William Tyndale, Persecuted Bible Translator
"The most important printed book in the English language" is what the British Library called one of the last remaining original William Tyndale New Testaments when they bought it!
They purchased it for a little over a million British Pounds a couple decades ago, and thus Tyndale’s New Testament was added to the British Library's already illustrious collection, which included such notable works like the Gutenberg Bible.
William Tyndale made the first translation of the New Testament into the English language from the original Greek in the early 1500’s. He also translated major parts of the Old Testament.
However, as the saying goes, “No good deed goes unpunished,” and Tyndale paid dearly, giving his own life for his effort to bring English speakers access to the Word of God in their own language.
At this time last year, we had the blessing of not only being in Wittenberg, Germany for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, but also preached on the Reformation two days before in a church in Mandal, Norway.
We flew out a day later to Germany, where a quarter million people descended on the small town of Wittenberg, a little German town whose normal population in the city center—which everyone descended on—is only 2,100 people. We had a unique moment when we saw the country’s political leader coming in with a motorcade of cars, helicopters, and flashing lights, as we rode bicycles into the small downtown, one that boasts four Unesco World Heritage Sights on a single street, the only town in the world to have that. We figured the parking situation would be just impossible—it was—and we thanked the Lord for giving us a bit of insight and wisdom to rig up some rental bikes beforehand. Even though we had to ride twenty miles each way, it was well worth it!
This is a good time to reflect on the far-reaching impact of that Reformation that spread out from Wittenberg after the shaking that followed Luther’s posting his Ninety-Five Theses on the Castle Church door on October 31st.
The Reformation Spreads
For years, Germany was the engine fueling the Reformation, as Scholar David Daniell describes about the early period of the Reformation: “Germany was the powerhouse while England had nothing going.”
Over time, Martin Luther went from being labeled the “scourge of Christendom” to later having something akin to celebrity-like status. As time rolled forward, other scholars and leaders joined arms in returning to, and promoting more of a New Testament-based Christianity.
Although England lagged far behind, undercurrents of reform began to make their way across the channel and into the country.
Erasmus of Rotterdam had been promoting New Testament-based ideas at Cambridge University. Meanwhile, Luther’s influence began to make its way across the channel and sparked interest there as well. In time, Cambridge became known as a “little Wittenberg” and “little Germany” because of the growing influence of reform, and Lutheran, and New Testament, based ideas and influences being discussed and promoted there.
William Tyndale and The English Bible
As a Catholic priest, William Tyndale, like Luther, had experienced a conversion to Christ, which caused him to truly understand Christ’s grace and turn from just practicing religion to a true relationship with Christ. His thought and preaching subsequently moved into a reformed and evangelical direction.
He also was very influenced by Martin Luther, eventually leaving Oxford where he had been studying, as he found it was by and large resistant to the reformed waves moving through the land. As it happened, the Constitutions of Oxford held a decree—enforced throughout the land of England—that the Bible must only be in Latin, and forbade the Bible from being translated into the common, vernacular, English language of the people, on pain of being punished as a heretic: death by being burned at the stake!
As was the case in those days, few knew Latin, it was already a long dead language and the clergy were as ignorant of it and the New Testaments contents as was any commoner: William Warham, who was Archbishop of Canterbury in that day, complained that the monks were wholly ignorant of what the Bible, and especially of what the New Testament, contained. Most did not even know how many commandments Moses came down the mountain with—10 in case you are wondering, nor who was the author of the Lord’s Prayer—Jesus, of course—or where it might be found in the Bible, or if it was even in the Bible. A noted case had a monk ignorantly defending his dalliances, saying he thought that the Word commanded adultery when he was caught doing just so. Scholar David Daniell points out that the Bible might as well have been in Chinese for all the sense it made keeping it in Latin.
This position at Oxford University was one that would not be appreciated by a future Bible translator like Tyndale. Oxford’s unbending hold on this position, influenced by medieval Catholicism, would put Oxford on the wrong side of history, leaving it in the very lame historical position of having been a firm resistor of one of Britain’s greatest contributions in history to the English-speaking world.
