In The Footsteps Of Tyndale

A Bible for the People in the Twenty-First Century

Librarians Christian Fellowship Annual Public Lecture, Bath
Saturday 11th October 2003


History is a strange mixture of the planned and the spontaneous, the predictable and the inexplicable. With hindsight one can detect patterns, trends and connections that were either non-existent or invisible at a particular time. So it is with personal biography. It now seems somehow appropriate that I should have been granted the great privilege to walk in the steps of William Tyndale when I began my studies in English at Hertford College, Oxford in 1966. He had studied there from about 1510 to 1522, when the college was called Magdalen Hall. As one who loves the English language and its rich literature, and who has been engaged for the past fifteen years in creating a new English Bible you might have assumed that I had chosen to trace the steps of one of England’s greatest sons. In fact I didn’t know that Tyndale was at Hertford until years after I left, and I had in fact been planning to study at Peterhouse, Cambridge. It was my headmaster who intervened telling me that Oxford in general, and Hertford College in particular, would be good for me. And that rather demonstrates my point, for the rest is what might be called history.

It is not the purpose of this paper to give a detailed analysis of William Tyndale’s life and work. I take it that all Christian librarians in the UK are experts in this field as a matter of course. What I propose to do is to summarise what seem to me to be the great contributions of Tyndale to English language, literature and Bible translation, and to show how the Bible Project in which I and others are engaged, and which should bear its first fruit in 2004 with a whole new rendering of the Bible, has drawn much of its inspiration from Tyndale.

Tyndale’s Footprints

It has been argued that we owe the English language, as we know it, in no small measure (though not of course, solely) to Tyndale, in much the same way that German owes much of its historical shape and form to Martin Luther. In Luther’s case the link is rather more obvious given the Bible ever since associated with his name (produced in Wittenberg from 1534 until his death). But Tyndale left no Bible bearing his name, and indeed was not allowed to complete his translation of the Old Testament before he was strangled and then burned in public near Brussels in early October 1536, aged 42. For the record, as the exact date of his execution is not known, though it is often given as October 6th, it is possible that today is the 467th anniversary of his death. Now that would be an interesting historical serendipity, should it ever be shown to be true! What happened, of course, is that Tyndale translated the New Testament and then major sections of the Old Testament into English, and that this work then found its way (despite concerted opposition to destroy it) into the King James’ Bible of 1611 by way of Matthew’s Bible (1537) and the Great Bible (1540). It has been calculated that 83% of the Authorised Version of the Bible is borrowed from Tyndale, and the impact of that Bible on the English language, literature and Christianity, has been well-charted.

Tyndale was a great linguist, with a poet’s feel for the English language and, working from Hebrew and Greek, he produced both words and phrases that took such root that they have grown to have a natural and permanent place in English conversation. A few indicative examples of the phrases would include: “In the beginning God created heaven and earth”; “am I my brother’s keeper?”; “blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God”; “seek and ye shall find”; “let not your hearts be troubled”; “fight the good fight”. I have to restrain myself at this point because there are so many wonderful examples that beckon!

The words that he coined include, “scapegoat”, “Passover”, “mercy seat”, “Jehovah” and “atonement”. You will realise instantly that he was not dealing with trifles or splitting theological hairs: there was real substance to his pioneering work. Yet he wrote at a time when the English language was deemed so vulgar and common that it was not worthy of being a vehicle of God’s word. It has been argued that he not only pioneered new phrases and words in English, but that he gave English and the English people a confidence that subsequently led to English becoming the dominant global language.

It is vital to acknowledge that Tyndale was not just a linguist and scholar, but a man with a passion. Put crisply he believed that the Scriptures were the power of God unto salvation; that through them God could speak to the hearts and minds of men and women without the mediation or gatekeeping of church and university (the two were largely synonymous during his life). Like Erasmus before him he longed to set the Bible free so that “If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the scripture than [contemporary academics and clergy].” And the means was to produce not commentaries, tomes of theology, catechisms, sermons or selections from the Bible, but a living and faithful translation into the vernacular, available to all. He saw the Bible locked up in Latin, in churches and by the Church, and theology dominated by the heavy hands of classical tradition and ecclesiastical power mingled with fear. And he knew that not only the hearts and minds of the ploughboy and his contemporaries, but also the Church and nation of his day needed conversion and reformation. His weapon in the struggle was an English Bible: pure and simple. Nothing more; nothing less.

