By GAIL FINEBERG
A small but intriguing exhibition at the Library tells a story of a 16th century scholar, linguist and priest who died a martyr. The story is one of political intrigue and betrayal, the power of the Word to survive book burners and the capacity of the printing press to terrify monarchs and clerics.
At the heart of the North Great Hall Gallery exhibition (first floor, Thomas Jefferson Building) are two copies of a pocket-size, 1526 edition of the New Testament, the first to be printed in English -- not in King Henry VIII's England, but covertly in Germany. Regarded as a threat to the Roman Catholic Church and the throne, William Tyndale's New Testament -- "The Tyndale Bible"-- survived the book burners, but he did not.
Hunted on the Continent, betrayed by an Englishman for pay and condemned to die a heretic, Tyndale was tied to a stake, strangled with a rope and torched outside a castle near Brussels on Oct. 6, 1536.
His crime: Translating the scriptures from Greek and Hebrew into vernacular English so that commoners could read the Bible for themselves, rather than having to depend on the church hierarchy to interpret the official Latin Vulgate.
Grounded in rhetoric and classical studies at Oxford, skilled in eight languages and driven by his faith in New Testament theology and desire to "cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scriptures," Tyndale was an unsurpassed translator, according to his biographer and the exhibition curator, David Daniell.
"For him, an English translation of the Bible had to be as accurate to the original languages, Greek and Hebrew, as scholarship could make it; and it had to make sense," Mr. Daniell said in the introduction to his book William Tyndale: A Biography (Yale University Press, 1994).
Not only did Tyndale's translations survive the book burners, but they live today as some of the most often-quoted words in the English language: "Let there be light" (Genesis 1:3), "And the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32), "Am I my brother's keeper?" (Genesis 4:9), "Let my people go" (Exodus 5:1), as well as "eat, drink and be merry," "the powers that be," "signs of the times."
So careful and so accurate were Tyndale's translations of the Hebrew scriptures, including the Pentateuch, which comprises the first five books of the Bible (1530), and the New Testament from the Greek (printed in 1526 and revised in 1534), that they served as the bases for much of the "authorized" King James version of the Bible published in 1611.
Said Mr. Daniell in a paper delivered at a June 4 opening reception at the Library: "I was recently in the state of Utah [at Brigham Young University], where a student who is a clever man with a computer gave me at last the definitive figure for how dependent the King James [New Testament] is on Tyndale, and I am happy to announce tonight that the definitive figure is 83 percent. Eighty-three percent of the King James Bible is Tyndale exactly."
According to Mr. Daniell's introduction to the biography, Tyndale as a Reformation theologian "has been at best neglected and at worst twisted out of shape." As a "conscious craftsman" and wordsmith with an ear for the rhythm and poetry of the English language, Mr. Daniell said, Tyndale has "not just been neglected but denied."
Mr. Daniell suggested that the British Library mount the Tyndale exhibition. "Let There Be Light: William Tyndale and the Making of the English Bible" opened in the British Library in September 1994. Visitors saw the exhibition at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., and the New York Public Library. The exhibition's last stop is the Library of Congress, where it will remain until Sept. 6.
One of the Library's first visitors to the Tyndale exhibition was His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip of Great Britain, whom Dr. Billington and LC staff welcomed Friday afternoon, June 6 (see related story).
Two hundred years of Reformation history come to life in narratives provided by the Tyndale exhibition. The cases hold 40 items of the Reformation from LC and the British Library.
This is their story: Between 1,000 B.C. and A.D. 100, there were 66 books of the Bible, written in Hebrew (with some Aramaic) and in Greek. The originals were largely forgotten after the fourth century, when Jerome translated them into Latin. The Latin Vulgate was the standard Bible for nearly 1,000 years.
By 1378 John Wyclif, master of Balliol College, Oxford, was attacking the Roman Catholic Church systematically, and during the 1380s he made two translations of the Vulgate into English. Alarmed at the spread of Wyclif's ideas and translations, Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Arundel in 1408 held a council at Oxford, which decreed that the Bible should be neither translated into English nor read in English.
