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William Tyndale: the man who gave England her Bible

October 2017 | by Phil Arthur

William Tyndale came from Gloucestershire, from the Vale of Berkeley, probably from Slimbridge, and the best estimates suggest that he was born in 1494.

Educated at Oxford, at Magdalen Hall, he returned to his native county to become tutor to the two sons of Sir John Walsh, at Little Sodbury Manor, in 1522.

His duties were not particularly onerous, as he had ample opportunity to preach in the neighbouring villages and it was partly this activity that helped to form a clear conviction in his mind that his efforts were largely counter-productive, as long as the common people did not have the Scriptures available in their own language: ‘It was impossible to establish the lay people in any truth, except the Scripture were plainly laid before their eyes in their mother tongue, and they might see the process, order and meaning of the text’.

Confrontation

Things came to a head when a confrontation took place at the Walsh’s home between Tyndale and a visitor, who roundly declared, ‘We were better be without God’s law than the pope’s. Maister Tyndall, hearing that, answered him, I defy the pope and all his laws, and said, if God spare my life ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough, shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost’.

On the strength of this conviction, Tyndale was to leave his native land in 1524 and die a martyr’s death in what is now Belgium, in 1536. What prompted him to live the life of an exile? Firstly, the only Bible which had official approval was the Latin translation, known as the Vulgate — a translation of considerable antiquity, dating back to the time of St Jerome. Lay people were not permitted to own a copy and, sad to say, ordinary clergy were often not nearly as competent in Latin as they ought to have been.

Secondly, the English translations that existed at the time were not adequate for the task. Tyndale had learned as a schoolboy that King Athelstan ‘caused the Holy Scripture to be translated into the tongue that then was in England’. Athelstan was the grandson of Alfred the Great of Wessex and the first king of a united England.

The problem, however, was that the English language had changed considerably in the 500 years that had passed since Athelstan’s day, largely because of the disruption caused by the Norman conquest.

It is true that there were many more recent English Bibles in circulation, because of the initiative of John Wyclif of Oxford. These Bibles were not direct translations from the original languages, but had been translated third-hand from the Latin Vulgate and were therefore somewhat wooden. They were not printed, but each copy had to be written out by hand. (This was simply because this initiative took place before the invention of printing by movable type).

Portions of 250 Wycliffite Bibles are still extant, which suggests that there must have been a considerable number in circulation, though it seems that Tyndale himself never had access to one. It is also fair to say that, while they did a considerable amount of good, for want of anything else, the fourteenth century ‘middle English’ has a dated feel compared with what Tyndale himself was to produce.

Burning heretics

Thirdly, it was not safe at that time even to own a Bible in the English tongue. A number of laws called the ‘Constitutions of Oxford’ had been passed in 1401, aimed at stamping out the Lollard movement. These included a law with the Latin title, De Haeretico Comburendo, meaning ‘On the burning of heretics’.

This is why Tyndale went to London in 1523. He realised that he needed the help of a powerful protector and hoped that the Bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, might both provide him with the funding that he needed for such a project and also keep him safe.

He presented the bishop with a translation of an oration by the Athenian orator Isocrates, to demonstrate his competence in Greek — Isocrates is notoriously demanding for a would-be translator — and as a way of responding to a common prejudice of the time, that English, as a peasant tongue, was incapable of carrying high and abstract conceptual matter as the ancient tongues did.

Sadly, Tyndale was rebuffed over a period of weeks and the conviction gained ground that he would never be able to translate the Bible into English within England itself while present conditions prevailed. This was why, in 1524, he departed for the European continent, heading in the first place for Hamburg. He was never to see England again.

Race against time

Tyndale was ready to go into print with a completed New Testament in summer 1525, within a year of leaving England. This suggests that a great deal of preparatory work had been done before he even left the country.

