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Tyndale New Testament : transcript of audio

Moira Goff, head of the British Section 1501-1800 at the British Library, gives a personal view on the Tyndale New Testament in April 2007

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Tyndale New Testament (Gospel of John) with Moira Goff

A small but significant book

It's a small pocket sized book. The old-spelling edition that was published by the Library a few years ago is actually very much the same size as the original. Technically it's what they call an octavo book, which means it's small, literally small enough to go into your pocket. It's quite a thick book, although it's only the New Testament, it's not the whole Bible.

Printed in 1526, it's the first New Testament printed in English. And it was intended really as a book that people could hold in their hands and read, it wasn't one of those large folio volumes that would stand on lecterns and be read in churches.

Our copy is actually very pretty; it's bound in red leather and it has gold tooling, but that was done much much later. Originally it probably would have had a plain brown leather binding, although again our copy is very nicely illuminated. There's only one other complete copy that survives, and that's much plainer. The initials at the beginning of each book are not illuminated as they are in our copy, so our copy was actually very much a prized possession of somebody. But it was still a small personal book, very much intended for somebody to read to themselves or perhaps hold and read to other people who couldn't read quite as fluently as they could, so that they could hear the Bible in English. Very much a personal book.

Tyndale's translating style

I think the thing is that Tyndale was writing from the spoken English that he knew. He was very concerned to provide a translation that people could read. And although it's now a very long time ago, I think once we get through the old spelling - and the spelling's changed quite a lot - you find so much that you know well already, so many phrases, so many expressions. They may not be quite the same, but they've passed into the English language.

So in a sense he was part way between the Wycliffe Bible, which is really the first Bible in English, which circulated in manuscript, which is much much earlier, 1380, or the 1380s, and is recognisably English, but not quite as English as Tyndale is. Of course, Tyndale was drawing on Wycliffe, and so some expressions in the earlier version do actually come out in Tyndale. Tyndale adds others. The expressions in the Wycliffe Bible had probably passed into common parlance, and Tyndale was picking up on that because he was working with everyday language, with the language that people used to speak to one another.

This was not high-flown literary language, this was meant to be a direct language, translating words in the Greek New Testament, so that ordinary everyday people, literate people nevertheless, could actually read and understand. It was so much part of vernacular and everyday language but expressed so simply and straightforwardly that people could repeat it; they would remember the sayings and repeat them. They passed into common parlance; they passed through later editions of the Bible in English. They go into writers like Shakespeare in particular.

Not directly; we think Shakespeare's Bible was the Geneva Bible, which was itself based largely on Tyndale's translations. His language has become part of ours, so the unfamiliarity that you see when you look at the spelling very soon evaporates when you actually look at it more closely or hear it spoken.

I have to say that I've got quite a funny approach to this! It interests me that if you open and read some passages, oddly enough the things that come to my mind are the passages in Handel's Messiah, because some of those passages, although they were chosen and shaped to fit together with Handel's music, the phrases, the expressions, actually you can find them in Tyndale.

More familiarity than meets the eye

If you look you see so much that's familiar - the beginning of the Gospel of St John: "And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not..." that's a sentence that I think is very familiar, to all of us, although how many of us really understand - you'd have to think about it.

And the very beginning of the Gospel of St John: "in the beginning was that word, and that word was with God," and in this case it's "...and God was that word", which is perhaps not quite so much, but a lot of the feelings of rhythm, the meaning, is there, even if the words are not quite the same as we're used to now. "There is no power but of God; the powers that be are ordained of God" - not quite the context that we're used to!

I think there was a business about love and charity, and it's right at the end of the 13th chapter of the First Epistle of St Paul to the Corinthians: "Now abideth faith, hope and love, even these three; but the chief of these is love." I think probably in his revision of the translation, and Tyndale may have changed that to "...and the greatest of these is love", but in the 1526 New Testament it's "but the chief of these is love". Not "...charity", which is what you'd find elsewhere, and what had previously been used, but "love". Which is a much more human word, in a way; a more personal word.

Why Tyndale was burnt for creating this book

It says something about Tyndale's aims to bring the Gospel closer to people so that they could read it for themselves, and almost enter into a direct dialogue with God, which I think is what got him into trouble! Tyndale was ultimately burnt for doing this work; what was it about?

Once you translate a Bible into English, it's not in Latin, which is a learned language. English people could read; they would read and they would interpret the Bible for themselves. What need for the clergy? How can you manage people's understanding, reading and understanding? It's really about control. The church was anxious to maintain its authority through the hierarchy of cardinals, bishops and priests; they did that through managing the Latin Bible.

Tyndale wasn't only about translation; he was about belonging with a group of people who criticised church hierarchy, criticised it for its control, criticised it also for its corruption. His approach to translation was influenced by Luther; Lutheranism is very much about a personal relationship with God, again, without need for the clergy. People look to scriptures, they look to the Bible, to give them a guide for the conduct of their everyday life. They're not looking to spiritual advisers who are going to tell them how to behave. This is dangerous!

