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  • David Norton

One Text, One Truth?

How Tyndale Taught Us English

Luther’s 95 Theses were written, as their opening says, “out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it” (amore et studio elucidende veritas). The scriptures are the foundation of this truth: “the true treasure of the church is the most holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God.” Two years later, Luther resoundingly declared, “a simple layman armed with Scripture is greater than the mightiest Pope without it.” This is the positive vision of the Reformation, apparently simple, yet capable of great complexity.

The Bible in the languages of common people was essential to its fulfillment, so a new burst of translations followed. Of course translation was not a new thing: the desire for scripture in a common language is perennial. The Greek-speaking Jews of Alexandria made their own Greek version, the Septuagint; later the Latin-speaking Christians had Jerome’s Vulgate. Germany, Italy, France, and Spain all had pre-Reformation translations. In England there were the Lollard or Wycliffite versions made nearly a century and a half before the Reformation. But the gathering force of the Reformation, allied with new scholarship, made new translations essential, and the invention of printing made possible their widespread use.

The English response to this demand was a collaborative translation effort over nearly a century, led by William Tyndale. His aims as a translator fit with Luther’s ideas. “A learned man,” disputing with him, had averred an extreme Roman Catholic position, that “we were better [to] be without God’s law than the Pope’s.” Tyndale’s robust response was “I defy the Pope and all his laws … 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.” In the preface to his translation of Genesis, he put the point this way: “I had perceived by experience how that it was impossible to establish the lay people in any truth, except the scripture were plainly laid before their eyes in their mother tongue, that they might see the process, order and meaning of the text.”

Well aware that translation was only approximation, Tyndale exhorted his readers not “to be idle disputers and brawlers about vain words,” but to look for “the sweet pith within” the words. They were to read with the heart, for, “if our hearts were taught the appointment made between God and us in Christ’s blood when we were baptized, we had the key to open the scripture and light to see and perceive the true meaning of it, and the scripture should be easy to understand.” Such faith in his readers made translation possible: they could see though the words to the truth of God contained within them. Moreover, it made understanding easy. Thus the Church’s accumulated teaching was made unnecessary, and every baptized, true-hearted man would come at the truth.

However optimistic or naïve this belief may seem, it justified translation, and it justified giving the scriptures to the people.

Tyndale made several crucial choices. Rather than using Jerome’s Vulgate as his base text, like Luther, he used the Greek for the New Testament, and the Hebrew for the Old. He was following modern scholarship, going back to the original language texts rather than to a translation of them, and he was incidentally avoiding the Church’s received text. Compelled by the sacredness of the text, he kept as literal a translation as he reasonably could. He also had a primary duty to his reader, the ploughboy or, in our contemporary cliché, the man in the street. He might have used an educated English, drawing on the great influx of Latin words that were expanding the expressive range of English and beginning to give it a degree of respectability, but he chose to use the vernacular. This was a decision of enormous importance for the history of the English language. His work, developed by translators, made simple, largely Anglo-Saxon English into an enduring standard that generations of English speakers grew up on. So he created phrases such as “brotherly love” rather than “the charity of brotherhood” or “the charity of the fraternity,” both of which more transliterate than translate Jerome’s “caritas fraternitatis.”

At the same time he strove to improve what he had done. He encouraged others to point out where he had missed things or where something “might more plainly be translated.” His greatest opponent was Thomas More. In the course of their long controversy, More despaired of making him conform to the Church’s teaching, but remarked, “I would have him yet at the least wise write true English.” He corrected Tyndale’s grammar and style, thinking he had been literal to the detriment of his English. So he offered a better and clearer translation of John 1:1: “in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” Tyndale, giving scholarly weight to the Greek article, had written, “in the beginning was that word, and that word was with God: and God was that word.” In his second edition, he used More’s words.

More gives a contrary view of Tyndale’s work from the one I have sketched. One of his most sarcastic comments points to what happened: “all England list now to go to school with Tyndale to learn English.” Tyndale, we may say, did not need to learn English, but he did teach England English. We have learned so much from him that it is difficult not to find his work good. Those words, “brotherly love,” might stand for much. Many biblical phrases have become naturalized parts of the English language, commonly used without any sense of their origin. So too with words and ideas.

