David Teems. Tyndale: The Man Who Gave God and English Voice. Nashville TN: Nelson, 2012. E-book.
One of the best Young Adult books ever written is Scott O’Dell’s The Hawk that Dare Not Hunt by Day. It is a novel about a boy whose father helps smuggle Tyndale Bibles to England in the 1530s. Tyndale is a mystery figure whom the boy and his father may or may not have seen when on the Continent.
Of course, O’Dell wrote fiction. But it is not easy to write much nonfiction about the life of William Tyndale. There is really nothing concrete until his university days at Oxford where he received his M.A. in 1515. A few secondary sources including Foxe’s Acts and Monuments say that Tyndale was from the country in southwestern England between Gloucester and Bristol. From the time he left England in 1524 or thereabouts until his arrest in 1535, about all we know is that he translated the Bible into English and wrote a few other tracts.
This is Teems’ challenge. We really know very little about the man other than from what writings he left behind. Teems does very well with what he has. He makes few direct claims. Instead, he focuses on Tyndale’s impact.
Some years ago when I was putting together history of the Bible in English lessons for a British Literature class I used to teach, I found a reference to a study that said that the Authorized Version (or King James Version) which became the standard Bible in English for 350+ years was based more on the Tyndale Bible than any other translations. Technically, it was supposed to follow the Bishops’ Bible (1580) but Tyndale came in first.
Teems tells us why. Tyndale wrote in what was typical English idiom. He also coined a number of words, but words with common roots so that an ordinary English speaker could understand. Teems tells us many of the words, two stand out: atonement (simply at-one-ment) and Jehovah. Much of Tyndale’s style was not only clear but sounded good. That is the reason that so many of his phrasings would be used in later versions.
Perhaps even more interesting, Tyndale: The Man Who Gave God an English Voice makes a case that without Tyndale’s Bible setting a standard for English writing—at a time when modern English was a “new tongue” and there was precious little published in the language—there would have been no Shakespeare, no Elizabethan Renaissance, no English Literature as we know it.
Teems also tells us a lot about the one-way rivalry between Thomas More and Tyndale. We do know a lot more about More’s life and letters, so he can document this. Even though More had signed Tyndale’s death warrant, More was actually executed before Tyndale was. Teems is quite fair in his treatment of More. Few inquisitors get such understanding in historical records. He notes, for example, that today the Church of England has days set aside for both Tyndale and More.
We know that the first complete Bible in modern English was the Coverdale Bible which came out in 1535 and was actually made legal in 1537. Miles Coverdale was a disciple of Tyndale, and his book is, in effect, the complete Tyndale Bible. After this, and especially after Elizabeth I took the throne, the English became a “people of the book.” Not only were English-speaking people no matter where they settled primarily Protestant, but they were educated in their Bible, and all the arts alluded to it time and time again, even by those who did not believe in its inspiration.
We know little of Tyndale the man, but we know about his work. Teems would have us believe that is just the way Rev. Tyndale would have wanted it.