One of the original Apostles (literally, he and his brother John are the first two whom Jesus calls in the Gospels), James also had the distinction of apparently being the first Apostle to die for Christ.** His execution at the hands of Herod Agrippa† is reported in Acts 12:2;‡ it’s the only apostolic execution in the New Testament.
This, of course, occurred on the southeastern fringe of the Mediterranean, so it’s a wonder that James’s bones came to repose at a Spanish city literally situated on Finisterre, the far western edge of the world as far as Europeans saw it. The Lord works in mysterious ways.
It’s certainly plausible — though impossible to substantiate — that James evangelized in Spain prior to his execution. The whole Mediterranean was a Roman lake. More towards the outlandish is the patriotic story (pdf) that James’s relics were miraculously discovered there in 813 at the moment when Muslim expansion into Iberia gave the hard-pressed Christian kingdoms the greatest possible need for a morale boost.§
“A knight of Christ’s squadrons,” Cervantes wrote. “St. James the moorslayer, one of the most valiant saints and knights the world ever had, and that now the heavens have … this great knight with the vermilion cross has been given by God to Spain for its patron and protection.”
James’s martial prowess is entirely posthumous: when the Son of God recruits him, he’s a humble piscator at labor mending his nets (there are some less-bellicose present-day churches going under the name “Saint James the Fisherman”). Gibbon could not but marvel at the “stupendous metamorphosis [that] was performed in the ninth century, when from a peaceful fisherman of the Lake of Gennesareth, the apostle James was transformed into a valorous knight, who charged at the head of Spanish chivalry in battles against the Moors. The gravest historians have celebrated his exploits; the miraculous shrine of Compostella displayed his power; and the sword of a military order, assisted by the terrors of the inquisition, was sufficient to remove every objection of profane criticism.”
But mythmaking exercises a historicity all its own, and the James legends offered a rallying-point for Spain’s Christians. He stands to this day the patron of Spain as well as a number of places colonized by Spain.
Pilgrims have ever since that stupendous metamorphosis of the 9th century made the journey to the apostle’s purported resting-place; this Way of St. James, actually comprising several different possible routes covering hundreds of kilometers on foot, has in recent years emerged as a major tourist draw. The Way terminates, of course, at Santiago de Compostela and the enormous cathedral there where repose James’s relics.
Saint James’s Day, 25 July, is its celebratory culmination.
James so overawes July 25 on the liturgical calendar that it’s a mere footnote to add that this same day also pays homage to Saint Christopher, a historically dubious Christian martyr from the third or early fourth century Roman Empire.
Christopher is rather nifty, because he’s sometimes depicted in iconography as cynocephalic — that is, having the head of a dog. At least the rest of him is human, unlike Saint Guinefort the Greyhound. (No lie. It’s a doggie saint, albeit of the distinctly unofficial variety. To stamp out folk veneration, an incensed preacher “had the dead dog disinterred, and the sacred wood [where it received offerings] cut down and burnt, along with the remains of the dog.”)
* The name “Santiago” derives from our saint’s name in Latin, Sanctu Iacobu. This is also the source, and James the intended honorary, for other places on the map named Santiago, such as Santiago, Chile.
† Herod Agrippa is not to be confused with his grandfather Herod the Great — the Biblical Massacre of the Innocents guy — nor with his uncle Herod Antipas — the guy who punted Jesus’s prosecution back to Pontius Pilate. Three different Herods; three different New Testament heavies.
‡ James’s death in Acts 12 is followed immediately by Saint Peter staging a supernatural jailbreak out of the same prison. The latter goes on to evangelize for another 20-odd years.
The factual historicity of Esther is pretty questionable, but that debate is a bit beside the point for purposes of the present post. As folklore or fact, the story of Esther and Mordecai, of their near-destruction and the consequent execution of their persecutor, is a staple of tradition and literature.
