William Tyndale: He Gave His Life to Give Us the Bible

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William Tyndale

He Gave His Life to Give Us the Bible

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“William Tyndale’s Bible translations have been the best-kept secrets in English Bible history. Many people have never heard of Tyndale; very few have (knowingly) read him. Yet no other Englishman —not even Shakespeare—has reached so many.” —David Daniell, leading Tyndale scholar

In his autobiography, famed movie actor Charlton Heston ( Ben Hur, The Ten Commandments, El Cid ) marveled that a committee could produce such a monumental classic as the King James Version of the English-language Bible of 1611.

But according to British author Brian Moynahan, William Tyndale’s most recent biographer, “A complete analysis of the Authorised Version [KJV] … was made in 1998. It shows that Tyndale’s words account for 84 per cent of the New Testament, and 75 per cent of the Old Testament books that he translated” ( William Tyndale: If God Spare My Life , 2003, p. 1).

Tyndale’s contribution to the English Bible

David Daniell, the leading Tyndale scholar of our modern age, adds: “William Tyndale gave us our English Bible. The sages assembled by King James to prepare the Authorised Version of 1611, so often praised for unlikely corporate inspiration, took over Tyndale’s work. Nine-tenths of the Authorised Version’s New Testament is Tyndale’s …” ( William Tyndale: A Biography , 1994, p. 1).

Well before any thorough, painstaking analytical comparative study had ever been done, the noted British Bible scholar F.F. Bruce commented on the work of the compilers of the King James Version. “All the existing English versions lay before the translators … But the abiding influence of one man in particular may be traced throughout great portions of their work, and that man was William Tyndale” ( The Books and the Parchments , 1984, p. 221).

An article in the December 2003 Bible Review said: “ Careful textual comparisons reveal the debt owed by these [King James Version] translators to previous or contemporary sources. Much of the credit should go to Tyndale , whose translation, according to a recent study, was used 83 percent of the time, including for such famous lines as ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and earth’ (Genesis 1:1 Genesis 1:1In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
American King James Version×
), ‘Let there be light’ (Genesis 1:3 Genesis 1:3And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
American King James Version×
) and ‘In the beginning was the Word’ (John 1:1 John 1:1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
American King James Version×
)
” (Leonard Greenspoon, “How the Bible Became the King’s Owne English ,” emphasis added).

Whether the figure is rounded off to 90 percent or is viewed more precisely in the mid-80s, William Tyndale’s contribution to the King James Version (the New Testament in particular) and the English Bible as a whole is monumental.

The early British translators

Modern mankind owes a great debt to early Bible translators like Tyndale and his predecessor John Wycliffe, the philosopher and theologian who gave the British people God’s Word in the English language during the 1380s. Wycliffe’s Bible preceded Tyndale’s by about 150 years and proved very popular. However, heresy-hunting Catholic religious authorities eventually banned his translation.

All of these courageous men (and there were others, like Miles Coverdale and John Rogers) went through hell and high water—often risking their lives—to bring us the Scriptures in English. And once the Bible in English was sufficiently established, first Britain and later America eventually caused the Word of God to be translated into many other languages—even as the English Bible itself was spread all over the globe.

Tyndale’s version was the first rendering into English directly from Hebrew and Greek, the original biblical languages (along with a small portion in Aramaic). Catholic religious authorities clung to their Latin version and forbade translations into other languages. But as Tyndale noted, “The properties of the Hebrew tongue agreeth a thousand times more with the English than with the Latin” (quoted by Moynahan, p. 179).

12 years of translating in Europe

Tyndale’s English version was a Bible born in European exile. Persecution by the Catholic bishops in England required that he traverse the English Channel in 1524 to accomplish the task.

A written prohibition, composed by British clergy in 1408, strictly “forbade anyone to translate, or even read, any parts of vernacular versions of the Bible, without express episcopal permission,” which was adamantly refused to Tyndale by Cuthbert Tunstall, bishop of London, during the summer of 1523 (David Daniell, Tyndale’s New Testament , 1995, p. xxix).

