The Annual Gloucester Cathedral Lecture October 2003

Translating the Bible; Why Tyndale is still vital

Professor David Daniell

This is a real ‘doorstop’ of a book, as you can see! It is the story of the making of the bible in English from the earliest times — until last Tuesday — effectively! And is a story which seems to me to be one very well worth telling. It has to be told in that bulk. The Yale University Press has done a wonderful job and it’s extremely attractive. But, as I always say, I only wrote the words, they made the book and they have made it beautifully.

I want to talk about something of the experience of making it. Although there had been a number of books lately about the King James’ Bible (the AV), and they keep on coming, not many people have surveyed the whole extraordinary history of the bible in these islands and then in America, from the earliest time in the first millennium till now. That is an ocean in which the 1611 or AV or KJV is only one wave. I thought that there might be value this afternoon in hearing from someone who has seen the whole story and about what some of that experience reveals.

First, I want to talk about the whole scene of translating the bible into English. I want to start quickly by saying at the very beginning, although everyone in the room knows this I’m sure, that the Old Testament was almost completely in Hebrew, the sacred and very restricted language of the Jews, and that the New Testament was written in the common, widespread language of the Eastern Mediterranean in the 1st century, Greek. As I shall reiterate, the New Testament is a Greek thing; I keep saying this and it is very important that we know it. By the end of the fourth century the Roman Empire had brought stability across a huge swathe, from Scotland in the north to deep into North Africa and from Portugal in the West to the border of Afghanistan to the East - and the common language from metropolitan Rome was Latin. It was into Latin that the bible was, quite late on translated in various, largely inadequate versions, merged by Jerome in the late 300s into a standard version and used by the increasingly powerful bishop of Rome, later called the Pope. This Latin version, erroneously presented as the original, was kept by the church in its tight, iron grip until the 16th century. In the 15th century, North Italian humanist quest for the true originals of everything, increasing knowledge of Hebrew in Europe (though not in England), and Erasmus’ printing in 1516 of the Greek New Testament, led to the widespread printing and circulation of fresh translations in European vernaculars, led by Luther’s German New Testament in 1522.

William Tyndale, first in 1526 and again in 1534, translated the New Testament into English for the first time from the original Greek. He went on to translate the first half of the Old Testament from the original Hebrew.

That Greek New Testament was the one that had recently been printed by Erasmus. Tyndale was also printed for the first time in unusually large numbers for a book of that time. It is always stressed how important this printing was, as an invention, 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. This matters very much and I can’t stress it too strongly, - Tyndale opened the door of the Greek to the English-speaking people. His descendants, as it were, the New Testaments which we hold today, have not usually been ‘bent out of shape’ by being first in Latin.

In talking of the bible and translations, I need now to try to clarify numbers: the sheer volume of English bibles made since Tyndale in 1526. This clarification of numbers falls into two parts: first, the number of new translations made, and second, the numbers printed. Both figures startle people. Even before the A.V., the King James Version of l611 and after 1526, there were in England, uniquely in Europe, nine fresh translations or major revisions — Tyndale again, Coverdale, The Matthews Bible, The Great Bible, the three Geneva Bibles, The Bishops’ Bible and the Rheims New Testament. From Tyndale in 1526 until today, the number of completely fresh translations of the whole bible, or of significant parts that have been published in English, is just over 3,000, 1200 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, not reprintings, of any translation. Numbers printed is another thing! The numbers of complete bibles or large parts in English bought between 1526 and 1540 make a total of well over a million. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the figures of English bibles bought, particularly in America, defy expression. One thinks of a number and then goes on and on and on adding noughts. The English bible has been the most influential book in the history of the world. Of course I knew that before I started writing, but I was myself amazed.