The thumbnail version of the Purim story has Esther (Hadassah), a Jew living in the Persian capital of Susa, plucked out of obscurity to become the (or a) queen of a “King Ahasverus”.
If Esther has a historical basis, this would be about the fourth or fifth century B.C.E., and “Ahasverus” could be Xerxes (the guy who invaded Greece and made Herodotus famous), or the much later Artaxerxes II.
Esther is an orphan being raised by her cousin Mordecai, and when Esther wins “Who Wants To Live In The Persian Harem?” Mordecai advises her to keep judiciously silent about her Hebrew lineage.
Mordecai doesn’t manage the same trick, however, and offends the king’s powerful minister Haman by refusing to bow to him. This gets the overweening Haman upset at not only Mordecai but at all Jews who share his anti-idolatry scruples, and Haman persuades King Ahasverus to authorize their indiscriminate slaughter:
“There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not for the king’s profit to tolerate them. If it please the king, let it be decreed that they be destroyed.”
13 Adar is the date fixed for the Jews’ destruction, by pur, a casting of lots — hence the festival’s eventual date and name. Haman, of course, does not realize that this policy makes Esther his enemy.
In order to save her cousin and her people, Esther must risk a death sentence of her own by approaching the king unbidden in his inner chambers. Mordecai charges her to her duty with a timeless moral force:
“Think not that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
Esther pulls this dangerous maneuver off, and gains thereby a private audience with just the king and Haman. There, she springs her trap — revealing her Jewish identity.
The king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.”
Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be given me at my petition, and my people at my request. For we are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; for our affliction is not to be compared with the loss to the king.”
Then King Ahasverus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, that would presume to do this?”
And Esther said, “A foe and enemy! This wicked Haman!” Then Haman was in terror before the king and the queen.
Word arrives at this inopportune juncture that Haman, who has been gleefully preparing his vengeance, has just had completed a 50-cubit (~20-meter) gallows to execute Mordecai upon. The enraged king instead orders Haman hung on it.
“Hanging” Haman on the “gallows” was traditionally interpreted in the ancient and medieval world as crucifixion,* or some analogously excrutiating way to die.
By any method of execution, though, the dramatic power of the scene — sudden reversal of fortune, virtue elevated over wickedness, the oppressed turning the tables on their oppressors, divine deliverance — is obvious.
At least the guy was remembered. Hands up if you can name any other ancient Persian courtier.
“The Punishment of Haman” is a corner of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.
However, this satisfying palace politics turnabout is not the end of the story, and punishment is not reserved only for the wicked minister.
Esther persuades the king not only to revoke Haman’s order, but to issue a new one — one that Esther and Mordecai will write tabula rasa over the king’s seal.
The writing was in the name of King Ahasverus and sealed with the king’s ring, and letters were sent by mounted couriers riding on swift horses that were used in the king’s service, bred from the royal stud. By these the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to gather and defend their lives, to destroy, to slay, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods, upon one day throughout all the provinces of King Ahasverus, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar
So the Jews smote all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering, and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them. In Susa the capital itself the Jews slew and destroyed five hundred men, and also slew Parshandatha and Dalphon and Aspatha and Poratha and Adalia and Aridatha and Parmashta and Arisai and Aridai and Vaizatha, the ten sons of Haman the son of Hammedatha, the enemy of the Jews; but they laid no hand on the plunder. That very day the number of those slain in Susa the capital was reported to the king.
And the king said to Queen Esther, “In Susa the capital the Jews have slain five hundred men and also the ten sons of Haman. What then have they done in the rest of the king’s provinces! Now what is your petition? It shall be granted you. And what further is your request? It shall be fulfilled.”
And Esther said, “If it please the king, let the Jews who are in Susa be allowed tomorrow also to do according to this day’s edict. And let the ten sons of Haman be hanged on the gallows.”