This rule was in force while Tyndale was studying at Oxford (1506 to at least 1515) and translating during the 1520s-'30s. However, the Bible already was translated from the Latin and circulated on the Continent in six vernacular languages. In 1522 Martin Luther's German translation of the New Testament from the Greek sold so quickly it was printed twice. Sometime during this period, Tyndale translated the humanist scholar Desiderius Erasmus's work, Enchiridion militis christiani, which challenged the Latin Vulgate.
Failing to win the support of Cuthbert Tunstall, Bishop of London, for an English Bible translation, Tyndale arranged with Cologne printer Peter Quentell to print his New Testament in 1525. Drunken printers leaked word to a Catholic writer, whose information reached King Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey, the pope's agent who orchestrated attacks on Lutherans and other reformers until Wolsey's fall in 1530. A raid on the Cologne print shop stopped the presses at Matthew 22, but Tyndale fled up the Rhine. The exhibition includes a fragment of the 1525 translation from the British Library's collections.
One year later, Tyndale finished the New Testament translation in Worms. Mr. Daniell said he believes as many as 6,000 copies of the 1526 edition may have been printed, hidden in bales of cloth, shipped down the Rhine and smuggled into southeastern England. "I think many of them were read to pieces," Mr. Daniell said. Only three known copies remain.
When the Tyndale exhibition opened in 1994, the British Library claimed the only textually complete copy of Tyndale's 1526 New Testament; the title page was missing. St. Paul's Cathedral holds a copy with 71 leaves missing. A third "Stuttgart Copy," included in the exhibition at the Library, was discovered in November 1996, during a Württemberg State Library project to create online records for 16th century holdings. The binding was stamped 1557, but a library employee took the book off the shelf and opened it to discover Tyndale's 1526 copy.
"I always suspected more would be found, so I was not surprised," Mr. Daniell said.
Columbia University Professor David Scott Kastan, who delivered a paper at the Library's June 4 reception, said King Henry VIII condemned Tyndale's translation and ordered "'said corrupt and untrue translations to be burned with further sharp correction and punishment against the keepers and readers of the same.'"
"However, the four-shilling Bibles reached an eager audience whose desire for the scriptures had been left unsatisfied by the government's failed policy of censorship and repression. 'The noyse of the new Bible,' in Tyndale's fine phrase, echoed throughout the country," Mr. Kastan said.
Shocked by the burning of his New Testament and stung by Sir Thomas More's attacks (Henry's chancellor called Tyndale a "beast" and a "hell-hound in the kennel of the devil"), Tyndale wrote sharply against Church corruption and abuses, which had escalated, under Bishop of London John Stokesly, to the burning alive of men and women condemned as heretics. In addition to several short works published in Antwerp, Belgium, Tyndale also translated the first five books of the Bible from Hebrew and Aramaic in 1530 and revised his New Testament in 1534 (Anne Boleyn's copy is in the exhibition).
Needing a divorce from Queen Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn, King Henry broke from the Roman Catholic Church. They were wed secretly in 1533, and the following year Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy (from the LC collections), declaring that the king was the supreme head of the Church of England. In The Practice of Prelates (1530), Tyndale had argued that Henry could not lawfully obtain a divorce; the book angered the king. Nonetheless, through Thomas Cromwell, Henry offered Tyndale safe-conduct home to London in 1531; Tyndale declined. The exhibition includes items relating to these events.
Four years later, Tyndale was betrayed by Henry Phillips in Antwerp and arrested. Before he was executed in 1536 in front of a gathering of secular and clerical authorities, Tyndale was imprisoned for 16 months in the castle of Vilvoorde near Brussels. The exhibition includes a letter (from the British Library), written in his cell, in which he pleads for "winter comforts" -- a warm cap, a new coat, a lamp -- and his Hebrew Bible, grammar and dictionary.
Ms. Fineberg is editor of The Gazette, the Library's staff newspaper.
"Let There Be Light: William Tyndale and the Making of the English Bible" is on view from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday, through Sept. 6 in the Jefferson Building.