English, in the beginning: William Tyndale was almost wiped out of history. Yet, argues Laurence Marks, he invented our language

Related Topics
CAN an authoritarian government so obliterate the life's work of a revolutionary artist that he is unknown to posterity? In the late 1940s the Russian modernist painter Alexander Rodchenko, persecuted and silenced under the Stalinist terror, came to believe that he had been erased beyond reclaim from the collective memory of his countrymen. He died too soon to witness his reinstatement.

This month the quincentenary is being celebrated of a writer who has come close to suffering the fate Rodchenko feared: William Tyndale, translator in the 1520s and 1530s of the first printed Bible in English. Yale University Press has published a new biography by David Daniell, former director of Shakespearian studies at University College, London. On 28 September, an exhibition (including the only complete surviving copy of his 1526 New Testament) opens at the British Library. On 6 October there will be a service at St Paul's.

Tyndale's name never disappeared. Most of us remember him vaguely from our schooldays as one of the early Bible translators who prefigured the great Authorised Version of 1611. There is a dashing statue of him (he looks like Gregory Peck) near the Victoria Embankment in London. But he has been at best a shadowy presence in our literature, ignored except by a few Hebrew and Greek scholars and Bible historians.

He was a revolutionary innovator when autocratic governments were trying to stamp out dissent. In Catholic Europe he was hunted, imprisoned and murdered (as Catholic dissidents were themselves to be hunted in Reformation countries later in the century) and his translations burnt.

The 1611 translators borrowed freely from him. About four-fifths of their New Testament and much of the Old is in his words. Many striking phrases that have entered the language from the Authorised Version ('Fight the good fight', 'Am I my brother's keeper?' 'The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak', 'Salt of the earth') were coined by Tyndale. But, even so long after the victory of Protestantism in England, these scholars seem to have thought it impolitic to acknowledge their subversive forerunner. Tyndale remained a non-person.

This month's commemoration ought to help place him where he belongs: as a major literary artist (second only, perhaps, to Shakespeare in 16th-century England) and one of the makers of our language and our civilisation.

He grew up in Gloucestershire in an influential land-owning family. He studied Greek, Latin and classical rhetoric (that is, composition) at Oxford, probably learnt Hebrew in Germany and became a priest. His preaching, like the theological essays he published throughout his short life, got him into trouble.

In England the Bible, in the fourth-century Latin translation called the Vulgate, was the monopoly of the Church. Although vernacular Bibles in German, Italian, French, Czech, Dutch and Catalan had been printed in the decades following Gutenberg's invention of moveable type in the late 1430s, reading the Bible in English was still prohibited. A few hand-written copies of English translations from the Vulgate, made by the religious reformer John Wycliffe and his followers in the 1380s, circulated in expensive samizdat editions.

Tyndale determined to defy the authorities and publish an English Bible directly translated for the first time from the Hebrew and Greek. 'If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost,' he told a horrified colleague.

With money from a London cloth merchant he sailed for Germany, aged 30. He lived a hand-to- mouth existence on the run from government spies. The first complete English edition of his New Testament was printed in Worms in 1526 and bootlegged across the North Sea to England. The first five books of his Old Testament, printed in Antwerp, followed in 1534 and others (death prevented him from completing it) later.

The effect was electrifying. Religion, the framework of everyone's life, was conducted in a foreign language few laymen, and not all priests, understood. The Mass was in Latin. People were baptised and buried in Latin. Bible readings in church were in Latin. Now suddenly, stories known indirectly from sermons, stained-glass windows and mystery plays could be read in full in pocket-sized English editions intelligible to any literate ploughboy. Worse, the English Bible exposed the fact that certain of the Church's claims to authority had no Scriptural basis.

At a time when the average print-run of a book was 1,000- 1,500, Tyndale went into debt to finance a run of 3,000 of the New Testament. Another 3,000 copies were pirated. They were sold openly on the streets of London. The bishops, furious, ordered them to be burned.

The government tried to get Tyndale extradited and failed. They tried to tempt him with an offer of safe conduct and failed again. In desperation, in 1529 the Bishop of London instructed an English merchant in Antwerp to buy up the unsold stock. Tyndale insolently used the money to finance a revised edition. Like others since, the English authorities, who had begun by burning books, turned in 1530 to burning people.

The modernity of Tyndale's subversive best-seller is striking. As Dr Daniell says: 'His unsurpassed ability was to work with the sounds and the rhythms as well as the senses of English, to create unforgettable words, phrases, paragraphs and chapters, and to do so in a way that is still, even today, direct and living.'

This was entirely new. Wycliffe's rendering of the majestic opening verses of Genesis has a stumbling gait: 'In the first made God nought of heaven and earth. The earth forsooth was vain within the void, and the darknesses were upon the face of the sea, and the spirit of God was born upon the waters. And God said, Be made light, and made is light.'

Compare that with Tyndale's, which seizes you at once with its rhythmic energy: 'In the beginning God created heaven and earth. The earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the deep, and the spirit of God moved upon the water. Then God said, let there be light, and there was light.'

Tyndale, following Old Testament Hebrew, invented the narrative flow of concrete images and short phrases joined by 'and' to give a sense of forward movement and tragic inevitability. The famous opening paragraph of A Farewell to Arms is pure Tyndale. ('. . . In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels . . .')

Tyndale favours homely words ('Esau came from the field and was fainty') and prefers clarity to literalness, avoiding the clotted constructions, contrived by philologists, that occasionally cloud the Authorised Version. The 1611 scholars sometimes gentrified his language, weakening his effects.

In the Authorised Version, Cain's 'countenance fell' In Tyndale, 'Cain was wroth exceedingly and loured'. The Authorised Version's Matthew has the urbane, 'Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof;' Tyndale's has the blunt growl of a countryman: 'For the day present hath ever enough of his own trouble'.

The English Bible, says Dr Daniell, 'was made by Tyndale in the language people spoke, not as the scholars wrote. At a time when English was struggling to find a form that was neither Latin nor French, he gave the nation a Bible language that was English in words, word order and lilt.'

In 1535 Henry Phillips, an embezzler down on his luck, was promised money by the English authorities to turn him in. Phillips cultivated Tyndale's friendship, was invited to stay in the house in Antwerp where he lived, and tipped off agents of the Catholic government of the Low Countries. Tyndale was seized, imprisoned and tried for heresy in Vilvorde Castle outside the city.

On 6 October 1536 this brave and resolute Englishman was tied to a huge wooden cross hedged with faggots in the castle yard, garrotted by the hangman and burnt. He was extraordinarily unlucky. England was on the cusp of the greatest cultural shift since the Conquest. In 1533 Henry VIII had divorced Catherine and married Anne Boleyn. In 1535 he had licensed the first official English translation, Matthew's Bible - two-thirds of it Tyndale's work. Had Tyndale survived a little longer, he might have been free to return to England.

Modern neglect of him is all the stranger because of his great political as well as literary influence on British and American culture. The English Bible spiritually enfranchised the ordinary man and woman. Private reading of the Scriptures lies at the heart of Protestant individualism and of the civilisation it created. It's time that Tyndale came in from the cold.

(Photograph omitted)

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
George Osborne appearing on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, 5 July 2015  

George Osborne says benefits should be capped at £20,000 to meet average earnings – but working families take home £31,500

Ellie Mae O'Hagan
The BBC has agreed to fund the £650m annual cost of providing free television licences for the over-75s  

Osborne’s assault on the BBC is doing Murdoch’s dirty work

James Cusick James Cusick
Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

Tribal gathering

Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

Power of the geek Gods

Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

Perfect match

What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
10 best trays

Get carried away with 10 best trays

Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high