You say the Bible has been translated into English more than any other language. Why English?
It's an accident of history in a way. After the Bible was released into English by William Tyndale, English rapidly became the language of the world, and there was this rush to get the Bible into English. Tyndale's was just the first of ten completely different translations or revisions in the next hundred years.
It's also important to remember that the New Testament, which is in Greek, goes very well into English--far better than it goes into Latin. It's partly a question of grammar and syntax, but chiefly it's that Latin prefers nouns and Greek prefers verbs. A Latin sentence has the weight on the nouns, and the Greek sentence has the weight on the verbs. In the first two chapters of Mark's gospel, the verbs are alive and kicking. The writer knows the power of the Greek verbs. Tyndale understood that, and understood that English was very appropriate for that effect.
So Bible translation became an English pursuit.
Right, and one has to remember that for 130 years, England had been the most Catholic country in Europe by far, with an extremely repressive Catholic government. When the freedom came to read the Bible, the backlash was violent--people were burned for reading the Bible and Tyndale was burned for translating it. But also it set up this acute interest in getting it into an English that everyone could read. And everyone did read it. It was the great powerhouse of creative thought in English under Elizabeth.
In fact, you say that Shakespeare's literary feats can be attributed in part to Tyndale's translation.
Tyndale used an English plain style. This was a terrific release. Anybody who had something to say could write, and they did. It was this foundation of great directness that Shakespeare took over. "To be or not to be" is a very simple sentence and "The rest is silence" is completely understandable by anybody. Of course, Shakespeare has on top of that his gigantic imaginative power, which was not Tyndale's interest. He was writing for accuracy and clarity.
Who was Tyndale's audience?
Everybody. He very famously said to a cleric he was debating, "If God spare my life many more years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plough to know more of Scripture than thou doth." The ploughboys did read it, in little books they carried in their pockets. And so also, in the version that became the Geneva Bible in 1660, did the highest clerics. Everybody read it.
It's ironic that the translators of these revered texts were not cheered, but killed for their effort.
Americans find it hard to understand why translating the Bible was such a heresy. The church had the tightest grip in England than any nation in the world, from 1408 to the 1530s. It really was a stranglehold, on thought as well as writing. You weren't to disobey the church and certainly you weren't to think for yourself.
The clerics of the time feared people would use scripture for their own ends. Didn't they have a point, though, since that kind of mischiefmaking happens all the time?
This is very recent in American life. The liberty, the freedom to read the Bible made America. The freedom to think for yourself is the basis for democracy.
The King James Version is the bestselling Bible of all time. Why do we hold the King James in such thrall?
It's a total mystery to me, except that people like something they can worship like that. The King James was originally a political move. England was reclaiming world status against France and they wanted to say, "Look, the Bible was given to the English, and Shakespeare was given to the English and go away everybody else."
The goal was to elevate the Bible. If you look at Geneva Bible, which was England's Bible from 1560 to 1640, the margins are packed with explanatory notes--Romans has more notes than text. All this was cut away in the King James. The margins are bare. The people mustn't have study Bibles. The Bible is something, as the title page says, appointed to be read in churches. It is to be read by the squire to you lot down there.
It was a hugely political move, and it's attracted to itself the sort of myths that that sort of politics tends to get. Afterward, England became a hive of people saying I can do better than that, and even getting published and doing better than that.
The King James became the popular Bible in the new United States as well.
This is another great mystery to ponder: why the founding fathers in 1776 didn't commission their own Bible. The whole story of what Congress thought of the Bible in the first few weeks is a rather puzzling one. They didn't support Robert Aitken, who tried to bring the first mass-produced Bible [in the King James Version] to the United States. He died bankrupt. It wasn't until just after WWII that the attempt was made to make an American translation [the Revised Standard Version]. The first edition was published in 1952, and it was the first great American Bible, and very successful.
What about the efforts to make the Bible easier to read, like the Good News Bible or The Message?
I'm very critical of a lot of what they do. The Message is afraid of upsetting people, which seems to me odd, considering that Christ gave his life on the cross. At the end of 1 Corinthians 13, Paul's great hymn to love, Tyndale says, "Then shall I know even as I am known." It says that love leads to being known, a very profound concept. Peterson has, "It won't be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright." That's near criminal. It's not what the Greek says, and the uplift is completely wrong for Paul. We no longer burn Christians alive, we sell them a New Testament from which God has been removed.
On the other hand, if a truckdriver throws aside a girlie mag for The Good News Bible to get something from it, who am I to criticize?
Which translation would you recommend?
I don't think you can beat the original Tyndale. People keep writing to me to say how modern he is. But if you want a truly modern one, there's also one that's not very well known in America called the Revised English Bible. It came out in the late 1980s. It was the first that had Roman Catholics and Protestants working together on it. Parts of the Old Testament are a bit dodgy, but the New Testament is extremely good.