So the king commanded this to be done; a decree was issued in Susa, and the ten sons of Haman were hanged. The Jews who were in Susa gathered also on the fourteenth day of the month of Adar and they slew three hundred men in Susa; but they laid no hands on the plunder.
Now the other Jews who were in the king’s provinces also gathered to defend their lives, and got relief from their enemies, and slew seventy-five thousand of those who hated them; but they laid no hands on the plunder.
This bloodbath is obviously a bit more ethically problematic than Haman’s individual fate.
Now, sure, this is an event of questionable authenticity situated in Iron Age tribal mores and exaggerated by the ubiquitous ancient inflation of head counts. The subtext (“defend their lives” … “relief from their enemies”) also implies something like civil strife, blows exchanged rather than merely blows delivered. The overt text says that the victims were people who intended to do exactly the same thing to the Jews.
Still, the plain words on the page says 75,000 humans were slaughtered by a mobilized ethno-nationalist group, “children and women” among them. Just imagine the same parable about a Serb in a Bosnian king’s court, and say a little thanksgiving that the Book of Esther doesn’t identify these 75,000 as constituents of any specific demographic group that remains a going concern today.
Purim is a beloved holiday among its celebrants, but most any explication of it on the Internet comes with a comment thread agonizing over (or rationalizing) the body count. (For example.)
The fact that the story was told, and that it gained great popularity among the Jews, and by some of those in later ages came to be regarded as one of the most sacred books of their canon is, however, a revelation to us of the extent to which the most baleful and horrible passions may be cherished in the name of religion … it is not merely true that these atrocities are here recited; they are clearly indorsed.
Blessedly Purim Fest is not ultimately defined by the likes of Streicher, nor by the bloodthirstiness that is this site’s regrettable stock in trade. For most observants it’s simply one of the most joyous holidays of the year, a time for gifts and feasting and dress-up and carnivals and celebration sometimes thought of as the “Jewish Mardi Gras” or “Jewish Halloween”. Adherents have even been encouraged in all religious solemnity to drink in celebration until they can no longer tell “blessed be Mordecai” from “cursed be Haman.”
Deliverance indeed. L’chaim.
* The concept of Haman crucified in turn encouraged Jews under Christendom to use the figure of Haman (who once upon a time, could be subject to Guy Fawkes-like effigy-burning on Purim) as a veiled stand-in for the current oppressor Christ, and/or encouraged Judeophobic Christians to impute this intention to Purim observances.
This is the feast date, in both the Orthodox and Catholic traditions, of the Woman with Seven Sons — each of whom is supposed to have been put to death for refusing to break the Mosaic law by eating pork.
Whether sent from the Lord or not, this story features the righteous resistance of the faithful family against Antiochus IV Epiphanes, ruler of the Seleucid Empire, which was one of the successor Hellenistic states to Alexander the Great’s conquests.
In 2 Maccabees (and also in 1 Maccabees, which covers the same period, though not this specific martyrdom), Antiochus IV is making an unwelcome pro-heathen intervention in a Jewish civil war on the side of the hellenizers as against the hidebound traditionalists. This comes to attempting “to compel the Jews to depart from the laws of their fathers, and not to live after the laws of God: And to pollute also the temple in Jerusalem, and to call it the temple of Jupiter Olympius.” (2 Maccabees 6:1-2; this chapter features a Whitman’s sampler of other faithful traditionalists slaughtered for various forms of adherence to the Law.)
Same deal with the dietary laws, whose countermanding edict Antiochus (being a wicked heathen king) is pleased to enforce by the most ghastly tortures.
Das Martyrium der sieben Makkabaer, by Antonio Ciseri, in an aptly classical setting.
1: It came to pass also, that seven brethren with their mother were taken, and compelled by the king against the law to taste swine’s flesh, and were tormented with scourges and whips.
2: But one of them that spake first said thus, What wouldest thou ask or learn of us? we are ready to die, rather than to transgress the laws of our fathers.
