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The Heirs of Tyndale

Written by Vanessa Pupavac.

In the last week we have witnessed the incredible dignity of the families and congregation of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina as they mourn nine members of their bible study group killed in a horrific terrorist attack by a lone racist young gunman on 17 June 2015.

Just two days before there had been the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, a crucial document in the history of civil freedoms. When the terrorist killed the Charleston bible study members, he also attacked one of the most important historically won civil freedoms – that of spiritual freedom.

The spiritual freedom represented in the Charleston bible study group may be traced back half a millennium to pioneering bible translators such as William Tyndale. Tyndale’s 1525 translation of the bible enfranchised people spiritually, and is as significant for the history of civil freedoms as the Magna Carta, although less well known.

Tyndale’s decision to translate the bible was a courageous assertion of religious independence against the authority of the church and the monarchy, because translation of the bible was a capital offence in the religious hierarchical societies of sixteenth century Europe. In order to carry his law-breaking work, Tyndale sought out Martin Luther in Wittenberg who had translated the bible into German.  In 1525 his translation of the New Testament was printed, but accusations of heresy forced him into hiding.

When King Henry VIII broke with Rome from 1534, Tyndale thought the religious climate was freer, and came out of hiding to complete his translation in Antwerp.  However he was betrayed and handed to the authorities who cooperated with Henry VIII over his arrest. Tyndale was burnt at the stake for heresy and treason in 1536. His dying words were reported to be: ‘Lord, open the eyes of the King of England!’ In 1539 Henry VIII, having persecuted Tyndale to death just a few years earlier, published an English Bible, which was heavily based on Tyndale’s unfinished translation. Furthermore, most of the 1611 King James Bible is still in Tyndale’s words.

Tyndale’s bible was momentous because it represented the word of God translated into the spoken language of the people:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the deep, and the Spirit of God moved upon the waters.

It is difficult to imagine how powerful it must have been to hear for the first time the bible in your own language, and to hear familiar words giving form to the bible from the void of an ancient language you did not know. ‘If God spare my life, before very long I shall cause a plough boy to know the scriptures better than you do!’ Tyndale had declared to a priest who condemned his preaching to the poor. Tyndale’s translation asserted the spiritual freedom of all individuals, whatever their station, rich or poor, man or woman, peasant or lord. All were moral persons with an individual moral conscience who should be free to read the bible and reflect upon spiritual matters for themselves.

The opening to the Gospel of John speaks directly to the spiritual revelation experienced on first hearing his translation:

In the beginning was that word, and that word was with God: and God was that word… And the light shineth in the darkness….And that word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw the glory of it…

Tyndale’s translation, enabling private and communal bible study, inspired the rapid spread of literacy in sixteenth century England. Private bible study gave new moral significance to the family and parents as spiritual guardians of their children. Equally his translation fostered a public realm where people gathered together and debated matters of importance to the community.

Tyndale’s translation from Greek and Hebrew into English was more rigorous than earlier translations from Vulgate Latin and set a new standard for scholarly work. Importantly the printing of his New Testament translation in a small portable size was a bible an apprentice could hid in his pocket or a ploughboy carry when ploughing.

Tyndale’s translation work supports the key humanist ideal of our shared humanity, putting us in communication with people across millennia and opening up previously closed doors to knowledge. Through translations we break down cultural barriers and build an open university of accumulated human knowledge potentially accessible to all. His powerful translation ennobled the English language at a time when most scholarship in Europe was in Latin. Even over a century later leading intellectuals such as the political theorist Hobbes or the scientist Newton still often published in Latin.

The new dignity the English language enjoyed through Tyndale fostered the dazzling creative work of Shakespeare and other Elizabethan poets and dramatists who heard Tyndale’s compelling language in church, and their linguistically sophisticated theatre audiences.  ‘No Tyndale, No Shakespeare’ his biographer David Daniell contends. Lines like Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ owe their origins in Tyndale’s stark pared down language.  The vernacular bible also encouraged the rise of national consciousness and the desire for political freedom, even though Tyndale opposed political freedom. Indeed Tyndale even supported tyranny to prevent civil war and anarchy. Nevertheless Tyndale’s translation was religiously and socially revolutionary because it fundamentally challenged the old hierarchical feudal order of the church, king and nobility, and peasantry.

His translation gave people the power to speak moral truth to power and contest the authority of the church and the rising absolutist power of the monarchical state. The religious moral equality his bible conferred on the common people fostered later demands for political rights and freedoms in the English Revolution. In later centuries African American slaves invoked Tyndale’s words from the bible to declare ‘Let my people go’ (Exodus 5:1).

Over two and a half centuries before the Enlightenment motto of ‘Sapere Aude’ or Dare to Know, Tyndale dared to translate the bible and enfranchised others to know for themselves in an age when the penalty was burning at the stake. Tyndale’s translation is critical for the development of humanist beliefs and democratic freedoms. The freedom to gather together and know for ourselves remains core to any free open progressive society.

Here I return to the terrorist attack in Charleston. The members of the Charleston bible study group are the spiritual heirs of Tyndale, while their killer chose to follow his dogmatic executioners.

Vanessa Pupavac is author of Language Rights: From Free Speech to Linguistic Governance (2012), Vanessa will be speaking on the historical significance of Tyndale’s Bible at the IOI ‘University in One Day’ conference for sixth formers in Goodenough College London on Wednesday 1 July.

Image credit: BBC History

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