Before moving on from Tyndale could I say a word about his feel for language: its rhythms, structure and poetry? For centuries it had been accepted that Latin was the divinely-appointed language or medium through which God’s word should be transmitted. The Vulgate had then the status that the King James Version has retained in some parts of the world: it was treated as if it were the original text. Tyndale was challenging a whole worldview and ideology. But he did this not just because he saw the necessity of using the vernacular, but also because he was convinced that English was actually a better vehicle for the original Hebrew text. In The Obedience of the Christian Man he wrote: “the properties of the Hebrew tongue agree a thousand times more with the English than with the Latin.” (He also realised that the Greek of the New Testament was an earthly, practical language, somewhat removed from the polished nature of classical Greek.) He saw English as more flexible in word for word translation, and the opportunity it gave to vary word order and convey meaning when grammar began to crack under the strain.

When J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis conceived the English Degree at Oxford (mine was the last intake to follow their curriculum) they tried to steep students in Latin, Anglo-Saxon and Milton. (It made for a rather unusual first two terms, certainly compared to the more “progressive” approach at Cambridge at this time.) They also encouraged knowledge of Italian, French and the Old Norse languages and sagas. As I understand it the point was to give us a feel for the root, heart and rhythms of English. As a result of this training I have come to see something of what Tyndale understood about the affinity between the original biblical langauges and English. I want to give just three examples of what I mean by this.

The first example is from Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. Now as undergraduates we had to deal with Beowulf in the original, thanks to Lewis and Tolkien, but I loved Heaney’s modern version from the moment I heard it. He understands both the original (and by this I mean much more than elements such as vocabulary and meaning), and has a poet’s feel for contemporary language and structure in the way T.S. Eliot described in Little Gidding, one of the Four Quartets). Let me read a dramatic section from pages 6/7. Even if you do not know Anglo-Saxon you have here a sense of the original poetry, its stresses and patterns, its passion and force.

The second example is from the Anglo Saxon Gospels as I first came to know them in Norman Davis’ Anglo Saxon Primer. The story of the wise man and the foolish man finds its way to the listener’s heart by means of a rugged fusion of alliteration, assonance and sprung rhythms. Let me recite a section to give you an idea of what I mean. I have no hesitation in saying that Tyndale had the same instinctive feel for the English language as a form or communication, heart to heart.

The third example is from the Jerusalem Bible, a copy of which was given me for my twenty-first birthday while at was at Hertford College. Tolkien was involved in the final version and I always have a feeling that his hand was at work in the Psalms, where Hebrew and Anglo-Saxon poetry have so much in common. Examples from Psalm 74 (verses 3-9) and Psalm 48 must suffice. There are inner rhythms, parallels and rhymes in the Hebrew, and English is able to find dynamic equivalents as Heaney did in his translation from Anglo-Saxon into English. It’s not easy to convey the “feel” of something so if I haven’t convinced you would you take my word for it, at least for the duration of this paper?

Tyndale’s last prayer was “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes”, and within a short period of his death a royal licence was issued to allow English Bibles heavily influenced by his translation to be placed in every parish of the realm. He realised that the battle was one to be waged at every level of society from the human heart, the family and the parish, to Bishops, Archbishops, Popes and Kings. And he believed that God’s chosen weapon for such a massive and many-layered conflict was the Bible. History bears witness to the extent of the conversion and reformation that resulted from his efforts to allow God’s Word free reign.

Tracing Tyndale’s Footprints in the Twenty-First Century

But we must move on through the centuries to establish the links between Tyndale’s endeavours and those of the Bible project in which I am a team of scholars and colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic are engaged. Before proceeding any further, I want to make it clear that we, though following in Tyndale’s footsteps, are in a quite different league! And we are not having to work from Hebrew and Greek to produce a new translation: we have some first-class versions available to us. So what is the project about?

Let me try to sketch the background as I see it. Bible translation into vernacular languages worldwide has proceeded apace since the days of Tyndale. The denominations, Bible Societies, and the Wycliffe Bible Translators have all contributed substantially to this process. (You might be interested to know that the Tyndale window dedicated in the Hertford College Chapel in 1994, to mark the quincentenary of his birth, was originally the property of the Bible Society, and given to the college when the Society moved from London to Swindon in the 1980s.) On the surface therefore it could be argued that there are too many Bibles rather than too few. Anyone who has visited large American Christian Bookstores (I recall particularly one in Chattanooga, and another in Grand Rapids) would see the point immediately. Niche marketing is dominating the whole world of Bible publishing. (I haven’t yet seen one, but I would not rule out a Bible for left-handed female Tottenham Hotspur supporters, with Irish ancestry and Chicago connections!) Once niche marketing gets going it really goes for it.