3: Then the king, being in a rage, commanded pans and caldrons to be made hot:
4: Which forthwith being heated, he commanded to cut out the tongue of him that spake first, and to cut off the utmost parts of his body, the rest of his brethren and his mother looking on.
5: Now when he was thus maimed in all his members, he commanded him being yet alive to be brought to the fire, and to be fried in the pan: and as the vapour of the pan was for a good space dispersed, they exhorted one another with the mother to die manfully, saying thus,
6: The Lord God looketh upon us, and in truth hath comfort in us, as Moses in his song, which witnessed to their faces, declared, saying, And he shall be comforted in his servants.
7: So when the first was dead after this number, they brought the second to make him a mocking stock: and when they had pulled off the skin of his head with the hair, they asked him, Wilt thou eat, before thou be punished throughout every member of thy body?
8: But he answered in his own language, and said, No. Wherefore he also received the next torment in order, as the former did.
9: And when he was at the last gasp, he said, Thou like a fury takest us out of this present life, but the King of the world shall raise us up, who have died for his laws, unto everlasting life.
10: After him was the third made a mocking stock: and when he was required, he put out his tongue, and that right soon, holding forth his hands manfully.
11: And said courageously, These I had from heaven; and for his laws I despise them; and from him I hope to receive them again.
12: Insomuch that the king, and they that were with him, marvelled at the young man’s courage, for that he nothing regarded the pains.
13: Now when this man was dead also, they tormented and mangled the fourth in like manner.
14: So when he was ready to die he said thus, It is good, being put to death by men, to look for hope from God to be raised up again by him: as for thee, thou shalt have no resurrection to life.
15: Afterward they brought the fifth also, and mangled him.
16: Then looked he unto the king, and said, Thou hast power over men, thou art corruptible, thou doest what thou wilt; yet think not that our nation is forsaken of God;
17: But abide a while, and behold his great power, how he will torment thee and thy seed.
18: After him also they brought the sixth, who being ready to die said, Be not deceived without cause: for we suffer these things for ourselves, having sinned against our God: therefore marvellous things are done unto us.
19: But think not thou, that takest in hand to strive against God, that thou shalt escape unpunished.
20: But the mother was marvellous above all, and worthy of honourable memory: for when she saw her seven sons slain within the space of one day, she bare it with a good courage, because of the hope that she had in the Lord.
21: Yea, she exhorted every one of them in her own language, filled with courageous spirits; and stirring up her womanish thoughts with a manly stomach, she said unto them,
22: I cannot tell how ye came into my womb: for I neither gave you breath nor life, neither was it I that formed the members of every one of you;
23: But doubtless the Creator of the world, who formed the generation of man, and found out the beginning of all things, will also of his own mercy give you breath and life again, as ye now regard not your own selves for his laws’ sake.
24: Now Antiochus, thinking himself despised, and suspecting it to be a reproachful speech, whilst the youngest was yet alive, did not only exhort him by words, but also assured him with oaths, that he would make him both a rich and a happy man, if he would turn from the laws of his fathers; and that also he would take him for his friend, and trust him with affairs.
25: But when the young man would in no case hearken unto him, the king called his mother, and exhorted her that she would counsel the young man to save his life.
26: And when he had exhorted her with many words, she promised him that she would counsel her son.
27: But she bowing herself toward him, laughing the cruel tyrant to scorn, spake in her country language on this manner; O my son, have pity upon me that bare thee nine months in my womb, and gave thee such three years, and nourished thee, and brought thee up unto this age, and endured the troubles of education.
28: I beseech thee, my son, look upon the heaven and the earth, and all that is therein, and consider that God made them of things that were not; and so was mankind made likewise.
29: Fear not this tormentor, but, being worthy of thy brethren, take thy death that I may receive thee again in mercy with thy brethren.
30: Whiles she was yet speaking these words, the young man said, Whom wait ye for? I will not obey the king’s commandment: but I will obey the commandment of the law that was given unto our fathers by Moses.
