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Torchbearers of the Truth: William Tyndale (1494-1536)

R W Cargill, St Monans

William Tyndale is best remembered for his English translation of the Bible, even more than John Wycliffe’s great undertaking. There are three reasons for this.

(1) His translation is accurate, derived directly from Hebrew and Greek texts. Wycliffe’s earlier translation was from the Latin Vulgate, itself rather inaccurate in places, but Tyndale was able to use the Greek New Testament recently made available in Europe by Erasmus, and also to access Hebrew texts.

(2) Wycliffe’s language was Middle (old) English, but Tyndale’s a more modern form, so that many of Tyndale’s words and phrases came to be used directly in the Authorised Version of the Bible published in 1611. It has been calculated that our AV New Testament is 84% Tyndale’s work, with the Old Testament 76% Tyndale’s.

(3) He was the first to be able to take advantage of the newly invented printing press and this facilitated wider distribution.

William Tyndale was born in 1494 most probably at North Nibley, Gloucestershire, descended from an ancient Northumbrian family, maybe moving there following the Wars of the Roses. At the age of 11 he enrolled at Oxford University, grew up there, and received his Master’s Degree in 1515, aged 21. He proved to be a gifted linguist. One of his associates commented that he was "so skilled in eight languages – Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Spanish, French, Italian, English, and German, that whichever he speaks, you might think it his native tongue!" Then ordained into the "priesthood", he was able to start studying theology - his official course had not included the study of Scripture. He subsequently went to Cambridge, possibly studying under Erasmus, one of whose 1503 Latin books (Handbook of the Christian Knight) he translated into English.

Around 1520, Tyndale became a tutor in the family of Sir John Walsh, at Little Sodbury in Gloucestershire. He devoted himself more to the study of the Scriptures and embraced the doctrines of the Reformation. His opinions involved him in controversy with his fellow clergymen, and around 1522 he was summoned before the Chancellor of the Diocese of Worcester on a charge of heresy. This led to his removal to London (about October, 1523), where he began to preach. He made many friends among the ordinary people but none among church leaders. A "learned" Roman Catholic clergyman is said to have taunted Tyndale by saying, "We are better to be without God’s laws than the Pope’s". Tyndale’s famous reply was, "I defy the Pope and all his laws. If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause the boy that drives the plow to know more of the Scriptures than you!"

It was soon afterwards that he determined to translate the Bible into English, convinced that the way to God was through His Word, and that Scripture should be widely available to common people. He said, "Can one imagine a family where the children were unable to understand what their father says?"

Tyndale left for London in 1523 to seek permission to translate the Bible into English and to request other help from Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall, a well-known classicist whom Erasmus had praised after working with him on a Greek New Testament. However, the Bishop was suspicious of his theology and, like many highly-placed churchmen, did not like the idea of the Bible in the vernacular. Tyndale preached and studied "at his book" in London for some time, relying on the help and hospitality of a cloth merchant, Humphrey Monmouth. Becoming more unpopular, he then left England under a pseudonym and landed at Hamburg in 1524 with the work he had done so far on his translation of the New Testament. He completed his translation in 1525, possibly in Wittenberg, with help from Martin Luther, and also Miles Coverdale, and a friar called William Roy.

In 1526 a full edition of the New Testament was printed in Worms. More copies were soon being printed in Antwerp, and smuggled into England and Scotland. It was condemned in October, 1526 by Tunstall, who issued warnings to booksellers and had copies burned in public. Cardinal Wolsey condemned Tyndale as a heretic and demanded his arrest.

Tyndale’s other literary activity during that interval was extraordinary. When he left England, his knowledge of Hebrew was very rudimentary and yet he mastered it, so that by 1531 he had produced from the original an admirable translation of the entire Pentateuch, the books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, First and Second Samuel, First and Second Kings, First Chronicles, and Jonah.

In addition to these he produced several books and pamphlets about the authority of Scripture and critical of established Church practice. All these were written in places so secure and well hidden that the ecclesiastical and diplomatic agents of Wolsey and Henry VIII, charged to hunt him down and seize him, were never able to find him. In 1534, believing that the progress of the Reformation in England made it safe for him to leave his place of hiding, he settled at Antwerp and combined the work of an evangelist with that of a translator of the Bible.

Tyndale had aroused Henry VIII’s anger by writing against his divorce. The king asked the emperor Charles V to have Tyndale apprehended and returned to England. Eventually, he was betrayed in Antwerp in 1535 by his "friend" Henry Phillips – actually an agent of Henry and the English ecclesiastics. Tyndale was arrested and imprisoned in the castle of Vilvoorden near Brussels, and held for over 500 days in horrible conditions

He faced a ridiculously unfair trial for heresy and treason, and was condemned to death. He was strangled while tied to the stake, and then his dead body was burned in the prison yard on 6th October, 1536. His last words spoken "at the stake with a fervent zeal, and a loud voice", were reported as, "Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes".

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Tyndale’s original translation was the foundation of the great translations which quickly followed, including the Great Bible of 1539, the Geneva Bible of 1560, the Bishops’ Bible of 1568, the Douay-Rheims Bible of 1582–1609, and, most notably, the Authorised Version of 1611. About it the RSV translators noted: "It [the AV] kept felicitous phrases and apt expressions, from whatever source, which had stood the test of public usage. It owed most, especially in the New Testament, to Tyndale". A more recent scholarly review states, "He [Tyndale] is the mainly unrecognised translator of the most influential book in the world. Although the Authorised King James Version is ostensibly the production of a learned committee of churchmen, it is mostly cribbed from Tyndale with some reworking of his translation".

In translating the Bible, Tyndale introduced new words into the English language, many of which have become well loved by today’s readers of the AV. For example, it was Tyndale who composed the name Jehovah from the Hebrew Tetragrammaton YHWH, as also the words passover, atonement, and scapegoat. Some of his new words and phrases, however, did not suit the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. They did not like "Overseer" for "Bishop", "Elder" for "Priest", and "congregation" for "Church". Tyndale contended (citing Erasmus) that the Greek New Testament did not support the traditional Roman Catholic readings, and history has proved him correct. Yet Thomas More had said that searching for errors in the Tyndale Bible was like searching for water in the sea!

Because of his work on the Bible, William Tyndale is frequently referred to as the "Architect of the English Language". His influence on English has been as wide as Shakespeare’s. Many of the phrases Tyndale coined are in our everyday language. We quote him when we use phrases such as the powers that be; my brother’s keeper; the salt of the earth; a law unto themselves; it came to pass; fight the good fight; the signs of the times. And when we tell great Bible stories or declare the wonderful message of the gospel, the familiar words we use are often Tyndale’s. What a legacy he left to us!

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