A week in books
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Saturday 29 March 1997
No doubt the cheap and chunky Oxford Bible - with superbly readable notes by its editors, Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett - will prompt the usual smug hosannas about the Authorised Version's shaping influence on English prose. True enough - except that the blend of translations cooked up by 54 Anglican divines from 1604 to 1611 has congealed into commonplaces at 1,000 crucial points. Returning to the AV can bring to mind that story about the tourist who watched Hamlet at Stratford and complained that it was nothing more than a string of cliches. The breezy evangelicals behind bland new translations often censure AV for its archaic diction. In many places the opposite criticism would make better sense - that the beguiling familiarity of the AV phrasing has rubbed its meaning smooth and frictionless. So why, since proselytising Christians have such a strange and shocking message to convey, do they insist that their user-friendly Bibles read like Cliff Richard lyrics or some speech by the outgoing PM? One example: during the AV's Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 41), Jesus commands "And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain". Now listen to the pious crewcut linguists of the 1976 Good News Bible: "And if one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one kilometre, carry it two kilometres". Oh, yes.
Carroll and Prickett make a forcible case for the AV on scholarly as well as literary grounds. Yet a devil's advocate could challenge its status without proposing that the ancient Greek and Hebrew should now sound like the Highway Code. The Anglican translators, remember, steered a sly middle course between clear-cut Protestant and Catholic readings. Their resonant style often has no higher aim than to gloss over knotty questions of doctrine. AV, in short, contains far too much bureaucratic fudge.
Worse, it muffles the greatness of the towering genius behind it - William Tyndale. Avid to bring the Bible to "the boy that drives the plough", Tyndale translated the New, and much of the Old, Testament in the 1520s and 1530s. His work underpins all the Tudor Bibles consulted by the AV divines - even the Catholic Reims-Douai version. Only one giant of EngLit truly haunts daily speech: not Shakespeare, but Tyndale. Many of the AV's best-loved texts (such as the Nativity stories) come from Tyndale almost word for word.
And what became of this supreme pioneer of demotic - and democratic - English prose? Persecuted by Henry VIII's bishops, he spent a harassed decade in exile. First the books were burnt - and then the man. After his arrest for heresy in Antwerp, Tyndale was strangled, and went to the stake, in 1536. Discussions of the AV often sink into an orgy of national self-congratulation. So it's now high time (Romans 13, 11) to recall that the English state murdered its architect.
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