Preface: The Making of the New Matthew Bible



Ruth Magnusson Davis

“HERE thou hast (most dear reader) the new testament or covenant made with us of God in Christ’s blood.” With these words, William Tyndale introduced his New Testament in 1534. Now, almost five centuries later, you have in hand, dear reader, his testament again, which I have updated as truly as I could in order to bring to light its full meaning, long obscured by the dusts of linguistic change.

When Tyndale introduced his New Testament, he included personal observations, and he also explained how he approached his work. I must do the same here, not because I claim any sort of equality with him, but so that readers may understand who I am, why I have undertaken this work, and how I have approached it. However, I would ask that people judge this work not by me, but by the fruit itself – the scriptures. For our Lord has told us to test the fruit.

Many people have asked if I would have undertaken the New Matthew Bible Project if I had known how much would be involved. The answer is ‘yes.’ Though admittedly I did not fully appreciate what it would require, and was apprehensive, I couldn’t not do it; woe it is to me if I cannot work on the New Matthew Bible! This October Testament, the first fruits of ten years of labour – over six years full time – is therefore reaped with joy.

Why October Testament? It is, of course, a name reminiscent of Martin Luther’s September Testament, and follows after. October is a time of harvest. It is also a month of milestones: in October the 1549 Matthew Bible was published; my copy is dated “the last day of October.” It also happened to be the last day of October when I completed my work with the Matthew scriptures. It was October 31, 1517, when Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the church door in Wittenberg, the event that sparked the Reformation. It was in October that Miles Coverdale published his 1535 bible, which John Rogers and I have both drawn upon. More personally, it was October 5 that I experienced the new birth, and it was October 6 that Tyndale is believed to have died – a synchronicity that reflects the calling I have felt to take up his legacy. I have also considered that October is a month which marks the approach of the end of the year, and the state of the world now leads me to wonder if this Testament marks the approach of the end of the age.

I am a simple, bible believing, born again Christian. I was granted faith as an adult, passing from death to life in the power of the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the gospel. After many years of seeking, I found life in the Lord Jesus and received divine love and forgiveness – though I little understood at the time what it all meant. This babe knew only that Jesus was the answer to her long search. How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed! Then after more seeking, now in the various branches of Christendom, I discovered the Reformation liturgy of Thomas Cranmer, and have been confirmed in the traditional Anglican Church. I find in Cranmer’s Communion service (still used in traditional congregations, but also about ready to die if we do not strengthen it) that which is biblical, needful, and beautiful for corporate worship. Without any doubt, good liturgy offers protection from the devices and imaginations of men.

I practised law for 28 years before I retired to work full time on the New Matthew Bible Project. Though one ought not to place too much emphasis upon it, nonetheless it is true that legal studies and practice hone one’s analytical and research skills. Before law school, I obtained an undergraduate degree in French and German, and through this learned that I love language and grammar. But in the end, it is the strong calling I have felt to do this work, my love of God’s word and his people, and his amazing provision, which have set me on this path. After many years of reading different bible versions, I remained dissatisfied – something was missing, something was not right – until I found, first Tyndale, thanks to David Daniell’s modern spelling editions of his translations, and then Coverdale’s Old Testament in the Matthew Bible, by which time I had taught myself to read early modern English. I realized then that the world needed to have their translations again.

My guiding principle in the updating of the Matthew scriptures has been, not to make a modern bible from an old one, but to keep as much of the old as possible while making the language understandable for today. I explain in “The Importance of the Matthew Bible” that not only is divine truth here richly to be found, but also inspired language, the language of the faith, which the Holy Spirit can and does use. But eccentric spelling, together with syntax and grammar that obscure the meaning, must be updated. Obsolete words and expressions (advoutry, assoil, mete, sith, leasing, arede, be aknown of, by times) must be replaced. Words that have changed or narrowed in meaning (conceits, measure, tyrant, nephew, worm, meat, riot, multitude, despise, tempt, know, rejoice, improve, increase, declare, show, open, utter, fret, bid, go, remove, divide, creep, study, obey, nurture, natural, honest, comely, lewd, ghostly, single, expedient, and so on) need to be replaced where they confuse or mislead.

