Rare Bibles arrive at Beinecke

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Photo by Amanda Buckingham.

This month, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library announced the acquisition of two 16th-century editions of the Bible that are among the first early modern English translations still in existence.

The library purchased the two works — which were translated by William Tyndale, the first to render the original Greek and Hebrew biblical texts into early modern English — at a Sotheby’s auction in December 2013. Though the books were banned in England at the time of publication, Tyndale’s works laid the foundation for the popular King James Bible. The new acquisitions include a 1536 edition of the New Testament bound with a prayer book and a 1534 edition of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament.

“They’re really books that were intended for your average English book-buying audience, so the anomaly is that they’re extraordinarily scarce,” said Kathryn James, the Beinecke’s curator for early modern books and manuscripts. “[England] was so politically fraught that the copies were destroyed.”

Both translations are hybrids of sorts, said Aaron Pratt GRD ’16, a student familiar with the acquisition. The New Testament was printed in Antwerp but is bound with a primer printed in London that features the arms of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII — and the Pentateuch contains a revised version of Tyndale’s first version of Genesis while maintaining the first edition texts of the other four books.

Pratt said the New Testament provides a “window into the religious life” of at least one owner in the years of the English Reformation. According to James, it also contains annotations in the margins made by some early readers, which was the custom during that period.

James said because the Pentateuch is pocket sized, it would have served a different function than the Tyndale New Testament.

“The book is thus important not only because it contains landmark ‘firsts’ in the history of English printing and humanist scholarship, but also because it is a testament to the imperfect and always incomplete nature of translation,” Pratt said.

Though John Wycliffe translated the Bible into Middle English in the late 14th century, Tyndale’s English translations were the first produced and sold in print.

Bruce Gordon, a professor of ecclesiastical history at the Divinity School, said Tyndale’s humanist education in Greek and Latin was one of the influences for his translation project.

Gordon said Tyndale began his work in Germany because it was “virtually impossible” to publish an English translation during the reign of Henry VIII.

James added that there are theories regarding why the books are so scarce today, including that they were bought up and burned by the Church or were casualties of the destruction of the Protestant libraries during the reign of Catholic Queen Mary.

Tyndale’s legacy has been far-reaching, as his works were heavily drawn upon for the later King James Bible and important for the English language at large.

“You can see there are a lot of classic phrases, words and passages that come from the Tyndale translation, such as the ‘in the beginning’ start to the Bible,” James said.

The new acquisitions add to the Beinecke’s already abundant collection of biblical texts. James said opportunities at the library abound for comparative literature studies.  The library owns a Wycliffite Bible, predating Tyndale, and a Coverdale Bible, the first complete translation that was based on Tyndale’s work.

She added that the Beinecke’s proof copy of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of the English language, which is interwoven with his manuscript notes, can also be likened to Tyndale’s works, as they both shaped the English language.

“These two works speak to each other,” James said. “Tyndale and Johnson were grappling with this question of ‘how do you even think about writing an English language,’ and they each come up with their own answers.”

Gordon said Tyndale’s works dovetail with his interest in how Bibles are integrated into the vernacular from the original biblical languages. Personally, Gordon said, Tyndale’s works fit into a broader pattern of questions about attitudes and conceptions of translations in the period.

The Beinecke purchased Tyndale’s Old and New Testaments for $305,000 and $149,000 respectively.

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