But there is a range of associated issues. Studies of so-called Children’s Bibles have revealed that through the centuries they have usually been adult selections of those parts of the Bible that Christian leaders have decided are appropriate for the children of their day and age. God’s revealed word has been reworked in the image of denominations and institutional worldviews. And very few Bibles for young people or adults now purport to present the Bible, the whole Bible and nothing but the Bible. A member of our Mill Grove family some years back did rather well in an American history exam at school, and the only text he seemed to have read was The Student Bible, packed with interesting asides and information about American leaders and events! As librarians and presumably avid readers, you know what I mean.

Then there is the difference between a Bible designed as a gift and a Bible designed to be read; between a Bible with built-in obsolescence (the average British or American Christian child is expected to own at least five Bibles through life: Children’s, Youth, Gift [e.g. Baptism, Wedding etc.], Study, Specialist); between a Bible for personal use and a Bible for worship or group study; between a Bible for reading quietly and a Bible to be read out loud.

If you were looking for a historical analogy you might say that the state of Bible publishing is an echo of Babylon when the Lord stepped in and confused the language of the proud city. Different publishing houses compete with each other motivated, one has to say it, by profit as much if not more than any other factor. Meanwhile it is clear that the reading and knowledge of the Bible by individuals, families, churches, teachers, students and leaders within the western world has declined within our lifetime. This is not a systematic analysis, but an impressionistic portrayal of the situation. (I am particularly interested in, and disturbed by the way Bible reading in Evangelical churches and worship has declined, and how the biblical content of modern hymns and songs has become so diluted, with a few notable exceptions.)

But I must move on. One of my responsibilities at Mill Grove, my family home for four generations, and the hub of a worldwide extended family of more than a thousand, has been the sharing of the Gospel day by day. In a bygone era you might have talked of family prayers, but this, like shared meals without television, has been slowly dying out. The youngsters come from a variety of backgrounds, cultural and religious, and are, for the most part, not particularly enthusiastic about the whole process. I tried various approaches including a Scripture Union publication, Family Prayers (which has since ceased to be published), and felt I was missing the boat. Then came a dawning realisation that the one thing we hadn’t done was to read the Bible narrative sequentially day by day. It’s such an obvious and simple point that it has been systematically overlooked in much of the Christian world. I found over a period of time that the Bible story spoke for itself: it was the medium and the message. On occasions it was as though a spell had been cast over the hearers. (Of course you know that “spell” and “story” have the same root.) The effect of the story was in inverse proportion to anything added.

This set me thinking deeply, and I turned to a dear friend, Tony Cantale who has designed more Christian books including Bibles than probably any living book designer. We compared notes, and realised that the plethora of Bibles being produced did not lend themselves to such sequential reading. There were chapters, and verses, notes and comments, tracks and themes, illustrations and maps in profusion, and often no distinction between the different sorts of literature in the Bible, notably between narrative and non-narrative. We needed a Bible for our prayer times at Mill Grove that was the whole Bible, but presented in a way that made the narrative instantly recognisable and accessible to a reader of any age.

At this point I ought to share with you our subsequent finding that approximately one third of the Bible is narrative, and two-thirds non-narrative. The narrative includes for example most of Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. The non-narrative includes Leviticus, Job, Proverbs, Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and other prophets and the New Testament letters. There are passages of non-narrative in the former, and narrative in the latter, but the basic division is not difficult to see.

What became clear to us was that the Bible as a whole could only be understood within the context of a knowledge and understanding of the narrative or story. (You might say “history” or even “His story”.) Without knowledge of this narrative most of the non-narrative was inaccessible to the point of meaninglessness: the writers of the material were assuming a prior knowledge of the narrative. An obvious example would be the Apostle Paul who constantly makes detailed reference to Old Testament narrative in his letters.

