The life and legacy of a great translator.

Let not your hearts be troubled.


Do not be worried or upset.

-Today's English Version

William Tyndale: A Biography, by David Daniell (Yale, 429 pp.; $30, hardcover). Reviewed by Mark Galli, managing editor of Christian History magazine.

When James I committed his administration to a new translation of the Bible, he gathered England's brightest and best-50 of the leading linguists of the age. These scholars put their collective learning together and assembled a translation now known as the Authorized Version (as it is called in Great Britain) or the King James Version (KJV). Their phrasing and cadence and their apt choice of words have been celebrated for centuries; the impact of their work is incalculable.

For the most part, however, they plagiarized. I am not saying they didn't pore over their grammars and scrutinize the ancient manuscripts word by tedious word, straining to determine the exact meaning and the best way to put it. But when push came to shove-how exactly should we translate this phrase?-90 percent of the time, they decided William Tyndale, 75 years before, had gotten it right in the first place.

Herein lies the overlooked genius of William Tyndale. In this biography, the first full-scale life of Tyndale to appear in 60 years, David Daniell wants to set the record straight.


Daniell, professor emeritus at the University of London, appreciates the glories of the English language.

He has given his life to studying Shakespeare and other literary lights of that age. Daniell knows a wordsmith when he sees one, and he sees another in William Tyndale. His is a literary biography: he is less interested in Tyndale the courageous martyr than in Tyndale the literary genius.

Still, we do get the story: Tyndale's education at Oxford and Cambridge; his discovery of Erasmus's Greek New Testament; his passion to publish a translation that could be readily grasped by an English farm hand; his flight to Europe; his persecution; his betrayal and execution.

Along the way, Daniell debunks some recent debunking of the English Reformation. Revisionists (such as Eamon Duffy in his The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580) have shown that the English were not as aggravated with the Catholic church as Reformation polemicists would have us believe. Still, Daniell replies, there was plenty that needed reforming.

The Bible, he reminds us, had become encrusted with glosses and legends; biblical illiteracy prevailed. As late as 1551-after English translations had been available for 20 years-a reforming bishop surveyed his bishopric. His priests remained woefully ignorant: nine did not know how many commandments there were, and 33 did not know where they appeared in the Bible (Matthew was the favorite guess). Thirty-four did not know who wrote the Lord's Prayer. Ten were unable to recite it.

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Tyndale saw the need and filled it. In a day when print runs averaged between 1,000 and 1,500, Tyndale's first (1526) New Testament was printed in an edition of 3,000. Tyndale, Daniell argues, "must have been sure of his market," and that "market" was eager for an English Bible and for church reform. Tyndale gave the rest of his short life to refining that translation, adding to it large sections of the Old Testament. In all this, argues Daniell, Tyndale not only promoted ecclesiastical reform, he transformed the English language.


It has been said that there is "no vestige of literariness in Tyndale's writings," that "in all his works there is no trace of writing for effect." Balderdash, says Daniell.

"The age was preoccupied with language skills, and schools were founded to develop them." The chief point of Tyndale's education at Oxford and Cambridge was "to teach him how to make words work, to whatever effect was needed." When Tyndale sat down to begin translating, he "brought to the work … an unusually thorough and almost alarmingly single-minded grasp of all the technical skills involved." Furthermore, "He wrote English that above all, and at all times, made sense."

Made sense indeed. This is why the KJV translators opted for Tyndale nine phrases out of ten. And why, when they ignored him, they often did so at their peril.

For example, in Genesis 31:28, in the KJV, Laban says to Jacob, "Thou hast now done foolishly in so doing." Tyndale does not mince words: "Thou wast a fool to do it." In 1 Samuel 16, the KJV describes David: "Now he was ruddy, and withal of a beautiful countenance, and goodly to look to." Withal of a beautiful countenance? As Daniell notes, "No one ever spoke like that, not even in the sixteenth century." Tyndale's ear for spoken language is much better: "And he was brown with goodly eyes, and well favoured in sight."

Tyndale employed three literary devices to help his translation stick: First, he made much use of the genitive, "the noun of the noun" construction; second, he relied on monosyllables; third, he employed the conjunction and to move the narrative forward, giving it the flavor of a great epic: "And they heard the voice of the Lord God as he walked in the garden in the cool of the day. And Adam hid himself and his wife from the face of the Lord God. And the Lord God called Adam and said unto him, Where Art Thou?"

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Then there is Tyndale's gift for coining words and phrases: Jehovah, mercy seat, Passover, scapegoat, salt of the earth, let there be light, the spirit is willing, to name a few. Compare, for instance, Tyndale's "Let not your hearts be troubled," with Today's English Version: "Do not be worried or upset." Tyndale's is full of pathos. The modern version, as Daniell notes, makes it sound "as if the disciples were being told by Jesus to cheer up after having missed a bus."

In short, Daniell argues, "An astonishing quality of Tyndale's translations is that so much has not only survived, but has permanently enriched the language. Over and over again it is Tyndale, of all Bible translators of the next centuries, who feels modern."


Daniell's praise for Tyndale's genius knows no bounds. When Tyndale writes in monosyllables, he alone sees that the common person needs simple language. When he writes convoluted sentences filled with technical words of grammar ("optative" and "preterperfect"), Daniell says, "This may seem a strange way to address a ploughboy. Yet the ploughboy, like anyone else, deserves the best."

If Tyndale can do no wrong, his enemies can do no right. Daniell has a delicious time skewering Tyndale's archenemy, Thomas More. The man for all seasons was less than the saintly humanist the movie makes him out to be. He employed the language of the gutter (like Luther) and the power of the state (like later Reformers) to battle his theological opponents. But Daniell's description of More as "fanatical" and "frenzied" goes a bit far.

Then again, this partisanship gives energy to a potentially dry literary examination. Daniell, thank God, has little patience for academic detachment. He cares about his subject. At times, it feels as if he is fighting the Reformation all over again.

Mostly, though, he is arguing a brief before the literary court. Tyndale is surely to be honored for spiritually enfranchising the ordinary man and woman and for propelling the English Reformation forward. But Daniell makes a compelling case that when we think of the triumphs of the Tudor age-the glories of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, the treasures in music and art, the genius of Shakespeare and Cranmer-we should also recall the achievement of the great literary figure who emerged at the beginning of that splendid era.


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