31: And thou, that hast been the author of all mischief against the Hebrews, shalt not escape the hands of God.
32: For we suffer because of our sins.
33: And though the living Lord be angry with us a little while for our chastening and correction, yet shall he be at one again with his servants.
34: But thou, O godless man, and of all other most wicked, be not lifted up without a cause, nor puffed up with uncertain hopes, lifting up thy hand against the servants of God:
35: For thou hast not yet escaped the judgment of Almighty God, who seeth all things.
36: For our brethren, who now have suffered a short pain, are dead under God’s covenant of everlasting life: but thou, through the judgment of God, shalt receive just punishment for thy pride.
37: But I, as my brethren, offer up my body and life for the laws of our fathers, beseeching God that he would speedily be merciful unto our nation; and that thou by torments and plagues mayest confess, that he alone is God;
38: And that in me and my brethren the wrath of the Almighty, which is justly brought upon our nation, may cease.
39: Than the king’ being in a rage, handed him worse than all the rest, and took it grievously that he was mocked.
40: So this man died undefiled, and put his whole trust in the Lord.
41: Last of all after the sons the mother died.
42: Let this be enough now to have spoken concerning the idolatrous feasts, and the extreme tortures.
The upshot of the Maccabees texts is the revolt of Judas Maccabeus against the Seleucids, the episode that gives us Hanukkah, when that “temple of Jupiter Olympius” was rededicated back to YHWH.
And though not specifically because of the Holy Maccabees, the start of that revolt is the very next thing to occur in the text,** at the start of chapter 8:
1: Then Judas Maccabeus, and they that were with him, went privily into the towns, and called their kinsfolks together, and took unto them all such as continued in the Jews’ religion, and assembled about six thousand men.
2: And they called upon the Lord, that he would look upon the people that was trodden down of all; and also pity the temple profaned of ungodly men.
3: And that he would have compassion upon the city, sore defaced, and ready to be made even with the ground; and hear the blood that cried unto him,
4: And remember the wicked slaughter of harmless infants, and the blasphemies committed against his name; and that he would shew his hatred against the wicked.
And then, of course, it’s the good guys’ turn to start killing.
* It is worth noting that deuterocanonical books aren’t part of the Old Testament for most Protestants; Martin Luther declared himself “so great an enemy to the second book of the Maccabees, and to Esther, that I wish they had not come to us at all, for they have too many heathen unnaturalities.”
** The book’s chronology is scarcely rigorous, but if the episode is considered historical, it would have occurred in 167 B.C.E. (the year the Maccabean revolt began) or the few years before, reaching back to Antiochus’s anti-Mosaic injunctions c. 175 B.C.E.
(Thanks to Jeffrey Fisher [jeffreyfisher at me.com] for the guest post.)
On Good Friday every year,* Christians around the world commemorate the death by crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, rabbi, prophet, Son of God, Son of Man, messiah, and all-around trouble-maker.
The truth is that very little is known of Jesus’ life and teachings from verifiable accounts, but this has not stopped generation after generation of Christians from telling his story, beginning with Jesus’ semi-official biographers, the evangelists of the New Testament. Almost everything we know about the life and teachings of the physical human being Jesus are in those writings, which do not portray him always in compatible ways, and which are almost entirely unconfirmed by any external source. The Roman historian Tacitus mentions (with disdain if not disgust) Jesus’ cult following, as does the Jewish historian and philosopher Josephus, but neither gives us anything to work with as historians (or, for that matter, as theologians). For the record, Suetonius and Pliny also talk about Christians, but these piecemeal sources tell us much more about Roman perceptions of Christians than about Christ and his teachings, or even necessarily Christian beliefs and practices.
What, then, can we reasonably say about Jesus?
