16TH CENTURY ENGLISH BIBLE: William Tyndale’s Plowboy Reconsidered

Please Support the Bible Translation Work of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

$5.00

APOSTOLIC FATHERS Lightfoot APOSTOLIC FATHERS
LELAND RYKEN (Ph.D., University of Oregon) served as professor of English at Wheaton College for nearly 50 years. He has authored or edited over fifty books, including The Word of God in English and A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible. He is a frequent speaker at the Evangelical Theological Society’s annual meetings and served as literary stylist for the English Standard Version Bible.

This blog article is a historical study.  One of the functions of inquiring into the history of English Bible translation is that it can clarify the essential principles of Bible translation.  When the issues are distanced from us in time, we can see some things more clearly because they are unclouded by contemporary crosswinds.

More important than the clarifying power of distance, though, is the authority that attaches to historical precedents.  This authority may or not be completely valid, but it is a fact that in the current debate between rival translation philosophies an appeal to historical precedents is considered important.  Both literal translators and dynamic equivalent and colloquial translators probe the past to find examples of their own preferred style of translation.

The Current Debate about William Tyndale

It is obvious that we live in a day of debunking.  On the Bible translation scene, advocates of colloquial English Bible translations regularly and rigorously debunk the King James Version.  In turn, it has become common for these debunkers to attempt to drive a wedge between the King James Version and William Tyndale’s translation work nearly a century earlier.

More specifically, the claim is made that the King James translators spoiled Tyndale by refining his style.  Eugene Peterson, the author of The Message, has, of course, led the charge, but he is not alone.  Predictably, the claim is made that Tyndale produced a colloquial translation while the King James translation is elegant.  Peterson claims that the King James translators “desecrated language upwards” [Eat This Book (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2006), 162].

9781949586121 BIBLE DIFFICULTIES THE NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS

The most famous statement that Tyndale made about Bible translation, next to his dying prayer that God would open the king of England’s eyes, is a comment that he made about wanting the plowboy to know the Bible better than the Catholic priests.  I will quote the statement shortly and then analyze it, but as a lead-in to that, I need to note that translators in what I call the “modernizing” camp claim that Tyndale in a single utterance endorsed (1) a colloquial style for an English Bible, (2) an uneducated reader as the assumed audience for an English Bible, and (3) a dynamic equivalent philosophy of translation (buttressed, of course, by a few famous examples from Tyndale’s actual translation).  My thesis in this article is that Tyndale’s plowboy statement has been extravagantly misinterpreted, and that none of the three conclusions I listed in the previous sentence is warranted.

Exactly What Did Tyndale Say?

Tyndale’s plowboy statement is recounted in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.  The context of the statement itself disproves the use to which modernizing translators put it.  Tyndale had uttered the statement before he had even begun his work of translating the Bible.  The occasion of the statement was not Bible translation per se.  Instead, the statement occurred as part of the debate about whether the pope or the Bible is the ultimate authority for religious belief and practice.

Upon graduating from Oxford University, Tyndale returned to his native Gloucestershire and assumed the position as the schoolmaster in the Catholic household of Sir John Walsh.  Tyndale was an early Reformer whose views brought him into heated debates with the local clergy.  Tyndale was appalled at the ignorance of the Catholic clergy.  Additionally, he was convinced of the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura on the question of religious authority.  I propose that these two things, the biblical ignorance of the clergy and the question of biblical authority, are the context for Tyndale’s statement about the plowboy.

4th ed. MISREPRESENTING JESUS The Complete Guide to Bible Translation-2

We can hear these two themes of biblical ignorance among the clergy and the authority of the Bible in the statement that I now quote:

There dwelt not far off a certain doctor, that he been chancellor to a bishop, who had been of old, familiar acquaintance with Master Tyndale, and favored him well; unto whom Master Tyndale went and opened his mind upon divers questions of the Scripture: for to him he durst be bold to disclose his heart. Unto whom the doctor said, “Do you not know that the pope is very Antichrist, whom the Scripture speaketh of? But beware what you say; for if you shall be perceived to be of that opinion, it will cost you your life.”   Not long after, Master Tyndale happened to be in the company of a certain divine, recounted for a learned man, and, in communing and disputing with him, he drove him to that issue, that the said great doctor burst out into these blasphemous words, “We were better to be without God’s laws than the pope’s.” Master Tyndale, hearing this, full of godly zeal, and not bearing that blasphemous saying, replied, “I defy the pope, and all his laws;” and added, “If God spared him life, ere many years he would cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture than he did.”  The grudge of the priests increasing still more and more against Tyndale, they never ceased barking and rating at him, and laid many things sorely to his charge, saying that he was a heretic.

