Part III: William Tyndale

The Father of the English Bible

By the start of the sixteenth century, 116 years had passed since Wycliffe’s translation, and great changes had taken place across Europe. England had begun to arise from both culturally and politically with the end of numerous internal wars. The Tudors, especially Henry VIII, had made England a world power. Powerful forces were at work pulling the world out of the Dark Ages as the light of God’s Word began to shine.

Early Printing PressFirst, the invention of the printing press in 1450 A.D. and moveable type in 1455 made the spreading of the printed Bible possible. Also, with the rise of a merchant class in England, more and more of the middle class were educated to read. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Turks unlocked thousands of Greek and Latin manuscripts previously unknown. As the scholars fled from the Turks with their manuscripts in hand they sparked a "renaissance" of new interest in Greek and Latin all over Europe. Ultimately this caused a professor at the University of Paris to prepare a printed text of the New Testament using several Greek manuscripts. The result is the Erasmus Greek New Testament, 1516 A.D., which was used to prepare the first English translation of the Bible directly from the Greek.

Title Page, 1534 Martin Luther BibleDuring the same time period, things were stirring in Germany as well.  In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Wittenburg church, attacking numerous Church doctrines and practices.  Luther, a professor of Theology at the University of Wittenburg, also wrote many other works.  He is most greatly known for denouncing teaching that said salvation could be earned by works, teaching instead what the Bible says: that salvation is by faith alone, apart from works (Romans 3:28).   Certain clergy in the Church were taking advantage of the common man's ingorance of the Scriptures, since there were no Bibles in the vernacular, and teaching that one must purchase indulgences to obtain salvation, or to free one's loved one from purgatory into heaven.  Thus, these clergymen got rich off of the ignorance and blind faith of the people.  Martin Luther, and many others, were appalled.  Luther's boldest act sought to destroy the clergy's abuse of power: the translation of the Bible into German.   He was not the first to translate the Bible into German, but he was the first to make a thorough, scholarly study of the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew text and translate them into the German language spoken on the streets by everyday Germans.  He said, "We must not...ask the Latin letters how we are to speak German, but we must ask the mother in the home, the children on the street, the common man in the marketplace about this, and look them in the mouth to see how they speak, and afterwards do our translating."  Luther was excommunciated and banned by the Roman Church for his teachings, but during his lifetime an estimated 100,000 copies of his German New Testament were distributed.  The light of God's Word shining in Germany would later be termed by historians as the start of the "Reformation."

Portrait of William TyndaleOnto this stage of God-appointed drama walked a man of humble birth but superior education – William Tyndale. Born in Gloucestershire, England in the early 1490s and educated at Oxford and Cambridge (where he studied under Erasmus), Tyndale was so fluent in 7 languages that you could not tell which was his native tongue. Like other men of his time, he began to question the abuses and corruption of the Church. God lit a fire in Tyndale’s heart to provide God’s Word in the language of the people of England. While working as a tutor, Tyndale responded to a Bishop’s challenge that "we would be better without God’s law than (without) the Pope’s" by retorting, "I defy the Pope and all his laws; of God spares my life ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou doest." Tyndale left his tutoring position and traveled to London to gain permission to translate the Bible from the Bishop of London. To help stamp out the influence of the Wycliffe’s Lollards, a law had been passed in 1408 making it punishable by death to translate the Bible into English, and the Bishop was unwilling to change this law. It soon became apparent that no place in England was safe for Tyndale to translate the Bible, so he left England- never to return.

Page from a Tyndale 1552 with woodcutWith a price on his head, he traveled under disguise and secrecy throughout Germany as he completed his translating work. He visited with Luther and, although they firmly agreed on Sola Scriptura ("Scripture alone" for guidance in Christian faith), they did not agree on other doctrines, and so they each traveled their own paths. Tyndale completed the New Testament in late 1525 and began the dangerous task of smuggling them into England in every possible way. Providentially, the docks of London were in the hands of many Germans friendly to the Reformation and the New Testaments soon reached the eager hands of the English people. They also aroused the anger of the clergy. Now the common people could read the truth of God’s Word for themselves. What had begun as a small spark with John Wycliffe had become a blazing fire that reached even into the king’s bedroom! Anne Boleyn, King Henry VIII’s wife, not only had a copy of Tyndale’s Obedience of the Christian Man, which she gave to as a gift to the King, as well as her own copy of Tyndale’s 1534 New Testament. Although outwardly he opposed the "reformation," it suited Henry VIII to use it to obtain his divorce from his Catholic wife (so that he could marry Anne), remove the Pope as head of the Church, and claim that title (as well as the wealth) for himself. Yet the King continued to oppose Tyndale and his Bibles, and Tyndale had to continue smuggling his Bibles into England illegally.

Tydale being burned: "Lord, open the King of England's eyes."Tyndale was constantly revising his work on the New Testament (with his 1534 edition considered his finest) while translating the Old Testament as well. In 1530, he completed the Pentateuch; in 1531, the book of Jonah. He did all of this work while in hiding, constantly evading the host of spies and bounty hunters sent by Rome and Henry VIII to find and kill him. Finally, he was betrayed by a friend, imprisoned in Vilvorde Castle, and tried for heresy by Rome. After 18 months of imprisonment he was strangled and then burned at the stake on Oct.6, 1536 A.D. Granted a final word, William Tyndale prayed "Lord, open the King of England’s eyes." This famous prayer would soon be answered when the King had a change in heart. In 1537, King Henry VIII granted his approval for an English Bible, the second edition of the Coverdale Bible, to be distributed throughout England. Little did Henry know that over 70% of that Bible was Tyndale’s work- the very man he had put to death only one year before.

We owe much to William Tyndale. He set his face to the task of giving the Bible to the common man in a language he could understand and he never looked back. He translated alone without the comfort of friends or family and paid with his life, never knowing the impact he and his work would have on the world. Tyndale’s translations were of good quality as well: more than 90% of his wordings appear in the King James Version published almost 100 years later and 75% of his wordings appear in the Revised Standard Version of 1952. He is rightfully called the Father of the English Bible.