And so a question formed in our minds as we literally got out a blank sheet of paper and mused in the late 1980s: what would a twenty-first century Bible designed for those without a prior knowledge of the Bible story look like? It’s a simple enough question, but took us years to answer. Among the subsidiary questions that arose were issues such as whether it would be electronic or paper; hand-held or on a table or lectern; whether it was for individual or group reading; whether it would be a single volume or several books; whether it was a children’s or a family Bible; whether it should be illustrated; whether it could be complete and unexpurgated; whether it was possible to make it intelligible without a track or reading plan; what version(s) would be most suitable, and so on.

While working on this basic, foundational thinking, we were noticing what was happening in the world around us, and were aware that in Europe the Bible and biblical thinking had been relegated to the margins of social, educational and political life, and that in many parts of the world there were people and communities (e.g. in the Middle East, India and China) that had little or no knowledge of the Bible story. So two further questions arose: would the same approach be applicable across the world as well as across age spans? And could the Bible be presented in such a way that it would speak for itself without the need for an interpreter, human mediator or gatekeeper?

Modern Footprints: the Bible Project summarised

History will be the judge of the soundness of our thinking and endeavours, and given that the Bible has not yet been published it might be a little premature to make even preliminary assessments. But let me try to summarise and describe what we are at this very moment in the process of producing. (I have a working draft on computer so you can look at the text and presentation.)

We are working on an international Bible design that we believe will be appropriate and effective in every language, for individual and group reading, and for children and adults alike. It is a complete Bible with illustrations. The story of how we arrived at the illustrator and the original artwork would take a whole paper to describe (and it merits that), but not today! There are just two types of setting of the text: single column (for the narrative) and double column (for the non-narrative). The type sizes are slightly different, simply because column width demands careful selection of font size for readability and aesthetic appearance. The text is, in our terms, sacred. This means that it flows without interruption wherever possible, given that there are pages to be turned, and book headings to be presented for ease of reference.

The actual text for the first English edition is the NIrV (the New International readers’ Version). This is aimed at an eight year-old’s reading ability, or English as a second language. Each of the 66 books of the Bible has a brief introduction to summarise the content (so that the reader looking for a story will have something to help her). The narrative text (single column as already mentioned) is then divided into “bite-size portions” with sub-headings labelling what is in the following passage. There are consistent margins throughout the Bible, and each sub-heading is accompanied by a very brief summary of the next part of the story. In the margins throughout there are notes that explain the meaning of particular festivals or difficult words, and help to locate places and describe people referred to in the text. There is nothing in the text itself that indicates a note, so if the reader is content to read on, there is no distraction. The notes in the single column sections are addressed to an eight-year old reader, while the notes and introductions to the non-narrative are written for adults. This led to a publicity slogan for an earlier proposed edition: “The Bible that grows with you”. This in itself is a challenge to the received wisdom of the niche marketers.

A read through Genesis will make everything clear without any instructions (and that is of paramount importance given that this is exactly what we assume each reader or group of readers will start with). The layout itself then indicates throughout the Bible whether it is narrative or non-narrative that is on any page or section of pages. Nothing could be simpler. There are chapters and verses for reference but these are of a size and style that allows the narrative to flow without unnecessary interruption.

The illustrations (a whole new genus or breed of Bible illustrations created just for this edition) are placed in such a way that they illustrate the passage beside which they are placed, and there is an index of illustrations at the back giving each a title. The nature of the pictures is that they invite, if not demand, a study of both painting and accompanying text. Some are as challenging as the text!

We envisage that the Bible will be printed on quality paper (a special newly-developed paper that will take full colour illustrations throughout with a minimum of “show through” and yet thin enough to make the Bible handy to carry and use for a child), and that it will be well bound. It is designed inside to last for life, and so the quality of the cover and binding is crucial in making this a reality.

This isn’t the occasion to tell the story of the trials and tribulations we encountered in seeking a Bible version and publisher. I intend to write the story for posterity. Suffice it to say that it took us many and long journeys; that we nearly had to go to court with Rupert Murdoch or his representatives; that we discovered how naïve we had been about the motives of Bible publishers; that we encountered frequent gate-keeping by Christian publishers who were convinced that the Bible could not speak for itself, but needed explanation and tracks; that we found incredulity when challenging the notion of the niche market and suggesting one Bible for all; that had we not had a passion for the Bible having seen it work in the lives of many known to us, we would have given up long ago.

