In the days of Wycliffe, the Bible had been virtually a closed volume for hundreds of years. Wycliffe translated it into the common English tongue, but soon it became a banned book once again. Despite the official ban his manuscript version still circulated for about a hundred years. Then came the period of time in which another man would advance the Bible’s translation and diffusion. That man was William Tyndale.
Several of the formative years of William Tyndale took place at the University of Oxford. There he may have been influenced in the ideas of Wycliffe who had formerly been an honored teacher and leader of the university. Often he privately studied the Scriptures during those years. Later, he bitterly remarked about the university’s theology course: “Because Scripture is locked up with such false expositions and with false principles of natural philosophy, that students cannot enter therein, they go about the outside and dispute all their lives about words and vain opinions pertaining as much unto the healing of man’s heel as to the health of his soul.”1
In 1519, for some reason not known, Tyndale transferred to Cambridge. There he further developed his familiarity with the Bible and biblical languages. Then, in 1522 he served as tutor in the house of Sir John Walsh. At his host’s table he was many times drawn into discussions with visiting clergy. By open avowal of his sentiments he soon excited disputes and opposition. As a result, he became suspected of heretical tendencies.
Thus while at the house of Walsh he probably first conceived the idea of translating the Bible into his native tongue. He realized now the ignorance and the selfishness of the clergy in hiding the Scriptures from the eyes of the lay people.
Rather than bring harm to his host by his presence, he left for London in 1523. He had hoped for the help of Cuthbert Tunstal, bishop of London, but was greatly disappointed. At that time “he understood that there was no room in the bishop’s house for him to translate the New Testament, but also that there was no place to do it in all England.”2
In futility, he left for the continent. Setting himself to the task of translating the New Testament, he submitted his manuscript in 1625 to a printer in Cologne. The same year an octavo edition of 3,000 copies was printed and was issued at Worms in 1526. By May, a few copies had reached England and by autumn there had been a general distribution.
Meanwhile Tunstal intervened and had all available copies burned at St. Paul’s Cross in London. Even so, 18,000 copies came out in the six editions of the next three years. The English New Testament not having been suppressed continued to be distributed.
Then Tyndale turned to translating the Old Testament. The Pentateuch was published by 1530 and later published were Joshua, Judges, Ruth, First and Second Samuel, First and Second Kings, First and Second Chronicles, Nehemiah, and Jonah.
The years between his departure from Worms and his settlement at Antwerp in 1534 have been left a mystery, as many other details and facts of Tyndale’s life have been. In constant danger of losing his life to the ecclesiastical or diplomatic emissaries of Henry VIII, he sought places of concealment that were so secret that many are not even known today. But, in 1534 due to the progress of the Reformation in England, he rendered it safe to leave his concealment.
Yet, in Antwerp, “the clergy, not willing to have that book prosper, cried out upon it, that there were a thousand heresies in it, and that it was not to be corrected, but utterly suppressed. Some said it was not possible to translate the Scriptures into English; some that it was not lawful for the lay people to have it in their mother tongue; some that it would make them all heretics.”3
In May of 1535, William Tyndale was betrayed by Henry Phillips. Then, he was arrested and imprisoned a few miles from Brussels in the castle of Vilvoorde. In October of 1536, convicted for heresy or treason, or both, he was first strangled, and then burned in the prison yard. The last words of the martyr were, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.”
After Tyndale’s death, John Rogers obtained his papers and incorporated them in 1537 into the Matthew’s Bible. Under that name the book was accepted in England. Yet, the fact remains that it was Tyndale’s work. It was from his resolve that there was a vernacular version circulating freely in England. Within a year after his death, the book was even circulated with royal consent.
Now, four hundred years later, ninety percent of what Tyndale has translated still stands for us, unaltered in the King James Version.
1. Charles Gulston, No Greater Heritage, p. 146.
2. William Byron Forbush (ed.) Fox’s Book of Martyrs, p. 179.
3. Ibid, p. 182
Originally Published in:
Vol. 30 No. 7 November 1970