A martyred and plagiarized heretic

Monday, March 14th, 2011

Matt Ridley (The Rational Optimist) calls William Tyndale a martyred and plagiarized heretic:

Let me confess a prejudice. The authorised Bible has always been a problem for me. Not because I don’t like it — atheists can still revel in the rhythm of the prose of their tribal scripture — but because it was written by six committees of 47 scholars in total. It seems to be an exception to the rule that anything written by committees is written badly. Adam Nicolson, as the erstwhile historian of the Dome, is alive to this paradox.

Then recently I read a wonderful book by Brian Moynahan called ‘If God Spare my Life’ (now republished as `Book of Fire’), based partly on the scholarship of Professor David Daniell of University College London. I discovered a resolution of the paradox. The authorized version is an exception that proves the rule, for more than three-quarters of the prose is in fact the work of a single man.

The King James Bible is usually described as a translation, but look carefully at the king’s instructions to his committees: he asked them not so much to translate from scratch as to revise and reconcile different English translations by reference to the Greek and especially Hebrew texts. In the scholars’ words, their job was ‘to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one.’

They drew on several English versions of the bible. According to two Canadian academics, just 2.8% of the New Testament text is original to the King James, 13.4% came from other published English bibles and a remarkable 83.7% from William Tyndale’s translation of 1525 (as revised in 1534). The Old Testament was less Tyndale-dominated, but still about 75.7% his for those books he had finished translating before he died in 1536. That’s a greater plagiarism than cost the German defence minister his job.

Did I say died? Murdered — for translating the bible — at the behest of the very church, which 75 years later adopted so much of his text without acknowledgement.
Tyndale was an English priest who spent most of his life in hiding in Germany and the Low Countries where he translated and printed scripture for distribution in England, to the fury of Thomas More, who bought and burned his works as fast as Tyndale could smuggle them across the Channel. Eventually More — though himself already under arrest in the Tower — managed to get the Louvain authorities to track down Tyndale, arrest him, try him for heresy, defrock him and kill him by strangulation and burning.

Not only is the bulk of the authorised bible plagiarized from Tyndale; the most memorable phrases are his: ‘let there be light’, ‘we live and move and have our being’, ‘fight the good fight’, ‘the powers that be’, ‘a law unto themselves’, `the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak’, `flowing with milk and honey’, ‘the apple of his eye’, ‘signs of the times’, ‘broken-hearted’, ‘eat, drink and be merry’, ‘salt of the earth’, `fat of the land’, ‘my brother’s keeper’.

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