Now let me just pause for a moment on the Authorised Version of 1611, always known in America as KJV, the King James Bible. It can be beautiful and powerful especially in the New Testament, where it is as we now know, 83% pure Tyndale. But though a good deal of the K.J. Old Testament poetry and prophecy is fine, a good deal of it is incomprehensible. But for some reason one is not allowed to say so! Not because of archaic language, but through bad translation and a loss of notes. As I was preparing this, my AV fell open at the first page of Micah, where I read these words:-

‘Pass ye away, thou inhabitant of Saphir, having thy shame naked: the inhabitant of Zaanan came not forth in the mourning of Beth-ezel: he shall receive of you his standing’

Now that is incomprehensible - dare I also say it’s rubbish?! There are, of course those, and I have met them, who say seriously that it doesn’t matter that it is rubbish because God wrote it and He will help us to understand it. And there is worse. A cluster of marginal alternatives in King James only make it more difficult. The Geneva Bible at that point is much better and the marginal notes more elucidatory. Tyndale was killed before he could get to the second half of the Old Testament, so we don’t have Tyndale on that.

For the record, King James had almost nothing to do with his version as it is always called, beyond receiving the obsequious dedication where he is surely blasphemously described as the ‘author of the work’. Myths abound. We know now, thanks to recent study by Patrick Collinson, 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 and was a political gesture to the Bishop of London as a step to his own preferment. Moreover, in spite of another persistent myth, the 1611 KJV was not instantly loved and taken to the heart of English Christians ever after. Its publication was a non-event - the arrival of a large piece of church furniture, at best described as ‘The new translation without notes’ (notes are essential to Hebrew poetry... half the Old Testament). 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 monopoly. No one has ever told this story before; it includes all sorts of extraordinary things including court cases and imprisonments.

The King James Version did not reach its near-divine status until the late 1760s. That was a political happening; the lifting up of God’s England against the wicked French, and exactly paralleled the ‘invention’ of Shakespeare, in the same year, 1769, as the ‘Immortal Genius’. It was to mark the English as God’s proper people, (not the French), because they had the bible – and - Shakespeare.

In the centuries after Tyndale, what is overwhelmingly visible in the history of Britain and America, is the continually maintained vigour of the work of translating the New Testament from the Greek to English. After Tyndale there were new editions and often new translations in every year except one, 1667, the 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. Tyndale has given the English nation an English plain style, a register close to but just above 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’. It is Shakespeare’s base because drama has above all to ‘get on with it’. He was a Geneva Bible man. With everyone reading the New Testament in English, (and the sounds, incidentally, as well), one can watch the excited discovery that God wrote poetry in English! Everyone was now free to read, think and say, without fear of a charge of heresy and a terrible death. for the first time for two centuries. Language and liberated imagination took off together at the end of the l6th century. The result was Hamlet and King Lear, The Fairy Queen and Paradise Lost, and all the ‘nests of singing birds’ of those years.

Most noticeable in the whole story is the wider spread of translation work since the Second World War, an output, mainly from America that can only be described as a torrent. The great American achievement was the Revised Standard Version of 1952. They had been struggling for some 70 years after the English Revised version to make their own and failing. Then, suddenly in 1952 they succeeded, and in the book you will find a picture of the RSV, as it is still known, being presented to President Truman. There is such triumph in all the smiles on the faces —“ We’ve done it at last! — an American version” (and it’s very good). Since then American scholars have made about 150 fresh translations of the whole bible or of significant parts - and they’re still at it! America is now awash with bibles. Most of them have been made over many years by vast salaried committees on leafy campuses, with full secretarial backup. It’s 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 layby 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 we need to be far more alert 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. The illustration which I have used before is John 14; where Jesus begins to assemble His disciples to tell them the most serious thing in His life -- that He is going to be killed, taken from them and that He is going ahead to prepare a place. He begins; ‘Let not your hearts be troubled’. That’s Tyndale and you can’t better it. One very popular modern version has ‘Don’t be worried or upset’. Wrong! Wrong for the Greek, wrong in English, and quite the wrong emotional experience.

I claim to have seen, while living in California, ‘Jesus got his disciples together. He threw them a grin and said - Hey you guys, lighten up!’ Now we haven’t got quite to that (and I made that up!) But I have seen things that are remarkably close to that. The three essentials in making an English translation of the New Testament are (1) accuracy to the Greek, (2) clarity in English, and (3) the hardest of all, the finding of an appropriate register of language.