Intrigues and contradictions

It seems quite strange to us now; what's even more strange to me is that after all the prohibitions, all the burning of books, the burning of Tyndale himself, he's not burnt before we have the Coverdale Bible, which is in English, in 1535, that's the year before he's burnt at the stake. And the difference with the Coverdale Bible as far as I can see is that of course it was a large Bible; it was to be put in churches. It wasn't a small Bible to be given to people to read themselves.

Tyndale himself had done a revision of his New Testament in 1534, and we have a copy of that here in the Library that belonged to Queen Anne Boleyn, who could not have been closer to the king than she was! Yet she has a Bible in English, she's supposed to have recommended Tyndale's Bible to Henry VIII, and he is supposed to have commended it. It's only a couple of years after that that Tyndale is burnt at the stake.

Anne Boleyn herself of course got into trouble for her Reformist sympathies. One of the reasons that she was executed was she was caught in a conspiracy I guess because she had sympathy for Reformed religion, for the Protestant religion as opposed to the Catholic religion, and of course she's executed in 1536, I think before Tyndale himself was, for a very different reason. And by that time the Bible in English is really established.

English Bibles: from forbidden to compulsory

I find that very strange! I find that quite difficult to understand - how you have one course of events unfolding which is against the Bible in English, and another course of events unfolding which is establishing the Bible in English, at almost exactly the same time. So that you just have a succession of Bibles in the English language, from Tyndale's New Testament, his production of further translations of further books of the Old Testament, we go through the Coverdale Bible, we go through a series of Bibles - the Geneva Bible - until we get to the Authorised Version, the King James Bible, which is the one that so many people know, much of which is actually based on Tyndale's own translations.

I think the estimate is that 83 per cent of the New Testament in the Authorised Version, the King James Bible, is actually from Tyndale. We're talking about something close to a hundred years between the two, and a whole succession of Bibles that used Tyndale's translation.

The Bible in English becoming so quickly and so completely established indicates that there must have been a big readership. The Wycliffe Bible, so called, circulating in manuscript in many, many copies. People actually having copies, having copies made, reading it, reading it to one another. Tyndale's New Testament being smuggled in to the country; actually being smuggled in and then disseminated to people who would read it to themselves, read it to one another. There must have been copies that were actually smuggled in by individuals for individuals, and they must have been at all levels, from the highest to the lowest. There must have been copies available at court, where intrigue was rife and of course you had many many tensions.

King Henry VIII's marital problems

The background to this is of course the 'King's Great Matter', where he wants to divorce his wife Catherine of Aragon, who is supported by the Holy Roman Emperor in favour of Anne Boleyn, who is within a circle of people who are interested in Reformed religion, Protestantism. Henry is developing towards becoming a supreme head of the church in England; big changes going on there.

One of the people who speaks out against Tyndale most vociferously, quite extraordinarily violently, is Sir Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor. You have the hierarchy, you have the great of the kingdom actually speaking out against Tyndale, at the same time, you have people at court who have a sympathy with what Tyndale is doing; further down you have a merchant class who of course, many of them are travelling, they're on the continent, they're seeing what's happening there, they are eager to get the Bible in their own language, they can see the New Testament in German, they can see that there's a long tradition of vernacular Bibles on the Continent in fact, and they're saying, why can't we have that! They want to read the word of God, they want to read it in English; they possibly have seen copies already. People who are not literate, and many people weren't literate, they wouldn't have been able to read, but there would be people in their circle who could, and they'd be eager to have the Bible read to them. At the same time you have people who are staunch Catholics, who don't want things to change, who would be absolutely certain that it would be wrong - the Bible was the word of God and it was in Latin!

Tyndale's sources

The Latin Bible, the Vulgate Bible, was actually not what Tyndale used to produce his translation. He used the Greek New Testament. As he developed his translation, because of course the 1526 New Testament translation represents a stage in his own work, he goes back to Hebrew as well as Greek; he refines and extends; he goes on to do the Old Testament.

I suppose I ought to emphasise that this rather beautiful small book that we have, that will be very important in the Sacred Exhibition, is actually just the New Testament. Tyndale does go on, he does the Old Testament as well, he draws on Hebrew sources, as he's quite an extraordinarily good linguist. And the readings in those sources are not the same as people have been used to in the Vulgate. Assuming that they could actually read the Latin text, and of course some of the better educated people could.

The book's original owner: one conjecture

It has been very beautifully decorated, which is actually quite unusual. The illuminations must have been done quite early in the life of this particular copy, and are probably one of the reasons why it's survived. It was obviously a prized copy; it belonged to somebody who valued it enough to have it illuminated and could afford to do so; so somebody who was quite well up the social scale, or well up the riches scale, if you like. One wonders if it was a particularly well-off merchant, one of the people who had a copy smuggled in early on. We don't know. Our first notice of it comes in the first half of the 18th century when it was acquired for the library that had been formed by Queen Anne's first minister, Robert Harley, and his son Edward Harley.

The British Library acquired it for £1m in 1994. I think it got a lot of media coverage at the time, and there was a lot of excitement about it. It was specially exhibited at that point and it's been one of our great treasures ever since. It's one of three surviving copies, but each one of those copies is unique in its own way. So it is really a unique item, and it is a repository of so much English history.

I have to say that I have a very special affection for it; I think it's a very beautiful little volume. I've had the privilege of handling it on various occasions. It's very precious and very wonderful.