‘The Making of The Bible in English’.

A lecture by Professor David Daniell
9 May 2003, OBE Chapel, St Paul’s Cathedral, London.

It is moving for me to stand here to talk about the English Bible in the Cathedral where John Colet was Dean, not to mention John Donne, and to feel a sense of full circle - to talk about nearly five hundred years of the Bible in English, rejoicing in our liberty to read it freely, in the Cathedral where in 1526 Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall denounced Tyndale’s New Testament and supervised the burning of many copies just outside, at Paul’s Cross. One of the things that this lecture celebrates is the mere fact, as well as the glory, of an enduring English Bible.

My title as it is spoken, ‘The Making of The Bible in English’, is faintly ambiguous. It depends on whether you hear the last four words in italics. Certainly I want to talk about my experience in making my book. Though there has been a recent run of books about the 1611 ‘King James’ Bible, not many people have surveyed the whole extraordinary history of the Bible in these islands, and then in America, from the earliest times in the first millennium until now, an ocean in which the 1611 King James Bible is only one wave. I thought there might be value in hearing this evening from someone who has seen the whole story.

I want to talk about five things: some background, and then, secondly, some puzzles; thirdly, some of the story; fourthly, the matter of linguistic register; and finally New Testament theology. Though the whole Bible is my subject in the book, this evening I shall limit myself to the New Testament - itself a large enough topic.

ONE - Background
First, and most important - the New Testament is a Greek thing. It was written in the everyday Greek of the Eastern Mediterranean world, a common language that was the legacy of Alexander’s conquests. The four Gospel writers recorded the life of Jesus in the natural language to reach the known world. St Paul wrote his thirteen letters in Greek. Nothing in all this, except for a few verses by St Luke, is in classical Greek - the New Testament is in the fluent, fluid language of everyday life in that large region. New Testament Greek is capable of great simplicity and directness and feeling - think of the parables of Jesus - and also of St Paul’s complex rhetorical elaboration in trying to record spiritual understanding at the frontiers of theology. Moreover, the Greek New Testament is the best-attested ancient document in the world by far: over 5,000 Greek manuscripts survive. I need to stress first the Greekness, the ordinary Greekness, of the New Testament.

Had Alexander conquered the West, we might have inherited large talk but we would not have had those hundreds of years of civilization in the Roman Empire. This, largely at peace, allowed the new Christian communities good soil in which to grow: the Roman-engineered water, sanitation, education, medicine, road-building and town-building: the pax romana brought blessing. At first sight, this blessing included the translation of the Greek Bible into Latin, the common language of the vast Roman Empire. Various Latin versions of various parts of the Bible circulated in the empire for several centuries before in the fourth century the ambitious Jerome, who intended to be Pope, set out to make a regulated version. This, developed by others, not always wisely, became, with all its faults, and eventually known as the Vulgate, the Bible of the Church for fifteen hundred years, even though pretty soon Latin was known by few Christians. Across Europe, they were forbidden to have the Bible in their vernaculars.

Yes, Latin made the New Testament even more widespread, geographically, than the Greek had been. But in one important sense the Latin New Testament was unfortunate. At its highest, Latin is capable, as we all know, of great power and beauty: but it does not well receive Greek. One central reason is that Latin prefers nouns, but Greek prefers verbs. Nouns are good solid Roman things.

Shakespeare shows that he understood this in his Julius Caesar, which, underneath all the false arguing and killing emotions, has a deep noun structure of the solid pavements and columns and buildings of the city of Rome – quite unlike the play of Hamlet, also written in 1599, which sets its riddles and speculations effectively at play in a skull.

The fluidity of Greek does not go well into Latin at all. Partly this is in the Greek use of what are called particles, and in word-order and syntax. But the verbs are the thing. The Greek verbs of the New Testament are alive, refusing to lie down and be ill, registering healing and life, springing up in wholly unexpected ways - and it is the nature of the Gospels in particular to show the unexpected. Look at how St Mark opens his Gospel, the run of healings and releases there.