As the popular English languages changed, in the 18th century for example, from the wide interest of sentiment in novels, or in the later 19th century from the severe limits of propriety to the increasing global interaction during the 20th century, so the problem of register has been more and more present. What is new now, and what makes bible translation so difficult is the breadth of the spectrum of the registers available. I think it makes a serious and now, probably insoluble, problem to make it approachable and yet just that little bit elevated. Faithfulness to the Greek can still produce great differences. Cutting loose from the Greek I’m afraid, has happened and is something else. The trick still, I think, eluding modern work, is to combine a proper dignity with an immediate grip on the reader’s attention. So I realise even more how blessed we are to have a foundation in Tyndale. His skill with Saxon vocabulary, as I have said, plus a neutral word order, short sentences, all governed by a wonderful ear for placing stresses – ‘This thy brother was dead and is alive again, was lost and is found’ is wonderful. He is still with us!

I was recently making a programme about Tyndale for Australian Radio from my desk at home, and a query arose about whether he still felt ‘modern’. My eye fell on Tyndale’s sentence in Luke 5 which was by chance open on the desk. ‘And He kept himself apart in the wilderness and gave himself to prayer’. What could be clearer? Tyndale can be uncannily timeless.

Now the word ‘similitude’ is not a word we know, we know ‘parable’, but here it is in Luke 18: ‘And He put forth a similitude unto them, signifying that all men ought always to pray, and not to be weary saying: There was a judge in a certain city, which feared not God neither regarded man. And there was a certain widow in the same city, which came unto him saying: avenge me of my adversary. And he would not for a while. But afterward he said unto himself: though I fear not God, nor care for man, yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her lest at the last she come and hag on me. And the Lord said: hear what the unrighteous judge saith. And shall not God avenge his elect, which cry day and night unto him, yea, though he defer them? I tell you he will avenge them, and that quickly’. This is Tyndale, and I claim, clear.

Also; ‘They brought unto him also babes, that he should touch them. When his disciples saw that, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them unto him and said: Suffer children to come unto me, and forbid them not. For of such is the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you: whosoever receiveth not the kingdom of God as a child, he shall not enter therein’. This sounds modern. One of the few great improvements that the King James’ men made was to add ‘little’ to the children which improves the rhythm.

I was in California, and one day I was in a bookshop which specialised in religious books and bibles. I stood in front of a wall as wide as this room and round about 8 feet high, solid with American bibles. Bibles of all kinds and for every occasion. Not only the various versions, but what they call over there, study bibles. You can get a bible for a special occasion with different notes in it. Bibles for the time of divorce, bibles for success in business, and so on ....a great wall of them! So many bibles around, and yet you see, I can only rejoice. I have learned, having written that book, to marvel at the massive energy given since Tyndale to retranslating. The freedom to read, study and to retranslate as often as we wish has produced many, many achievements, some of them getting close to that ‘Greek-in-English’ which is what is needed.

Now, even though there are so many bibles, there is a growing fashion to ‘airbrush out’ the bible from our history. I have been saddened to find that it is possible to write a history of the early modern period, or of the 16th century, without once mentioning the bible. It is very odd to find the bible missing in accounts of the l6th century and rather like trying to write an account of England and never once mentioning London. Very peculiar, this, and I am also troubled by increasing attempts at ‘relevance’—the making of the bible in the language we use today, with no reference to what it has to be. It has to be in a certain way special. Often it is a denial of magnificence; the magnificence both of variety and of words, producing too often a uniform dreariness. I have to say that I have also found some bad paraphrases, masquerading as translations from the original. I don’t mind the obviously ‘wild’ things; in 1969 the USA was shaken by the “Cotton Patch Version”, which actually I like very much. It is a version of St. Paul’s epistles in the language of the far, far south and it is done with real understanding of the Greek and of how people speak. It lifts the spirit as well as being accurate. That’s fine, and I’ve just been shown recently the ‘Rap Gospels’ which, though not to my taste, are eccentric and claiming to be so. In my book, I give an illustration of a comic book bible which I find utterly revolting. It tries to tell the story of Adam and Eve. It is the story as told to a sweetie pie and hunk and contains a rather charming snake. I don’t like it.

