Just as reading a familiar text in translation can be eye-opening – forcing you to think about the meaning, rather than skating along familiar phrases – so reading these gospels in Tyndale's 16th-century English gave me a completely fresh take on the story they tell.
And there can't be many books that benefit more from a fresh approach than the gospels. I'm not a religious person, but I think anyone of my generation and background knows most of what happens here inside-out, and not just the narrative facts but the specific words they're couched in. So what's been surprising to me, reading this, is how new a lot of it seemed when told a different way – and even more, how clearly I formed a view about what I was being told. Suddenly, reading these stories in context and in a suitably archaic language, I found myself coming to firm conclusions about things that I've previously glossed over or been undecided on.
Take the Last Supper for example, where Jesus hands out bread and wine to his disciples and tells them it's his body and blood, unwittingly prompting a future Reformation conflict over whether or not he was speaking literally. Now I have never believed that Jesus's actual body and blood are imbibed by modern worshippers, but I suppose I always thought there was reasonable scriptural basis to think so. But actually, when I got to this passage here in the gospels, it seemed totally clear to me that he was talking in figurative terms.
And he toke breed, and gave thankes, and brake itt, and gave it unto them, sayinge: Thys is my body which is geven for you, Thys do in the remembraunce of me. Lyke-wyse alsoo, when they had supped, he toke the cuppe sayinge: This is the cuppe, the newe testamentt, in my bloud, which shall for you be shedde.
Certainly if he was
suddenly speaking literally, it would be a first – he's spent the whole rest of his life, on the evidence here, talking in parables and riddles (‘similitudes’, as Tyndale calls them). That's one of the things that can make him a bit annoying, in fact – the knowing way he always refuses to give anyone a straight answer about anything.
Jesus is not easy to get to know. Like someone from an Icelandic saga, actions and words are attributed to him, but very few thoughts or emotions. We know what he does and says, but we're only given odd clues about what his motives are or what he feels about it. I find this technique quite rewarding, because it invites (or forces) the reader to fill in a lot of the blanks – you have to read the gospels ‘actively’.
Jesus's central message of personal redemption is fascinating, and revolutionary in all senses. But that doesn't stop him being a bit smug about how he delivers it. There's something great about his relentlessly anti-rich, anti-authority stance, but he does seem to rather relish telling the well-off that unless they get rid of everything they own they won't be getting into heaven. And even when his disciples say: well what about us, we gave everything up to follow you – Jesus just says, in effect, really? Well, you still love your mum and dad, don't you? Unless you give up your family and loved ones, you won't be true believers either.
Which I can't help feeling is a bit unfair.
At times he can be downright disturbing. The story of Lazarus now strikes me as very troubling. Lazarus's sister Martha at first seems quite with-it – she understands who Jesus is straight away, and even seems ready, for once, to understand his way of talking in parables.
Jesus sayde unto her: Thy brother shall ryse agayne. Martha sayde unto hym: I knowe wele, he shall ryse agayne in the resurreccion att the last daye. Jesus sayde unto her: I am the resurreccion and lyfe. Whosoever beleveth on me: ye though he were deed, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth, and beleveth on me, shall never deye. Belevest thou this?
Once again Jesus wrong-foots his interlocutor – this time he's NOT talking in parables, he's being quite serious! And so, in a creepily realistic passage, they go to the tomb and Jesus resurrects a four-day-old corpse because the man's sister had faith.
What on earth are we supposed to think of this? Why this particular man and no one else? What about all the others who had faith? And how long will Lazarus be alive before he dies again, this time for good? There are no answers to this.
But while Jesus can sometimes seem a slightly alien presence, he did come alive for me in one passage which I'd never really thought about before. Towards the end, in an episode narrated by Matthew, Mark and Luke, he wanders off alone to pray and asks two or three of his disciples to wait up for him. When he comes back a couple of hours later, they're all asleep. Jesus is annoyed, and wakes them up: ‘Coudest thou not watche with me one houre?’ So they get up, and Jesus goes back to pray again. And at this point he knows he's about to be betrayed and crucified; he's terrified, he's actually praying to god that it might turn out some other way, that there might be some other ending where he gets to live. He needs human companionship; for the first time you feel that he actually needs the disciples, rather than just assuming that they need him.
But when he gets back, the three of them have nodded off again. And you expect him to be angry, but he's not. He suddenly seems very sad and exhausted.
And he returned and founde them aslepe agayne, for their eyes were hevy: nether coulde they tell what they myght answere to hym. And he cam the thyrde tyme, and sayd unto them: slepe hens forth and take youre ease. It is ynough.
And it's at this moment that he looks up and sees Judas approaching at the head of a legion of soldiers.
Moments like this are a reminder of the extraordinary literary qualities of these books. And if the archaic language allows you to concentrate on the meaning, rather than the poetry, of these stories, that does not mean that Tyndale's translation is unpoetic – quite the reverse. This is especially noticeable in the book attributed to John. While the three synoptic gospels are fascinating historical documents, John is in a different class; it's a literary masterpiece. Tyndale raises his game to translate it, and in the process produces much of the astonishing prose for which the King James version usually takes the credit.
In the begynnynge was that worde, and that worde was with god: and god was thatt worde. The same was in the begynnynge wyth god. All thynges were made by it, and without it, was made noo thinge, that made was. In it was lyfe, And lyfe was the light of men, And the light shyneth in darcknes, and darcknes comprehended it not.
It makes perfect sense for John to be last of the four. By the end of Luke you're getting a bit irritated at reading the same things over and over – then suddenly you have this poetic summation of everything that's gone before.
In some ways Tyndale's language made more sense to me than modern English, as a way of understanding such a distant culture. And it certainly doesn't stop some moments seeming remarkably modern. I love it when someone runs up to Nathaniel to say: hey, we've found the Messiah, some guy called Jesus, from Nazareth!
And Nathanaell sayde unto hym: Can there be eny goode thynge come out off Nazareth?
…exactly as someone today might react if you told them the Messiah had been found, alive and well in Hull.
I don't know if it changed my views on the modern religion, but reading Tyndale did change my views on the historical Jesus and the ideals prized by early Christians. Jesus's ideas raise some serious issues, and his lack of respect for authority still seems challenging. But in the end his central idea was to promote love.
A newe commaundment geve I vnto you, that ye love to gedder, as I have loved you, that even soo ye love one another. By thys shall men knowe that ye are my disciples, yf ye shall have love won to another.
There are worse things to base a religion on.