William Tyndale, first in 1526 and again in 1534, translated the New Testament into English for the first time from the Greek. The Greek New Testament had been newly printed by Erasmus. Tyndale also printed it, in, for an English book of the time, unusually large numbers. Certainly the fact of printing was very important, as is said. But not enough has yet been made of the revolution caused by everyone who could read and hear having the New Testament in English from the Greek. Does it matter? You bet it does. Take one classic example. The frequent Greek verb metanoeo means to experience a complete change of heart and mind, to repent. Jerome, who wanted the power of a pope, made that poenitentiam ago - ‘do penance’, and it has been that ever after. Popes and bishops reacted with violence against the people having the open New Testament because Church practices were found not to be in it at all - the fiction of Purgatory, the necessity of celibacy, confession to the ear, and so on - the list is a long one. But much more significant were the differences between the New Testament in the original Greek and the New Testament in the church’s Latin. In 1526, here in this Cathedral, the Bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, announced before burning piles of them just outside, that Tyndale’s New Testament contained two thousand errors - because, of course, it was from the original Greek and not the church’s Latin. Tyndale himself wryly noted that the bishops were so determined to find him a heretic that if he failed to dot an i that would be heresy. But Tunstall’s number is revealing about the extent of the difference between the Latin and the Greek.

I cannot stress too strongly that Tyndale opened the door of the Greek. Tyndale’s descendants, as it were, the New Testaments that we hold today, have not usually been bent out of shape by being first in Latin.

Tyndale’s first ‘Worms’ New Testament of 1526 is a great national treasure. Three copies only have survived the burnings and readings-to-pieces. All are now kept in high security. One is in the British Library, and displayed. One is in Germany, in Stuttgart, close to where it was made. And one is here, in St Paul’s Cathedral Library, only yards away from us. If, as you sit here, you are feeling stirrings of New Testament theology in your bloodstream, then it is that little book sending out its godly beams.

My second main point of background is to try to clarify numbers, the sheer volume of English Bibles made since Tyndale in 1526. This clarification falls into two parts. First, the numbers of new translations made. Second, the numbers of Bibles printed. Both figures startle people. Even before the ‘King James Version’ of 1611, after Tyndale in 1526 there were in England, uniquely in Europe, nine fresh translations or major revisions - Tyndale again, Coverdale, Matthew’s, the Great Bible, the three Geneva Bibles, the Bishops’ Bible and the Rheims New Testament. From Tyndale in 1526 until today, 9 May 2003, the number of completely fresh translations of the whole Bible, or of significant parts that have been published, is just over three thousand - twelve hundred of them since the end of the World War II. These figures are easily assembled from standard documents. To many people more surprising still are the figures for fresh editions printed, of any translation - not reprintings, but fresh editions, as it might be of the Geneva Bible of 1560, which had 120 editions - not just reprintings - in its ninety years.

Numbers of Bibles printed is another thing. The numbers of complete Bibles, or large parts, in English bought just between 1526 and 1640, make a total of well over a million. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the figures for English Bibles bought, particularly in America, defy expression: one thinks of a number and then goes on and on adding noughts. The English Bible has been the most influential book in the history of the world.

In the writing of my book, linked with the revelation of the double numbers - of so many fresh translations, and of astronomical numbers bought - came several puzzles, my second topic.

TWO – Some Puzzles
The first puzzle is about America. From the first landfall by Raleigh’s ships on the Outer Banks in 1584 in what soon became named North Carolina until the United States’ Independence in 1776, Americans imported Geneva Bibles and King James Versions in large numbers. From 1777, they printed their own. By the 1870s the big printing presses that were making in every state newspapers, magazines, serializations, cheap novels, household handbooks and so on were also printing Bibles in all sorts of wonderful sizes and forms, some very big with a thousand pictures, some printed with special texts in colour, some so small they could hardly be read, and on and on -- but always the 1611 King James Version. Always. Why?

In 1776, America had good Greek and Hebrew scholars, and easy access to the original texts. Why did not the Founding Fathers seal their independence by making an American Bible? It strikes me odd that the new Republic was wedded to a Bible that was already out-of-date, and, moreover, so supposedly linked to an English monarch that many otherwise sane Americans still think that King James made the translation himself (with the help of Shakespeare) and even call it the ‘Saint James Bible’- a reputable British newspaper, the Guardian, has called it that.

