In his editions of Tyndale's Bible and a biography in 1994, David Daniell leaves no doubt about the significance of William Tyndale, a Protestant who was condemned as a heretic, strangled, and burned outside Brussels in 1536. His crime? He translated the Bible into English.
Opening Tyndale's Bible one experiences déjà vu. What sounds typical and original in the King James Version, published decades after Tyndale's death, came from Tyndale: "Let there be light"; "Fight the good fight"; "the spirit is willing." The list is very long and the point beyond dispute: Tyndale is the master of the English Bible.
This is the central fact of Daniell's monumental study, "The Bible in English." The author would have held his own on Chaucer's pilgrimage. This book is full of tales told with bracing gusto. Indeed, Daniell often reveals motives deeper than the stories themselves.
The main story has a hard certainty for Daniell: It all begins with Tyndale. Before Tyndale, "the Word had almost disappeared," he writes. Tyndale's translations not only put the "word" in the hands of ordinary people (he said it was intended for the "ploughboy"), his work gave them a taste of freedom from poverty and illness "with glorious new and energetic energy."
It's as if modern subjectivity, the feeling of individual selfhood, came with the reading of Tyndale's testaments. The immediacy of the early English Bible helps explain the "biblical cast of mind" in which "the daily lives of the settlers were felt to be part of a large cosmic process, a sense of destiny which still governs American thought."
For Daniell, the most popular English translation, the so-called Authorized King James Version, is, compared to Tyndale, distant and even obscure. Though much of the phrasing goes back to Tyndale, the "sonorous, orotund, high-sounding" pitch of the KJV is a betrayal of the spirit of Tyndale, he claims.
Daniell shows in detail how and why this "worshipful distance" was achieved. He condescends to find "the hand of God" in some parts of KJV, but for him it represents a lost opportunity. In the last pages, he fulminates against those who consider the KJV the very word of God.
The 20th century saw well over 1,000 new translations (and at least five "important" ones since World War II), most of them claiming to be more vivid and compelling than the KJV. Daniell has it both ways: He shows, on the one hand, the persistent popularity of the Bible and, on the other, how Tyndale remains unparalleled in eloquence.
There are complications, of course, and Daniell considers them carefully. Take The New English Bible, for example. When it came to the "beatitude" unhappily translated by Tyndale (and echoed by the KJV) as "Blessed are the poor in spirit," the first edition of the NEB had the truly pathetic "How blest are they that know that they are poor." Daniell goes on to point out that in a later edition, the NEB refused to merely translate the Greek but offered "an inspired reflection of the sense": "How blest are those who know their need of God."
For Daniell, that is the issue at all times: our "need of God." In the end, he suggests that the "future of the Bible in English" lies not in easy communication of easily grasped feelings but "proper rigor, even harshness, an avoidance of meal in the mouth, the embracing of difficulty."
Separating Daniell's sometimes harsh style from the hard certainties of what he calls "biblical consciousness" may not be possible, or even desirable. The articulate vehemence of "The Bible in English" provides a rousing retelling of these grand stories.
• Thomas D'Evelyn is an editorial consultant in Providence, R.I.