Many, possibly most, people don’t realize that the King James Bible was not the first translation of the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament into English. There were seven major translations published earlier, and all of them to a greater or lesser extent (almost always greater) were dependent on the one(s) that came before them. The first, greatest, and most influential was the translation by William Tyndale. It was also the riskiest. It cost Tyndale his life.
In 1408 a law had been passed in England making it illegal to translate or to read the Bible in English without official ecclesiastical approval; this was in response to the translation activities connected with (pre-Reformer) John Wycliffe and his followers, whose English rendering was not from the original Hebrew and Greek, but from the Latin vulgate. By the time of Tyndale in the early 16th century, it was possible to learn Greek at Oxford, and just possible to pick up Hebrew, and he did so.
Tyndale was refused permission to publish a translation in England, so he went to Germany and did it there. His New Testament, from the Greek, was published in 1526; an improved second edition came out in 1534. He translated the Pentateuch and Jonah from the Hebrew before he was betrayed by an overly zealous countryman and handed over to authorities. He managed to continue his translation in prison, where he finished Joshua to 2 Chronicles. But that’s where his story ended. He was condemned to death and was strangled then burned at the stake in 1536.
But his translation lived on. Almost all subsequent translations were based ultimately on his efforts, and almost always without acknowledgment. Including the King James. The King James was intentionally and by design a revision of the Bishop’s Bible of 1568 (the first English Bible translation to be done by a committee instead of an individual), which was a revision of the Great Bible of 1539 (called this because it was very large in format), which was a revision of Tyndale (for the NT and the parts of the OT he translated).
I haven’t crunched the numbers myself, but some scholars have shown that something like 93% of the King James Bible is actually simply Tyndale. Verse after verse it is virtually the same, with a word or three different, in many places.
As David Daniell notes in his 1989 edition of Tyndale’s New Testament (Yale University Press), some of the most familiar phrases of the Bible from the King James in fact come from Tyndale. He instances the following:
- Ask and it shall be given you, seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you (Matt. 7)
- With God all things are possible (Matthew 19);
- In him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17)
- Behold, I stand at the door and knock (Revelation 3)
This includes a number of phrases that have become “proverbial”
- Am I my brother’s keeper? (Genesis 4)
- The salt of the earth (Matthew 5)
- Where two or three are gathered together (Matthew 18)
- They made light of it (Matthew 22)
- The spirit is willing but the flesh is week (Matthew 26)
- Eat, drink, and be marry (Luke 12)
- A law unto themselves (Romans 2)
- The powers that be (Romans 13)
- The patience of Job (James 5)
Many, many words and phrases are in common use still today because of Tyndale.
The Tyndale legacy in translation itself continues down to our own time. The Revised Version of the Bible in 1881 was a revision of the King James Bible (a revision of the Bishop’s bible, a revision of the Great Bible, a revision of Tyndale); the American Standard Version of 1901 was an American version of the Revised Version; the Revised Standard Version of 1952 was a revision of the American Standard Version; and the New Revised Standard Version of 1989 was a revision of the Revised Standard Version. One could easily see that next to and alongside William Shakespeare (who really lived and really wrote the plays, though that’s another story!) Tyndale was the most influential figure for the English language, ever.
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