Tyndale moved on from Oxford to Cambridge which, as stated earlier, was becoming known as a “Little Wittenberg” for its embrace and discussion of Martin Luther's reformed New Testament-based ideas. The White Horse Inn at Cambridge was a hotbed of Reformation discussions. Reform was in the air and spreading throughout parts of Europe, and even though England was a bit late to the game, many were beginning to embrace it.
Tyndale saw the need for a Bible in English, especially the New Testament, as translated from the original Greek. It should be noted that, roughly a century prior, John Wycliffe had made a valiant attempt to translate the Bible into English, but had only the use of the Latin Vulgate as his basis, as he had no access in those days to the fully assembled Greek manuscripts. Besides being inaccessible due to being in Latin, another problem, according to Erasmus, was that the Vulgate was full of errors.
Moreover, another huge technological advance had come forth in the interim: Gutenberg invented the printing press around the mid 1400’s. Wycliffe’s Bibles, in contrast, had to be copied individually by hand, a very slow and painstakingly long process.
Much of Wycliffe’s translated Bibles, and followers too, who were known as the Lollards, were rounded up and burned. Bibles, as well as men and women and children, were burned at the stake for desiring to know God’s Word. In fact, there is a noted case of a woman and her children all being burned at the stake for just having a copy of The Lord’s Prayer in her home, not really what you would call a concern to promote the Kingdom of God. This was an activity that was all too common for the Catholic institution!
Erasmus of Rotterdam, Dutch scholar, pre-Reformer, and Christian humanist, had been disgusted by the errors of the Catholic Latin Vulgate. In his own opinion, the Catholic Latin Vulgate was so riddled with errors and mistranslations that it was laughable. Furthermore, few knew or could read Latin, as it had been a dead language for a long time and only the highly educated learned how to read it. All of this, along with Catholic prohibitions against common people reading or possessing the Scriptures, kept the truth of God’s Word in the dark.
Erasmus set out to correct this and make a new Latin translation. But in order to be able to do this, he had to also assemble a complete Greek text, publishing this groundbreaking work in 1516. It was his Greek text, however, that much like Luther's Ninety-Five Theses, that turned out to be an accidental revolution. Erasmus’ assembly of the Greek New Testament into a comprehensive, accessible whole, gave reformers like Martin Luther and William Tyndale the ability to make a fresh translation of the New Testament into their respective native, vernacular tongues.
Luther’s translation made the Bible accessible to all Germans, whether educated or uneducated, rich or poor, noble or peasant, as did Tyndale for the English-speaking world.
In fact, Tyndale stated on one occasion to an educated man who held the laws of the pope and the Catholic Church higher than God’s Word: “…I defy the pope and all his laws…If God spare my life many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough, shall know more of the Scriptures than thou.”
Both Luther and Tyndale set out to make the Word of God to be available as never before and changing history in its wake. In fact, many of the advancements in the western world can be tied back to these very roots!
Tyndale Rearranges His Life to Fulfill His Purpose
Like Luther, Tyndale had seen the need for the word of God to be put into the common tongue of the people. He set out to do just so, rearranging his life to that effort. He moved out from Cambridge to Little Sodbury, out in the country in Gloucestershire. There, staying with a benefactor, he could have time set aside to work on a translation of the New Testament into English.
He had attempted to get approval from higher-ups in the Church Institution but that turned out to be a fool’s errand and only brought him opposition and persecution. He engaged in many debates with Catholic priests and leaders regarding the Catholic errors, but this led to more persecution and he eventually left the area. Though he had been warned by others, he seemed to be a bit naïve to the serious anger and opposition he was rousing in the Catholic camp. (This naïveté could be seen as a blessing for who knows how strongly one will proceed if all the obstacles are understood from the beginning.)
He had a stint in London where he reached out to Tunstall, the Catholic Bishop of London, but was given the cold shoulder instead. Tunstall’s cold rejection would later turn to white hot anger. There was a serious resistance to the Bible being put into the English language and Catholic leaders like Thomas More and Tunstall strongly opposed it. The Bible in the English language would undercut the man-centered penitential system of Catholicism and it was a threat to the hordes of money made off the relic, indulgence, penitential, and purgatory-based racket of the Catholic Church. As the persecution worsened, Tyndale departed England for the European continent after he connected with a man named Monmouth who helped him to fund some of his efforts.