The P52 PROJECT THE NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS 4th ed. MISREPRESENTING JESUS

We should note first what is not going on here.  The statement about the plowboy is not a comment about Tyndale’s preferred style for an English Bible.  It is not a designation of teenage farm boys as a target audience for a niche Bible.  In fact, the account does not even mention translation of the Bible into English.  Foxe’s account makes it clear that the subject of debate at this early stage in Tyndale’s career was the question of papal authority vs. scriptural authority.  When the priest asserted a strong view of papal authority and denigrated the authority of the Bible, Tyndale responded by making an implied case for the Bible as the authority for Christian belief and conduct.  We should not overlook Foxe’s follow-up comment about “the grudge of the priests.”  The plowboy statement is part of a debate with Catholic priests over papal authority, not on the style of an English Bible.

Therefore, what did Tyndale mean in his famous plowboy statement?  First, he implicitly asserted the right of the laity to the Bible.  The plowboy is a representative of the whole of English society.  Tyndale’s statement is not a comment about English style but about how widely Tyndale wanted the English Bible to be disseminated in English society.  Even the humble working class should have access to the Bible.

Secondly, Tyndale was making a statement about how much of the Bible he wanted the laity to know.  His statement, to quote again, is “that he would cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture than [the priest] did.”  The typical priest knew the snatches of Scripture that were embedded in the liturgy, the mass, and choral music, and he would have known it in Latin.

What I most want to challenge is the view that Tyndale was an ally of what I call modernizing and colloquializing English Bibles that have proliferated since the middle of the twentieth century.  Whatever we conclude about Tyndale’s preferred style in an English translation is something we need to deduce from his actual translation, not from his statement about the plowboy.

The Reading Culture of Early Christianity From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts 400,000 Textual Variants 02

Conclusion

Tyndale’s plowboy statement is a virtual Rorschach inkblot [interpretation] in which modern translators sees what they themselves believe about English Bible translation.  In turn, Tyndale is such a towering figure that if one can claim him for one’s side in the translation wars, it is, in fact, a victory.  I submit that Tyndale’s plowboy statement should not be allowed to lend any support whatever to dynamic equivalent and colloquial translations.  Exactly where Tyndale stood on questions of essentially literal vs. dynamic equivalence and dignified vs. colloquial style needs to rest on his actual translation of the Bible.

SCROLL THROUGH DIFFERENT CATEGORIES BELOW

BIBLE TRANSLATION AND TEXTUAL CRITICISM

4th ed. MISREPRESENTING JESUS The Complete Guide to Bible Translation-2
The Reading Culture of Early Christianity From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts 400,000 Textual Variants 02
The P52 PROJECT THE NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS 4th ed. MISREPRESENTING JESUS
APOSTOLIC FATHERS Lightfoot APOSTOLIC FATHERS
English Bible Versions King James Bible KING JAMES BIBLE II
9781949586121 BIBLE DIFFICULTIES THE NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS

BIBLICAL STUDIES / INTERPRETATION

CALVINISM VS. ARMINIANISM
How to Interpret the Bible-1 INTERPRETING THE BIBLE how-to-study-your-bible1
israel against all odds ISRAEL AGAINST ALL ODDS - Vol. II

EARLY CHRISTIANITY

THE LIFE OF JESUS CHRIST by Stalker-1 The TRIAL and Death of Jesus_02 THE LIFE OF Paul by Stalker-1
THE LIFE OF Paul by Stalker-1 Paul PAUL AND LUKE ON TRIAL
APOSTOLIC FATHERS Lightfoot APOSTOLIC FATHERS I AM John 8.58