But where no real modern equivalent was available or seemed fitting, I kept certain words that with regular reading we may come to understand more fully in their biblical sense, such as ‘edify’ (support, build up, strengthen, inform), and also ‘doctrine,’ ‘minister,’ ‘reward,’ ‘earnest’ (in “the earnest of the Spirit” – ‘deposit’ seemed crass), ‘tongue’ (for language), and the phrase ‘respect of persons.’ In places I have explained the early modern and biblical use in marginal notes. Then again, rather whimsically and inconsistently, in a few passages I kept Tyndale’s nomenclature, as in ‘Zache’ for Zacharius, and ‘son Timotheus’ for Timothy; also occasionally ‘ye’ and ‘thou.’ In this I was moved by a love for the old English that I am confident my readers will share.

I also selectively kept archaic constructions, such as “be not” for “do not be,” constrained both by custom and by the euphony of rhythm (Be not afraid; also, let not your hearts be troubled). I kept “You shall call his name John,” and similar manners of speech which, though not idiomatic English, are biblical and understandable. In certain contexts, however, I emended words that have pejorated, such as ‘fool’ and ‘filthy,’ which carry an offense that was uncharacteristic when Tyndale used them.

Readers will notice that I selectively retained the preposition ‘unto.’ This word is within the passive competence of most, if not all, native English speakers, and expresses some concepts in a way that no modern preposition can. It is now almost exclusively within the province of Christian parlance, and there it shall remain in the New Matthew Bible. I have also kept ‘beseech,’ ‘brethren,’ ‘heathen,’ ‘the flesh,’ and ‘Abraham’s seed.’

I have retained some of Tyndale’s own translations that were not taken up in the KJV, such as ‘congregation’ to translate the Greek ecclesia (concerning which, please see the Supplement at the back of the October Testament). I have kept ‘similitude’ for ‘parable,’ and also ‘sweet bread,’ a rendering of peculiar beauty and expressiveness taken from Luther, where others generally have ‘unleavened bread.’ Tyndale saw leaven as souring the dough (1 Corinthians 5), and therefore speaks of how believers should be: “the sweet bread of pureness and truth.”

Of course, I consulted other translations as I went. My favourites are Wycliffe of 1380 and ‘Matthew’s’ contemporaries, Coverdale of 1535 and the Great Bible. In not a few places I updated from Coverdale. He translated more freely than Tyndale, often to good effect, and sometimes used more contemporary language. For example, at 2 Corinthians 12:10, where Tyndale had, “Therefore have I delectation in infirmities,” I went with Coverdale and put “Therefore I am content in infirmities.” I also sometimes updated from Wycliffe’s 1380 translation. An example is at Hebrews 9:27, where Tyndale had that “it is appointed unto men that they shall once die.” I followed Wycliff (as others also did) with “it is appointed unto men once to die.” It is a joy to remember the great men of God in this way. I also followed Wycliffe at 1 Corinthians 2:2, making Paul to say here that he knew nothing amongst the Corinthians “except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” The KJV followed Wycliffe also, and this wording, which expresses necessary truth succinctly and powerfully, has become proverbial. I believe Tyndale would approve of this emendment.

I have studied early modern English grammar and language as well as modern grammar. I have consumed early modern English texts, tracking word usages and patterns. I have read and re-read everything I could get my hands on from Tyndale and Coverdale, which has not only enabled me to learn their English, but also their theology, confirming that we are fundamentally in accord, which is how it must be.

With the online Oxford English Dictionary (“OED”) as my chief resource, but with reference also to Cawdrey’s little 16th century dictionary, Johnson, the Crystals’ glossary of Shakespearean words, and my own notes, I have developed over 2,000 individual word studies. In these I separate and record the definitions for each questionable word in three categories. The first is meanings that were current in the early 16th century, but are now obsolete. These must be updated. The second category is meanings that arose later, and so could not have been intended by the authors of the Matthew Bible; these I must be careful not to read into their writing. The third category is meanings current then and now; these I can of course keep where appropriate. Thus I have developed my own form of Early Modern English Dictionary, customized for this work, which comprises about eight feet of binders behind my desk.

