I HAVE in my possession a book so small I can easily slip into my jacket pocket, and although it only cost me £20 it is the most precious volume I own.
When it was first published in 1526, it struck panic into the hearts of the establishment of kings and bishops – so much so they decreed that simply possessing the book, or even being present while it was read out loud, would be punishable by burning at the stake.
It is, of course, the New Testament of the Bible translated by William Tyndale, and if I could only take one book with me to a desert island, this would be it.
It is difficult for us in the modern world to fully understand the impact Tyndale’s translation from the original Greek on England of almost 500 years ago.
For centuries, the Bible and its stories and parables were enclosed in Latin – a language largely incomprehensible to ordinary people – and largely confined to the monasteries.
There were a few English Bibles available before 1526 – often painstakingly copied out by hand – but Tyndale’s was the first widely available printed version and was priced so cheaply it was affordable to ordinary people.
Tyndale’s aim was to place the word of God into the hands of every ploughboy in England and he succeeded brilliantly, despite the authorities burning every copy they could lay their hands on.
The book was small to make it easier to smuggle into England and to hide in a pocket or up your sleeve when the authorities came knocking.
The impact of large numbers of people reading the Bible in their own tongue for the first time was profound and long-lasting and sparked a political and spiritual upheaval that transformed England.
One scholar argues that the printing of Tyndale’s Bible was the single most important event in the history of the English Reformation.
It is estimated that 90 per cent of the later King James Version of the Bible, so familiar to Christians today, was “borrowed” from Tyndale’s earlier work.
So the book has deep historical and spiritual interest – but for me its crowning achievement is in its language, which is quite simply the work of sublime genius.
Tyndale eschewed a high-flown literary language in favour of a demotic, everyday style that would have been instantly recognisable to ordinary people.
Sentence structure is simple – object-verb-subject – making even the most demanding and complex theological ideas understandable and approachable.
The result is so vibrant that the words almost dance off the page. Many memorable sayings that have become established as part of our language were newly minted by Tyndale, for example “my brother’s keeper”, “the apple of his eye”, “pour out one’s heart”, “salt of the earth”, “sign of the times”, and “eat, drink and be merry”.
Along with Shakespeare and Chaucer, Tyndale can lay claim as one of the founders of modern English.
My edition of the book, published by the British Library, is with original spellings. Written at a time before spellings were standardised, this takes a bit of getting used to. The trick is to read it out loud and pronounce the words as they are written – and it flows off the tongue beautifully.
Here, for example, St Luke’s account of the Nativity: “And there were in the same region shepherdes abydinge in the felde, and watching their flocke by nyght. And loo: the angell of the lorde stood harde by them, and the brightnes of the lorde shone rounde aboute them, and they were soore afrayed.
“And the angell sayd unto them: Be not afrayed Beholde I brynge you tydinges off great ioye, that shall come to all the people: for unto you is borne this daye in the cite of David a saveoure, which is christ the lorde.”
When I read these words, I imagine that ploughboy Tyndale mentioned reading the passage out loud by the light of the kitchen fire to his family almost 500 years ago.
The words are so familiar to us today, but what would have been the effect on people hearing the story for the first time in their own language? Overwhelming I should think.
Sadly the story did not end happily for Tyndale. He spent much of his life as a fugitive in Germany and the Low Countries, dodging the authorities and persuading printers to produce his works.
He was eventually betrayed by a spy, imprisoned for 18 months and then strangled and burned at the stake near Brussels in 1536.
But his legacy lives on. Through the English Bible he gave ordinary people direct access to the words of God, without the need for intermediaries of church or state.
As the broadcaster Melvyn Bragg put it: “Tyndale’s Bible gave the English people permission to think rather than a duty to believe.”