Let us now praise William Tyndale

By | May 17, 2016

All great writers wield influence, although it may decades or centuries to fully measure the scale and scope of that influence.

Hemingway’s short stories and novels took a streamlined journalistic style and made it into a still dominant North American literary style. With Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger invented post-war young adult fiction. James Joyce blew up and then re-assembled the 20th-century novel. Among many other accomplishments, Shakespeare created the multi-plot, character-arc drama that shapes modern long-form TV shows like Mad Men, The Sopranos, and many others.

William Tyndale (1494-1536), the Oxford scholar who wrote the first English translation of the Bible, arguably influenced the language as much as these four writers did. His translations of the New Testament, and portions of the Old Testament, provided most of the content of the King James Bible, which unfairly gets all the critical praise for style and expression.

So you’ve likely never heard of Tyndale, but you’ve read or repeated many of his words and expressions:

“The salt of the earth”

“The fat of the land”

“That powers that be”

“Let there be light”

“The spirit is willing”

“Signs of the times”

“The apple of his eye”

“A law unto themselves”

“Filthy lucre”

“As bald as a coot”

“The straight and narrow”

“My brother’s keeper”

“Blessed are the peacemakers”

“Let my people go”

“Eat, drink and merry”

“Flowing with milk and honey”

“A stranger in a strange land”

“Flesh pots”

“Thou shalt not kill”

“Love thy neighbour as thyself”

Tyndale completed his translations while in self-imposed exile in Germany, working from the original Greek for the New Testament and the original Hebrew for the Old Testament. Although published illegally, without official approval of the authorities, the Tyndale Bible was a popular success thanks in part to mass distribution made possible by a new fangled invention – the printing press.

Sadly, Tyndale received no recognition for his astonishing solo accomplishment (more than 50 scholars worked on the King James version). He was betrayed to the authorities, arrested and put in prison, and then strangled to death and burned on October 6, 1536, at the age of 42.

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