It was not that learned Americans, including the great Noah Webster, did not try: but it was not until 1952 that American scholars made a true American Bible, the triumphant and much to be praised Revised Standard Version, still with us. It set the modern standard.

Of course the 1611 King James Bible can be beautiful and powerful, especially in the New Testament, where it is, we now know, 83% pure Tyndale. But though a good deal of the King James Old Testament poetry and prophecy is fine, a good deal of it is incomprehensible - not because of archaic language, but through bad translation, and loss of notes. Tyndale was killed before he could get to those books. And for the record, King James had almost nothing to do with that version, beyond receiving the obsequious dedication, where he is, surely blasphemously, described as ‘the Author’ of the work. Myths abound. We know now, thanks to a recent pioneering study by Patrick Collinson no less, that the standard account of the version’s initiation at Hampton Court in January 1604, with its hatred of the Geneva Bible, reeks of the writer’s prejudice and malice, a political gesture to the Bishop of London as a step to his own preferment. Moreover, in spite of another persistent myth, the 1611 King James Version was not instantly loved and taken to the hearts of English Christians ever after. Its publication was a non-event, the arrival of a large piece of church furniture, at best described irritatedly as ‘the new translation without notes’ (notes are essential for Hebrew poetry, half the OT). Many of those who noticed its arrival more carefully loathed it, and said so. Its publishing success was the result of murderous rivalry between printers fighting over a monopoly. It did not reach its near-divine status until the late 1760s. That was a political happening, lifting up God’s England against the wicked French, and exactly paralleled the invention of Shakespeare as immortal genius at the same time, in 1769, marking the English as God’s proper people.

Further puzzles trouble me more. One is the persistence of many other ineradicable myths - for example, that the great Geneva Bibles were failures, because they were unacceptably Calvinist. Both statements are quite untrue. That Protestant Bibles do not contain the books of the Apocrypha is again untrue. And I am regularly ‘corrected’ for my insistence that Wycliffe and Tyndale were the first to bring the bible to everyone. The rebuke always covers the same ground and is usually, curiously, in the same words. Tyndale was unnecessary. The ‘brilliant’ Vulgate was enough, even for the illiterate housewife in the 15th century who ‘also knew the bible through the homilies of the parish priest, and through the Bible scenes from The Golden Legend and other popular collections, as well as the paintings in churches and the mystery plays’. I sigh. How did an illiterate housewife know Latin? A trawl through sermons catches only the tiniest of biblical scraps, usually still in Latin. How did anyone except the rich afford The Golden Legend - which has anyway only a handful of fancifully expanded stories of a few Bible characters? What were those other collections? Church paintings cannot show many things, and it is difficult to make a painting, or a play, out of the Epistle to the Romans. I sigh again. Tyndale and the sixteenth-century printed English Bibles, read and heard in huge numbers, were a revelation to the common people, and caused a revolution, but one must not say so.

My chief puzzle is best introduced by an anecdote. I was fortunate to be given a scholarship for five weeks to work on American Bibles at one of America’s great libraries. At my request, they found for me a local research assistant, to work at my own expense. This young lady had three degrees in theology from good institutions, the latest a Ph.D. in theology. On the first morning I was approached by a reader who wanted to know the location of a Biblical phrase. I said I thought it was in the Psalms, possibly 113. As my hands were full, I pushed a Bible across to my new research assistant to con- firm it. I was soon aware that something was wrong. Not only could she not find the Psalms: she was scrabbling about in 1 & 2 Thessalonians. She had no idea where the Psalms came. She had never before in her life, it turned out, had a Bible in her hands - not even a Latin Bible. She had come to me from being liturgist to one of America’s senior Cardinals. I was on many levels flabbergasted.