It is almost impossible to find universal agreement around anything more than a few basics, including most importantly Jesus’ crucifixion. The Gospels narrate it; Paul the Apostle (who never met Jesus in the flesh, as it were) hangs his theology on it, together with the equally important resurrection; and no contemporary sources (Christian or otherwise) dispute it.
But it’s when we ask why Jesus was crucified that things start to get interesting.
What did he do? The two men he is traditionally said to have been crucified with are commonly understood to be “robbers,” but that they were common criminals is highly unlikely. Crucifixion is a horrible death designed to make a very public statement about the crucified, the sort of thing you use on gladiator-slave rebels like Spartacus, not on pickpockets and roustabouts. The Greek term used for these two men (lestai) is consistent with the description of the released Barabbas as one who had participated in rebellious activities, whose “criminality” was related to his revolutionary business. Moreover, the name “Barabbas” means literally “son of the father,” a purely symbolic and surely entirely fictional name, and that the people choose to have him released indicates their affinity for him as a thorn in the side of the Romans. He is thus contrasted with Jesus, the other son of the father, the peaceful (apocalyptic) revolutionary.
So Jesus would have been crucified as a political criminal, a rebel. This would make sense of accounts of his having been identified by the Romans as “Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum”: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Anyone claiming to be king (and “son of God” was a Jewish way of talking about the king of Israel recorded clearly in Psalm 2), would, if taken seriously, be understood as challenging Roman authority.
Insofar as Jesus seems to have been deliberately poking the Romans’ local running dogs, the Sadducees and the Temple priests, his seizure and termination were surely inevitable. If his teaching is as opposed to violence and unconcerned with “politics” as it seems to have been, it’s hard to believe the Romans would have noticed him without some prodding, this coming not from the “crowd,” but from the leadership (who in Mark and Matthew incite the crowd). Indeed, the priests and scribes look for ways to arrest him when the crowds are not around, because they fear a riot.
If we take the Gospel of Mark at all seriously, Jesus was preaching a new kingdom of God, an apocalyptic redemption of the people of the earth by God’s direct intervention (and with Jesus as the sacrificial pesach lamb). If we take the Gospel of Luke seriously, Jesus spoke in a classic prophetic mode, calling people — Jew and Gentile both — to care for the oppressed of the earth, the poor and the hungry and the helpless. Both Jesuses called for people to be better to each other, to love each other, and indeed to love each other when love was, according to common sense, the foolish thing.
Why would this get you executed?
Well, in itself, it wouldn’t. But the Gospel of Mark tells us of Jesus speaking with a man who realizes that all the animal sacrifices in the world don’t amount to a hill of beans (in that crazy world). When love counts more than sacrifice, we are undermining the Temple. When we go into the Temple, start knocking things over, and say it’s become about robbing the poor and not about loving God and one’s neighbor, we are undermining the Temple. And to undermine the Temple’s authority is also to undermine Rome’s authority, and Rome’s cash flow.
Jesus, like the Essenes he may or may not have associated with, was a purist.
The Temple was full of collaborators and exploiters, the kind seen before in the history of Israel (and berated by prophets like Isaiah and Amos), the kind hated also by the Dead Sea community of apocalyptic purists awaiting a final showdown between God and evil (i.e., the Roman Empire and their local potentates, the Temple authorities).
Jesus, like other Jewish prophets before him, thought that Judaism was about something. That it was somehow about justice and not just about following rules or waiting around for things to get better: that it was about our making the world a better place, and not just making our own lives better.
* Though the actual date (even the year) of the execution marked by the movable feast of Good Friday is fundamentally unknowable, there are some present-day astronomer types who’d like to sell you April 3, 33 A.D.
In 1998, Oliver, now 32, shot and killed a man whose home he was burglarizing. Oliver’s guilt isn’t being questioned. The argument his attorneys and supporters are using to stave off his upcoming execution has to do with how the jurors in his case handled his sentencing.
