TranslationThe Life and Legacy of William Tyndale Tyndale’s work to translate the Bible into English reminds us that the Bible has a history written in blood. Peter J. GurryMay 3, 2022 ShareFacebookTwitterLinkedInPrint Level It’s fair to say that no single individual has left a more indelible mark on the language of the English Bible than William Tyndale (ca. 1494–1536). He was the first to translate the Bible into English from the original languages (the Wycliffe Bible was from Latin). He completed two editions of the New Testament and got as far as 2 Chronicles (and Jonah) in the Old Testament. By one estimate, as much as 80 percent of the wording of the King James Version is Tyndale’s. He was, by all accounts, a superb translator and his concern was always to give the Bible to the people. As one biographer says, “One key to Tyndale’s genius is that his ear for how people spoke was so good. The English he was using was not the language of the scribe or lawyer or schoolmaster; it really was, at base, the spoken language of the people.”1David Daniell, William Tyndale: A Biography (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994), 356. But he was also not afraid to innovate. He coined many English words including “anathema,” “godly,” “Passover,” and “fisherman.” He is also responsible for such famous biblical lines as “let there be light” (Gen. 1:3) and “fight the good fight” (1 Tim. 6:12) and he gave us “Jehovah” for the personal name of God in the Old Testament. Preparation Not much is known about Tyndale’s youth. Our first real record of him comes from his time at Oxford, where he began his training at age fourteen. This was on the younger side, but also not especially unusual for the time. The university was still small by today’s standards with only several thousand students, but it was growing in influence. The printing press was still new and printed textbooks were available but rare. Students typically borrowed, bought, or had a new copy made of their textbooks. Importantly, the memory of John Wycliffe still loomed large at Oxford. More than that, the tide of the Reformation was just beginning to hit the English shores. A German monk named Martin Luther would soon make a deep impression on Tyndale’s theology. Painting of William Tyndale. Wikimedia It was said of Tyndale’s time in Oxford that he was “brought up from a child in the university of Oxford, where he, by long continuance, grew up, and increased as well in the knowledge of tongues and other liberal arts as especially in the knowledge of the scriptures, whereunto his mind was singularly addicted.” Along with this devotion, he was intellectually gifted. He would later be praised by another scholar for mastering eight languages: Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, French, German, and, of course, English. A series of events that would shape his future occurred just as the young Tyndale finished his master’s degree. The first was the publication of Erasmus’s Greek-Latin New Testament that came off the press in 1516. This new edition met a growing interest in the Bible in its original languages. Nowhere would that interest be more significant than in Germany where, a year later, Luther nailed his 95 theses in a challenge to the Catholic church’s teaching on indulgences (1517). Five years after that, in 1522, Luther published his German New Testament—the first translated from the Greek and an edition that would become Tyndale’s model for an English counterpart. After finishing school, Tyndale returned to his home in Gloucestershire, England to become a tutor. It was during this time that he was ordained as a priest and began to preach in the surrounding churches. What marked his preaching was his emphasis on the Scriptures. But the people were not used to this, nor were they well acquainted with the Bible. His preaching was so unusual, that he was warned that if he kept it up, it would eventually cost him his life—a prescient warning in hindsight. But Tyndale persisted for, as he wrote later, he “perceived by experience, how that it was impossible to [es]stablish the lay people in any truth, except the scripture were plainly laid before their eyes in their mother tongue, that they might see the process, order and meaning of the text … which thing only moved me to translate the New Testament.” Already, he began to see the need for the Bible in the language of the people. Related What Pastors Should Know about Developments in Textual CriticismPeter J. GurryBorrowing from the KJV Bank and TrustMark WardThe Day the Bible Became a BestsellerJeffrey Kloha It was also during this time that he had his most famous encounter. He met a “learned man” who told him that “we were better without God’s law than the pope’s” to which he famously replied, “I defy the Pope and all his laws” and “If God spare my life ere many year, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough, shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.” Rejection in London As predicted, not everyone liked Tyndale’s preaching and he soon found himself with enemies who began to threaten his patron. So, he left Gloucestershire for London with hopes of securing the support and necessary license-to-print from the Bishop of London to publish a Bible in English from the original languages. By this time, he had already produced several translations of Greek classical works as a sort of proof-of-concept and he probably began his New Testament while in London. But it was to no avail. After a year of failed attempts to secure a meeting with the bishop, Tyndale came to see that England was not welcome to his ideas. As he would say later, he came to see “not only that there was no room in my lord of London’s palace to translate the New Testament, but