- - Friday, January 20, 2012

By David Teems
Thomas Nelson, $15.99, 336 pages, paper

If you’re not familiar with the work of William Tyndale, you should be. Even today, English speakers owe a debt to the man martyred at age 42 for the “heretical” act of translating the Bible into English. Long before, Tyndale, a scholar with a gift for languages, was impassioned about making the sacred books accessible, once answering a critic: “If God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!”

Although that prophecy wasn’t fully realized in Tyndale’s too-brief life, it would soon take a form that would, indeed, sweep the globe: 75 years after his death in 1536, the translation commonly known as the King James Version of the Bible was released. Much of the KJV’s cadence and idiom is owed to Tyndale, including the renderings of the Lord’s Prayer, as well as phrases such as “seek and you shall find,” “ask and it shall be given you,” “judge not that you not be judged” and “it came to pass.” The words “Jehovah,” “Passover” and “beautiful” are Tyndale’s inventions, drawing, as he did, on a solid knowledge of Greek and Hebrew.

Between his youth and education at Oxford and Cambridge, and his death at the stake, where he reportedly cried, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes,” as his last words, there was plenty of adventure and drama in Tyndale’s life. David Teems, who brought the story of King James I - and that “authorized” Bible - to life in 2011’s “Majestie” (Thomas Nelson), is back with Tyndale’s story, aptly subtitled “The Man Who Gave God an English Voice.”

Translation is a tricky business, as just about any exchange student will affirm: A friend once recalled using a grammatically correct word to describe “catching” a bus ride in Spain. Her hearers, however, leapt to a far more colloquial, and ribald, meaning. The rendering of thoughts expressed in one language precisely into another can be daunting; add in the notion of expressing the very Word of God and you have a potentially heroic challenge.

Moreover, the prevailing religious authorities of Tyndale’s day, the Roman Catholic Church (which still held sway in Tudor England), had as its leaders those opposed to the “simple and unlearned” having the Scripture available in the vernacular, especially if such translations would challenge established doctrine. The Greek “presbuteros” was rendered “elder,” not as “priest”; assemblies of believers were “congregations,” not a “church.” Such changes might have been more faithful to the original Greek texts, but they challenged the way the official church read the Bible. Once that got into the public’s consciousness, how long could that church survive?

That Tyndale’s work was hard on the heels of Martin Luther’s Reformation, as well as being sometimes favored by Anne Boleyn, the woman for whom Henry VIII would break with Rome, did not bode well for the cleric turned critic. Thomas More, whose career descended from its utopian heights into playing Bull Connor as he sought out and burned “heretics,” ultimately would find great error in Tyndale and, worse, someone whose voice must be stopped lest all of England be turned aside from the noble and true faith.

Mr. Teems is a great storyteller, and he transports the reader back to the Tudor era with great style. We see Tyndale’s progression from scholar to chaplain for a rich family to itinerant translator and publisher, working mostly in Belgium and Germany because his work was considered a crime in England. No Internet was needed for Tyndale; rogue publishers in Ghent and elsewhere were only too happy to print Tyndale’s New Testament, while sympathetic merchants smuggled books back into England in bales of fabric.

Ironically, both More and Tyndale opposed the divorce (or annulment) of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, albeit for different reasons: Tyndale thought it was a conspiracy to set Henry against Rome; More opposed not only the divorce but also Henry’s setting himself as head of the Church of England. Also ironically, both paid with their lives. More was executed about 15 months before Tyndale.

Mr. Teems captures all of this, and Tyndale’s legacy, with passion and verve. He weaves in a detailed understanding of the life of an exiled writer, drawing from the lives and works of the late poet Czeslaw Milosz as well as American novelist Thomas Wolfe. Though seeming digressions, these more contemporary examples give the serious reader much to learn of Tyndale’s passion.

Although great and deserved fanfare was given to the 400th anniversary of the King James Version last year, the life of Tyndale, it seems, needs to be told afresh every few decades or so. Mr. Teems‘ introduction to this remarkable life is worth the effort a reader would invest: The payoff is an understanding of a vital episode of Christian history and a knowledge of what the mission of a translator entails.

• Mark Kellner writes the On Computers column for The Washington Times.

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