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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
Spare my Life' (now republished as `Book of Fire'), based partly
the scholarship of Professor David Daniell of University
London. I discovered a resolution of the paradox. The
version is an exception that proves the rule, for more than
three-quarters of the prose is in fact the work of a single
The King James Bible is usually described as a translation, but
carefully at the king's instructions to his committees: he asked
not so much to translate from scratch as to revise and
different English translations by reference to the Greek and
especially Hebrew texts. In the scholars' words, their job was
make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal
They drew on several English versions of the bible. According to
Canadian academics, just 2.8% of the New Testament text is original
the King James, 13.4% came from other published English bibles and
remarkable 83.7% from William Tyndale's translation of 1525
revised in 1534). The Old Testament was less Tyndale-dominated,
still about 75.7% his for those books he had finished
before he died in 1536. That's a greater plagiarism than cost
German defence minister his job.
Did I say died? Murdered - for translating the bible - at the
of the very church, which 75 years later adopted so much of his
without acknowledgement. Perhaps this inconvenient fact explains
Tyndale still gets so little mention today. I asked Moynahan if
thought Tyndale is being given enough credit this year. `No.
essentially his[italic] Bible, for God's sake.'
Tyndale was an English priest who spent most of his life in
Germany and the Low Countries where he translated and printed
scripture for distribution in England, to the fury of Thomas More,
bought and burned his works as fast as Tyndale could smuggle
across the Channel. Eventually More - though himself already
arrest in the Tower - managed to get the Louvain authorities to
down Tyndale, arrest him, try him for heresy, defrock him and kill
by strangulation and burning.
Not only is the bulk of the authorised bible plagiarized from
the most memorable phrases are his: 'let there be light', 'we live
move and have our being', 'fight the good fight', 'the powers
be', 'a law unto themselves', `the spirit is willing, but the flesh
weak', `flowing with milk and honey', 'the apple of his eye',
of the times', 'broken-hearted', 'eat, drink and be merry', 'salt
the earth', `fat of the land', 'my brother's keeper'.
It is not as if these are the only ways to translate these
Tyndale's first edition invited us to `Beholde the lyles of
felde', whereas nine years later he changed this to the
`Consider the lyles of the felde'. John Wycliff's Lollard bible of
century earlier had little of Tyndale's rhythm. Where Wycliff (or
fellow member of his `team') had said `Blessid ben pesible
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
hym, and withouten hym was maad no thing, that thing that was
Tyndale gave us the enduring words that survive almost intact to
day: `In the begynnynge was the worde and the worde was with God:
the word was God. The same was in the begynnynge wyth God. All
were made by it and with out it was made nothinge that was
Where the King James does depart from Tyndale, it often spoils
cadence. `For we are made a gazing stock to the world' becomes `we
made a spectacle'. `Fassion not yourselves to the worlde' becomes
not conformed'. In the famous passage from Corinthians,
`love' (faithful to the Hebrew) becomes `charity' for
reasons: the church wished to encourage donations. Likewise, the
`church' is eschewed by Tyndale, who preferred `congregation';
King James takes a more hierarchical view.
The King James committee discharged their duty, which was
standardize the bible in a form that would endure (and rid bibles
pesky Puritan marginalia). If you want to decide upon a standard
universal mobile phone charger, you will need a committee. But if
want to bequeath the English language sonorous phrases of
rhythm and richness, go to one great writer. Next time you hear
priest say `The Lord make his face shyne upon the and be
unto the' remember that these were the words of a martyred