Smith became Bishop of Gloucester, when the AV text was available.

Mention of Smith’s preaching brings me to the final point about his likeness to Tyndale. It is one thing to say that these two shared a common gift for languages and were united in their desire to use that gift to enable English-speaking people to understand and obey the Word of God. What really matters is whether Smith had anything of Tyndale’s ear for the spoken word and capacity to capture that speech in phrases which could bring the ancient Biblical languages to life. Could he like Tyndale write for the ploughboy?

It seems an impossible question to answer. Smith was one of a committee: we do not have his own notes or working papers. In the knowledge that he worked on the prophets, we can point to some possibilities. For example, take the Geneva version of the first part of Isaiah 53.3:

He is despised and rejected of men: he is a man full of sorrows and hath experience of infirmities;

or the Great Bible:

He is despised and abhorred of men, he is such a man as is full of sorow and hath good experience of infirmities.

Clearly the AV rendering has much greater rhythm:

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.

What would Handel have done there without the AV?! If we could only prove that Smith contributed the new version we would be well on the way to demonstrating that he had something of Tyndale’s gift.

What we do have (pace Fincham) are Smith’s published sermons. These are often verbose and over-learned by our standards. But I submit that they do contain passages which have that quality of speaking to the common man which we find in Tyndale and which is so vital a gift in a Bible translator. I wish to conclude this paper with giving you a flavour of Smith’s preaching style, and I leave it to you to judge whether Tyndale would have recognised in him a kindred spirit. This passage is the conclusion of a sermon for Christmas Day, and the text is Isaiah 7.14: ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and she shall call his name Immanuel (God with us)’.

Many are the dangers whereto God’s children are subject. When we lie down we know not whether we shall arise. When we ride forth, we cannot tell whether we shall come home. When we send our children abroad, we cannot tell whether we shall ever see them again. Now what is our comfort therein? God is with us, we will not care what man can do unto us. Who can hurt them that Jesus Christ vouchsafed to be born for. Doth not his very name teach us that he is with us? Then to them that love God, and are beloved of God, all things must work for the best, whether it be tribulation, or anguish, famine or poverty, or imprisonment, or loss of friends, or loss of children, or loss of living.
In all these bodily assaults we shall be more than conquerors. So shall we be also in the spiritual. Our sins do threaten God's vengeance upon us, our consciences do accuse us, the law containeth matter of indictment against us; all the creatures of God which we have abused, all the calling of God which we have neglected, do witness against us. Hell opens her mouth wide, being ready to swallow us up. The world forsaketh us, our friends have no power to help us.
What is to be done in this case? What shift shall we make, what place of refuge shall we fly unto? Only this, that the son of God became the son of Man to make us the sons of God; vile he became, to exalt us; poor, to enrich us; a slave to enfranchise us; dead, to quicken us; miserable, to bless us; lost in the eyes of the world, to save us. Lastly, partaker of our nature, of our infirmity, of our habitation, to advance us to his kingdom and glory, that is, to be unto us according to his name, Emmanuel, God with us. God to enlighten us, God to help us, God to deliver us, God to save us. To him with Father and the Holy Ghost be all honour and glory for ever and ever.

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