Book Review: The Bible in English, by David Daniell
I’ve been writing and thinking about books for a while now, but knowing where to begin with a book of this magnitude is something else entirely. 774 pages of dense, academic text, plus a further 160 pages of additional material, is no joke. The year and a half I spent with Professor Daniell’s magnum opus is the longest I’ve ever taken with a single book. It’s not just the number of pages which make this book so challenging, but the complex, often tangential path along which Daniell takes his readers.
Initially, the text was exactly what I expected: a straight-ahead, well-researched review of how the English-language Bible has evolved over the years. Indeed, the author sets that tone from the first line of the Preface. “This book is about how important the Bible in English has been in the life of Britain and North America” (p. xiii). The tone is scholarly and in keeping with other history books I’ve read. It doesn’t take long, though, for Daniell’s personality to start creeping out. In places he is downright theological, clearly proud of his Christian faith. To say that the first disciples were “unexpectedly activated by a new Spirit from God, a force which changed them from being frightened, timid and grieving people hiding in Jerusalem to adventurers carrying the good news of the releasing power of Christ far and wide” (p.2) is to noticeably depart from a strict historical sense. In this, and several other places, the author is not just reporting the effect of the Bible, but interpreting the emotions it creates as well. For what it’s worth, passages like this one were some of the most enjoyable in the book. By and large, Daniell’s theology is scripturally sound and unexpectedly illuminating.
Hand in glove with this aspect is an occasionally wry and cutting sense of humor. There are times when he not only lobs mortars into the scholarly community at large, but also levels a snarky sniper rifle at individual scholars. As he starts work on early Reformation pioneer John Wyclif, Daniell attacks what he considers poor scholarship of the 1960s: “That comment does not mention the Wycliffite Bible, which on investigation would have been found to have very little to say about economics–but then, it would have been a pity to let reading the largest number of manuscripts of the period spoil a theory” (p. 76). Okay, so it’s not exactly Dre vs. Ice Cube, but still. I didn’t think academics went in for that sort of thing, at least in print. Daniell doesn’t restrict his barbs to contemporaries either. When talking about Middle English and the beauty of Saxon-based prose, he proceeds to dog basically every Latinesque writer ever.
“Although later Anglo-Saxon sentences could be elaborate, the Saxon gift was the power of a clean, clear syntax, controlled by the basic subject-verb-object order. In Saxon writing, late Latinate sentences which, being full of what act as dependencies, were, for much of the time, if not always, long and, wherever possible, ornate, with the verb, which, as it were, drives the meaning, placed, as one could, at the end, were not attractively considered” (p.58-9).
If you didn’t laugh at that, well, you’re clearly not that educated. Or maybe I’m a gigantic word nerd. One of the two.
Where I struggled with this book, aside from having to look up the occasional word, was in Daniell’s choice and ordering of content. For the first 23 chapters or so, the history is given in a largely chronological order. There is the occasional skipping around for context, especially when he gets into William Tyndale, but it’s nothing which disrupts the narrative flow. Chapter 24 and following, however, sees the book run into two major landscapes (so to speak): America and The King James Bible. In working through and beyond the discussion of these two pieces, Daniell snarls the fairly ordered chronology he had established. In retrospect, I suppose it’s appropriate that KJV and America would wreak such havoc, but the second half of the book was nevertheless a much more difficult read than the first.
I was also somewhat baffled by his discussion of canonical authors. His section on Chaucer was excellent, but his thoughts on Shakespeare seemed anemic. It felt as though he included the Bard out of obligation more than scholarship, without even the slightest mention that some people believe Shakespeare was involved with the KJV. Meanwhile he positively droned about Edmund Spenser (not unlike the poet himself), and, later, William Blake. I found the later especially puzzling. To be sure, Blake was a Christian Mystic, but the section on him broke from the surrounding narrative so sharply that I couldn’t help but suspect a bit of professorial fanboying.
Where this book absolutely succeeds is in elevating the status of William Tyndale, 16th century translator of the Bible. Tyndale, despite strong opposition, was the first to work directly from the Hebrew and Greek originals. Shockingly (at least to this reader) was the idea that Tyndale was derided, even considered heretical, because his contemporaries believed the Latin Bible to be the text in its most perfect form. How a biblical scholar can square such linguistic exclusivity with Mark 16:15 is a baffling idea to me. Of course, there are still people who don’t quite get that the prophets and saints were writing in something other than English. All the same, the text we have in English, despite all the myriad hands through which it has passed, owes its most fundamental being to Tyndale. Phrases like “Give us this day our daily bread” ; “Blessed are the poor in spirit” ; “I am the good shepherd” ; and “Fight the good fight of faith” are among the hundreds that we still use today. Indeed, one of the most poignant sentences in the New Testament for me (“But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart“) is found first in Tyndale. According to Daniell, “every one of the thousands of English version round the world goes back to Tyndale’s fundamental work” (p. 156). Tyndale “translated into a register just above common speech” (p. 158), but it is one which is also curiously modern, thus the endurance of his work. Daniell claims, and I agree, that Tyndale’s mastery lies is his ability to use the simple power of Saxon style to emphasize the idea that “central to a Christian’s life [is] not curious rituals and practices, but the promises of God” (p.157).
It wouldn’t have been enough, really, to simply write a biography of William Tyndale, though Daniell would later do just that. To really understand what Tyndale achieved so long ago, the reader needs to see the long thread of history unspool, and it takes a book of this breadth to do something like that. From a broader point of view, creating context is exactly what Daniell does here. He makes plain just how powerful has been the English Bible, even to people who scarcely touch its pages. Likewise, he shows how people of different classes and creeds have turned the course of a book which has itself shaped Western culture in an unmatched way. To read this book is no small undertaking, but the same can be said of its principal subject.