also that there was no place to do it in all England.” He left for Europe in 1524. The time in London was not a waste, however. While there, he establishes crucial connections with a group of merchants who supported him and would continue to do so.2David Daniell, The Bible in English: Its History and Influence (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 143. They would prove key to his success. As one writer says of them, The merchants of London, mainly in the cloth and tailoring industries, were firmly entrenched in the Lollard movement first set in motion by John Wycliffe 150 years earlier, a movement which now was in touch with the German Lutherans and which, in defiance of English Church law, was crying out for a new translation of the Scriptures. Such men as these were to provide the finance and shipping that were crucial to the success of the enterprise, and that is how, in 1525, Tyndale found himself in Cologne and in the printing house of Peter Quentell.3W. R. Cooper, “Introduction,” The New Testament: 1526 Tyndale Bible, Original Spelling Edition (London: British Library, 2020), ix. It is in Cologne that he first begins to print his New Testament. The First Print Run Printing began in 1525, but was interrupted when the printshop was raided by authorities. He seems to have reached only to Mark and, today, only part of Matthew survives in a single copy. But the door had cracked. For the first time in English, Matthew 7:7 read, “Ask and it shall be given you: Seek and ye shall find: Knock and it shall be opened unto you.” Tyndale did not give up. He fled up the Rhine River to Worms—the same city where Luther had defended his own theology just five years before. There Tyndale started again, and this time succeeded. His second edition stands as the first complete English New Testament translated from Greek. Besides this, several features helped make it a success: it was small, attractive, and affordable. It was half the size of his first attempt and a bound copy might cost just five days’ wages for a skilled laborer.4At 3s. 4d. using the the National Archives currency converter Contrast that with a few centuries before, when a complete Latin Bible might cost fifteen years’ salary for the same man. A century before Tyndale, a copy of Wycliffe’s English Bible might still cost around two year’s wages.5For these prices, see Cooper, “Introduction,” xiv–xv. For the first time, the ordinary Englishman had a Bible he could understand—and afford. Matthew 1 in Tyndale’s 1525 (left) and 1526 (right) editions. His 1526 edition includes chapter divisions seen in the right margin. Images are not to scale. British Library G.12179 and C.188.a.17. Thousands were smuggled to England and sold and it was immediately condemned by the Bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall—the same bishop who had previously refused to host him. In October, Tunstall sent out a prohibition of the book, calling it “that pestiferous and most pernicious poison dispersed throughout all our dioceses of London in great number.” He had it burned at St. Paul’s Cathedral, an occasion at which he preached the sermon. Today, only three copies survive. Capture Despite the instant interest, Tyndale did not benefit financially from his new Bible. In 1531 he spoke to a friend of his poverty, his exile, his hunger, thirst, cold, danger, and absence from friends—all which he did with the hope to “do honour to God, true service to my prince, and pleasure to his command.”6Daniell, Tyndale, 213. Despite the instant interest, Tyndale did not benefit financially from his new Bible. But he remained undeterred. During this time, he published several theological works and finished his translation of the Pentateuch, published in 1530. But the opposition only grew. His most famous critic was Sir Thomas More who wrote no less than nine volumes against Tyndale, totaling nearly half a million words!7Daniell, Bible, 149. By November 1534, Tyndale had finished a second edition of his New Testament in Antwerp where he was then living—still in exile from England. Like most Bible translators, especially in this new era of vernacular translations, revision started almost before finishing. Work on his Old Testament continued as well. He was, by this point, very Lutheran in his theology and is on record attacking the Catholic church’s theology, which he saw as nullifying the role of grace in salvation. But his work would soon be interrupted for good. In 1535, a young man named Henry Phillips, who had left England in disgrace after gambling away his father’s money, feigned friendship and interest in Tyndale and his work. In a turn eerily reminiscent of Judas’s betrayal, he turned him over to the authorities for money. On May 21, 1531 Phillips tricked Tyndale into leaving his house and Tyndale was seized in an alleyway. He was taken to the castle of Vilvorde near Brussels. The charge was being a Lutheran. The sentence was death. During his year in prison, Tyndale was interrogated by the local Catholic theological experts, the goal being to solicit a confession to save his soul from hell. Vilvorde Castle from an early engraving. Image source As winter approached, he wrote what is his last and only surviving letter. Today, it is all that remains in his own handwriting. He writes, I beg your lordship, and that of the Lord Jesus, that if I am to remain here through the winter, you will request the commissary to have the kindness to send me, from the goods of mine which he has, a warmer cap; for I suffer greatly from cold in the head, and am afflicted by a perpetual catarrh [nasal inflammation], which is much increased in this cell; a warmer coat also, for this which I have is very thin; a piece of cloth too to patch my leggings.My