William Tyndale c.1494- 1536

WILLIAM TYNDALE, born about 1494, near Gloucester, England, at a turbulent time, that of Henry VIII. He excelled in the study of Hebrew, Greek and Latin. In July 1515  he received a Master of Arts degree at Oxford University.

By 1521 he was an ordained Roman Catholic priest. At that time Catholicism in Germany was in turmoil because of Martin Luther’s activity, but England remained a Catholic country until Henry VIII finally broke with Rome in 1534, and in this respect, was a religious backwater.

About 1521 he came to the home of Sir John Walsh as a tutor for his children. Mealtimes around Walsh’s table often found the young Tyndale debating with the local clergy. Among them was John Stokesley, who had known Tyndale at Oxford. He later replaced Cuthbert Tunstall as bishop of London.

Tyndale matter-of-factly challenged their opinions by using the Bible. In time, the Walsh family became convinced of what Tyndale was saying, and the clergymen were invited less often and were received with less enthusiasm. Naturally, this embittered the clerics further against Tyndale and his beliefs. Tyndale grew convinced that the Bible alone should determine the practices and doctrines of the church and that every believer should be able to read the Bible in his own language..

Once during an early dispute, as related in Foxes Book of Martyrs , one of Tyndale’s opponents asserted: “Better be without God’s laws than the Pope’s.” Tyndale, with conviction, replied: “I defy the Pope and all his laws. If God spare my life, `ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou doest.” Tyndale’s resolve had been made firm. He later wrote: “I had perceived by experience how that it was impossible to establish the lay people in any truth, except the scripture were plainly laid before their eyes in their mother tongue, that they might see the process, order, and meaning of the text.”

Although English was the common tongue, in Tyndale’s day, people were educated in Latin. It was also the language of the church. Even in 1546 the Council of Trent reiterated that Jerome’s fifth-century Latin Vulgate was to be used exclusively, but only the educated could read it, the vast majority being entirely dependent on the clergy for bible understanding. Why should the people be denied the Bible in English? “Jerome also translated the bible into his mother tongue: why may not we also?” was Tyndale’s contention. Consequently, he travelled to London to seek permission to translate the New Testament from bishop Cuthbert Tunstall.

However, the reforming work by Luther on the continent of Europe was causing great concern to the Catholic Church, with repercussions in England. In 1521, King Henry VIII had published a vigorous treatise defending the pope against Luther. Out of gratitude the pope conferred on Henry the title “Defender of the Faith.” Henry’s Cardinal Wolsey was also actively destroying Luther’s illegally imported books.

As a Catholic bishop loyal to the pope, the king, and his cardinal, Tunstall felt duty-bound to suppress any thinking that might be sympathetic to the rebel Luther. The church was not opposed to bible translation as such, but felt that unauthorised translation led to unauthorised interpretation.

Rebuffed, Tyndale left England to seek a printer. In Cologne, Germany, his first printer was raided, and Tyndale, along with William Roye, barely escaped along the river Rhine with some of the precious unbound pages. At Worms, Germany, however, at least 3,000 copies of his English  New Testament were completed. These were sent to England and began to be distributed there, by 1526.

His studies were showing him the meaning of Biblical words that had been shrouded in church doctrine for centuries. Working from the original Greek of Erasmus’ text rather than the Latin, Tyndale chose “love” over “charity” to express the meaning of the Greek term a·ga′pe more fully. He also used “congregation” in place of “church,” “repent” instead of “do penance,” and “elders” rather than “priestes.” (1 Cor. 13:1-3; Col. 4:15, 16; Luke 13:3, 5; 1 Tim. 5:17, Tyndale) These adjustments were devastating to the authority of the church and to traditional religious practices, such as confession and absolution.

Tyndale likewise held to the word “resurrection,” rejecting purgatory and consciousness after death as unbiblical. Regarding the dead, he wrote to More: “In putting them in heaven, hell, and purgatory, [you] destroy the arguments wherewith Christ and Paul prove the resurrection.” He correctly came to believe that the dead remain unconscious until a future resurrection. This meant that the entire arrangement of prayer to Mary or the saints was pointless because in their unconscious state they could neither hear nor intercede.

In 1530, Tyndale produced an edition of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. He thus became the first person to translate the Bible from Hebrew directly into English. The following year he translated the book of Jonah. Tyndale was also the first English translator to use the divine name Jehovah, in some 20 places. Author David Daniell wrote in  William Tyndale: A Biography : “It would surely have struck Tyndale’s readers forcibly that the name of God was newly revealed.”

In his attempt to achieve clarity, Tyndale used various English words to translate a single Hebrew word. Today, this is unacceptable; however, he did follow the Hebrew structure closely. The result preserves the terse power of the Hebrew. He himself said: “The properties of the Hebrew tongue agreeth a thousand times more with the English than with the Latin. The manner of speaking is both one; so that in a thousand places thou needest not but to translate it into the English, word for word.”

This literal approach peppered Tyndale’s translation with Hebrew expressions. Some of them must have seemed quite strange at first reading. Yet, the Bible eventually became so familiar that many of these expressions are at the heart of the English language. Examples include ‘let there be light‘, ‘it is for the best’,scapegoat’, ‘to die a death’, ‘God forbid’, ‘by the sweat of your face’, ‘a man after his own heart’, ‘as a lamb to the slaughter’, ‘signs of the times’, ‘peacemaker’, ‘salt of the earth’, ‘consider the lilies’, ‘pearls before swine’, new wine in old vessels’, ‘on stony ground’, ‘the kingdom of heaven’, ‘hold your peace’, ‘the powers that be’, ‘fight the good fight’, ‘a law unto themselves’, ‘a friend of the world’, ‘saw afar off’, ‘in utter darkness’, ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’, ‘unquiet soul’, ‘let the dead bury their dead’, and ‘broad is the way that leadeth to destruction’. These phrases, revolutionary then, have never been bettered.  More than that, readers of the English Bible thus got acquainted with Hebrew thought, and since the original was so accurately conveyed, gained insight into the inspired word.

