William Tyndale, Thomas More, and the Writing of the English Bible
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Reviewer: Discerning Reader Team
God’s Bestseller is the second biography of Tyndale I have read this year and one of only a few produced in recent decades. Written by Brian Moynahan, the subtitle provides a glimpse of the author’s emphases: "William Tyndale, Thomas More, and the Writing of the English Bible–A Story of Martyrdom and Betrayal." Less-scholarly than David Daniell’s William Tyndale: A Biography, God’s Bestseller is also more readable, as evidenced by the Mail on Sunday’s endorsement which suggests it is "almost worthy of LeCarre."
Though William Tyndale died almost 500 years ago, we continue to read and enjoy his Bible. The first man to translate Scripture into English, much of Tyndale’s language and vocabulary continue to used commonly within the church and without. He coined words and phrases such as My brother’s keeper, passover and scapegoat. Other commonly used phrases include let there be light, the powers that be, my brother’s keeper, the salt of the earth and a law unto themselves. His mastery of English, though the language was still in its infancy, was unparalleled in his age. "In the begynnynge was the worde, and the worde was with God: the the word was God. The same was in the begynnynge with God. All thinges were made by it and with out it was made nothinge that was made. In it was lyfe and the lyfe was the lyght of men. And the light shyneth in the darknes but the darknes comprehended it not." Those verses passed into the King James and subsequent translations almost untouched.
Tyndale’s mastery of the language is evident in passages of Scripture he was able to translate only in part before his untimely death. Read aloud these passages from Song of Solomon as they were written by Tyndale and then by the writers of the King James. "Up and haste my love, my dove, my bewtifull and come away…" The King James renders this same passage with far less skill, "Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away." Tyndale writes, "For now is wynter gone and the rayne departed and past." The King James bumbles, "For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over, and gone." The cadence, the use of language, is unmatched. We can only imagine how Tyndale would have rendered the Psalms, Job and other poetic books had he been granted long life.
But as we know, Tyndale was not able to complete his translation of the Old Testament. He did not write his own epitaph as was the custom at the time. But as Moynahan points out, a passage he left from 1 Corinthians seems to serve well: "’And though I gave my body even that I burned, and yet had no love, it profiteth me nothing.’ That used love and not charity was technical evidence of his heresy, of course, and the prime reason why More wanted him brunt. But Tyndale did not die for charity; he died for love, for the love of God’s words and of their readers, and the most familiar work in the English language is thereby given the added grace of being a labour of love." We see this love evident in his reply to Henry VIII when offered safe passage to his native England. Were Henry to grant even a bare text of Scripture to the common people, Tyndale promised, "I shall immediately make faithful promise never to write more, nor abide two days in these parts after the same: but immediately to repair unto his realm, and there most humbly submit myself at the feet of his royal majesty, offering my body to suffer what pain or torture, yea, what death his grace will, so this be obtained. And till that time, I will abide the asperity of all chances, whatsoever shall come, and endure my life in as many pains as it is able to bear and suffer." The king would never submit to so audacious a demand and soon decreed that Tyndale be hunted down and killed. Though agents of Henry were never able to find Tyndale, he did eventually fall into the hands of the church authorities and was put to death. His last words, soon to be a rallying cry for English Protestants, were near-prophetic. "Oh Lord, open the King of England’s eyes," he cried. Only a few short years later, Henry authorized an English translation of the Bible and, ironically, one based largely on the work of Tyndale.
Tyndale’s name may not be widely known, but his influence is still felt. "Tyndale’s traces are everywhere, of course. ‘That old tongue, with its clang and its flavour,’ as the critic Edmund Wilson wrote of the Bible, ‘that we have been living with all our lives,’ is Tyndale’s tongue. Its cadence, its rolling and happy phrases, its consolations and the elegance of its solace, are his."
Despite his influence and his importance to the development of the English language, Tyndale is relatively unknown to both Christians and non-Christians. It is to our detriment that we forget about this great man of faith who gave his life for his conviction that the Word of God must go forth and must be made available in the common tongue. Moynahan’s biography is an excellent introduction to Tyndale’s life and influence. It is written in a way that will appeal to any reader, it still conveys a great deal of information and is clearly the result of meticulous research. It is one of the best biographies I have read this year and I commend it to you.