In 1536, martyrdom cut short Tyndale’s life and work. He had published the New Testament twice, Genesis and Jonah, and left unpublished his translation of Judges to 2 Chronicles. Miles Coverdale revised the published work and created the first complete English Reformation Bible, the Matthew Bible. Then, using Tyndale’s unpublished work rather than his own, he revised the whole. The result was the Great Bible of 1539-40, the first official Bible of the English Church. As well, there was a complete translation by Richard Taverner, a New Testament from the Vulgate by Coverdale, and other versions of individual books. So in 15 years England had gone from having no printed vernacular Bible to having six different versions of the New Testament, four of the first half of the Old Testament, and three of the second half and the Apocrypha. What had begun as heretical books, smuggled into Roman Catholic England from the Continent, had become the Bible of the new establishment: as the title pages of various editions of the Great Bible claimed, it was “appointed to the use of the churches,” or “authorised and appointed” by Henry VIII.

Coverdale addressed the proliferation at length in the prologue to his first Bible. He is sure that “more knowledge and understanding” comes from variety of translations than from multitudes of glosses, “for that one interpreteth something obscurely in one place, the same translateth another (or else he himself) more manifestly by a more plain vocable of the same meaning in another place.” Well aware of the variety of choices a translator can make (and of the difficulties of maintaining consistent vocabulary), he too sees translation as a kind of approximation to originals. The best sense may emerge through variety of translations.

The King James translators returned to this idea in their preface, arguing “that the very meanest translation of the Bible in English … containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God: as the King’s speech which he uttered in Parliament, being translated into French, Dutch, Italian and Latin, is still the King’s speech, though it be not interpreted by every translator with the like grace, nor peradventure so fitly for phrase, nor so expressly for sense, everywhere.” So the English Bibles simultaneously contain and are the word of God. To reverse the usual meaning of the word, all translate the reader, carry the reader across, to what Tyndale called “the sweet pith within,” the original truth.

The proliferation and availability of Bibles worried the leaders of the English church. They did not share Tyndale’s sense of the believability of the scriptures. Archbishop Cranmer, in his preface to the Great Bible, describes the scriptures in a fine phrase as “the fat pastures of the soul: therein is no venomous meat, no unwholesome thing.” Yet there was trouble: “idle babblers and talkers of the Scripture” were everywhere. So he sternly adds: “I forbid not to read, but I forbid to reason.” This was whistling against the wind of the Reformation. The genie was out of the bottle. Whether bright or dim, whether good or evil, the mind of the individual was empowered.

From the beginning, Tyndale’s belief that ordinary people could understand the scriptures co-existed with a practical acknowledgement that the scriptures were also difficult. That acknowledgement was annotation. Most of the early versions gave cross-references, some also gave explanatory notes. The Geneva Bible of 1560 took these uses of the margin to a new level: commentary rivaled, in places even outweighed, the text. To take a very short example, the beginning of John’s Gospel has two notes. There is an alternative opening, “before the beginning,” and “the Word was with God” is explained: “Christ is God before all time.” Alternative translations teach readers to take the text as a version, the glosses take them beyond the chosen words to the contained meaning. The text is not definitive.

In contrast with Tyndale, Geneva was obviously a study Bible. The introduction of verse numbering, coupled with the printing of verses as if they were individual paragraphs, also contributed to this effect. Rather than contextual reading, reading that attended, in Tyndale’s words, to “the process, order and meaning” of the ongoing text, it promoted concordant study: each isolated verse was to be studied with the help of notes, and to be connected by cross references to other bits across the whole Bible.

Now, like Tyndale’s work, the Geneva Bible was anti-establishment. Under Mary, England had returned to Catholicism, so again translation was the work of scholarly exiles. Consequently, some of the notes were strongly partisan, excoriating the Catholics: Revelation’s whore of Babylon “is the Papistry, whose cruelty and blood shedding is declared by scarlet.” Others were politically dangerous, suggesting that it could be lawful to disobey a ruler (Exodus 1:19), and that it was better to risk death than to do something unlawful “only to satisfy the lust of a tyrant” (1 Kings 20:8). Individual conscience was set against authority. These notes contributed to the demise of the Geneva Bible in spite of its deserved popularity.

Geneva also represented the latest advances in scholarship. In words that represent the position of many translators over the centuries, they compared their situation with that of their predecessors: “yet considering the infancy of those times and imperfect knowledge of the tongues, in respect of this ripe age and clear light which God hath now revealed, the translations required greatly to be perused and reformed.” So they aimed at still greater literalness: “we have chiefly observed the sense, and laboured always to restore it to full integrity.” In general terms this was a precedent for the King James; specifically, many of Geneva’s readings were adopted: it was not the base text for the latter work but a prime influence.