The possibility of reading the Word of God in one’s own language was thrilling. The English populace responded by buying all that could be smuggled into the country. Meanwhile, the clergy contemplated the certain loss of their position if the Bible came to be regarded as the ultimate authority. Hence, the situation became ever more a matter of life and death for the translator and his supporters. Free access to the Bible meant a great change for England. Discussions held around the Bibles set out in churches became so animated that they at times interfered with church services! “Old people learned to read so that they might come directly to God’s Word, and children joined their elders to listen.” (A Concise History of the English Bible)

When the New Testament was finished Tyndale began work on the Old Testament. The Pentateuch was issued in Marburg in 1530, each of the five books being separately published and circulated. Tyndale’s greatest achievement was the ability to strike a felicitous balance between the needs of scholarship, simplicity of expression, and literary gracefulness, all in a uniform dialect. It has been reliably shown that much of the Old Testament of Miles Coverdale is the work of Tyndale ( Tyndale’s Old Testament ed. David Daniell Introduction)

Translating and printing was one thing. Getting the Bibles to Britain was another. Church agents and secular authorities were determined to prevent shipments across the English Channel, but friendly merchants had the answer. Hidden in bales of cloth and other merchandise, the volumes were smuggled to the shores of England and up into Scotland. Tyndale was encouraged, but his fight had only just begun.

On February 11, 1526, Cardinal Wolsey, accompanied by 36 bishops and other church dignitaries, assembled near St. Paul’s Cathedral in London “to see great basketfuls of books cast into a fire.” Included among them were some copies of Tyndale’s precious translation.

Undaunted, Tyndale continued to produce fresh editions of his translation, which were systematically confiscated and burned by English clerics. Then Tunstall changed tactics. He struck a bargain with a merchant named Augustine Packington to buy any books written by Tyndale, including the New Testament, in order to burn them. Halle’s Chronicle says: “The bishop had the books, Packington had the thanks, and Tyndale had the money. Afterward when more New Testaments were imprinted, they came thick and threefold into England.”

Why did the clergy remain so bitterly opposed to Tyndale’s translation? Whereas the Latin Vulgate tended to veil the sacred text, Tyndale’s rendering from the original Greek for the first time conveyed the Bible’s message in clear language to the English people. The last straw for the clergy came when Tyndale replaced “priest” with “elder” and used “repent” rather than “do penance,” thereby stripping the clergy of their assumed powers. David Daniell says in this regard: “Purgatory is not there; there is no aural confession and penance. Two supports of the Church’s wealth and power collapsed.” ( William Tyndale: A Biography ).

Between 1526 and 1528, Tyndale moved to Antwerp, where he could feel safe among the English merchants. There he wrote The Parable of the Wicked Mammon, The Obedience of a Christian Man, and The Practice of Prelates. Tyndale stayed with his friend and benefactor,Thomas Poyntz, in Antwerp There he was safe from the intrigues of Wolsey and his spies. He became well-known for his care of the sick and the poor. But eventually, Englishman Henry Phillips cunningly worked himself into Tyndale’s confidences. As a result, in 1535, Tyndale was betrayed and taken to Vilvoorde Castle, six miles north of Brussels. There he was held for 16 months.

Who paid Phillips his ’30 silver pieces’ cannot be determined with certainty, but the finger of suspicion pointed toward Bishop Stokesley, who was then busy burning “heretics” in London. On his deathbed in 1539, Stokesley “rejoiced that in his lifetime he had burned fifty heretics,” says W. J. Heaton in The Bible of the Reformation. One of those was William Tyndale, who was strangled before his body was publicly burned, October 6 1536. at Vilvoorde, near Brussels. His last words were, reputedly, “Lord!  Open the King of England’s eyes.”

Three prominent doctors of divinity from the Catholic Louvain University, where Phillips had enrolled, were on the commission that tried Tyndale. Three canons from Louvain and three bishops along with other dignitaries were also present to see Tyndale condemned for heresy and stripped of his priestly office.

Tyndale,” said biographer Robert Demaus in William Tindale, written over a hundred years ago, “was at all times conspicuous for his fearless honesty.” To John Frith, his co-labourer who was burned in London by Stokesley, Tyndale wrote: “I never altered one syllable of God’s word against my conscience, nor would this day, if all that is in the earth, whether it be pleasure, honour, or riches, might be given me.” (quoted in ‘Foxes Book of Martyrs).

By 1538, King Henry VIII, for political reasons, had ordered that Bibles be placed in every church in England. Though Tyndale was not credited, the translation that was chosen was essentially his. In this way Tyndale’s work became so well-known and loved that it “determined the fundamental character of most of the subsequent versions” in English. ( The Cambridge History of the Bible ) As much as 90 per cent of Tyndale’s translation was carried directly into the King James Version of 1611. As he purposed, the ploughboy could hear and read the scriptures in his mother tongue.

At the time of his death, several thousand copies of his New Testament had been printed; however, only two intact copies remain today. The only complete one (lacking just the title page) is in the British Library. Ironically, the other, with 71 pages missing, was discovered in St. Paul’s Cathedral Library. How it got there, nobody knows. Interestingly, Tyndale’s New Testament originally sold for 3s.2d. (a week’s wage). A 1534 edition recently sold for $1.6m.

The Tyndale Society  http://www.tyndale.org/

See Guest Post The Obedience of a Christian Man by William Tyndale