How could that young lady’s Christian, advanced theological education, even in a quite different system of the Faith, totally wipe out the Bible? It would be argued, no doubt by her Cardinal, that the Bible is always secondary, if that, and must be interpreted by the Church. It is true that the Bible first came from the church, if that word ‘church’ means those loose and independent congregations in the first century to whom Paul and others wrote. By Tyndale’s time the word ‘church’ meant only the vast, hierarchical bureaucracy under a pope, with the tightest possible grip on everyone’s life. The reformers argued that the New Testament said that the church was, or rather, churches were, to be interpreted by the Bible, the first revelation of Jesus. This they argued passionately and bravely, and many paid for it with their lives. My own non-conformist, strongly Bible, background made me sad about my research assistant’s inculcated hostility even to the idea of the importance of the Bible. We made what we could of the five weeks of research.

For some decades, a focus of historical work on sixteenth-century Europe has been the great Conference for Sixteenth-Century Studies, held each year in America, attended by large numbers of historians and scholars right across the humanities from all over the world. Between 1994 and 2001 - a representative sample – there were given, at those conferences, a total of 2,500 papers on sixteenth-century European history. In all those eight years the papers on the Bible, all short, on any Bible at all, in any language at all, including Latin, in any country of Europe, out of that 2,500 amounted to - six. Some years there were none at all. There was only one on an English Bible, a 20-minute paper on Taverner. Just as in Stalin’s Moscow fallen offi- cials were airbrushed out of photographs, so the Bible has been, from the last decades of the 20th century, airbrushed out of the writing of history. (In England, this is just beginning to change, in the work of the young historian, Alec Ryrie, in Birmingham.)

THREE – Some of the Story
Yet for nearly five hundred years the story of the Bible in English has been a triumphant one. Early in our history, parts of the Bible, especially the Psalms and the Gospels, were translated into Anglo-Saxon from the Latin from the ninth century. In Middle English, from the fourteenth century, poems and translations of bits of Bible stories, usually mixed with saints’ lives, were made, both often enlarged to make more sensational fictions. Both Anglo- Saxon and Middle English Bible versions had limited readership. There was no complete Bible in English until the l380s in the work of Wycliffite scholars. These manuscripts were wide spread: more have survived than of any other Middle English text. We have 230 Wycliffe Bible manuscripts, in spite of determined burnings of unknown numbers (probably large) by a hostile Church: the nearest is Chaucer, with 60 manuscripts surviving. The Church clamped down on them, and all they stood for, with extreme harshness, burning Bibles and, often, their owners. The accompanying extreme censorship, the most severe in our history, and in Europe, lasted 120 years, from 1408 into the 1530s, and was the cause of many cruel punishments. When Tyndale was revising his English New Testament in 1534, a young man was burned alive in Norwich for possessing a piece of paper on which was written the Lord’s Prayer in English.

In the centuries after Tyndale, what is overwhelmingly visible in the history of Britain and America is the continual, maintained vigour of the work of translating the New Testament from the Greek into English. After Tyndale, there have been new editions, and often fresh translations in every year except one, 1667 - a reaction to the Commonwealth. Though the fashion among historians has been to brush them away, the effects of English Bibles on our national lives have been so big as to be almost incommunicable. The late Christopher Hill first pointed out as recently as 1993, in a definitive book, The English Bible and the Seventeenth Century Revolution, that in the political thinking that led to ‘the English Revolution’ of 1642-1660, the English Civil war, the prime influence was the English Geneva Bible, and particularly the marginal notes. Valuable and surprising as this was, he did not go far enough. For a reason I did not discover, he ignored the Geneva New Testament. Looking at mid seventeenth century politics through that lens, work to my knowledge not yet even begun, will alter for ever our thinking about those events. The signs are there, to look no further than John Milton, or the Parliamentary speeches in the Commonwealth.

I can, in my book, do no more than sketch some selected influences on English and American life through to Victorian times - on our poetry, painting and music. But I want here to spend a moment on what I found to be the most significant influence of all, that of the English Bible on writing in English from the l530s, say to the death of Shakespeare in 1616. The evidence is there - the very earliest English handbooks of rhetoric from the 1530s (newly in English, not Latin) acknowledge the English Bible as an essential model for writing.