I wanted the pictures in my book to illustrate the story and decline of bible illustration. We couldn’t think what to have as the final plate and we could not go lower than the comic book form. Not without real offence. There was really an extraordinary experience. My editor at Yale, Gillian Malpass, the picture researcher and I sat in silence for half an hour thinking, ‘Now what can be the last picture? We can’t end on a low note’. It was a very wonderful moment. The other two were not particularly religious; I prayed. We ended up with the Codex Sinaiticus, the Greek text upon which everything depends and which is now in the British Library. I like that. I thought it was rather good.

I am, in fact, just back from New York where I have been launching this book in the USA. I gave a long radio interview and other interviews, lectures and discussions. I bring back from America two strong things which are new to me. First, I hadn’t grasped before, even though I’ve lived in America and worked in their libraries, how few seem to know of the severe repression until the 16th century. Again and again I was asked in interviews and in discussions, why Tyndale was killed. Their history doesn’t begin until the late 1580s when Raleigh’s ships sheltered in the outer banks off North Carolina. That general ignorance had not reached me before. I thought that everyone understood that the English bible was made in blood.

In New York I was shown a page, from a news magazine about the new initiative from Nashville Tennessee and from the publishers Thos, Nelson and Sons, who are bible publishers, to interest American teenage girls in the bible by linking it with a teenage fashion magazine. The article I read was scornful about Jesus not being a sharp dresser and Mary Magdalen was seen in a low cut dress with masses of jewellery. I confess I felt faintly sick. But within hours of my return I was telephoned by the BBC World Service in London and asked to go in and take part in a broadcast about that very publication, now explained as the New Testament in a modern version, the New Century Version, embedded in a teen-type-mag and called ‘Revolve’. Still heavily jet-lagged I went into Bush House for the broadcast. My brain came back mercifully just as the green light came on. Two days later a courier delivered from Nashville my personal copy of Revolve. It is extraordinary. It is the full New Testament, uncut, in what is, after all, quite a good modern translation, but setting out all the teen mag things, like; ‘Do you kiss on the first date?’, about, ‘Wearing your spiritual lipstick, that your words may be pure throughout the day’; ‘How to get on with your mom’ (an important point), and so on. Of course I said on air that anything at all which gets people close to the New Testament is to be welcomed and that Jesus meets people where they are, American teenage girls as well. But I said the production of a New Testament has to be accurate, and I was unhappy with associating the New Testament with consumerism. Jesus did not say, ‘I am come that they might have consumer goods and have them more abundantly’ and nothing is more consumer-driven than fashion. I quoted on air African Christians asking why we in the West, particularly American children, had to have so many things. I was also asked on air whether Tyndale who brought the Bible to the people would have approved and I said a firm ‘No’. Jesus in the Gospel gives Himself especially to the destitute, the deprived, the outcasts, the poor in spirit and those who are mourning. The New Testament, as Tyndale always makes clear, is about the deepest possible human experience, the situations of life and death, spiritual growth, healing and salvation — all under a loving Father, and the very difficult issues that morality presents once religious bigotry is left behind. I couldn’t relate that to a choice of lipstick. But this magazine has swept America; it has colossal sales. Standing here today, I do find myself at a loss. I do not know what to think about it. I resent the tone of the magazine which says that you are only human if you are American, but on the other hand, it IS the New Testament, complete, in a really very reasonable modern translation. A lot of hard thinking is going to be needed. The issue seems fundamentally to be about growth. What happens next? Very well, Jesus meets people where they are: He meets teenage girls in their mag but what happens next? What follows? If the New Testament is so embedded in the teen experience, what happens when you mature?