My ‘dictionary’ also incorporates reference to the Greek; I used Strong’s Concordance, Jay Green’s Greek text with interlinear English, and certain other resources, to identify and record all Greek words or combinations of words that were translated by the English words or phrases under study. As time went on I looked for patterns, and often went back to revisit earlier decisions. When I get to the Old Testament, God willing, I will do the same with the Hebrew.

The OED, though an amazing resource, is not entirely exhaustive, nor could I expect it to be. Sometimes it misses earlier word usages, showing a later date than is accurate for the use or appearance of a word in English, or for a seme of that word (that is, one meaning or use of it as distinguished from others). Sometimes it mis-attributes Tyndale’s or Coverdale’s uses. Also, many entries have not been updated since the late 1800s, and are now out of date, showing as current certain words or semes that are now obsolete or obsolescent. I have tracked these items, in part with a view to submitting them to the OED, and have noted up my own word studies accordingly.

A significant feature of early modern English is the polysemy of words; that is, words had multiple meanings (poly- many; semes- meanings) – much more so than today. When a word has many semes or meanings, we say that it ‘shows polysemy.’ The early modern English vocabulary was much smaller than ours today, and words typically showed great polysemy, so that one word was used to express thoughts for which we now use more and narrower words.

An example is the noun ‘mansion,’ which once not only meant a large or stately house, but could refer to almost anything that served as a dwelling, including a tent, and was also used to refer to stopping places in a journey. Clearly ‘mansion’ said to our ancestors something quite different than it now says to us at John 14:2: “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” We are familiar with this verse because the KJV followed Tyndale here. But the KJV preferred ‘house’ at 2 Corinthians 5:1-2, where Tyndale again had ‘mansion’ in an obsolete seme:

We know surely if our earthy mansion wherein we now dwell were destroyed, that we have a building ordained of God, an habitation not made with hands, but eternal in heaven. And herefore sigh we, desiring to be clothed with our mansion which is from heaven…

As I progressed with my work, I realized that often the words of early modern English and of biblical Greek showed similar polysemy. The two languages were a ‘fit,’ inasmuch as their vocabularies were roughly the same size and their words tended to multiple semes – sometimes sharing the same semes, as with the Greek verb skandalizo and the English verb ‘offend.’ Was therefore the 16th century English mind, naturally polysemic, as it were, better equipped to understand biblical Greek than is the modern mind, which is accustomed to markedly greater precision of linguistic thought? Might our modern approach to words and word use handicap a right understanding of ancient Greek? Perhaps we see here God’s timing in choosing the early 1600s to open his word to the world in English, and also the value of mining the translations of Tyndale and Coverdale for their treasures.

With word polysemy comes a range of possibility, nuance, and intensity that is unfamiliar to moderns. ‘Despise’ to Tyndale might mean neglect, hate, or anything or everything in between. Therefore it is necessary now either to find the narrower word that is right in the context, or a way to convey the polysemy of the early word, for example by using two words, if that is right. But some loss in understanding is inevitable, because we just don’t use words the same way any more.

I have also developed grammar studies. One absorbing review was of the English auxiliary verbs ‘should’ and ‘might’ in that-clauses of purpose and result. I almost always updated these. For example at John 16:4 Jesus said to his disciples, “These things I have told you, that when that hour is come, ye might remember.” I updated to: “I have told you these things so that when that hour comes, you may remember them.”

Readers may notice my pronomic emendation. For example, I sometimes name the subjects of verbs where Tyndale had the pronouns ‘he,’ ‘she,’ or ‘they.’ I did this if the antecedent was not immediately apparent. At Luke 9:53 I put “But the Samaritans would not receive him” for “they would not.” Greek verbs are inflected to show person and number, and the subject is often omitted, being silently understood. Naming the subject rather than using a pronoun as Tyndale did does not add to or change the meaning, but only clarifies. It is another way to render the text colloquially, and twenty centuries later we sometimes need the extra clarity.