The Bible has a very wide range of styles. Tyndale and his successors, especially those men in Geneva who first put the Hebrew prophets and poets into English, understood this, and reflected it. At their root is Tyndale’s gift, an English Plain Style. One needs to understand what a miserable mess the English language was in about 1510 in what prose writing there was, its vocabulary drifting between some Saxon, a lot of Norman French and debased Latin, in shapeless sentences that meander on for ever. The court poet, John Skelton, at that time wrote a poem despairing of English as it was, and having no future.

Yet by the 1590s English was the most alive language in Europe, carrying all the freight of the ancient world in translation, and so creative that we can never again catch up: there cannot be another Shakespeare. Something in those decades threw the switch that energized English. Not only was there, suddenly, miraculous literature in English, especially between 1580 and 1620, capable of infinite expressiveness and resonances: suddenly every one could write. You did not have to be one of a classically-educated Italian and French-speaking elite, and a man. Everyone could write and be read, and did. Women, too, were liberated. Some of those were indeed highly cultivated, but some were not, and wrote well, as we are increasingly discovering.

What threw the switch? With over half a million English Bibles or parts in circulation by the l590s, they have to be worth a glance. This is more than matter for a May evening. I need a day or two at this lectern (or a big book) to say anything properly. Two things will have to do for now. First, Tyndale broadcast, in his Bibles, that particularly English Plain Style - a register close to speech, sustained and varied - which has Saxon vocabulary and short sentences in Saxon syntax, the regular subject-verb-object which simply gets on with it. This is Shakespeare’s base (drama has above all to get on with it): he was a Geneva Bible man. Secondly, with everyone reading the New Testament in English - (and Psalms, incidentally - one can watch the excited discovery that as God wrote poetry in English, poetry is, as Audrey in As You Like It, wanted it to be, ‘a true thing’) - with everyone free to read and think and say, in England language and liberated imagination took off together. The result was Hamlet and King Lear, The Faerie Queene and Paradise Lost, and all the ‘nest of singing birds’ of those years.

The English Bible that was read from the highest to the lowest in the land (and soon in America) was that from Geneva - New Testament in 1557, whole Bible in 1560, New Testament revised in 1576, and Revelation freshly annotated in 1599. It was the most accurate (for its time), informative and influential Bible. It is one of the tragedies of English life that that Bible was not confirmed under James as the national book it had been for fifty years. To read, for example, chapter 40 of Isaiah, beginning ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people,’ in Geneva is to be amazed at both how good it is, and how much was taken over unchanged by the 1611 revisers. For political reasons, on arrival in London James was persuaded to retreat towards a new Latin influenced Bible to please his reactionary bishops. They gave out to the new panels of translators, as their base, the rather preposterous Bishops Bible of 1568, where their lordships had felt constrained to rework a lot of the Hebrew poetry, and had made a mess of it. The 1611 workers made a point, however. In their 1611 preface, ‘The Translators to the Reader’, rarely found now (I print it as an Appendix) their quotations from the Bible are given, not from their own translation, but from Geneva.

Between 1611 and 1881 there were in England many new translations of complete New Testaments, almost all made by Dissenters and other unspeakable people. They are all interesting, and some of them are important, in two main ways: the attempts to settle on an appealing register, and, from the late seventeenth century, the grappling with the new and much better Greek scholarship coming from Germany. An important part of the story is the steady elucidating of a firm base of the New Testament Greek text, the result of better methods as well as of important discoveries of manuscripts and papyri. I shall return in a moment to the matter of linguistic register.

Most notable in the whole story is the wider spread of translation work since World War II, an output, mainly from America, that can only be described as a torrent. After RSV in 1952, American scholars have made about 150 fresh translations of the whole Bible or significant parts. And that is far from all. America is now awash with excellent new Bibles. Most of them have been made over some years by large committees on leafy campuses, with full secretarial back-up. Good as the work is, it seems a long way from William Tyndale in exile, cold and hungry, working alone in his room in Antwerp.

All the 87 fresh New Testaments made in England and America since 1945, with no exception, claim to be doing that miraculous thing, giving the Word of God, at last, to the people in a way that they can receive. This is a praiseworthy aim. If a truck driver in a lay-by puts aside a girlie mag for St Mark’s Gospel in racy language and gets something from it, we should rejoice with the angels in heaven. But, but, but. We need to be far more alert, all my study shows, to what exactly the truck-driver is receiving. Versions which consist of flip one-line colloquialisms cannot convey the mystery of God and the power of New Testament theology. What New Testament will the truck-driver read to find these?