Nothing we encountered was as vicious or destructive as the forces ranged against William Tyndale, but we recognised similar forces and ideologies at work. In seeking to make the Bible freely available to all we were challenging much received wisdom of churches and Christian publishers, representatives and the Christian retail trade. No commercial publisher is yet convinced about the wisdom or viability of the course we have set. But our belief, undimmed over the past fifteen years, is that the ploughboy and his equivalent in every continent can have a better grasp of the Bible story than many who call themselves Christians because they live in traditionally-called Christian societies or are associated with churches.

So, if this whole project is of God (I think I am quoting Gamaliel with a little of Tyndale’s influence) what might we expect? (If it isn’t of God, then we will be encouraged to think of the unintended benefits of fifteen years wrestling with the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.) In June or thereabouts next year the first edition (in American English) will be published: it is intended for use particularly in Africa and among young people in the USA who have few if any church connections. The lead publisher will be the International Bible Society. We hope that the launch in each continent and nation will be accompanied by an exhibition of the original artwork in major art galleries (that would mean perhaps the National and the Tate in the UK). Journalists and critics would be given a complete Bible rather than a catalogue: this would serve all the purposes of a traditional catalogue, while being better attuned to our aim of bringing the Bible to the heart of not only individuals and families, but also of society as a whole.

We are planning editions in every language and envisage that by 2025 every publisher of Bibles will have at least one edition in the format we have designed. We are asking the newly established Children’s Bible Task Force to monitor and evaluate the Bibles and reactions worldwide to ensure the highest standards are maintained. We know that it will be carefully studied by both Christian and non-Christian academics and critics.

So we haven’t translated the Bible like Tyndale (although at one stage we were ready to do so), and we haven’t been threatened with our lives (although there have been one or two rather unsavoury encounters). Tyndale was a towering giant who died aged 42. We are middle-aged and our abilities are wholly modest and on a quite different scale. But we share his vision and passion that God’s word does not need defending or modifying so much as freeing so that it is allowed to speak for itself in a contemporary idiom. On occasions Tyndale went a bit too far with his idiomatic translations (“Tush, ye shall not die” says the serpent to Adam and Eve; Joseph was a “luckie fellow” because the Lord was with him; Pharoah’s “jolly captains” were drowned in the Red Sea by the Lord who is described as a “surgeon”) but that is the inevitable consequence of seeking, like J.B. Phillips, to find a living dynamic equivalent in the vernacular. No doubt our judgement has been lacking at some points, and we will hear about that before long.

A Footnote

And just one little footnote about footsteps: Tyndale hoped that he would be allowed and encouraged to do his translation work and publishing in England, in London, to be precise. But he could not, and was driven into exile on the continent. As a student who went to the same college I had a similar love for both the Scriptures and the English language, and my great hope and longing was that this Bible would first appear in English, published by a British publisher. After much effort it was not to be. In our case we had to head west, and we are currently diligently revising all my spellings in order to align them with the English vernacular of my American cousins. So when Peter denies his Lord it will be the rooster not the cock that will crow. A small price to pay, but do I sense that Tyndale might smile at this? I had always thought of the ploughboy in a quintessentially English setting, quite forgetting the ploughboys on the prairies of the Mid-West of the USA, and for that matter in subsistence agriculture from Ethiopia to southern Africa. Interesting that Tyndale’s translation through the King James’ Version is currently more widely read, known and loved in the South of the USA rather than in England. That’s history for you.


R. Bottigheimer The Bible for Children from the Age of Gutenberg to the Present Yale 1996
F.F. Bruce The English Bible Methuen 1961
D. Coggan, R. Harries et al. Hertford College Magazine 1995 No. 81, 32-51
D. Daniel The Bible in English Yale University Press 2003
D. Daniel, ed. Tyndale’s Old Testament Yale University Press 1992
D. Daniel “We Remember Them: Tyndale and the Fallen” Hertford College Magazine 1997/8 No. 83
A. & G. Gobbel The Bible: A Child’s Playground Fortress 1986
S.L. Greenslade, ed. The Cambridge History of the Bible CUP 1963
G. Loughlin Telling God’s Story CUP 1996
A. McGrath In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible Hodder 2001
B. Witherington Paul’s Narrative Thought World John Knox Press 1994
G. Wolff Pritchard Offering the Gospel to Children Cowley Publications 1992

Keith J. White, M.A. (Oxon.), M. Phil., PhD.