With Elizabeth on the throne and England restored to Protestantism, there came a new church Bible, the Bishops’ Bible. It was by no means as bad as sometimes suggested. Hugh Broughton, scholar, translator and master of vituperation (he would have flourished in the age of the tweet), declared that “our Bishops’ Bible might well give place to the Al-koran, pestered with lies.” It was a reaction that weighed on the King James translators, emphasising again the need for scrupulous scholarship in their work. The Bishops’ Bible itself was of considerable importance for the King James Bible (KJB), for, in a revised form, it was the English text that the KJB translators worked on.

The Bishops were “to make no bitter notes upon any text, or yet to set down any determination in places of controversy.” This is more than an obvious reaction against Geneva: English Protestantism was already fragmented, and the Archbishop must have been aware of the dangers of further fragmentation if it had a Bible that obviously belonged to one party.

The Catholics, however, were not shy in trying to settle controversies. They were now the translators-in-exile, trying to bring truth to England. The notes to their Rheims New Testament were, as usual, “necessary helps for the better understanding of the text,” and they were “specially for the discovery of the corruptions of divers late translations, and for clearing the controversies of religion of these days.” Responses to these notes could and did fill whole volumes. Again the dangers of controversy were blatant.

Gregory Martin, the maker of the Rheims New Testament, was no mean scholar. He argued the case for the Vulgate as the base text, yet also on occasion worked minutely with the Greek. Moreover, he put forcibly the case for still more literal translation, even to the extent of transliteration, “keeping ourselves as near as is possible to our text and to the very words and phrases which by long use are made venerable.” His work should emulate the hallowed but incomprehensible sounds of the Vulgate. He had a significant response to possible objectors: “all sorts of Catholic readers will in short time think that familiar, which at the first may seem strange, and will esteem it more when they shall otherwise be taught to understand it than if it were the common known English.” This is like More saying that Tyndale’s readers would have to go to school to learn English with him. They did. Martin’s work points up a quite different way English might have gone had England stayed Catholic and his translation been the familiar Bible. Instead of “brotherly love,” his “the charity of the fraternity” might have been familiar and moving (“the charity” reproduces the Greek article, and the Greek is given in the margin; “the charity of brotherhood” is from the Wyclif versions).

As Tyndale had followed More when a good suggestion was offered, so the KJB translators sometimes followed Martin for Latinate vocabulary and some understandings.

New on the English throne, James I had already shown a keen interest in Bible translation while king of Scotland. When, apparently out of the blue, a suggestion was made at the Hampton Court conference that there should be a new translation of the Bible because the old Church Bibles—that is, the Great Bible—“were corrupt and not answerable to the truth of the original,” he responded with knowledge and enthusiasm. The proposer probably hoped that the Geneva Bible would be adopted—it corrected the particular faults cited—but James thought none of the English Bibles good, and Geneva the worst of all: he cited notes such as that to Exodus 1:19. He “wished that some especial pains should be taken in that behalf for one uniform translation … and this to be done by the best learned in both the Universities, after them to be reviewed by the Bishops and the chief learned of the Church, from them to be presented to the Privy Council, and lastly to be ratified by his royal authority; and so this whole Church to be bound unto it, and none other.” So this establishment and royalist, but theologically neutral Bible was envisaged and initiated.

“Uniform” means having a fixed and standard character. The translators echoed this in the KJB preface, modestly saying, “we never thought from the beginning that we should need to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one … but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones one principal good one, not justly to be excepted against, that hath been our endeavour, that our mark.” Building on their predecessors, they wanted their work to be something that all fair-minded people could accept. As James wished, they were trying to settle the English Bible, and with it to bring a degree of unity to English Protestantism.

The translators’ rules specified that they were to revise the current official Bible, the Bishops’ Bible, and were to alter it “as little … as the truth of the original will permit.” Names were to conform to common usage, and “old ecclesiastical words” were to be kept: specifically, “Church” was not to be “Congregation.” Where words had several meanings, traditional understanding, context and “the Analogy of Faith” were to be followed. And there were to be no marginal notes except “for the explanation of the Hebrew or Greek words, which cannot without some circumlocution so fitly and briefly be expressed in the text.” All this is conservative and, in places, church-centered. It respects what already exists, traditional knowledge and common usage. Notes are only to be used where a short and accurate—implicitly, a word-for-word—translation is impossible. Controversy is forbidden. Words such as “congregation” had been an issue since Tyndale’s time: Thomas More had accused him of avoiding anything that sounded Catholic. So Tyndale (and Coverdale and the Bishops’ Bible) has Jesus say, “Thou art Peter: and upon this rock will I build my congregation.” To have continued with this reading in 1611 would have made the KJB seem puritan. Translation cannot always be theologically or politically neutral, however hard it tries.

