Tyndale Versus More in the Book of Mormon

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In 1526 William Tyndale’s English-language The New Testament started showing up in England, printed in the Low Lands and smuggled into England because it was an illegal book. It represented an unapproved translation of the scriptures into the English language. In theory, a translation would have been allowed if the Church had approved it in advance. In reality, the Church was not interested in any translation of the scriptures since that would allow lay readers to interpret the scriptures on their own and to come to different conclusions regarding Church practices and doctrine. Moreover, scripture formed a fundamental role in the rise of the Protestant Reformation and, in particular, Lutheranism, which King Henry VIII had officially opposed, in the governing of his realm and in his own writings in defense of the Catholic Church (for which the Church had honored him with the title of Defender of the Faith).

Tyndale’s translation was vigorously attacked by Sir Thomas More, the King’s minister and counselor (and later chancellor), in his Dialogue, published in 1528. (Today this work of More’s is generally referred to as Dialogue concerning Heresies, but that was not its original title.) More not only attacked Tyndale for his supposed Lutheranism but also for how he had translated the Greek original into English in his 1526 New Testament. In part III, section 8 of Dialogue, More argues against Tyndale’s 1526 translations of ecclesia as ‘congregation’, presbyteros as ‘senior’, and agape as ‘love’. Near the end of this section, More also mentions his disapproval of Tyndale referring to ‘penance’ as ‘repentance’. In his later translation of the New Testament [Page 2](1534), Tyndale adopted ‘elder’ for presbyteros, which More had nonetheless ridiculed in his Dialogue, giving the argument that “elders” in the New Testament were not necessarily old. In More’s view, these “elders” were priests, even though the Latin word in the Vulgate was either the Greek loanword presbyter or the Latin senior. In all these cases, the New Testament never used the Greek or Latin word for ‘priest’ (hieros or sacerdos). And the argument over ‘penance’ later became one of whether the Greek verb for ‘repent’, metanoeo, should be translated as ‘repent’ or as the more Catholic ‘do penance’, from the Vulgate (paenitentiam ago).

The Protestant Reformation adopted much of Tyndale’s terminology, as in, for instance, the names of churches: the Presbyterian Church in Scotland and the Congregational Church in New England. This tradition continues in the use of synonyms for congregation in church names, such as “the Assembly of God” and “the Community of Christ”. Throughout the 1500s and early 1600s, we can see a tug of war over which of all these debated terms would end up in the English Bible. By the time we get to the 1611 King James Bible (KJB), the translation issues that Thomas More viciously attacked William Tyndale over were settled as follows: (1) love is used throughout except in the latter part of the New Testament where charity is sometimes used in place of love, chiefly in the letters of Paul; (2) church is used for both the general organization and the individual congregation, with the reader determining which meaning is meant in any given passage; (3) elder is used for the church office, not priest; and (4) repent is used throughout, never the Catholic do penance.

In reviewing these decisions in the King James Bible, we can see that some deference is paid to More in the epistles with the use of charity rather than love in certain phrases (thus “faith hope charity” in 1 Corinthians 13:13), otherwise the New Testament word is love, Tyndale’s word, especially in the gospels where even the Vulgate has amo ‘love’ (thus “lovest thou me” in John 21). For sure, More wins with the word church; the Protestant congregation is avoided, although one can tell from [Page 3]context which meaning for church is intended. But Tyndale wins with elder and repent. (The word priest occurs in referring to the Jewish priests, but not as an office in the Christian church.)

In the following summary, I set out the history of these four words for certain key New Testament passages. We see for selected translations how the original Greek and the secondary Latin (the Vulgate) ended up in the English Bible in the 1500s and early 1600s. I also provide a modern translation from the 1989 Revised English Bible (REB), which has been approved by both the Catholic Church and Protestant churches for use in the British Isles. Even the Catholics have now accepted the King James translation of all these terms.

