13 December 2017

William Tyndale & the English Bible

William Tyndale’s main claim to fame is that he was the first man to publish an English translation of the New Testament, in 1526. Ten years later, on 6 October 1536, he was executed in Vilvorde, 6 miles north of Brussels. He was only 42 years old when he died. Tied to a wooden cross and surrounded by tightly packed brushwood, straw and logs sprinkled with gunpowder, he was first strangled until dead before his body was burned. His last reported words were, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.”

The leading Biblical linguist of his generation, Tyndale was judged by the church hierarchy to be a heretic, and therefore condemned to die, because he dared to work on the production of an English translation of the Bible. The most common religious literature in the early 16th century was lives of the saints, which tended to be filled with exaggerated tales of miracles and healings. The church was a vast hierarchical and bureaucratic machine with its own rules for living. Church law and tradition was all important and assumed to be above question and certainly more important than reading and understanding the contents of the Bible. For centuries the standard church Bible was the Latin translation of Jerome (known as the Vulgate), which had been composed between A.D. 383 – 405. Latin was the universal language of learning in European universities so the Bible was available only to the elite within educated circles.

The church establishment discouraged vernacular Bible translations, fearing that such works would lead to many new ideas and challenges to current church procedures and beliefs. William Tyndale broke this deadlock when he published an English New Testament in 1526.

Tyndale was born in Gloucestershire and graduated BA from Magdalen College Oxford in 1512 and MA in 1515. He was ordained as a priest and developed language skills, being proficient in eight languages, including Hebrew and Greek. Tyndale became interested in Luther’s new theology and was convinced of a need for an English translation of the Bible. Although such a radical idea was strongly opposed by the contemporary church leaders, with support from some sympathetic London cloth merchants Tyndale began to translate the New Testament from the best available Greek manuscripts. In 1525 he enrolled at Luther’s University (Wittenberg) where he completed his New Testament. His first attempt to print in Cologne was discovered by hostile authorities and Tyndale fled up the Rhine to Worms where he successfully published his New Testament in April 1526. The first print run was for 6,000 copies.

Tyndale took refuge among the English clothmerchant community in Antwerp for the next 10 years and here he published several pro-Reformation books including, ‘The Obedience of a Christian Man’ (1528) in which he argued for the double duty of accepting the supreme authority of Scripture and the necessity of obedience to secular rulers. Copies of Tyndale’s New Testament were smuggled into England but the church authorities were very hostile to it and decreed that all copies should be burned. Cuthbert Tonstall, Bishop of London, even bought large quantities of the new translation in Antwerp, transported them to London, and burnt them publicly at St. Paul’s Cross.

Tyndale revised his New Testament at least twice, in 1534 and 1535, and started work on translating the Old Testament from the best Hebrew translations. He published individual English translations of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy and Jonah before he was betrayed to the authorities and arrested. He was held in captivity at Vilvorde for 16 months. One Tyndale letter from this period survives in which he asks for a lamp, a blanket and Hebrew texts and grammatical aids so that he can continue his translation work.

Tyndale had a remarkable knowledge of Hebrew and Greek and a passion to convey the plain meaning of Scripture in clear English. His idea was ‘ahead of its time’. The church authorities regarded him as a dangerous heretic because their system of control was more important than reading and understanding the Bible. Not for the first time in history, the church had grown into a self-perpetuating organism, with a momentum and machinery of its own – but drifting far from the straightforward message of Jesus Christ.

If printing a vernacular Bible was not dangerous enough, Tyndale went further by adding explanatory notes in the margins of his New Testament.

His 1534 edition contained 4,000 corrections in the Biblical text but he also added his own introduction to each book and additional marginal glosses and biblical cross-references to the text. This edition was sold out within weeks and was the most read book in England. It was a pocket sized book, measuring 6 inches by 4 inches and comprised 400 pages. Tyndale was now the foremost linguist in Europe and his New Testament had evolved into a superbly polished work. His language flows in simple, powerful and memorable expressions, for example, “Behold I stand at the door and knock.” (Revelation 3:10).

2011 is the 400th anniversary of the publication of the most famous English Bible, the ‘King James’ or ‘Authorised Version.’ Although published over 70 years after Tyndale was executed, 90% of the New Testament expressions were Tyndale’s and the percentage is similar for the first half of the Old Testament. The team of translators working for King James simply could not improve upon Tyndale’s work.

Tyndale was living in Antwerp with his merchant friend, Thomas Poyntz, while he planned to complete an English translation of the Old Testament. Anti-Reformation agents in Europe used an Englishman, Henry Phillips, to befriend Tyndale and then lead him into an ambush in a narrow alley on 21st May 1535. Armed men seized Tyndale and he was imprisoned in Vilvorde castle until his show trial in October the following year.

In 1550, Roger Ascham, the tutor to the future Elizabeth I rode through Vilvorde and noted, “At the town’s end is a notable solemn place of execution, where worthy William Tyndale was unworthily put to death.”

Laurence Kirkpatrick