Why ought we remember William Tyndale? He made an amazing contribution to the Christian faith. Chances are if you have a Bible in your home Tyndale is responsible for more than half the translation of it. He is known, and was martyred for, translating major parts of the Bible into English. Unlike others before him, he was the first to draw directly from the original wording found in Hebrew and Greek texts, instead of the Latin. He did not merely translate the Bible to English, but did it beautifully. Tyndale’s skill with language and his passion for God and Scripture gave us the wonderful work that is still used today. Sometimes people, wrongfully, give far more credit to the authors of the Authorized Version (of the Bible) released in 1611, also known as the King James Version. However, one must realize that The KJV borrows heavily from Tyndale. Nine-tenths of the King James New Testament (as well as the Old Testament books Tyndale translated before his death) are Tyndale’s translation. Source pg 287
These are a few phrases William Tyndale gave us (I’m sure you will recognize these) :
“Am I my brother’s keeper” (Gen 4:9)
“The Lord bless thee and keep thee. The Lord make his face to shine upon thee and be merciful unto thee. The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.” (Num. 6:24-26)
“The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” (Matt. 26:41) Source
Again, those are merely a few of the wonderful translations Tyndale brought us. It’s important to realize these could have been different. English was a common, prosaic language. Nevertheless, Tyndale created a lovely prose. The flow of every day words is truly astonishing. This is why his translation has endured until today … from 1526 (the first completed New Testament) until today (2010).
How did Tyndale achieve this? What is Tyndale’s story? I will attempt to relay a brief rendition of that now 🙂
William Tyndale attended the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge. At each place he studied languages and other liberal arts, but was especially focused on Scripture. It’s important to realize just how intensely and seriously languages were studied at this time at the University level. An example of this is the use of the De copia (by Erasmus). This book taught students how to increase their knowledge and use of the language so it would not become a dull, mundane speech. One of the lessons from the De copia was this, “give no fewer than one hundred fifty ways of saying ‘Your letter has delighted me very much.” (Source pg 42) Through out the course of his life Tyndale came to know seven languages.
Tyndale’s life passion, or “purpose” as we might say today, was to see the Bible translated into English and available to all. One of his mentors, Erasmus, shared the passion (though it’s important to note as much as they were similar they were vastly different). Erasmus wrote in the preface of his Greek New Testament:
“Christ wishes his mysteries to be published as widely as possible. I would wish even all women to read the gospel and the epistles of St. Paul, and I wish that they were translated into all languages of all Christian people, that they might be read and known, not merely by the Scotch and the Irish, but even by the Turks and the Saracens. I wish that the husbandman may sing parts of them at his plow, that the weaver may warble them at his shuttle, that the traveller may with their narratives beguile the weariness of the way.” Source pg 67
After his time at University, William Tyndale (now 28) served as a school master in the home of John Walsh in Gloucestershire. He spent most of his time there studying Erasmus’s Greek New Testament. This Greek New Testament had just been printed six years prior and set Europe ablaze. Each day in his studies Tyndale was seeing the apparent truths of the Reformation before him in the Greek New Testament. (Let us remember that William Tyndale was indeed an ordained Catholic Priest.) During his stay at the Walsh home he was often in the presence of ‘learned men,’ especially around the dinner table. As one can imagine, their conversations often turned to Scripture and theology, and Mr. Tyndale would openly discuss the truths he was being exposed to in the New Testament. One of his most famous quotes comes from such a conversation. John Foxe has recorded it for us:
Master Tyndall happened to be in the company of a learned man, and in communing and disputing with him drove him to that issue, that the learned man said: ‘We were better be without God’s law than the Pope’s.’ Master Tyndall, hearing that, answered him: ‘I defy the Pope and all his laws,’ and said, ‘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 dost.’ Source pg 2
In 1526 William Tyndale published his first edition of the English translation of the Greek New Testament. This was done in Worms, Germany and the books were smuggled into Germany, hidden in bails of cloth. It didn’t take long for Bishop Tunstall in London to ban the book … the law came forth October of the same year.
In 1530 Tyndale published the Pentateuch translation … straight from Hebrew. This was a big deal because there were literally only a handful of men in Europe that knew Hebrew.
Author’s Note: One might wonder why The Church was so opposed to the English Bible getting into the hands of commoners (or anyone.) There were multiple reasons for this, but as that is not the direct point of my entry I will not be expounding on those at this time.
What did the English Bible that sits on your nightstand, book shelf, table, cost William Tyndale? Much. Ultimately, his very life.
Tyndale was forced to desert his homeland in 1524, for fear of his life. He was murdered shortly after in 1536. In a letter to Stephen Vaughan we get a glimpse of his years in exile.
“…my pains … my poverty … my exile out of mine natural country, and bitter absence from my friends …my hunger, my thirst, my cold, the great danger wherewith I am everywhere encompassed, and finally … innumerable other hard and sharp fightings which I endure.” Source pg213
Then, on May 21, 1535 Tyndale found out he had been grievously betrayed by one he thought a friend, Henry Phillips. I will allow John Foxe to relate the details:
So when it was dinner time, Master Tyndale went forth with Philips, and at the going forth of Pointz’s house, was a long narrow entry, so that two could not go in front. Master Tyndale would have put Philips before him, but Philips would in no wise, but put Master Tyndale before, for that he pretended to show great humanity. So Master Tyndale, being a man of no great stature, went before, and Philips, a tall, comely person, followed behind him; who had set officers on either side of the door upon two seats, who might see who came in the entry. Philips pointed with his finger over Master Tyndale’s head down to him, that the officers might see that it was he whom they should take. The officers afterwards told Pointz, when they had laid him in prison, that they pitied to see his simplicity. They brought him to the emperor’s attorney, where he dined. Then came the procurator-general to the house of Pointz, and sent away all that was there of Master Tyndale’s, as well his books as other things; and from thence Tyndale was had to the castle of Vilvorde, eighteen English miles from Antwerp. Source
Tyndale remained in prison for eighteen months. Of course, his crime was “heresy” aka – disagreeing with the holy Roman Emperor. His time in captivity was not easy. We have one letter to an unnamed officer in the castle from this season of Tyndale’s life. The letter consisted of Tyndale asking for warmer clothing as winter was approaching and his clothes were light and tattered. But, he begs above all else to have a Hebrew Bible with him. That alone says much about this man, if nothing else has.
In August of 1536 the final verdict was released. He was then officially named a heretic and degraded from the priesthood.
A few days later the pageant of casting him out of the Church took place. In the town square a crowd gathered. The great doctors and dignitaries assembled in formal dress and array. They took their seats on the high platform. Tyndale was led out, wearing his priest’s robes. He was made to kneel and his hands were scraped with sharp instrument as a symbol of having lost the benefits of the anointing oil with which he was consecrated to the priesthood. The bread and wine of the mass were placed in his hands, and at once withdrawn. This done, he was stripped of his priest’s garments, reclothed as a layman, and handed over to the attorney for secular punishment. The Church would condemn, but always left it to the secular officers to stain their hands with the murder. But for Tyndale the end was not yet. He was taken back to Vilvoorde Castle and for some unexplained reason remained a prisoner for two more months. Source
It was early October when Tyndale was taken to his death. (Traditionally October 6th). His last words were, “Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes.” Because he was a former priest he had the “privilege” of being strangled before being burnt alive.