I want to close with two bible passages, one from the Old Testament. and one from the New. I wish to show in more detail what I mean in my title by Tyndale still being vital. In what follows I am partly echoing the excellent work by the scholar, Brian Cummings.

I want to take a well-known passage from Genesis 2:-

‘And the Lord God took Adam and put him in the garden of Eden, to dress it and keep it: and the Lord God commanded Adam saying of all the trees in the garden see thou eat. But of the tree of knowledge of good and bad see that thou eat not: for even the same day that thou eatest of it, thou shalt surely die’.

Then Eve is created, Genesis 3 begins:- ‘But the serpent was subtler than all the beasts of the field which the Lord God had made, and said unto the woman, Ah sir, that God hath said, ye shall not eat of all manner trees in the garden. And the woman said unto the serpent, of the fruit of the trees in the garden we may eat, but of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden (said God) see that ye eat not and see that ye touch it not: lest ye die. Then said the serpent unto the woman: tush, ye shall not die. But God doth know, that whensoever ye should eat of it, your eyes should be opened and ye should be as God and know both good and evil. And the woman saw... and took...and ate‘

I remember that John Milton at that point in book IX of Paradise Lost, has:-

‘Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat,
Sighing through all her works, gave signs of woe
That all was lost. Back to the thicket slunk
The guilty Serpent’

I want to comment on the Genesis language, the Hebrew, in some detail; both in the Hebrew which is here cunning and in Tyndale’s English. This cunning, deep in the Hebrew grammar is appropriate for the moment of the serpent’s subtle (Tyndale’s word) misrepresentation of God’s words leading to the human self-justified divorce from God which we call the Fall. Tyndale’s English, as I shall show, is as brilliant as the Hebrew and just as cunning. As you know, Tyndale was the first to put Hebrew into English. Hebrew studies had not yet begun in England and he seems to have learned that language in Germany using the standard Hebrew grammar by Johannes Reuchlin. Tyndale’s Hebrew was very good. He was a natural linguist, speaking 8 languages and was mistaken for a native German. He had also been well taught in Oxford the art and craft of rhetoric which included the high significance of grammar.

Now Tyndale thought hard about why it was outrageous that the scriptures were forbidden by the church in any other language but Latin (and especially in English). Moreover, he wrote famously in his Obedience of a Christian Man about how naturally Hebrew goes into English, whereas Hebrew into Latin is clumsy. This was not mere chauvinism, it was hard grammatical fact.

He had learned his Hebrew between his two New Testaments, 1526 and 1534, and when he came to translate the Greek again in 1534 he found a number of things which surprised him. What he had found as a result of his new knowledge he expressed on the first page of his prologue to his 1534 New Testament.

W.T. Unto the reader |br| ‘Here thou hast (most dear reader) the new testament or covenant made with us of God in Christ’s blood. Which I have looked over again (now at the last) with all diligence, and compared it unto the Greek, and have weeded out of it many faults, which lack of help at the beginning, and oversight, did sow therein. If ought seem changed, or not altogether agreeing with the Greek, let the finder of the fault consider the Hebrew phrase or manner of speech left in the Greek words. Whose preterperfect tense and present tense is oft both one, and the future tense is the optative mode also, and the future tense is oft the imperative mode in the active voice, and in the passive ever. Likewise person for person, number for number, and an interrogation for a conditional, and such like, is with the Hebrews a common usage.’

That is to say, he is telling us that he hadn’t before grasped the significance of the fact that first century Greek as written by Palestinian Jews takes on some of the characteristics of classical Hebrew. I shall try to sum all that up in three sentences.

Firstly, what we know as tenses are in a strict sense not found in Hebrew. What can appear to us as an imperfect tense, an uncompleted action in the past, can be in Hebrew as a future tense for an imperfect action which has not yet happened. (There is logic in it.) Secondly, an imperative also appears like a sort of imperfect — a sort of future because it hasn’t happened yet. Thirdly, great care is needed in Hebrew to distinguish imperatives from simple futures, further complicated by changes which come with negatives in each case.