He had found a printer in the Rhineland city of Cologne. Unfortunately, the printer sent a messenger to tell him his work was about to be impounded by the authorities. It now became a race against time, as Tyndale and his assistant, a man named William Roye, raced to the workshop to retrieve everything that had been completed — which turned out to be Matthew’s Gospel, up to chapter 22, in the middle of what later became verse 12 (chapter and verse divisions did not become usual until the Geneva Bible of 1560).

In due course, copies of the bulk of Matthew’s Gospel, now known as ‘The Cologne fragment’ went on sale in England. They were loose-bound, in quarto size, with woodcut illustrations.

The revenue that came from the sales helped to furnish the printing of a complete New Testament a year later: the Worms New Testament, published in the same city where Luther made his famous declaration just five years before. It was the first ever to be translated directly from the common Greek of the first century into the common English tongue of the sixteenth.

This time it was printed in octavo, so that it was portable and easily concealed inside bales of cloth and even the sleeves of a coat. Copies were already on sale in London and the south east of England by February 1526. A bound copy cost (in imperial currency) two shillings and eight pence, and an unbound copy one shilling and eight pence.

Sums as low as these meant that even quite poor people could sometimes own a copy between them, and there is evidence that groups of people, only one of whom was literate, would club together to buy a New Testament between them, which they would then read together in secret. Only three copies of the Worms New Testament have survived, all from the same print-run.

Outstanding translation

It soon became clear that not only did Tyndale know Greek, but he was able to convey that knowledge in good plain English. Nearly five centuries later, many of Tyndale’s coinages have proverbial status in our language, such as ‘the signs of the times’, ‘the spirit is willing’, ‘live and move and have our being’, ‘fight the good fight’, and many more besides.

As it turns out, roughly 80 per cent of the Authorised Version of 1611 (what was to become ‘the Bible’ for most English-speaking Protestants until relatively recently) is taken directly from Tyndale. He produced a revised New Testament in 1534, having learned Hebrew, his eighth language, with a view to translating the Old Testament. In doing so, he acquired new understanding into the way that Old Testament passages were quoted in the new.

As far as the Old Testament itself is concerned, Tyndale had managed to translate the entire Pentateuch by 1530. A year after his death, a complete Bible in English was published, claiming to be the work of a certain Thomas Matthew. This was a pseudonym. ‘Matthew’ was actually John Rogers, the first Protestant to be martyred during the reign of Queen Mary I.

Internal evidence suggests that the historical books from Joshua to 2 Chronicles had actually been the work of William Tyndale, which would mean that he had succeeded in translating almost half the Old Testament.

He may have completed even more, but was distracted by the need to write books of a controversial character in the late 1520s and early 1530s. These included a sermon on justification by faith called The parable of the wicked mammon and a book called The obedience of a Christian man. The latter was his response to the common charge that the doctrine of justification by faith alone made Christians disloyal citizens. He argued that Christians have a duty of loyalty to the authorities, except when that duty comes into collision with their duty of loyalty to God, in which case they should abide the consequences patiently. This was to be William Tyndale’s own fate.

Martyrdom

In 1535, while living in Antwerp, Tyndale was betrayed by an Englishman named Henry Phillips, who gained his confidence by pretending to be an evangelical. Tyndale was to spend a year and a half in captivity in the castle of Vilvorde, before being sentenced to death after having been degraded from the priesthood.

He was executed by being strangled, then burned at the stake. His ashes were poured into the nearby River Zenne, so that land might not be tainted by the remains of a heretic. Apparently, just prior to his execution, he called out, ‘Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!’

In conclusion, what prompted one of the finest scholars of his age to forsake his native land, and the comforts of marriage, home and kindred, and to risk not only the loss of preferment, the scorn of the establishment, extreme poverty, and death itself?

The only explanation is that it was all done for love: first of all, for love of Christ and his gospel; then for love of the Word of God; and indeed for love of the people of England, not least the toiling ploughboys, who languished for want of the Scriptures in their native tongue.

Phil Arthur recently retired after many years as first pastor of Free Grace Baptist Church, Lancaster

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