The Debate Over the Four Words in the 1500s and 1600s

(1) agape ‘love’ versus ‘charity’ (from the Latin caritas)

in the epistles, the Rheims New Testament
and the King James Bible use charity as well as love

1 Corinthians 13:13

Tyndale NT 1526 now abideth faith hope

and love

Tyndale NT 1534 now abideth faith hope

and love

Geneva Bible 1560 and now abideth faith hope

and love

Rheims NT 1582 and now there remain faith

hope and charity

KJB 1611 and now abideth faith hope

charity

REB 1989 there are three things that last

for ever : faith hope

and love

in the gospels, all use love, never charity

[Page 4]Matthew 22:39

Tyndale NT 1526 thou shalt love thine neighbor

as thyself

Tyndale NT 1534 love thine neighbor

as thyself

Geneva Bible 1560 thou shalt love thy neighbor

as thyself

Rheims NT 1582 thou shalt love thy neighbor

as thyself

KJB 1611 thou shalt love thy neighbor

as thyself

REB 1989 love your neighbor

as yourself

(2) ecclesia ‘congregation’ versus ‘church’

(3) presbyteros ‘elder, senior’ versus ‘priest’

Acts 15:4

Tyndale NT 1526 they were received

of the congregation and

of the apostles

and seniors

Tyndale NT 1534 they were received

of the congregation and

of the apostles and elders

Geneva Bible 1560 they were received

of the church and

of the apostles and elders

Rheims NT 1582 they were received

by the church and

by the apostles

and ancients

KJB 1611 they were received

of the church and

of the apostles

and elders

[Page 5]REB 1989 they were welcomed

by the church and

the apostles and elders

Note that church is decided early on (for instance, in the 1560 Geneva Bible, a Protestant Bible).

(4) metanoeo ‘repent’ versus ‘do penance’ (from the Latin paenitentiam ago)

Mark 6:12

Tyndale NT 1526 and they went out

and preached that

they should repent

Tyndale NT 1534 and they went out

and preached that

they should repent

Geneva Bible 1560 and they went out

and preached that

men should amend their lives

Rheims NT 1582 and going forth

they preached that

men should do penance

KJB 1611 and they went out

and preached that

men should repent

REB 1989 so they set out

and proclaimed

the need for repentance

The Ecumenical Book of Mormon!

Interestingly, the Book of Mormon is in full agreement with the vocabulary decisions made in the King James Bible, yet it makes adjustments for the original debate by making sure that you, the reader, correctly understand how to interpret these words. Thus we find that the Book of Mormon often tells the reader that the word charity is ’love’ – that is, in various places [Page 6]it adds the word love so that you won’t think that the text is referring to alms giving (Tyndale’s complaint about the Latinate word charity). When the word church is used in the Book of Mormon, the text will let you know that church can be used to mean both the organization and the individual congregation. And interestingly, the church in the Book of Mormon has both elders and priests, not just one or the other. In each case the Book of Mormon builds upon the original debate, yet resolves it according to the King James translation. Even then, the resolution follows Tyndale’s interpretation.

love and charity

2 Nephi 26:30 that all men should have

charity which charity

is love

Ether 12:34 this love which thou hast had

for the children of men

is charity

Moroni 7:47 but charity is the pure love

of Christ

Moroni 8:17 and I am filled with charity

which is everlasting love

church and churches

Mosiah 25:21 they did assemble themselves

together in different bodies

being called churches

Mosiah 25:22 and thus notwithstanding there

being many churches

they were all one church

yea even the church of God

elders and priests

Alma 4:7 yea and to many of the people

which Alma had consecrated

to be teachers and priests

and elders over the church

[Page 7]Alma 6:1 he ordained priests and elders

by laying on his hands

Moroni 3:1 the manner which the disciples

– which were called

the elders of the church –

ordained priests and teachers

Moroni 4:1 the manner of their elders

and priests administering

the flesh and blood

of Christ unto the church

Moroni 6:1 behold elders priests and teachers

were baptized

Note that Moroni 3:1 sets the elders hierarchically over the priests and teachers.

repent, but no “do penance” at all in the Book of Mormon

Alexander Campbell claimed in his early review of the Book of Mormon (in 1831) that Joseph Smith’s golden bible was simply commenting on the religious issues of the early 1800s in America. To the contrary, there is considerable evidence that the issues and the cultural milieu of the text date more from the late 1600s than the early 1800s, during a time when the conflicts between the low-church Protestants, high-church Anglicans, and Catholics had been basically resolved (or at least reached a kind of peaceful truce in England). References to “secret combinations” and to “standing at the bar of God to be judged” can be more reasonably traced to this period, not to the early 1800s (or to biblical usage). The translation issues that Thomas More attacked William Tyndale over were basically settled in the King James Bible (1611), yet the Book of Mormon takes those translation issues to their final conclusion by explicitly resolving the conflict by (1) frequently declaring charity to be love, as in the “pure love of Christ”, (2) allowing for both elders and priests as offices in the church, and (3) explicitly stating that the word church refers to both congregation and God’s [Page 8]organization. The Book of Mormon resolves the controversy in favor of the King James solution but from the point of view of William Tyndale.

