Report on the Annual Hertford Lecture

It was a pleasant evening, and the weather was kind to us on the evening of the 19 October 2000.There was a good turnout for the Tyndale lecture, as people came to hear Professor Morna Hooker speak on Tyndale as Translator.

Doing justice to the lecture is not easy as Professor Hooker used her voice to convey the meaning of the words to great effect; what she was saying was not only very easy to listen to, but also opened up the subject and made it more accessible to the listener.

Professor Hooker began with a warning. The Bible is theological and therefore it is not to be read as literature. Tyndale translated the Bible into English so that the laity – the ploughboy and others – might be established in the truth. (Professor Hooker pointed out that Erasmus also spoke of the ploughboy should know the scriptures.) Part of Tyndale’s genius was that he succeeded in using everyday language, and yet did not sacrifice resonance, rhythm and beauty in his translation, which is often lacking in modern translations. Tyndale’s aim was to translate the Word of God faithfully in a way which would weld together the medium and the meaning.

Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall considered Tyndale’s a degrading, vulgar version which corrupted the sense and brought in false doctrine – but then Tyndale was a heretic!

Professor Hooker then considered various Greek words in the New Testament, their meanings, and how Tyndale had translated them. She also spoke of the difficulty of translating from one language to another where words do not always have an exact meaning. The differences of syntax also add to the translator’s problems.

How able was Tyndale as a translator? His translation showed he had a knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, and his choice of word showed an understanding of the original meaning. He was accused of making many errors in his translation, which boiled down to three: congregation for church, love for charity, and elder for priest. Professor Hooker looked at these, and also the charge that Tyndale had been influenced by Luther.

These alterations by Tyndale not only translated the Greek accurately but also made a theological statement. For Sir Thomas More the Church was the infallible source of doctrine, by translating it ‘congregation’ Tyndale was denying this to the Catholic Church. But ‘ekklesia’ means the people called out (united in a common faith), and so Tyndale was right to use ‘congregation’ in his translation. The change from ‘priest’ to ‘elder’ also had profound theological implications, and it went to the heart of Catholic doctrine. The word ‘presbuteros’ was rightly translated by Tyndale and it could not refer to a sacrificing priest. There were ‘elders’ in the Sanhedrin, but Tyndale’s use of elder gave it a meaning of its own. Tyndale translated ‘agape’ as ‘love’, but More considered that ‘charity’ was better. The debate, however, was not linguistic but between ‘faith’ and ‘good works’.

Another word More objected to was Tyndale’s ‘repent’ instead of ‘do penance’ in translating ‘metanoeo’. The Greek word means ‘to change one’s mind’ and not to perform ‘acts of contrition’. Once again Tyndale was right, but the argument was theological. Instead of drawing doctrine out of the Scriptures More was reading Catholic doctrine into the text and he criticised Tyndale for undermining the Church’s teaching.

Tyndale was also right in varying the translation of a word, using different English words for a Greek one. Tyndale was combining accuracy with what sounded good and right in English, and this should be the aim of all translation. Tyndale’s version shows that he aimed at accuracy, the right word and good English, and he achieved it. The Greek Tyndale was translating was colloquial, and Tyndale’s translation was colloquial and this has to be right.

Tyndale also realised that behind the New Testament there was the influence of Hebrew, and he picked this up in his translation. This is seen in his use of ‘and’. At the same time he faced the question of whether ‘and’ should remain, and his answer varied. Tyndale was also sensitive to the rhythm of the original Greek and of the Hebrew underlying the Greek.

Tyndale was fully competent to translate from both Greek and Hebrew. However, there are places where Tyndale relied on Luther, and where he added explanations to the text. Professor Hooker drew our attention to this in Romans 3:21–31. The righteousness ‘that cometh of God’; the righteousness ‘no doubt which is good before God’. Tyndale relied on Luther and instead of translating, ‘God’s righteousness’ he put, ‘the righteousness which before him is of valour.’ These deviations from the text are a weakness, and the glosses are not only unnecessary but they also obscure Paul’s meaning. Tyndale (with Luther) was also right in translating ‘hilasterion’ as ‘seat of mercy’ and not ‘propitiation’. Tyndale, however, rightly resisted following Luther in verse 28 where Luther had added to faith the word ‘alone’.

Finally, Professor Hooker said that translation is always a matter of interpretation (hermeneutics). Whether we are dealing with the Old or the New Testament we are faced with an impossible task. In any translation from one language to another it is impossible to be absolutely accurate. Professor Hooker ended her lecture, ‘As one who has, in a very minor way, experienced the problems and fallen into the pits, I have to say that I have the profoundest admiration for William Tyndale as translator.’

Following those last thoughts of Professor Hooker, I feel like a translator who has lost so much of the original meaning, not only in the translating, but also in trying to condense a really stimulating lecture. I am extremely grateful to Professor Hooker for sending me a copy of her lecture which highlights both the accuracy of my report and its weakness in what I have omitted. I trust Professor Hooker’s lecture in its entirety will find a place in Reformation in the not too distant future.

Ralph S. Werrell

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