Also concerning pronouns, where it seemed important I sought unobtrusive ways to indicate number in the 2nd person, since English has lost that distinction with the loss of ‘thee’ and ‘thou.’ An example is Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, where he switches from the singular ‘thou’ at John 3:10 to the plural ‘ye’ at verses 11 and 12. It seemed only right not to implicate Nicodemus, or at least not him alone, as one who did not receive Jesus’ witness of heavenly things. ‘Beloved’ also becomes ‘beloveds’ in the October Testament when Paul is addressing a group, since our 2nd person pronouns do not provide contextual clues to number.

I followed the Matthew scriptures in omitting quotation marks, which were not then in use. If I thought the lack might affect comprehension, I found a way to compensate. As in Matthew, capitalization is minimal. Numbers, especially large ones, are usually but not always rendered in numerals; in Matthew, they were usually but not always in Roman numerals. Sometimes for formatting reasons I used the sign ‘&’ instead of ‘and,’ which the printers of the Matthew Bible also did. Readers may discover minor inconsistencies here and there, which is as it was in Matthew, and ought to be considered part of the character of the work, especially considering that it is largely the labour of one person.

Terms and measures peculiar to 16th century British English have where appropriate been emended by the use of the original words translated or transliterated, such as ‘denarius’ or ‘talent’ where Tyndale might have used ‘pence’ or ‘farthing’ (and I have added a few glosses to explain their monetary value). Where Tyndale used ‘Easter’ and ‘Whitsuntide,’ I have used ‘Passover’ and ‘Pentecost,’ now universally appreciated for the Jewish feasts that they were, being types and shadows of the Christian feasts to come.

There are two opposite and equal risks in a work such as this. One is to update too much. The other is to miss a ‘faux friend’; that is, a word or phrase we know today, but which is used in an obsolete seme; as seen above, there are many of these in the Matthew Bible. For example, the verb ‘will,’ usually used now as an auxiliary verb to indicate future tense, then often meant ‘want’ or ‘desire.’ At Luke 13:31 Tyndale had, “Depart hence, for Herod will kill thee,” meaning “wants to kill you.” Paul called Timothy his “natural son,” not at all meaning it as we might understand it; we know from Acts 16:1 that Timothy was the natural son of a Greek man. The noun ‘tradition’ once had stronger force, meaning not so much something that is customary, but rather required by precept. I felt this needed to be updated, being often misunderstood today. And ‘acquaintance’ once meant a close friend, but now it means more nearly the opposite: someone who, though known to us, could not really be called a friend. The phrase ‘once for all’ did not mean to Tyndale ‘once for everybody,’ as it might appear in Hebrews where we learn about Jesus offering himself ‘once for all.’ It meant ‘on one occasion only,’ a seme we now express with the phrase ‘once and for all’ – which modern phrase, according to the OED, did not begin to supplant the old one until early in the 19th century.

I of course have needed also to look at punctuation, syntax, negations, conjunctions, conditional sentences, articles, and so on – including one of my favourite studies, ellipsis with the pronoun ‘that’ (as in “I am that I am”, which I have written about elsewhere). But I risk becoming tedious.

I have done my best, with constant prayers for guidance, but cannot have succeeded perfectly in avoiding all error, especially working alone as I have done for the most part – not only in my studies and work with the scriptures, which have been all consuming, but also innumerable reviews and checking, and then page layout and the other tasks associated with self-publishing, not to mention maintaining the website, creating an order page, etc. It has been more than full time work. Yet I do not complain, but only explain, and also rejoice. And so I close with a promise like Tyndale’s own of many years ago: if I perceive or learn that anything has escaped me, or could be better done, I will cause it to be amended as soon as I can – namely, God willing, when the complete New Matthew Bible is published.

Ruth Magnusson Davis (October 2015)