During this fateful period Tyndale understood “at last not only that there was no room in my Lord of London’s Palace to translate the New Testament, but also there was no place to do it in all of England” (Tyndale, Preface to Translation of Pentateuch , 1530, emphasis added).

So Tyndale had little choice but to emigrate to Europe. Most probably his first port of call, in 1524, was Hamburg, a north German city with a fairly solid reputation for tolerance at that time—a friendly environment sorely sought by the 30-year-old translator.

Later Tyndale moved to Wittenberg in eastern Germany, where Martin Luther had dramatically confronted the Roman Catholic Church. (Luther had barely preceded Tyndale by translating the New Testament into the German language in 1522. The Old Testament followed in 1534.)

Then, sometime in 1525, Tyndale traveled to Cologne, where a small portion of his English New Testament was first printed by Peter Quentell’s press. The actual printing got as far as Matthew 22 before the authorities raided the premises that housed the printing press. But the wary British translator had just departed with copies of what had been completed thus far.

It was uncanny how again and again Tyndale was often just that much ahead of those who wished to halt the publication of the Bible in English. The religious authorities in England, motivated by Cardinal Wolsey, had set their European counterparts against Tyndale.

Complete New Testament finally translated

Tyndale then fled with his meager operations, traveling via the Rhine River to Worms, another continental German city with a reputation for tolerance. In 1526 he managed to publish 6,000 copies of the “Worms Edition,” a pocket-sized rendition of the New Testament, his first complete version including all 27 books. (In 1994 the British Library purchased the sole remaining complete copy for £1 million.)

According to The Columbia Encyclopedia , “Cardinal Wolsey ordered Tyndale seized at Worms.” But the translator first found refuge in Marburg, and then he decided to move on to Antwerp in Belgium. Here Tyndale completed the translation of the Torah or Pentateuch—the five books of Moses. Then, early in 1529, this traveling translator boarded a ship bound for Hamburg, the North German city he had visited on the first leg of his European odyssey.

It was on this fateful voyage that William Tyndale experienced a major setback in his quest to translate the entire Bible. Somewhat like the apostle Paul before him so many centuries before, Tyndale was shipwrecked somewhere off the coast of the Netherlands. His entire English Pentateuch, freshly translated, perished in the sea.

Tyndale biographer Brian Moynahan wrote: “The shipwreck on the Dutch coast had cost him, ‘both money, his copies and time,’ [John] Foxe [author of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs ] says. He lost all of his books, and was ‘compelled to begin all again anew, to the ‘doubling of his labours.’ The reference books he will have had to replace include the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, Hebrew grammars and the Septuagint” ( William Tyndale: If God Spare My Life , p. 177).

I remember reading about Ernest Hemingway’s feelings when he learned that his first wife Hadley had lost the manuscript of The Sun Also Rises (later to become the first of the famous American author’s successful novels) on a train journey. Like the determined Hemingway who rewrote the novel, Tyndale showed his mettle by translating the Torah all over again in the home of Hamburg resident Margaret Von Emmerson. Some believe he may have been assisted by Miles Coverdale.

Wrote F.F. Bruce: “Next to Tyndale, the man to whom the lovers of the English Bible owe the greatest debt is Myles Coverdale (1488-1569). Coverdale was not the scholar that Tyndale was, but the best part of his life was devoted to the task of making the Bible accessible to his fellow countrymen in their own tongue” ( The English Bible: A History of Translations , 1963, p. 53).

A translator of skill and courage

Many Bible scholars since have praised the courage, resourcefulness and stubborn persistence of Tyndale. Consider, for example, The Cambridge History of the Bible : “ England was fortunate to have in William Tyndale the man who could do what was wanted, a man of sufficient scholarship to work from Hebrew and Greek, with genius to fashion a fitting English idiom and faith and courage to persist whatever it cost him ” (S.L. Greenslade, editor, 1963, p. 141, emphasis added).

In any event, Tyndale spent most of 1529 translating the Pentateuch from Hebrew into English—finally finishing it in 1530. He said of the book of Deuteronomy: “This is a book worthy to be read in day and night and never to be out of hands … and a very pure gospel ” (quoted by Moynahan, p. 179).