overcoat is worn out; my shirts are also worn out. He has a woolen shirt, if he will be good enough to send it. I have also with him leggings of thicker cloth to put on above; he has also warmer night-caps. And I ask to be allowed to have a lamp in the evening; it is indeed wearisome sitting alone in the dark.But most of all I beg and beseech your clemency to be urgent with the commissary, that he will kindly permit me to have the Hebrew Bible, Hebrew grammar, and Hebrew dictionary, that I may pass the time in that study. In return may you obtain what you most desire, so only that it be for the salvation of your soul. But if any other decision has been taken concerning me, to be carried out before winter, I will be patient, abiding the will of God, to the glory of the grace of my Lord Jesus Christ: whose spirit (I pray) may ever direct your heart. Amen As he prepares for death, Tyndale’s chief desire was still to get the Bible into English. What is especially remarkable about this letter is that, at the time he wrote it, he had no reason from the circumstances to be hopeful about his life’s work. His books were being burned, his house had been raided, the new Bishop of London was harsher than Tunstall. David Daniell says of this time that a “heavy curtain hung before him, through which he could see little or nothing.”8Daniell, Bible, 156. One can’t help but think of the heroes of faith in the book of Hebrews of whom it is said, in Tyndale’s own version, “They all died in faith, and received not the promises: but saw them afar off, and believed them, and saluted them: and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Heb. 11:13). Early in October, he was brought out, a chain placed on his neck. He was strangled first and then burned, but not before crying out his final prayer, “Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes.” The depiction of Tyndale’s death from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Wikimedia Legacy His legacy was immense. We have already noted his contribution to the English language and to subsequent English translations. But perhaps most remarkably, it was within months of is death that his friend John Rogers printed, for the first time, a complete English Bible with all of Tyndale’s translation work: not only his New Testament and Pentateuch, but also his work through 2 Chronicles that many thought was lost during his arrest. The initials “W.T.” at the end of the Old Testament in the “Matthew Bible” (1537). Image source More remarkable still is that a copy of Roger’s Bible, printed under the pseudonym “Thomas Matthew,” was sent to the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. Cranmer sent it on to King Henry VIII’s viceregent, Thomas Cromwell, with an endorsement saying, “I like it better than any other translation heretofore made.” From there, it was shown to the king and, amazingly, approved for use in England. Cromwell wanted a copy in every English parish. In less than a year after his death, Tyndale’s dying words were answered. His own translation would be in the hands of the people in a Bible with his own initials stamped in large letters at the end of the Old Testament. The Lord had indeed opened the king’s eyes. Conclusion Tyndale’s life and work is a reminder of the cost that has been paid to have the Bible. Even listening to a copy being read could be punished by death in the flames. Today, our easy access to dozens of English translations can lead us to take the English Bible for granted. We can argue so much about the “best” translation that we fail to appreciate the fact that we have any at all. But, if the lesson of Tyndale’s life needs to be learned today, it is not the first time. Tyndale’s life and work is a reminder of the cost that has been paid to have the Bible. In 1570, John Foxe made the same point. He wrote in his Book of Martyrs about how the zeal for the Bible in the time before Tyndale should be a spur to Christians in his. “The fervent zeal of those Christian days seemed much superior to these our days and times, as manifestly may appear by their sitting up all night in reading and hearing; also by their expenses and charges in buying of books in English … some gave a load of hay for a few chapters of St. James or of St. Paul in English.” The lesson then is the same as today: “To see their travails, their earnest seekings, their burning zeal, their readings, their watching, their sweet assemblies … may make us now in these days of free possession, to blush for shame.” If the “free possession” of the Scriptures was a reason to appreciate the Bible in Foxe’s day, how much more should it be one in ours? The content of this article is also available as a video lecture. King Henry’s viceregent was Thomas Cromwell not Oliver Cromwell as an earlier version of this article said. Peter J. Gurry Peter (PhD, University of Cambridge) is Associate Professor of New Testament and Codirector of the Text & Canon Institute at Phoenix Seminary. He is the author of Scribes and Scripture: The Amazing Story of How We Got the Bible (with John Meade) and A New Approach to Textual Criticism (with Tommy Wasserman). He blogs regularly for Evangelical Textual Criticism. View all posts Notes1David Daniell, William Tyndale: A Biography (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994), 356.2David Daniell, The Bible in English: Its History and Influence (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 143.3W. R. Cooper, “Introduction,” The New Testament: 1526 Tyndale Bible, Original Spelling Edition (London: British Library, 2020), ix.4At 3s. 4d. using the the National Archives currency converter5For these prices, see Cooper, “Introduction,” xiv–xv.6Daniell, Tyndale, 213.7Daniell, Bible, 149.8Daniell, Bible, 156.