The Bible's Reformation

Translating the Bible into common language was a cloak-and-dagger enterprise in the 16th century. But the legacy and the language of those efforts endure today.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Each of the two fragile, leather-bound books showcased at The New York Public Library fits easily in the palm of one's hand - surprisingly small for tomes of such importance.

Their histories are dramatic: These faded maroon volumes have spent more than 450 years on the lam. Their translator was burned at the stake for heresy.

Yet their legacy is enduring: On their skin-thin pages are printed some of the most beautiful and most common phrases uttered by English-speakers today.

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The books are the only two complete copies of William Tyndale's 1526 translation of the New Testament that remain. The first English translations from the original Greek, they are displayed together for the first time in a new exhibit, "Let There Be Light: William Tyndale and the Making of the English Bible," at The New York Public Library.

They arrive at a time of rising public interest in spirituality. Numerous religious books have hit the bestseller lists. A variety of Biblical studies are under way independent of any church, such as Bill Moyer's television series on Genesis. Several universities have mounted exhibitions related to the Bible.

These events have "focused a great deal of popular attention on the Bible," says Richard Hays, a New Testament professor at Duke University's divinity school in Durham, N.C. "But," he says, "I think there's always been a great deal of interest in the Bible."

In fact, the library expects the display, which opened Feb. 22, to be a blockbuster. "This should be a major, popular exhibit," says the library's president, Paul LeClerc.

The exhibit highlights the influence the Bibles have had on the English language and literary traditions - reaching well beyond religious study. The words Tyndale chose to tell the story of the gospels are familiar to all English-speakers, religious or not. Phrases such as "signs of the times," "eat, drink, and be merry," and "the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak" all come from Tyndale's work.

"It's behind so much common speech," says Mervyn Jannetta, head of the English Antiquarian Collections at the British Library and co-curator of the New York exhibit. "These words cannot be improved upon - or else why would they have survived?" he asks.

The quality of Tyndale's work was so enduring that a full four-fifths of his translation was copied nearly 100 years later into the King James version of the Bible, the most popular English version.

This fact is even more remarkable when one considers that Tyndale, a Roman Catholic priest, was burned at the stake for his work. Tyndale's mission, as he described it, was to "cause the boy that driveth the plough to know more of the scriptures" than most of the clergy of the day.

Reaching everyman

In the early 1500s, England was far behind the rest of Europe in permitting the Bible to be translated into the vernacular. Tyndale's work was seen by church leaders as a purposeful undermining of church and monarchy authority.

Tyndale fled to Germany after being censured by the Bishop of London. He managed to print only 10 pages of the translation in Cologne before being shut down. Finally, in 1526 in Worms, Tyndale successfully printed 3,000 copies of his English New Testament.

The books were smuggled into England only to be ceremoniously burned. The tension was so high that those who clandestinely owned Tyndale's translation were in danger of imprisonment for years.

After a decade as a refugee in Germany, Tyndale was tricked into arrest and taken to a cell outside Brussels for 16 months. Turned over to the British, he was strangled and his body burned.

It is this struggle behind Tyndale's work that makes the exhibit appealing to Dr. LeClerc. "We don't see this very often today - the kind of risks people took to engage in writing and publishing. We can certainly be reminded by this exhibit what the power of the freedom of expression can be," he says.

The exhibit can also give viewers a sense of the cultural remoteness and history of struggle that have occurred in order for them to have access to today's Bible.

"The value of an exhibit like this might be to help people recognize the staggering cultural distance between the Biblical world and our world," says Duke's Dr. Hays. "It helps people see the process where by the Bible comes through to us as a mediated document. I think that's healthy."

Stirring reformist ideas

The regal, almost religious, setting of the library's Gottesman Hall is well-suited for the exhibit. The marble archways and dark wood-carved ceilings complement the weighty works on display. In addition to the two Tyndale New Testaments, Anne Boleyn's copy of a later Tyndale translation, Martin Luther's 1522 New Testament in German, present-day translations of the Bible, and a letter in Tyndale's hand, written from prison, can be seen.

Along with the books and the quotes are extensive time lines that put Tyndale's life into the political, religious, and cultural context of the 15th century. They show how Tyndale was influenced by the ideals of the Renaissance, as well as his role in stirring reformist tendencies inside and outside the Roman Catholic Church. Tyndale was killed in the same year, for example, that Michelangelo began painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and five years after Henry VIII declared himself head of the Church of England.

The exhibit, with its focus of centuries-old books displayed under glass, reinforces the beauty and viability of written works, LeClerc says.

"The world of information today tends to focus very much on downloading and CD-ROMs," he says. "But Western civilization is based on the book. The Bible is arguably the most fundamental text and book in the world."

* The exhibit will be at the New York Public Library through May 17; then at the Library of Congress in Washington from June 4 to Sept. 6.

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