FOUR – Linguistic Register
The three essentials in making an English translation of the New Testament are accuracy to the Greek, clarity in English and - the hardest - the finding of an appropriate register of language.

As the popular English language has changed, in the eighteenth century for example from the wide influence of sentiment in novels, or in the later nineteenth century from severe limits of propriety, or in the twentieth from increasing global linguistic interaction, so the problem of register has been more and more present.

What is new now is the breadth of the spectrum of the registers available. It makes a serious, and now probably insoluble, problem. Faithfulness to the Greek can still produce great differences (cutting loose from the Greek, as we shall see, makes something else). Just to stay with the Gospels. The Christian world is divided according to whether, to take extremes, the New Testament has to be something necessarily holy, elevated above common life, where someone called Our Lord has a halo and is seen in fixed, stained-glass postures: or whether it recounts an incarnation which includes low human experiences, and someone called Jesus moves, as he was accused of doing, among drunks and prostitutes. Linguistically, the first produces (as I have heard) ‘“Judge not” is an asseveration expressing dominical authority’, and the second, ‘Jesus said “Judge not”.’

The trick - still, I think, eluding the most modern work - is to combine a proper dignity and an immediate grip on the reader’s attention. I realize even more how blest we are to have a foundation in Tyndale. His skill, as I said earlier, with Saxon vocabulary, a neutral word order, short sentences, was all governed by a wonderful ear for placing stresses - ‘This thy brother was dead, and is alive again: he was lost, and is found’.

I have elsewhere written and spoken about one modern version in which the opening of John 14 abandons the Greek and Tyndale’s properly moving ‘Let not your hearts be troubled’. Jesus at that point is about to tell his disciples something of great weight and significance - that he will be killed, but that he goes ‘to prepare a place’ for them. Tyndale’s ‘a troubled heart’ is exact for the Greek. In English now his words are for grief, or finding a life’s vocation. For those Greek words, that widely-used version has the flippant ‘Do not be worried and upset’ - that fails on every count. Register remains difficult. Too much trendiness, and you get for those words in John 14, ‘Jesus threw them a grin, and said, “Hey, you guys, lighten up!”’ I made that up in California, but then I found worse, as you will hear. Too many Latinist nouns, and the text is impossible, as with the 1582 Rheims version’s, at a different point, ‘be you new paste as you are Azymes ... with conquinations and spots’. Tyndale made a register of grounded, Saxon English which still endures. I explore at some length in the book how he might have come to craft this, most unusually for the time, and suggest and examine the influence of a short-lasting experiment at Magdalen College, Oxford, exactly while he was there in the early 1500s, to teach writing in English rather than Latin.

Of the translations made in England since 1945, including the 1966 Jerusalem Bible and its 1985 revision, I pick out the Revised English Bible of 1981, the New Testament revision of the New English Bible (1961) made under the chairmanship of Morna Hooker in Cambridge. As always, I wonder again and again why Tyndale had to be changed: why Tyndale’s (and the King James’s) ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ had to become ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit; the kingdom of heaven is theirs’. I do not see that anything is gained by the change, and an essential rhythmic stress, on the kingdom, is lost. But I would give REB to someone coming fresh to St Paul. You feel the Greek underneath your feet, it is clear, and it is all there, tough theology and all.

Those of us who were at Oxford just after the Second World War were able to meet people who had known the celebrated Fellow of New College, Dr Spooner. He had died not long before. Oxford was still full of his true, and apocryphal, Spoonerisms. My favourite verbal one has always been his announcement in Chapel that the lesson was from ‘the epistle of Paul the colossal to the Aposhians.’