Juries debating this most difficult decision often reach for Biblical guidance, and there are no shortage of verses that relate to capital punishment, including the famous “eye for an eye” passage(s). Courts have ruled this improper, not because the Bible is a religious document, but because it is extrinsic evidence, meaning it was not properly introduced as evidence.
To write the book, I shadowed a North Carolina legal team for four and a half years as they fought to overturn the death sentence of a man named Bo Jones. The attorneys crisscrossed the back roads of North Carolina to track down and interview most of the jurors from the trial, two of whom chased them off their property. In the end, the attorneys found one woman who claimed that a Baptist minister on the jury had brought a Bible into the room and quoted passages from it.
In the end, this claim didn’t help Bo Jones. A federal appeals judge threw it out, saying his lawyers hadn’t proved that the Bible-quoting had influenced the jury’s verdict. But Jones’s attorneys had plenty of other arguments up their sleeves, while Oliver’s supporters seem to be putting most of their emphasis on the Bible argument.
It remains to be seen whether this will bewas not enough to spare his life.
“Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!” cried William Tyndale at the stake this date in 1536 … just before he was strangled and burned.
“Translated the Bible into English,” reads Tyndale‘s epigraph; in the Protestant blossoming, this Herculean academic labor was also of itself a dangerous religious and political manifesto.
As with Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German, Tyndale’s English version threatened, and was intended to threaten, papal ecclesiastical authority. In undertaking the work, Tyndale defied the 1408 “Constitutions of Oxford”, an English clerical pact further to the suppression of the Lollards and kindred post-John Wycliffe heresies which expressly prohibited rendering scripture in the vernacular.
In Protestant hagiographer John Foxe‘s Book of Martyrs, a young Tyndale exasperated with a Romish divine memorably declared,
“I defy the pope, and all his laws;” and added, “If God spared him life, ere many years he would cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture than he did.”
Tyndale would give his life to, and for, that ploughboy.
On the lam in Protestant Germany, Tyndale produced an English New Testament, and then an Old Testament, of startling poetry.
The scholar also kept a reformist voice in the day’s robust theological pamphleteering — trading fire, for instance, with Sir Thomas More.
Even when the once-staunch Catholic Henry VIII broke with Rome over Anne Boleyn, the English manhunt for Tyndale continued: Henry’s reformation did not share radical Protestant objectives like scriptural authority, and the king was not shy about enforcing his version of orthodoxy.
Tyndale was equally stubborn in defense of his life’s mission to put a Bible in the hands of the English ploughboy. Offered the king’s mercy to return and submit, Tyndale countered by offering his silence and martyrdom if Henry would but publish the Good Book in English.
I assure you, if it would stand with the King’s most gracious pleasure to grant only a bare text of the Scripture to be put forth among his people, like as is put forth among the subjects of the emperor in these parts, and of other Christian princes, be it of the translation of what person soever shall please his Majesty, I shall immediately make faithful promise never to write more, not abide two days in these parts after the same: but immediately to repair unto his realm, and there most humbly submit myself at the feet of his royal majesty, offering my body to suffer what pain or torture, yea, what death his grace will, so this [translation] be obtained. Until that time, I will abide the asperity of all chances, whatsoever shall come, and endure my life in as many pains as it is able to bear and suffer.
Luckily for posterity, the English crown wasn’t biting, leaving Tyndale’s mellifluous rendering of Holy Writ to enter the English tongue.
And leaving Tyndale, eventually, to enter the martyrs’ ranks.
In 1536, an English bounty hunter befriended the fugitive translator and betrayed him to the authorities in Vilvoorde, near Brussels. It was the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire that did the dirty work of their rivals in the Isles.
And — the Lord works in the mysterious ways, they say — Tyndale’s dying prayer was indeed answered.
By the end of the decade, a Bible in English drawn from Tyndale’s version (revised by former Tyndale assistant Myles Coverdale under Thomas Cromwell‘s direction; prefaced by Thomas Cranmer) was by regal authority placed in every parish of the Church of England.