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About Royal Skousen

Royal Skousen, professor of linguistics and English language at Brigham Young University, has been the editor of the Book of Mormon critical text project since 1988. Volumes 1, 2, and 4 of the critical text are published by the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies. In 2009, Skousen published with Yale University Press the culmination of his critical text work, The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text. He is also known for his work on exemplar-based theories of language and quantum computing of analogical modeling.

7 thoughts on “Tyndale Versus More in the Book of Mormon

  1. I am so confused about how to process the significance of this information.

    However, I am curious about what he means when he writes about references to “secret combinations” and “standing at the bar of God to be judged” fits better in 1600

  2. Royal,
    Great work, as always. And this accords with your previous mention of word usage in the Book of Mormon indicative of early modern English but not found in the Bible. I would like the hear more about “secret combinations” and “standing at the bar of God to be judged” in reference to that time period.

    Also, do you suppose that phrases in the Book of Mormon such as “which charity is love” are translations of text on the gold plates, or simply glosses supplied by the translator (and so existing only in the English text)? In other words, if both “charity” and “love” mean “love,” it makes sense to say “charity is love” in English because it addresses their usage in the New Testament, but it would make little sense for Nephi to say “which love is love” in Hebrew.

    • Hi Stan,
      In answer to your question, there are several different words meaning “love” in both biblical Hebrew and in ancient Egyptian, so that Nephi and others need not have used silly repetitions such as “which love is love,” just as Peter does not repeat himself in 2 Peter 1:7 where he parallels “charity” (agapēn) with “brotherly kindness” (philadelphia); and just as Paul says in 1 Cor 13:4 that “love [agapē] suffereth long and is kind” [chrēsteuetai “be kind, act benevolently”].
      Nephi too had plenty of synonyms and complementary terms available which Joseph likely had to find some reasonable way to express in English. Naturally, he used phrases already well-known to him.

  3. As usual Professor Skousen’s article is most interesting. It seems significant to me that the early claim by Alexander Campbell, and subsequently others, that the Book of Mormon was/is merely a product of early 1800 doctrinal controversies among the various Churchs. This article certainly weakens that arguement. The Wikipedia article on the “Tyndale Bible” illustrates why Tyndale’s translation of Church/Congergation, Charity/Love, Priest/Elder and Repentance/Penance were such a challenge and of such great importance in the 1500’s. And then as Skousen states, “The Book of Mormon resolves the controversy in favor of the King James solution but from the point of view of William Tyndale”. I really love that Book of Mormon.

  4. So I suppose a post-mortem Tyndale was tasked by God or by Moroni to translate the Book of Mormon? (Joseph Smith just read the translation)

    Or Moroni learned English from the people of this period?

    • That’s thinking outside the box. It seems most likely to me that the initial translation to English was done–if not by Joseph Smith–then by some other mortal (which could include a “translated” individual; 3 Nephi 28:36-40). God tends to get his earthly work done that way (think missionary work, genealogy/ordinance work, writing scripture) rather than by having angels, other perfected beings, gadgets (including miraculous stones) or the dead do it. The “Principal Translator” could have been Moroni in a mortal yet “translated” (as opposed to dead & resurrected) state, or it could have been one of the “three Nephites,” or perhaps a mere mortal Englishman who knew Hebrew (and/or Egyptian) and was given a little help with the Nephite dialect. But, if Royal Skousen is correct that word usage in the Book of Mormon reflects Early Modern English (roughly 1500s, into the 1600s) and that some of the issues addressed also reflect that period (per this paper), YET a relatively late version of the KJV (probably 1769 or later) was used as a base text for the Isaiah/Malachi chapters, the Principal Translator would seem to have lived for well over 100 years spanning those periods. Such a long life would favor Moroni or other translated Nephite as the Principal Translator, with Joseph Smith being the Finish Translator, perhaps smoothing the text and modernizing the English somewhat while “translating” (transmitting) the text to the modern world. It’s so much speculation at this point, though. We need more research based on Skousen’s Earliest Text. The electronic version will be very useful.

  5. I enjoy imaging our brother William Tyndale participating in some way in the translation of the Book of Mormon… as a joyful observer in the Spirit World or perhaps with some more participative role. Brother Tyndale paid such a price for his central part in the restoration and he must have found great peace and happiness watching the process play out from a vantage on the other side in which those who tried to suppress truth could not reach him or harm him. Thanks for that thought.

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