Tyndale and the English Bible: The martyred genius who brought the Word to the people

Tai Kawabata
June 2002

History sometimes fails to recognize the brilliance of a true pioneer and instead glorifies those who profit from his innovation. William Tyndale (1494?-1536), who first translated the Bible into English from the original Greek and Hebrew texts, is one such forgotten pioneer. In fact, large portions of the renowned King James Version of 1611 are actually Tyndale's own sentences. His contribution, however, goes unrecognized by most readers.

photo of Prof. Tagawa

It is not surprising that in non-English-speaking countries like Japan, Tyndale is a relatively unknown historical figure. In 1997, Kenzo Tagawa, one of Japan's leading Bible scholars, published ‘Shomotsu to shite no Shinyaku Seisho’ (The New Testament as a Book), which devoted many pages to Tyndale. The book dealt with such topics as the canonical selection process of the New Testament, the language situation in the first century Mediterranean world including Palestine and Hellenistic cities, history of the textual criticism of the New Testament and history and assessment of Bible translations.

The 800-page scholarly book sold more than 10,000 copies within a short period of time. But Tagawa was astounded to find that very few readers knew about Tyndale. He therefore decided to translate David Daniell's book William Tyndale (Yale University Press, 1994) to help Japanese readers learn about him - a task that took him three years to complete. The 788-page-long translation, entitled ‘Uiriamu Tindaru’ (William Tyndale) and subtitled ‘Aru Seisho Honyaku-sha no Shogai' (The Life of a Bible Translator), was published in January 2001 by Keiso Shobo Publishing Co. in Tokyo.

‘Tyndale is one of the few truly important people in history,’ says Tagawa. ‘The vernacular Bible became a dynamo for social transformation. It showed people that all human beings were created equal before God and that people owed each other nothing but love. The members of King James I's committee had no intention of producing a new translation of the Bible. Instead, they intended to make a revision of existing translations. This is basic knowledge shared by all biblical scholars. My sense of justice told me that it was unforgivable that a version based on literary borrowing had become more famous than the original. That was my motivation for translating Daniell's book.' Tagawa added to the value of Daniell's book by appending a chronology, some 140 translator's notes, many of them on biblical text concerned from the viewpoint of a biblical scholar, and a 50-page epilogue.

Tagawa, who is 67 years old and a Protestant, obtained his doctorate at the University of Strasbourg in 1965 for his dissertation ‘Miracles et Evangelie' (Miracles and Gospel), a study on the Gospel of Mark by a method of Redaktionssgeschite, especially on its miracle stories and the evangelist's own thoughts expressed through such stories. For more than 30 years, he has been writing a detailed commentary on Mark's gospel, the first volume of which appeared in 1972, and has recently embarked on a Japanese translation of the whole New Testament. Before studying at Strasbourg, he studied Greek and Latin and religious studies at the University of Tokyo. He taught at the Protestant theological faculties of Strasbourg, the University of Goettingen and the National University of Zaire. He also served as Professor of Western Thoughts at the Osaka Women's University, Japan.

Generally speaking, translating academic English books into Japanese is not so difficult because Japan has more than 100 years' history of translating books written in European languages into Japanese, Tagawa explains. ‘As far as Daniell's book is concerned, it would be a difficult task if the translator is not equipped with the knowledge of biblical studies. The translator also needs general knowledge of European history in the 16th century. The most difficult part in my work was translation of Thomas More's sentences and sentences from John Foxe's ‘The Acts and Monuments,’ he recalls. ‘In comparison, translation of sentences written by Tyndale, who was their contemporary, was not so difficult, proving how excellent Tyndale's English was. More's English would be very hard to translate unless the translator has read quite a lot of Latin and is used to Latin syntax.’

Tagawa states that a ‘decisive’ thing happened when Tyndale translated the Bible into English. ‘Through Tyndale's work, written English became English- like English,’ he says, referring to the fact that Tyndale's writing conformed more closely to the syntax of English than to that of Latin. ‘More's English is Latin written in English. Tyndale's English is English written in English. It is a surprising accomplishment that he wrote English that is so clear and so easy to understand.’

‘The situation in which Tyndale found himself is comparable in one sense to the last third of the 19th century in Japanese history when the people were struggling to create modern written Japanese appropriate for modern society,’ Tagawa points out. ‘In the years when Tyndale was translating the Bible, English had not yet been established as a written language. He had two tasks: to establish the written language and to select English words appropriate for Bible translation.’

Answering the question of why Professor David Daniell's book has any appeal for Japanese readers, Tagawa is of the opinion that the appeal is Tyndale himself. ‘Tyndale has been virtually unknown among the Japanese public. Scholars of English language and history in Japan should not be blamed for this. Japan's situation is a reflection of the fact that Tyndale has not received due appreciation in England itself. But the historical facts must be conveyed accurately and the Japanese need to know much about Tyndale because they are influenced by the English language and cultures of the English-speaking world. Daniell's book helps readers sufficiently recognize the greatness of Tyndale's achievements, opens the eyes of many people who are studying English in Japan and rouses their interest in historical surroundings of Tyndale.’

