Tyndale’s Translation and Theology

Robin G. Everitt
July 2002

We value Tyndale’s New Testament both for the felicity of his English and for the faithfulness with which it renders into English the Greek of the original. But we should remember that for Tyndale himself it was the latter consideration which mattered. Style was secondary: his aim was to produce a translation which would at once be accurate and readily intelligible to his readers. His success in this is evident to anyone reading his translation.

It is worth taking a close look at some of the details of his translation. His renderings are sometimes remarkably bold – to his contemporaries they even seemed shocking. The word ekklesia he translated as ‘congregation’ rather than ‘church’; priest was replaced by elder, do penance by repentance, confess by acknowledge, charity by love. This was indeed radical and provocative.

Of these changes, the one which gave most offence was the use of congregation for church. We must not be surprised: the word indicated new thinking about the nature of the Christian community. No longer was the church to be thought of as a corporation whose officers conducted all its business: in future the laity were to be enfranchised and expected to exercise their own functions within the Christian body. The change was a profound theological change.

The use of the word congregation to represent the Greek ekklesia was undoubtedly correct; it was not even wholly new. Erasmus had already used the word congregatio in translating his Greek text into Latin. But though Erasmus, writing in Latin for a limited academic readership, found himself in no peril, Tyndale, writing in English and aiming to be read much more widely, found himself in the centre of a storm. His use of the word congregation was provocative enough, but in the eyes of his opponents he had committed an even graver (and double) offence. He had dared to produce an unauthorized version of the New Testament and he had set the authority of the Greek text above that of the Latin Vulgate. It mattered not that the Vulgate itself was a translation from the Greek: over the centuries it had acquired an aura of sanctity which placed it beyond criticism. It had come to be regarded as the definitive version of the New Testament.

Tyndale had challenged the received wisdom of his day, and he soon experienced the wrath of those in power. The bishops were furious and copies of his translation were seized and burned. Sir Thomas More attacked him with a ferocity and abusiveness which beggar belief; his words still shock us. Tyndale found himself an outcast. But he had begun to change the direction of Christian thought. The forces which his work had set in motion could not be ultimately withstood.

Yet, superficially, Tyndale’s success seems to have been limited. Almost all subsequent translations have retained the term ‘church’ for the Christian community, and for most Christians this is the word to describe Christians collectively. Perhaps it is too deeply embedded in the general consciousness for it to be displaced.

There have been exceptions, and some of these are of considerable interest. Robert Young, an Edinburgh bookseller and author of Young’s Analytical Concordance (still available), published his own very literal translation of the Bible in 1862[1]. John Nelson Darby, academic parent of Plymouth Brethrenism, published his New Translation in 1871[2]. Both men used ‘assembly’ instead of ‘church’. More recently a sympathetic Jewish scholar, Hugh Schonfield, published his Authentic New Testament in 1956[3] and used the term ‘community’. Some groups of Pentecostal Christians are known as ‘Assemblies of God’. But despite their interest, these examples remain very much minority ones. The term ‘church’ remains with us.

We retain the term church – but Tyndale has made us look at it in a different way. And ‘congregation’ did not disappear entirely: two centuries after Tyndale we find Charles Wesley writing: -

The great congregation His triumph shall sing
Ascribing salvation to Jesus our King.

Here, surely, is Tyndale’s vindication.

Tyndale has left us with one puzzle. He replaced ‘church’ by congregation, priest by elder, do penance by repentance. But he kept ‘bishop’ where he might justifiably have replaced it by ‘overseer’. Indeed in his marginal note to 1 Timothy 3 he writes ` a bishop or an overseer what he ought to be` and in his Answer to More he writes: -

‘Those overseers which we call Byshops after the Greke words were always bidying in one place to gouerne the congregation there.’

Most translators have kept ‘bishop’. Characteristically Young and Darby have ‘overseer’ and so, more recently, in his commentary on I Timothy does William Barclay. Schonfield gives us ‘supervisor’.

The puzzle remains and we can only guess at the solution. But what would have happened if Tyndale had used ‘overseer’, thus discarding both church and bishop? What would the bishops have said? Or Sir Thomas More? One wonders.

Sources and Notes

[1]Young, R. Literal Translation Pickering and Inglis, 1862. The publishers are now called Marshall Pickering. It may be possible to obtain a secondhand copy.
[2]J.N. Darby New Translation G. Morish, Paternoster Square, London 1871. A re-issued recent edition is available from Kingston Bible Trust, Wembley Gardens, Lancing, West Sussex BN15 9LX. There is also an edition in the AV with J.N. Darby’s translation in parallel columns (NT only) published by Bible Truth Publishing PO Box 649, Addison, Illinois, 60101 USA and obtainable from Chapter 2, Fountain House, 1A Conduit Road, London SE18 &AJ.
The parallel edition has Darby’s copious critical notes with his comments on various readings. This is fascinating for the textual scholar. The Kingston version is much better printed but the notes are poor.
[3]Schonfield, Hugh Authentic New Testament Dennis Dobson and the Petrie Press, 1955.
This firm may no longer exist. There are several illustrations and maps and in particular a frontispiece showing a reproduction of a second century papyrus fragment of John 18 vv31-33, 37-38 in the John Ryland Library, Manchester.

Valid XHTML 1.0!