For St Paul was – is - colossal; very, very far from the curmudgeonly misogynist of modern view. A devout Jew who was a full Hellenist and Roman citizen, he united learning in three essential cultural worlds for his Holy-spirit-led research into what it meant that God had revealed himself in Christ. God who was - is - God. A verb. A Greek verb, further animating what the Old Testament declared in Hebrew, ‘I am that I am.’ St Paul is not an easy read, but he is worth a life-time of study. The test for gold in New Testament translations has to be applied to St Paul. His power in our last centuries is easily demonstrated: my private definition of the Reformation is ‘people reading Paul.’

Of the one or two modern New Testaments that I am not happy with, essentially in their treatment of St Paul’s Epistles, I have time for only one example. There is a recent (1993) New Testament version, claiming to be ‘from the original languages’ [sic], but seriously fraudulent. It was made by Eugene H. Peterson who was originally from the state of Montana. He aims to make the New Testament easily accommodated into modern life. He does this by grotesque inaccuracy (his opening of John 14 is ‘Don’t let this throw you’ - as if someone had said, ‘I don’t like your haircut`) and by omitting difficult things like theology or the nature of God. The result is a New Testament like the script of a bad television soap opera combined with vacuous uplift. He does not use the words, but Peterson’s New Testament is intended to make you, in that familiar twenty-first-century phrase, ‘feel good about yourself’.

Now the New Testament, though St Paul did write to Timothy ‘Godliness, with contentment is great gain’, attacks that very feel-good idea. Think of Jesus’s parable of the Pharisee and the Publican praying. The Pharisee feels wonderful, listing for God’s benefit how good he feels about himself (‘I fast twice in the week’ and so on). In Tyndale, Jesus says he prays ‘with himself’. The despised Publican only knew the presence of God - look it up in Luke 18.

When you feel good about yourself, you become, of course, a good consumer. You go out and buy things. He says in his Introduction that his version is ‘the language in which we do our shopping’. Consumerism is not a biblical world - it is one in which Moses receives, as someone else said, ‘The Ten Suggestions’. Jesus did not say (these are not quite Peterson’s words, but they are not far off ) ‘I am come that they may have consumer goods, and have them more abundantly.’ You think I am exaggerating? Then consider the first chapter of Ephesians, one of the places where Paul fills out his sense of the otherness of God. Peterson turns it all round to be about our consumption. Where in verse 8 REB has ‘In the richness of his grace God has lavished on us all wisdom and insight’, Peterson has, in words not identifiable in the Greek (as with most of his New Testament), ‘He thought of everything, provided for everything we could possibly need’ - it is an advertisement for a luxury hotel. At Colossians 1, where REB has ‘He exists before all things ... the head of the body ... its origin, the first to return from the dead’, Peterson has ‘He was (wrong tense) supreme in the beginning, and leading the resurrection parade ...`. That is not just poor taste: the underlying notion of ‘supreme’ and ‘parade’ reduces the risen Christ to a local beauty contest.

These are not just the plums of a bad version: most lines are like that. Instead of St Paul’s haunting ‘then shall I know, even as I am known’, in 1 Corinthians 13, Peterson has ‘it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright!’ The relentless substitution of small-town feel-good sing-along consumerism for God’s transcendent and sacrificial mystery in this version entitled The Message might not matter - except that its publishers announce ‘over seven million copies sold’.

FIVE – New Testament theology
I want to introduce my last, and main, subject this evening by saying a little about Karl Barth. He was the great German-Swiss theologian of the mid-twentieth century. His writings, including the many volumes of the Kirkliche Dogmatik, transformed Protestant social and liberal theology as inherited from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He dismantled and decisively rebuilt the entire discipline. His theological expositions are tough, even in English translation. His ground is always, at all times, the New Testament, particularly St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.

Karl Barth belongs to a largely Protestant tradition of exclusively New Testament understanding, a tradition founded by two other giants - Tyndale and Calvin. They were all, Tyndale, Calvin and Barth, cutting away intrusive growths, digging down to the foundations, revealing the original text, whatever metaphor is best. The Greek New Testament, all three understood, from the deepest knowledge of the Greek text and widest sympathies, declares above all one revealed truth - the sovereignty of God. Everything is contained in that. It must never be lost from sight.