William Tyndale reached the apex of his translating skills with the revised New Testament of 1534. For instance, in Matthew’s Gospel he replaced “Blessed are the maintainers of peace” (1526 version) with the more direct and pleasantly familiar “Blessed are the peacemakers” (1534). Also, in Philippians he replaced “Perform your own salvation” (1526) with “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (1534, emphasis added).

In those few years remaining to him, sometime between 1530 and early 1535, Tyndale also translated Joshua, Judges and the six historical books of 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles along with the book of Jonah. “By the spring of 1535 he had certainly finished translating the historical books of the Old Testament, Joshua to 2 Chronicles” (David Daniell, The Bible in English , 2003, p. 152). F.F. Bruce adds that he translated Jonah in 1531 ( The Books and the Parchments , p. 215).

These manuscripts were passed on to John Rogers, who published them in Matthew’s Bible in 1537. David Daniell adds: “John Rogers assembled all of Tyndale’s biblical translations, and a complete English Bible was printed by Matthew Crom in Antwerp” ( The Bible in English , p. 157). John Rogers was himself martyred later during Queen Mary’s reign.

In May of 1535, the authorities finally found and arrested Tyndale in Antwerp, halting his goal of translating the entire Bible into English.

A martyr’s death near Brussels

William Tyndale had moved back to what is now Belgium, where his life ended in painful martyrdom at Vilvorde, approximately six miles from Brussels—capital city of Belgium and in modern times the European Union’s principal base of operations. Although the prison where he had been incarcerated has long since disappeared, nearly 10 years ago I visited a somewhat similar nearby prison site constructed in the Napoleonic age. Tyndale’s experience must have been horrendous beyond imagination.

I later learned that Tyndale’s cell was dug under and adjacent to a river—clearly a catalyst for even worse conditions than the Napoleonic prison. Yet he desperately wanted to continue his translating work on the Old Testament even in a dank, damp, dark cell void of any sunlight (see “William Tyndale and the Apostle Paul”).

We who normally read the Scriptures in circumstances many times more comfortable should deeply appreciate the raw courage of these early translators. Some of these men died to bring you the Bible. In 1531 Tyndale had told Stephen Vaughn of “the great danger wherewith I am everywhere compassed” (quoted by Daniell, The Bible in English , p. 153).

On Oct. 6, 1536, at age 42, William Tyndale was affixed to the stake, strangled and then burned.

The religious establishment martyred this man who some scholars believe, in his mastery of the English rhythm, phrasing and styling, has never been equaled as a Bible translator. F.F. Bruce caught the spirit of his genius: “Tyndale, working under the white heat of potential martyrdom, rises at times to a poetic glow, transcending the style of the original Greek” (The Books and the Parchments, 1950 edition, p. 13).

There is a story that even King Henry VIII of England apparently wanted to spare the translator’s life, but Roman Catholic authorities insisted on his execution. Tyndale’s last words on the stake consisted of a prayer that God would open the eyes of the king of England.

But in the meantime, F.F. Bruce summarized the disheartening circumstances: “Tyndale died a martyr’s death, vilified by authorities in church and state in England. Nothing was too bad to say about his translation. Thousands of copies were seized on entering this country and publicly burned” ( The Books and the Parchments , 1984, p. 216).

Yet, paradoxically, Tyndale’s final prayer was answered only months later when the English-language Bible was finally accepted by the crown. “Within months of Tyndale’s martyrdom, a complete English Bible, two-thirds of it Tyndale’s work, and licensed by Henry VIII, was circulating in Britain” (Daniell, The English Bible , p. 157).

Although Tyndale received no personal credit in the aftermath of his death—and even several centuries afterwards—F.F. Bruce adds: “But when royal policy changed in England … and the translation of the Bible into English was authorised, the version which won the royal favour and was placed in every parish church in England [able at last to be read by everyone who could read] was basically Tyndale’s …” ( The Books and the Parchments , 1984, p. 216).

What a debt we owe to those who gave their lives to give us the Word of God!

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