Tyndale knew that if people could read the New Testament for themselves, they could see that simple faith in Christ alone is what was necessary for salvation. Tyndale writes: “Repent and Believe the gospel...and begin life anew! And his Spirit shall dwell in thee and be strong in thee and his promises shall be given thee at the last…and all things forgiven for Christ’s blood sake…Commit yourself to Him without respect either of thy good deeds or thy bad, repentance and belief is all! Works count for nothing in Christ blood!”
David Daniell points out that the Catholic Church, however, would never permit a New Testament in English from the Greek because neither the seven sacraments, purgatory, relics, indulgences, holy water, nor all their lofty ceremonies, could be found there, which were chief supports of the church’s financial system.
Tyndale Crosses the Channel
Tyndale eventually went to Wittenberg, Germany, and there he spent some time with Martin Luther. After meeting with Luther, whose German translation was a great aid in Tyndale’s efforts, he persevered in completing his New Testament translation while on the European continent, the first copies being printed in Cologne, Germany.
Tyndale had his pocket-sized New Testaments smuggled into his homeland of Great Britain. The small size made them easier to hide, and they became a huge hit and were widely popular.
Tyndale’s Bible was having a huge impact, and as scholar David Daniell points out, there was a new energy hitting Northern Europe:
"This energy which affected every human life in northern Europe…was not the result of political imposition. It came from the discovery of the Word of God as originally written...in the language of the people! Moreover it could be read and understood without censorship by the church, or mediation through the church, as it was written to be read, as a coherent cross-referencing whole. Such reading produced a totally different view of everyday Christianity. The ceremonies... of Catholicism are not there, purgatory is not there, there is no aural confession, no penance. The Catholic church’s support of its wealth and power collapses. Instead there is simply individual faith in Christ as Savior, as found in Scripture, that, and only that, justifies the sinner."
Fury Rises Against God’s Word
Bishop Tunstall, incensed by the New Testaments invading the land, sought to buy up the Bibles to burn them. But the man he had paid secretly gave the money to Tyndale, who ended up printing three times as many with the money. Thus, three times as many came into the land.
When Thomas More, outraged that Bibles were flooding the country, enquired as to how Tyndale was funding his effort to bring in so many, was told that it was by the Bishop because the money he was paying to buy up and burn the Bibles was getting to Tyndale to print more.
Tunstall proceeded with his public burning of the Bibles he had bought, which resulted in much outrage by the public. The thought that a Bishop, an alleged spiritual leader, would burn Bibles, burn God’s very Word, was abhorrent to many.
The word of God continued to come in and change lives in spite of many attempts to stop it, to even burn it!
The Word Spreads but Tyndale Pays the Price
God’s Word was spreading as were sentiments towards reform, but the powers that be still railed against it.
Unfortunately, Tyndale himself was betrayed, hunted down and apprehended, and subsequently jailed and later strangled and burned at the stake in Belgium.
He gave his life for his effort to bring the Bible to the English-speaking population. He might be pleased to know that one of his last remaining Bibles has been called "The most important printed book in the English language” by the British Library. That is quite an honor really, and one deserved by having sacrificed so much to give the English-speaking world the Word of God.
David Daniell points out that 90% of the King James Version’s New Testament is Tyndale’s work. It was the basis used by the scholars assembled by King James and what they worked from and then revised in places. The vast majority was left exactly as Tyndale worded it, with phrases we still use today in the English language; to many scholars his huge impact on the English language outweighs that of Shakespeare.
Such a high price was paid by many a reformer for seeking to return the people to the Word of God. Tyndale’s dying words were a prayer: “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” Three years later, the King of England ordered the Bible (with Tyndale’s New Testament and the Old Testament that had been translated by Tyndale and Coverdale) to be placed in all English churches that all people may read it!
It behooves us to notice the price paid by those who went before us to give us the Scriptures in our own language, and take time to read and study its pages, remembering there are still places in the world even today where the Bible is forbidden.