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Let’s give credit to a great founder of the English language, and not a committee

This is a draft of a piece that I  wrote for The Times last week. The published version was slightly different. I strongly recommend Brian Moynahan’s wonderful book on Tyndale:

This month, the celebrations for the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible reach a crescendo. Melvyn Bragg, James Naughtie and Adam Nicolson have all presented programmes on the subject. But I have an
uneasy feeling that they are they are missing, or underplaying, a key point: that there is a single literary genius behind the authorized bible’s wonderful English – William Tyndale.

Let me confess a prejudice. The authorised Bible has always been a problem for me. Not because I don’t like it – atheists can still revel in the rhythm of the prose of their tribal scripture – but because it was written by six committees of 47 scholars in total. It seems to be an exception to the rule that anything written by committees is written badly. Adam Nicolson, as the erstwhile historian of the Dome, is alive to this paradox.

Then recently I read a wonderful book by Brian Moynahan called ‘If God
Spare my Life’ (now republished as `Book of Fire’), based partly on
the scholarship of Professor David Daniell of University College
London. I discovered a resolution of the paradox. The authorized
version is an exception that proves the rule, for more than
three-quarters of the prose is in fact the work of a single man.
The King James Bible is usually described as a translation, but look
carefully at the king’s instructions to his committees: he asked them
not so much to translate from scratch as to revise and reconcile
different English translations by reference to the Greek and
especially Hebrew texts. In the scholars’ words, their job was ‘to
make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good

They drew on several English versions of the bible. According to two
Canadian academics, just 2.8% of the New Testament text is original to
the King James, 13.4% came from other published English bibles and a
remarkable 83.7% from William Tyndale’s translation of 1525 (as
revised in 1534). The Old Testament was less Tyndale-dominated, but
still about 75.7% his for those books he had finished translating
before he died in 1536. That’s a greater plagiarism than cost the
German defence minister his job.

Did I say died? Murdered – for translating the bible – at the behest
of the very church, which 75 years later adopted so much of his text
without acknowledgement. Perhaps this inconvenient fact explains why
Tyndale still gets so little mention today. I asked Moynahan if he
thought Tyndale is being given enough credit this year. `No. It’s
essentially his[italic] Bible, for God’s sake.’

Tyndale was an English priest who spent most of his life in hiding in
Germany and the Low Countries where he translated and printed
scripture for distribution in England, to the fury of Thomas More, who
bought and burned his works as fast as Tyndale could smuggle them
across the Channel. Eventually More – though himself already under
arrest in the Tower – managed to get the Louvain authorities to track
down Tyndale, arrest him, try him for heresy, defrock him and kill him
by strangulation and burning.

Not only is the bulk of the authorised bible plagiarized from Tyndale;
the most memorable phrases are his: ‘let there be light’, ‘we live and
move and have our being’, ‘fight the good fight’, ‘the powers that
be’, ‘a law unto themselves’, `the spirit is willing, but the flesh is
weak’, `flowing with milk and honey’, ‘the apple of his eye’, ‘signs
of the times’, ‘broken-hearted’, ‘eat, drink and be merry’, ‘salt of
the earth’, `fat of the land’, ‘my brother’s keeper’.

It is not as if these are the only ways to translate these phrases.
Tyndale’s first edition invited us to `Beholde the lyles of the
felde’, whereas nine years later he changed this to the unforgettable
`Consider the lyles of the felde’. John Wycliff’s Lollard bible of a
century earlier had little of Tyndale’s rhythm. Where Wycliff (or a
fellow member of his `team’) had said `Blessid ben pesible men’,
Tyndale says `Blessed are the peacemakers’.

Wycliff says clumsily: `In the bigynnyng was the word, and the word was at God, and God was the
word. This was in the bigynnyng at God. Alle thingis weren maad bi
hym, and withouten hym was maad no thing, that thing that was maad.’
Tyndale gave us the enduring words that survive almost intact to this
day: `In the begynnynge was the worde and the worde was with God: and
the word was God. The same was in the begynnynge wyth God. All thinges
were made by it and with out it was made nothinge that was made.’

Where the King James does depart from Tyndale, it often spoils the
cadence. `For we are made a gazing stock to the world’ becomes `we are
made a spectacle’. `Fassion not yourselves to the worlde’ becomes `be
not conformed’. In the famous passage from Corinthians, Tyndale’s
`love’ (faithful to the Hebrew) becomes `charity’ for political
reasons: the church wished to encourage donations. Likewise, the word
`church’ is eschewed by Tyndale, who preferred `congregation’; the
King James takes a more hierarchical view.

The King James committee discharged their duty, which was to
standardize the bible in a form that would endure (and rid bibles of
pesky Puritan marginalia). If you want to decide upon a standard for a
universal mobile phone charger, you will need a committee. But if you
want to bequeath the English language sonorous phrases of resonance,
rhythm and richness, go to one great writer. Next time you hear a
priest say `The Lord make his face shyne upon the and be mercyfull
unto the’ remember that these were the words of a martyred and
plagiarized heretic.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  the-times