It is hard to overstate the significance of the work of William Tyndale in translating the Bile into English for the first time from Greek and Hebrew. In my opinion, the best biography out there on him is by David Daniell and it focuses on Tyndale as a translator. I highly recommend it!
In the introduction to his biography David Daniell writes the following:
William Tyndale gave us our English Bible. The sages assembled by King James to prepare the Authorized Version of 1611, so often praised for unlikely inspiration, took over Tyndale’s work. Nine-tenths of the Authorized Version’s New Testament is Tyndale’s. The same is true of the first half of the Old Testament, which is as far as he was able to get before he was executed outside Brussels in 1536
English phrases from Scripture for which we have Tyndale to thank (i.e., phrases which he coined and that went through to the Authorized Version and became deeply embedded within the English language):
- ‘And they heard the voice of the Lord God as he walked in the garden in the cool of the day’ (Genesis) [Daniell 3]
- ‘God forbid’ (Paul’s μὴ γένοιτο in Romans) [Daniell 141]
- ‘And all that heard it wondered, at those things which were told them of the shepherds. But Mary kept all those sayings, and pondered them in her heart’ (Luke 2) [Daniell 135]
- ‘Finally, my brethren be strong in the Lord, and the power of his might’ (Ephesians 6) [Daniell 139]
- ‘The signs of the times,’
- ‘the spirit is willing,’
- ‘Live and move and have our being,’
- ‘fight the good fight’ [Daniell 142]
- ‘the salt of the earth,’
- ‘let there be light,’
- ‘this thy brother was dead, and is alive again: and was lost and is found’
- ‘there were shepherds abiding in the field’ [Daniell 1]
Tyndale invented some words that have remained in English usage till this day (‘scapegoat’ for example). But perhaps some of his most earthshaking work as a translator was not in inventing new words, but in providing new translations of old words.
Here are some significant and load-bearing words (i.e., words that carried a lot of freight in the pre-reformation church) and how Tyndale translated them:
- πρεσβύτερος- ‘senior’ / ‘elder’ NOT ‘priest’
- ἐκκλησία- ‘congregation’ NOT ‘church’
- μετανοέω- ‘repent’ NOT ‘do penance’
- ἐξομολογέω- ‘acknowledge’ NOT ‘confess’
- ἀγάπη- ‘love’ NOT ‘charity’
It is hard to appreciate the revolutionary and subversive nature of these particular words translated this way because we do not live under the immense burden of the mediaeval church. Tyndale’s choice in translating these words avoided the weighty connotations of words like ‘priest,’ ‘church,’ ‘do penance,’ ‘confess,’ and ‘charity.’ As David Daniell says, “he is making the New Testament refer inwardly to itself, as he instructs his readers to do, and not outwardly to the enormous secondary construction of late-mediaeval practices of the Church: priests and penance and confession and charity…He cannot possibly have been unaware that those words in particular undercut the entire sacramental structure of the thousand-year Church throughout Europe, Asia, and north Africa” [148-149].
I thank God for men like William Tyndale.