William Tyndale (1494-1536): Father of the English Bible
When Tyndale was born, there was no Bible in the common language of the person in the pew. The Latin Vulgate was the only translation sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church. Latin, however, was only used by the educated, which predominantly meant those leading the church.
Earlier English translations of the Bible had been translated in portions. The 8th-century Lindisfarne Gospels in Anglo-Saxon English and the 12th-century Wessex Gospels in Old English are two examples. But these manuscripts were kept in libraries accessible only to monks and priests. Additionally, most church parishioners were illiterate, and couldn’t afford the expense of a book.
John Wycliffe’s 14th-century Bible translation into Middle English made significant strides in the translation process. It also unleashed questions about the Catholic Church’s theology, teaching and practice in light of Biblical truths now accessible to scholars and parishoners. In fact, by Tyndale’s time, the Catholic Church had ruled the translation of the Bible punishable by death.
Born in western England near the Welsh border, Tyndale came from wealthy land owners with some political influence. Enrolled at Oxford University at age 12, he mastered multiple languages, including German, French, and Italian, as well as academic languages like Latin, Hebrew, and Greek. After completing his Master of Arts, Tyndale studied for four years at Cambridge University. Lutheran ideas from the continent had seeped into Cambridge and it is perhaps here that Tyndale began to acquire Protestant convictions.
Tyndale began his translation work in London in 1523, the Church’s opposition to translators forced him to move to Hamburg, Germany to continue his work. Many scholars suspect he met Martin Luther during this time. Regardless, he knew of Luther’s protestations against the Catholic Church as well as Luther’s German Bible translation two years earlier.
Despite sabotage of his early work, Tyndale completed his New Testament translation in 1525. Approximately 15,000 copies were smuggled into England over the next five years. The Catholic Church confiscated and destroyed many of these Bibles, but were ultimately unable to contain the spread.
Though he’s known for his Bible translation, Tyndale wrote other material during this time. One, The Practice of Prelates (1530), was a very public rebuke of King Henry VIII’s desire for a divorce. This brought Tyndale under the ire of Henry, who sought Tyndale’s extradition from Germany.
Tyndale stayed in Germany and continued to work on revisions of his Bible until 1535. While tweaking his New Testament translation, Tyndale began working on the Old Testament, completing the Pentateuch and some of the historical books.
In May 1535, while taking a walk through town, Tyndale was betrayed, abducted and handed over to authorities of the Holy Roman Empire. He was jailed in a castle outside Brussels for over a year. The next year, on October 6, 1536, William Tyndale was convicted of heresy, strangled to death while tied to a stake and his dead body burned. The father of the English Bible never returned to England.
Cultural and technological developments boosted awareness of Tyndale’s translation efforts. His is the first Bible printed on Gutenberg’s printing press invented seven decades earlier, and circulated more quickly than any previous English translations.
In 1453, the fall of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire and eastern half of the Church, forced many Greek-speaking Christians to flee to Western Europe, creating a renewed desire in the West to understand Greek and get back to the Bible’s original languages.
Greek New Testaments were completed in the first decades of the 16th century by Erasmus of Rotterdam in the Netherlands and Ximenes of Alcala in Spain. While Wycliffe translated from the Latin Vulgate in the 14th century, Tyndale translated directly from biblical Hebrew and Greek, the first English translation to do so.
As Martin Luther had done for his German translation of the Bible, Tyndale used Erasmus’ recent Greek manuscript of the New Testament commonly known as the Textus Receptus.
Tyndale’s last words before his strangulation were, “Open the King of England’s eyes.” Tyndale’s prayers were answered. Within a year of his death, King Henry VIII gave his authorization for an English translation of the Bible to be completed, which was done by Myles Coverdale, a friend of Tyndale.
Coverdale’s work, known as the Great Bible, used much of Tyndale’s work, scrubbing up portions of Tyndale’s translation that were objectionable to the Catholic Church, and supplementing the rest from Coverdale’s translation work from the Vulgate and German.
Tyndale’s legacy lives on in subsequent English Bible translations, including the King James Version completed 75 years after his death. The King James translators relied heavily on Tyndale’s work. Some estimate the King James Version retained as much as 84% of Tyndale’s work.
Tyndale’s translation was also highly influential on the English language. It permanently introduced words into English like “Passover,” “scapegoat,” “intercession,” and quite possibly “mercy seat” and “atonement.” It also broke the dominance that Latin held on scholarly work, bringing English into the mainstream. Tyndale’s influence on the ascendancy of English is so important that a literary adage has been coined, “without Tyndale, no Shakespeare.”
When Tyndale was a young man, only the clergy were “qualified” to read and interpret Scripture. Lay people were not taught to read the Bible in Latin, leaving them at the mercy of the Catholic clergy’s interpretations. Tyndale proclaimed to a priest at that time, “If God spare my life, ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture than thou dost.”
The English-speaking world stands in debt to Tyndale’s godly desires, and to God, who brought them to fruition.