There is now no doubt that William Tyndale was, as well as a translator of genius, an original and important theologian, focused fully on St Paul. Tyndale has been reduced theologically to serving up slivers of Luther with a drizzle of Zwingli. This has changed. We are all in debt to the work begun by Dr Ralph Werrell, who is showing just how big, new and original - and far more New Testament-based even than Luther or Zwingli - Tyndale’s theology was.

Like Tyndale, John Calvin, a generation later, returned to the earliest Christian experience of re-interpreting the New Testament. This re-interpreting happened in the congregations of the first centuries, and was fiercely shut down by the Rome.

Karl Barth, who was, in John Webster’s words, ‘talking of God with fluency and delight’; and Calvin, and Tyndale - for all three of them God is above all sovereign, active in the individual and in history. Barth’s rediscovery from the Greek New Testament was that, precisely because God is sovereign, Other, utterly beyond any cultural or religious project, God is the one in whom alone is found salvation and flourishing. Barth’s strange and memorable phrase was ‘the deep secret “yes”’.

This gives a fuller and even more powerful touchstone for translations of the New Testament, a fuller and even more powerful meaning to St Paul’s ‘then shall I know, even as I am known’. God’s sovereignty is not so Other as to be absent. God includes being human - known imperfectly now, as St Paul (and Tyndale) put it, but ‘then shall we see face to face.’ Paul’s phrases include that sovereignty of God in all its otherness, found in love. (In Peterson’s ‘message’ version, where those Greek words become ‘it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright!’ God is simply not there.)

What I have learned in the years in which I have been writing this book is, among other things, the peculiar persistence of myths about the English Bible (‘myths’ being a polite word for ‘lies’), and the extraordinary power of the hostility to it, the need to pretend it is not there, even among people who would be horrified not to be thought of as fully Christian. And how unsolved remains the problem of modern register, a slippery slope down to whether what is made is a religious book at all. People are no longer burned alive for the heresy of correctly translating the Greek word ecclesia as ‘congregation’ rather than ‘church’. What alarms me is that we now do something not as physically cruel, but spiritually worse. We sell seven million copies of a New Testament that has removed God.

But I can only rejoice. I have learned to marvel at the massive energy given, since Tyndale, to re-translating. The freedom to read, study and re-translate as often as we wish has produced many, many achievements, in the United States, and to a lesser extent in England, some of them getting close to that ‘Greek-in-English’ which is needed.

We can be reasonably sure that we have now as base as firm a Greek text as we shall get. We also have now more New Testaments in English than ever before, far, far more in English than in any other language. We can see Tyndale’s translation of Jesus’s revelatory words at John 14:10, ‘I am in the Father, and the Father is in me’, coming down the centuries. What a precious thing this New Testament is - worth learning Greek for, but now so easily found in English. It has been burned and spurned, but it is still very much alive.

A religion is a revelation or it is nothing. The New Testament is a revelation not of obedience to a pope, nor of the inevitability of being for ever eaten up by guilt, nor of a remarkable system of ethics, and certainly not a handbook of retail therapy. It is a revelation of the deity of God and his redeeming Kingdom in Jesus Christ.

Absorb again the whole Gospel of St Luke and its world of the healing Kingdom of God. I have mentioned St Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians with his attempted expression of God’s Otherness. I finish with some sentences from that passage, as translated by William Tyndale in 1534, and still alive.

Eph. 1:3-10
Blessed be God the father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which hath blessed us with all manner of spiritual blessing in heavenly things by Christ, according as he had chosen us in him, before the foundation of the world was laid, that we should be saints, and without blame before him, through love. And ordained us before through Jesus Christ to be heirs unto himself, according to the pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace wherewith he hath made us accepted in the beloved.

By whom we have redemption through his blood even the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace, which grace he shed on us abundantly in all wisdom, and perceivance. And hath opened unto us the mystery of his will according to his pleasure, and purposed the same in himself to have it declared when the time were full come, that all things, both the things which are in heaven, and also the things which are in earth, should be gathered together, even in Christ.

A note from the speaker
My special thanks to the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral for their generosity in making available the OBE chapel and the efficiency and the warmth of their welcome.

Prof David Daniell`s book The Bible in English published by Yale University Press was launched on 26 June 2003.

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