The other rules deal with organization and process. The 50 or so translators, divided into six companies, would all contribute equally to their company’s work, and there was to be a general meeting of delegates from the companies to finalize the work. As in James’s Hampton Court speech, there was a final checking by two Bishops, but there was no official ratification. Such a structure allowed for puritans as well as Bishops, country parsons and laymen, scholars all, to have equal say in the work while keeping tendentiousness to a minimum. It fit the ideal of making one principal good translation not justly to be excepted against.

Only one early story of objections survives. A young preacher took “exceptions against the late translation of several words,” not knowing that one of the translators was in the congregation. Afterwards the translator told him that “for that word for which he offered … three reasons why it ought to have been translated as he said, he and others had considered all of them, and found thirteen more considerable reasons why it was translated as printed.” This suggests the thoroughness of the translators’ work—and, incidentally, how much, in a pre-computer age, their scholarship was retained in their heads. We can make similar inferences from comparisons with the earlier translations, the translators’ manuscript work, notes on some parts of the translation, and examination of the early printings. Though there are slips, scrupulous attention was paid to almost every detail of the text: the original texts were examined, older versions consulted, minutiae of patristic and classical scholarship remembered. The result, as might be expected from what had gone before, was a general increase in literal accuracy. What appear in most editions as words in italics are a visual sign of this literalness: these are words not found in the original texts but which are necessary for English sense (a practice introduced by Geneva). In 1611, small Roman type de-emphasised these words.

Geneva had almost made the margin more important than the text. The KJB made the text everything. Nevertheless, it pushed readers (not listeners) towards a particular kind of reading. The margin has 8,422 notes, all scholarly but not interpretive, theological, or bitter. Almost all give more literal translations, alternative translations and readings. They work with the italics to hint at the text behind the translation: translation still presents itself as an approximation of the originals. There are also 8,990 cross-references (these grew seven-fold as editions multiplied), and the text is printed with each verse starting on a new line. What I have called concordant reading is encouraged, contextual reading discouraged. Within the covers of a single book, readers were being taught to use the text in tiny pieces.

In 1611 the king’s idea of “one uniform translation” could only be a devout (and political) wish. Writings, whether authorized or not, take time to become scriptures, and still longer to settle into a canon; Bible translations take time to become the Bible—if, indeed, they ever attain that status. Geneva and the Bishops’ Bible were both current. Geneva was especially popular with the people, and they had no urgent desire to buy the new revision, though it soon became available in smaller, cheaper sizes. The Bishops’ Bible was the designated Church Bible, and Churches would replace it with the new Bible only when they needed to. 1611 is a convenient historical date: a settled, uniform Bible was still to come.

Broughton gave the KJB its first review. “It is so ill done,” he trumpeted. “Tell his Majesty that I had rather be rent in pieces with wild horses than any such translation by my consent should be urged upon poor churches.” But this was the last blast of a disappointed man who could not convert others to his views of biblical chronology. Save for the young preacher’s exceptions to a few words, no other contemporary scholarly comments survive. But there was discontent. It led to attempts at revision in Commonwealth times, 40 years after the KJB first appeared. At a Parliamentary sub-committee on translations and printings of the Bible scholars pointed out “some mistakes in the translations of the Bible in English, which yet was agreed to be the best of any translation in the world”—but then Parliament was dissolved, and nothing happened. The itch for revision died with the demise of the Commonwealth.

Popular opinion was a different matter. Cranmer’s “idle babblers and talkers of the Scripture” still abounded. They mocked its unnatural, Hebraic English. Nor were they particular about versions, as far as the text was concerned. The reverent among them thought more in terms of whether or not there were annotations, and what the Bible cost. There was yet to be a fixed popular sense of what the English ought to be, and it is worth noting that the habit of quoting accurately from English Bibles developed in the eighteenth century. Many wanted annotations, a desire that was partly fulfilled by some continental KJBs printed with Geneva annotations.