Besides translating Daniell's book, Tagawa also translated Hans Conzelman's ‘Die Mitte der Zeit. Studien zur Theologie des Lukas,’ Etienne Trocme's ‘Le livre des Actes et l'Histoire’ and two other German books. His numerous books written in Japanese include ‘Iesu to iu Otoko’ (A Man Called Jesus), which was first published in 1980 and is still popular among readers. In the book, Tagawa puts Jesus back into the political, social and economic environment of ancient Palestine and depicts him not as an expounder of religious beliefs but as a person who rebelled in his daily life against the harsh conditions imposed on people by the Roman Empire's colonial rule and the religious and political authorities of Jerusalem.

Tagawa regards many of Jesus’s sayings as paradoxical statements used as rhetorical weapons against the powers that be. He also sees behind Jesus's miracles the wretched situation in which people in Palestine found themselves. As in the case of the historical Jesus, Tagawa pays attention to the social situation surrounding Tyndale. In order to understand why Tyndale had to be killed, one has to understand the impact vernacular Bibles had on society in general. He explains that by reading the Bible in their own language, people found that it contained no theoretical justification for social and economic rule by the Roman Catholic Church.

‘The impact of the vernacular Bibles was all the greater because at the time Christianity permeated all aspects of society and people thought in Christian language and created and ran social institutions in accordance with Christian doctrines,’ Tagawa explains. A look at the Peasants' War in Germany (1524-25) provides a concrete example of the effect the vernacular Bibles had. By reading the Bible, the people learned, for example, that rivers were created and given to all humanity by God. In letters addressed to territorial princes, German peasants asked them to show exactly what part of the Bible said that rivers should belong to the princes as their private property. This way, ordinary people gained strong confidence in themselves. But Tyndale shared the same fear as Martin Luther - that the spread of vernacular Bibles would lead people to revolt, not only against holy authority, but also against secular authority. That is why Tyndale wrote The Obedience of a Christian Man. As this shows, his thinking was Lutheran.

Despite Tyndale's conservative approach to the existing social order, Tagawa believes that the principle he established for interpretation of the Bible - that the meaning of its texts must be taken ‘literally’ - is still relevant today. Tyndale's principle put an end to allegorical interpretation of biblical texts, whereby the Roman Catholic Church read its own doctrinal ideas into the texts.

Today, the importance of this principle must be upheld all the more. With the spread of structuralism, many students in various academic domains have started reading their own, often just cheap and banal, ideology into literary and historical texts under the name of ‘interpretation’. By doing so, they are deviating from or bending the original meaning of the text. ‘We must uphold the importance of accurately determining the meaning of each word in the text and discovering the historical background behind it.’ Modern biblical studies started with the Reformation. Biblical scholars have inherited Tyndale's principle and spirit. Their basic posture is the same as Tyndale's. The only difference is that a large amount of knowledge has accumulated over several centuries of research. Tagawa points out that after the Reformation, Protestants succumbed to an orthodoxy that held that all the books and sentences of the Bible were expressions of a single coherent message; but accumulated research by biblical scholars has shown that the New Testament contains a wide range of different thought. Christianity is like a gigantic river into which various types of thought flow.

Touching on the fact that Tyndale has not been paid due honour and respect, Tagawa thinks this has its roots in the political situation of 16thcentury England. ‘After the Anglican Church was established, the powers that be in England wanted to claim the English Bible as their own. But it was an embarrassing fact that the person who originally produced it was Tyndale, whom the authorities of England had left to his fate when he was imprisoned at Vilvoorde Castle. The English Bible ended up being handed down from generation to generation with the tacit understanding that no one would ask who its originator was.’

Tagawa also points out that the fact that the scholars on the committee approved by King James I were not working directly from Tyndale's translation, but rather from the Bishops' Bible, the Geneva Bible and the Vulgate, is the main reason why people cannot properly appreciate Tyndale's achievements.

One of the most interesting and informative aspects of Daniell's book is its discussion of Thomas More as a person who led the English forces against the Reformers, opposing Luther and Tyndale and the latter's English translation of the Bible. Tagawa says ‘Daniell shows the negative side of More, which is meaningful because it is not well known in Japan.’

Editor’s Note

We are extremely grateful to Tai Kawabata, the foreign news editor of the Japan Times, for writing this article especially for the Tyndale Society Journal. It is a based on his feature article which was published in The Japan Times on 24 September 2001. This can be found at: http://www.japantimes.co.jp. using Tyndale as a search word.

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