Now see what is happening in the story of the fall.

Tyndale takes God’s first words in the imperfect, as His imperative command ‘all the trees see thou eat’ In spite of some heavy Rabbinic arguments the other way, which Tyndale knew, he then takes the next remark, ‘see thou eat not’ — also as an imperative, being exactly the same as a negative future. Why does Tyndale do that? Because he wants, for a very good reason, as we shall see, for God’s next phrase to be ambiguous: ‘For even the same day thou eatest of it thou shall surely die’. Is that a simple command, an irrevocable law or a conditional or a simple future? It is exactly this ambiguity, ringingly clear in Tyndale’s English which the subtle serpent exploits in his words. Tyndale’s God has made two unequivocable commands both addressed to Adam, of trees in general (See thou eat i.e. ‘Be free to use the abundance that God has provided’, and of one particular tree ‘See that thou eat not’). The subtle serpent tries to create confusion in Eve’s mind. ‘Subtle’, by the way, was in 1530 a relatively recent word in English, from Latin via Norman French into late Middle English and exactly right for what the Oxford English Dictionary defines as crafty, treacherously or wickedly cunning, insidiously sly or wily. The OED, however, in its customary ignorance about Tyndale gives its first use to Coverdale in 1535 instead of Tyndale 1530. None of the versions available to Tyndale had anything like ‘subtle’; Wycliffe has ‘fell’ (cruel), Luther has ‘listiger’, which is ‘cunning’, the Vulgate, calidus (more the sense of ‘skilful’), and the Greek Septuagint has ‘promino’ which veers towards ‘prudent’.

The serpent addresses the woman with the wonderfully flattering ‘Ah Sir’, not flattering in a sexist way, I hasten to add, but in the spreading of confusion and the sense of being about to say something of serious moment. The serpent knows that Eve hasn’t heard the interdiction directly from God. Tyndale’s subtle serpent introduces an ambiguity in English, true to the Hebrew, asking Eve whether God has said ‘Ye shall not eat...’ and this could be either a statement about the future or as a direct imperative. Despite the serpent’s verbal tricks, at first Eve remembers scrupulously what has been reported to her by Adam. But the serpent treats God’s words as though God had been making an idle or inaccurate prediction. With that wonderful Tyndale word ‘tush’ he dismisses God as deceitful. What the woman had understood as a command, the serpent has turned into a wish or even a suggestion to be discussed, bargained over or reasoned with. God’s knowledge of the future, the serpent is suggesting, is not unequivocable but open to interpretation. Tyndale catches this by using what is technically called a conditional modal auxiliary ‘should’; ‘Whensoever ye should eat of it’, (Perhaps you won’t, but perhaps you will, who knows?) ‘Your eyes SHOULD be opened’, though of course, they might not be. It might always be a trick by God ‘and ye should be as God’ being as God is no big thing, it is always open to you to choose whether to be or not.

Tyndale has recognised in the Hebrew the mixture of imperfects and imperatives used for different purposes in what the 1534 prologue referred to as the future indicative and the imperative mode and the optative mode. His ‘shoulds’ are exactly right for what the serpent is up to in Hebrew; twisting the grammar to offer Eve, instead of a God who makes demands from His Divine law, a God who merely makes predictions which are open to discussion, even to curious experiment. The serpent seizes on this indeterminacy of the Hebrew to confuse Eve about which God, the one giving unequivocable laws or the one making suggestions, spoke to Adam. After all it knows she did not hear God herself. This uncertainty . . .reducing God’s laws to conditions is all in Tyndale’s ‘shoulds’, this brilliant use of conditional modal auxiliaries.