Ironically, the huge effort to perfect the text did not matter very much to the people. In a further irony, the KJB succeeded in becoming the only Bible in England partly for commercial reasons. The King’s Printer had a monopoly on printing Bibles in England. He stopped printing the Bishops’ Bible in 1602, and he printed no more Bishops’ or Geneva New Testaments after 1617. Continental printers continued the supply of Geneva Bibles until 1644. With rare exceptions, thereafter to buy a Bible meant to buy a KJB.

Given time, the commercial monopoly became a monopoly on the English-speaking Protestant consciousness. The KJB became the Bible the people heard and knew from birth to death. It was at the center of their religion and learning. A century or so after its publication, it had become “the one uniform translation,” England’s “one principal good one, not justly to be excepted against.”

So the Reformation Bible was settled at last: one text, one truth.

Yet it was not quite settled. From the second printing onwards, there were corrections and revisions to the KJB’s text. This editing reached an English stopping point in Benjamin Blayney’s 1769 Oxford edition. In the mid-nineteenth century, a variation of Blayney made by the American Bible Society became the standard American text. As with the differing early versions, few people were aware of these changes.

Much more importantly, it was not one truth. The KJB could be dressed in many clothes, illustrated, serialized—and annotated according to belief. Even the addition of dates (common from the beginning of the nineteenth century) could have enormous consequences. As a sacred book containing innumerable passages, it could be turned in many directions. It could be a Bible for the colonialist and the colonized, for the slave-owner and the slave. Beginning with Genesis 9:25, “And [Noah] said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren,” a devout slave-owner, reading concordantly, could assemble textual authorities for slavery. The settled, open Bible was truly a genie out of the bottle.

The itch to revise that had died then revived. Reservations about the translation’s scholarship grew. Textual scholarship, especially of the Greek New Testament, had moved a long way forward. The inevitable result was a new official, committee revision, the Revised Version, completed in 1885, and, after it, a continuing flow of versions in something like the KJB’s language or tradition.

The KJB’s language had grown sacred in the latter part of the eighteenth century; in a repeated phrase, the KJB was “the noblest monument of English prose.” It was also growing progressively older. Pastors and teachers during the Second World War reported that, beautiful and solemn as it was, the language of the KJB “put a veil of unreality between the scriptural writers and the people of the mid-twentieth century”: they had to give English lessons before they could give scripture lessons. Hence came a strong break from KJB language, the New English Bible. It represented a return to Tyndale’s idea of English for the boy that drives the plough. The linguistic break was also a break from a predominantly literal translation, and paraphrases have become common.

There was, and is, a reaction that confirmed the KJB as the only Bible. Some people thought the KJB “more inspired than the original,” because it had its own inspiration in addition to that of the original texts. This fundamentalist idea is like the Catholic defence of the Vulgate during the Reformation, save that the KJB was in a language that might still be understood. The argument is often put this way: “the King James Version is the historic Bible of English-speaking Protestants. Upon it God, working providentially, has placed the stamp of His approval through the usage of many generations of Bible-believing Christians.” So, following God’s lead, it should be retained.

The Bible has become again totally unsettled, except as individual users, yearning for divinity or anxious for certainty, settle on one particular version as their Truth. There may never again be a generally accepted version, a new Septuagint or Vulgate, a Luther or King James Bible. In these days of multiplied truth, it is as well to remember those wise men of the Reformation: Coverdale argued that “more knowledge and understanding” comes from variety of translations than from multitudes of glosses, and, similarly, the King James translators said, “the very meanest translation of the Bible in English … containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God.” Amidst this variety, Tyndale, the prime genius of the English Bible, and the King James Bible, the culmination of the Reformation translation effort, merit high places – Tyndale for his pioneering vigor, and the King James Bible both for its skill at close translation, and for its language.


David Norton is Emeritus Professor of English at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand. His biblical work began with A History of the Bible as Literature (Cambridge, 1994), selected by The Conference on Christianity and Literature “as the book that has made the most distinguished Scholarly contribution to the dialogue between literature and the Christian Faith during the year 1994.” Subsequent work includes A Textual History of the King James Bible (Cambridge, 2005), and The King James Bible: A Short History from Tyndale to Today (Cambridge, 2011). He is editor of The New Cambridge Paragraph Bible (Cambridge, 2005; also published by the Folio Society), and the Penguin Bible (2006). He is currently writing a study of Jane Austen.


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