The Independent Archive: 24 August 1989: A Bible of raciness and splendour

Enoch Powell salutes the memory of William Tyndale, a new edition of whose translation of the New Testament is about to be published
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AN ENGLISHMAN, William Tyndale, lay languishing in prison near Brussels in 1535 before being put to death for heresy by the Spanish authorities. He petitioned for a Hebrew Old Testament, a Hebrew grammar and a Hebrew dictionary to continue his study of that language in his damp and gloomy dungeon. In England, which he had left forever in 1524, there was neither study nor teaching of Hebrew. Greek was another matter; for a generation past it had been growing vigorously in the universities and would soon be part of the school curriculum.

Tyndale was a born translator. If his countrymen, from prince to ploughman, were to have access to the Bible in their native tongue, it was from the Hebrew and Greek that he must translate it. Scouted and ridiculed by a Church of England still Roman, it was in Germany and the Low Countries that Tyndale did so and found people who would print the results, though the authorities in England bought up the books and burnt them as soon as or before they could be imported.

Tyndale triumphed - his work, that is, though scarcely his fame. Not till modern times had the Bible ever again to be translated from the original languages into English. Coverdale's Bible, the Great Bible, the Bishop's Bible, the Geneva Bible, yes, the King James Bible itself were essentially derived directly or indirectly from Tyndale, altering, correcting, overlaying, but never extinguishing the splendour which the English language had revealed under Tyndale's hands. And so it comes about that his phrases live on our lips today: "Eat, drink and be merry"; "clothed and in his right mind"; "the scales fell from his eyes"; "Am I my brother's keeper?" It was a happy and, I suspect a generous decision of Yale University Press to present Tyndale's New Testament anew in a worthy and monumental edition.

The raciness of Tyndale, which we can enjoy and value to this day, owed much to his escape from the Latin of the Vulgate, from which Wycliffe and his followers had translated, into the distinctive phraseologies of Greek and above all of Hebrew. He was sensitive enough in fact to feel, as he says in his preface, "Unto the Reader", the Hebrew phrase and manner of speech left in the Greek". Indeed, no little of the dramatic power which we sense in the English of our Bible is owed ultimately to Tyndale's candid adoption of the Hebrew preference for joining one idea to another with the simple conjunction of waw, "and".

Yet the Greek remained for Tyndale authoritative. He could inform "the Reader" that in Hebrew "the future tense is oft the imperative mode in the active voice, and in the passive ever", but when he confronted in the Lord's Prayer the puzzle of "Thy kingdom come", he would not be tempted to wonder whether it was not after all the future, "whose kingdom will come".

The early Reformers had a touching faith in getting at the text in its original tongue. "If the text be left incorrupt," wrote Tyndale, by which he meant translated straightforwardly and honestly, "it will purge itself of all manner of false glosses." They were destined to be disappointed.

The original texts, even when distilled from the oldest available sources, proved to be open to alternative interpretations. Whose interpretation, then, was a worshipping community to take as authoritative? Indulgence in this kind of scholarship could prove incompatible with undisturbed tenure of a university chair under the Prussian government. Sooner or later the Greek text too would be read not as tablets of stone but as historical evidence of a stage or stages in the creation of a book. The mirage of certitude to be procured from the original tongues had evaporated.

Such premonitions doubtless did not disturb the fortitude with which Tyndale awaited his fate. Yet he was not mistaken in his conviction that in the revival of Greek studies and the discovery of Hebrew he, an Englishman, was in the forefront of a movement that would change forever the intellectual and religious environment of European man.

From `The Independent', Thursday 24 August 1989