On Reading Tyndale's 1536 New Testament

Reprinted with permission from As I See It. AISI is sent free to all who request it by writing to the editor at dkutilek@juno.com. Photo: GREATSITE.COM, which also has a review.

Nearly a decade ago, I “chanced” upon a hardback facsimile reprint of the 1536 edition of William Tyndale’s New Testament translation (Columbus, Ohio: Lazarus Ministry Press, 1999. The original is #21 in the chronological listing of printed editions of the Bible in English in A. S. Herbert’s Historical Catalogue of Printed Editions of the English Bible 1525-1961, p. 13). The price was acceptable (just under $32), so I purchased the volume and have consulted it from time to time. I very much prefer facsimile reprints over mere reproductions (in print or on the net) of the text of a Bible translation, because there are regularly features of the original edition that are omitted in the reprint, along with the very real possibility of inadvertent alterations in the text.

At the beginning of this year, I decided to read this facsimile NT through, and just this morning (as I write), completed the task (which had been interrupted by two trips to Eastern Europe). This makes at least the 8th different English translation of the NT that I have read entirely. These—in roughly I read them—include KJV, ASV, NASB, NIV, Stern’s Jewish NT, ERV, HCSB and now Tyndale (of course, I have read several of these repeatedly and have read portions of the NT in many other English versions).

The Tyndale facsimile

The printing is in the old gothic or black letter font—very ornate, with the “s” that looks like an “f.” Of course that took some getting accustomed to. I noticed that throughout the entire volume, the type-setter seemed to have no capital “Z”s—in proper names these were always set up in lower case. As with any other printed work, the printer was subject to mistakes, and I found a fair number of accidental omissions of letters and words, repetitions of syllables in words, transposition of words, and incorrect spelling (“u” for “n” and the inverse being the most common).

The unsettled state of English spelling also presented some interpretational issues. For example, it took me a bit to figure out that “syrs” equals “sirs.” “Soudyours” is rather far from “soldiers,” but that’s what it meant. “Huswyfly” is “housewifely,” odd enough in itself.

There were also odd forms, as compared to more conventional usage—“gnew” as the past tense of “gnaw,” “stackered” for “staggered,” “neverthelater” for “nevertheless, “vytalles” for “victuals,” “teth” for “tooth,” “blessedfulness,” “dilgentlyer,” “gripings” for “sicknesses,” “unpossible,” and on the list goes.

Commonly for “it happened” or “it came to pass,” Tyndale has “it fortuned” or “it chanced,” which seem a bit “superstitious” to our way of saying things. The idea of “to abide” or “remain, tarry in a place” is several times translated by “haunted”!

Numbers are usually given in the text as Roman numerals, i. e., “v. M.” is “five thousand.” There were no page numbers, though the leaves/folios are numbered (and folio number lviii, covering the end of Luke 3, and the beginning of Luke 4, is missing from this reprint). There are no verse numbers (not inserted in English Bibles until the Geneva translation more than two decades later), though the paragraphs are lettered consecutively, A, B. C, etc.

The facsimile has numerous small woodcuts illustrating the Gospels and a good number of larger ones—each occupying a third of the page—in Revelation. Several are strongly reminiscent of, though not identical to, woodcuts found in Luther’s Bible of 1534 (since printers often reused woodcuts in other printed works, the woodcuts are useful to researchers trying to identify the printer of early unaccredited books,).

The wording of Tyndale’s NT is about 80-90% reproduced in the later KJV, as it was to a similar degree in the NTs of the Geneva Bible, the Bishops’ Bible, and others of that era. The influence of Luther’s German version and Jerome’s Latin Vulgate is evident on every page in the choice of vocabulary, phraseology and interpretation, but Tyndale also made an independent contribution to the work. He, better than the later KJV committee, renders ekklesia by “congregation” (likely following the lead of Luther’s Gemeinde) rather than “church.” Tyndale reserves this “church” for pagan temples in Acts 14 and 19 (in the latter of these, the KJV follows his precedent). Agape he regularly translates “love” rather than the KJV’s common rendering “charity” (wherein the KJV imitates the Latin Vulgate). Tyndale’s phraseology “wedlock breaker,” meaning “adulterer,” seems to be a literal rendering of Luther’s German word Ehebrecher. “Easter,” “Easter-lambe” and “Easter fest” are used throughout, under the influence of Luther (See “ ‘Easter’: Some Notes on Acts 12:4, KJV,” in AISI 11:10), instead of “passover” “Passover” is a word Tyndale himself coined for his 1530 Pentateuch translation.

The translation uses “christened” (!) for “baptized” in 1 Corinthians 1. At 1 John 2:24, Tyndale uses three synonymous words (“abide,” “remain” and “continue”) to render the thrice-occurring Greek word meno. The KJV reproduces this excessive synonymy exactly.

Tyndale’s order of the books is a perfect imitation of Luther: the usual order from Matthew to Philemon, but then 1 & 2 Peter; 1, 2, and 3 John; Hebrews; James; Jude and Revelation.

The individual NT books usually have brief introductory prologues. That to Romans, and it alone, is very lengthy, exactly as in Luther. I did not compare their introductions in detail, but they begin nearly verbatim the same, and I suspect continue in parallel, Tyndale borrowing from Luther.

The edition concludes with more than twenty pages of English translation of several brief sections from the OT which are here labeled “epistles,” from various OT books. These I did not read. I assume that these are Tyndale’s own translation, but I have not seen anyone address this question, and I did not investigate it myself.

I find examining such reprints most instructive, knowing that this was the very first form of the NT in English that many readers in England ever saw. The Tyndale NT was their spiritual sustenance and strength. And this translation has left its impress on nearly all English versions that have followed, to this day.

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