In the 1611 King James Authorised Version this is a truth quite missed. The ‘translators’ removed all the subtlety by using the word ‘shall’ throughout. It is surely a significant loss. The serpent says, ‘Your eyes shall be opened, ye shall be as God’. Simple futurity! Why did the KJ committee do this? Because for political reasons they had been given the wretched 1568 Bishops’ Bible to follow. True.. .the first 1560 Geneva bible gave ‘shall’ but the Geneva men put in the margin a careful elaboration of the sense of ‘should’, the ‘shouldness’ that they wished to get across. As though, they said, the serpent should say God doesn’t forbid you to eat the that if you should eat, you should be like Him. Splendid! That is what the Geneva notes do all the time. The Bishops’ Bible for political reasons had no notes.

In the first 1611 version the margins were bare and instead of the serpent’s “Ah Sir” they had the miserable “Yea, because” and it tells us nothing.

The only consolation is that in the 17th and 18th centuries the KJV was sometimes printed with the Geneva notes, but it is a very sorry tale of loss. And today? With all our sophisticated knowledge of Hebrew and English and biblical theology? Not a ‘should’ in sight! The true subtlety of the Fall in Hebrew and in Tyndale, the temptation being not so much to eat the apple, but to misrepresent God as being open to minor experiment has been lost; replaced by a sort of shiny, supermarket futurity.

‘God knows in fact that the day you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like Gods’. This is the New Jerusalem Bible of 1985 and similarly in all the modern versions I have seen. TYNDALE is still vital.

I want now to move on briefly to Tyndale translating the New Testament again in 1534, now knowing Hebrew. Freshly alerted to the idiosyncrasies of Hebrew verse and a need for careful English craftsmanship in rendering them. In this second ‘go’ he rediscovers the complexities of Greek verbs. And verbs are very much the Greek thing. New Testament Greek verbs are altogether richer grammatically than either Hebrew or English, and certainly than Latin.

He does what he can to tease out the subtleties especially in the writing of Paul who is famously full of rhetorical devices, many of them difficult to render properly in the smaller palette of English verb forms - especially in the Epistle to the Romans. Both Greek and English have the indicative, infinitive and imperative. But all English has to take the place of fully inflected Greek verbs, the fully structured mode of subjunctives expressing contingency or hypothesis and the optative expressing a wish, are a few modal auxiliaries like ‘may’ and ‘might’ and so on. Paul, in Romans, a Hebrew writing in Greek has available a big grammatical palette or, to change the image, a large pipeorgan with many stops. English has to struggle to get the effect right. I take briefly one example from Romans 6 in Tyndale and familiar to us: - ‘What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that there may be abundance of grace? God forbid. How shall we that are dead as touching sin. live any longer therein? Remember ye not that all we which are baptised in the name of Jesus Christ, are baptised to die with Him? We are buried with him by baptism, for to die, that likewise as Christ was raised up from death by the glory of the father, even so we also should walk in a new life’. In that paragraph Tyndale uses what Brian Cummings calls a whole lexicon of auxiliaries- ‘shall, shall, may, shall, should, must, must, might, should, shall. ‘In a scrupulous attempt to match the exacting syntax and elusive theology of Paul’s intricate prose,’ Cummings goes on, ‘Paul’s theology modulates between a statement of how things are, an assertion of how things can be, a description of the conditions prescribed by God if this might happen, a prediction of how He will reward us and finally, an exhortation to what we should do about it. Paul exerts unremitting pressure on Greek grammar in order to test the concentrations, linguistic and philosophical of his readers. In the process he places an intolerable burden upon his later translators.’

You won’t be surprised to hear me say that Tyndale has done well: King James’ panel made only slight changes, replacing Tyndale’s ‘remember’ with ‘know’ and one or two other tiny alterations so that in this passage it is more than the famous 83% Tyndale and much more like 96%. And Today?

In all my experience I found a surprise. Facing that wall of modern versions in California, and taking down a good dozen, I expected a uniform ‘wash’ of paraphrases, ducking Paul’s complexity. Yes, I found one or two of the most ‘hyped’, those with the biggest marketing budget that were frighteningly glib, miles from the Greek, and Paul, and theology and even God; but the majority of modern versions followed rather carefully the subtleties of Paul’s verse. This was excellent news, but there was better news still, for many of them followed Tyndale word for word as being the only way to do it.

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