CHRISTIAN APOLOGETIC EVANGELISM

THE NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS
The Epistle to the Hebrews PAUL AND LUKE ON TRIAL
REASONING FROM THE SCRIPTURES APOLOGETICS CONVERSATION EVANGELISM
AN ENCOURAGING THOUGHT_01
Young Christians
INVESTIGATING JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES REVIEWING 2013 New World Translation
Jesus Paul THE EVANGELISM HANDBOOK
REASONING FROM THE SCRIPTURES REASONING WITH OTHER RELIGIONS APOLOGETICS
REASONABLE FAITH
REASONABLE FAITH FEARLESS-1
Satan BLESSED IN SATAN'S WORLD_02 HEROES OF FAITH - ABEL
is-the-quran-the-word-of-god UNDERSTANDING ISLAM AND TERRORISM THE GUIDE TO ANSWERING ISLAM.png
DEFENDING OLD TESTAMENT AUTHORSHIP Agabus Cover BIBLICAL CRITICISM
Mosaic Authorship HOW RELIABLE ARE THE GOSPELS
THE CREATION DAYS OF GENESIS gift of prophecy

TECHNOLOGY

9798623463753 Machinehead KILLER COMPUTERS
INTO THE VOID

CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY

Why Me_ Explaining the Doctrine of the Last Things Understaning Creation Account
Homosexuality and the Christian second coming Cover Where Are the Dead
CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY Vol. CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY Vol. II CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY Vol. III
CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY Vol. IV CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY Vol. V MIRACLES
Human Imperfection HUMILITY

CHILDREN’S BOOKS

READ ALONG WITH ME READ ALONG WITH ME READ ALONG WITH ME

PRAYER

Powerful Weapon of Prayer Power Through Prayer How to Pray_Torrey_Half Cover-1

TEENS-YOUTH-ADOLESCENCE-JUVENILE

THERE IS A REBEL IN THE HOUSE thirteen-reasons-to-keep-living_021 Waging War - Heather Freeman
 
Young Christians DEVOTIONAL FOR YOUTHS 40 day devotional (1)
Homosexuality and the Christian THE OUTSIDER RENEW YOUR MIND

CHRISTIAN LIVING

GODLY WISDOM SPEAKS Wives_02 HUSBANDS - Love Your Wives
 
WALK HUMBLY WITH YOUR GOD THE BATTLE FOR THE CHRISTIAN MIND (1)-1 WAITING ON GOD
ADULTERY 9781949586053 PROMISES OF GODS GUIDANCE
APPLYING GODS WORD-1 For As I Think In My Heart_2nd Edition Put Off the Old Person
Abortion Booklet Dying to Kill The Pilgrim’s Progress
WHY DON'T YOU BELIEVE WAITING ON GOD WORKING FOR GOD
 
YOU CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE Let God Use You to Solve Your PROBLEMS THE POWER OF GOD
HOW TO OVERCOME YOUR BAD HABITS-1 GOD WILL GET YOU THROUGH THIS A Dangerous Journey
ARTS, MEDIA, AND CULTURE Christians and Government Christians and Economics

CHRISTIAN COMMENTARIES

Book of Philippians Book of James Book of Proverbs Book of Esther
CHRISTIAN DEVOTIONALS
40 day devotional (1) Daily Devotional_NT_TM Daily_OT
DEVOTIONAL FOR CAREGIVERS DEVOTIONAL FOR YOUTHS DEVOTIONAL FOR TRAGEDY
DEVOTIONAL FOR YOUTHS 40 day devotional (1)

CHURCH ISSUES, GROWTH, AND HISTORY

LEARN TO DISCERN Deception In the Church FLEECING THE FLOCK_03
The Church Community_02 THE CHURCH CURE Developing Healthy Churches
FIRST TIMOTHY 2.12 EARLY CHRISTIANITY-1

Apocalyptic-Eschatology [End Times]

Explaining the Doctrine of the Last Things Identifying the AntiChrist second coming Cover
ANGELS AMERICA IN BIBLE PROPHECY_ ezekiel, daniel, & revelation

CHRISTIAN FICTION

Oren Natas_JPEG Sentient-Front Seekers and Deceivers
Judas Diary 02 Journey PNG The Rapture

One thought on “16TH CENTURY ENGLISH BIBLE: William Tyndale’s Plowboy Reconsidered

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: