History of English Bible Translation 08 William Tyndale 1526

History of the English Bible - Chapter 8

1526 William Tyndale Translates the English Bible

Bible Version Timeline William TyndaleThe Beginning of the Bible in English

Tyndale (1484 - October 6, 1536) holds the distinction of being the first man to print the New Testament in the English language.  Truly, no modern translation of the Bible is a wholly original work. Tyndale's is the exception to this rule. The genealogy of the English Bible always begins with Tyndale.

A Mission in Life – the Ploughboy

The English Bible was literally the forbidden book in Tyndale's day. The only Bible the people had was written in Latin - a language few could read except the clergy. The Catholic Church maintained its monopoly on truth with the threat of death to anyone who would disobey the ban.  By 1378 John Wyclif was attacking the Roman Catholic Church systematically as well as making an English translation from the Latin Vulgate. Alarmed at the spread of Wyclif's ideas and translations, Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Arundel in 1408 held a council at Oxford, which decreed that the Bible should be neither translated into English nor read in English.  This rule was in force during Tyndale’s lifetime. The Church was therefore willing to pursue Tyndale to the death for his translation work.

Tyndale wrote that the Church authorities banned translation into English “to keep the world still in darkness, to the intent they might sit in the consciences of the people, through vain superstition and false doctrine, to satisfy their filthy lusts, their proud ambition, and insatiable covetousness, and to exalt their own honour... above God himself.”

William Tyndale

After graduating from Oxford and then Cambridge, it was clear that Tyndale would find his life's mission in translating the Bible into the common English of his day despite the danger of being caught and burned.  In a now famous conversation, a clergyman hopelessly entrenched in Roman Catholic dogma taunted Tyndale with the statement, "We are better to be without God's laws than the Pope's". Tyndale was infuriated by such Roman Catholic heresies, and he replied, "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!"

Exile in Europe

Because his translation was not authorized by the Church, and contained notes called "pestilent glosses", Tyndale was forced to move to Germany and Holland to translate and print his English version of the Bible.  By 1526, his dream came off the press with the following words on the title page:

`The newe Testament as it was written and caused to be written by them which herde yt. To whom also oure saveour Christ Jesus commaunded that they shulde preache it unto al creatures'.

An estimated 6,000 English New Testaments began to flood into England inside bags of wheat and bales of cotton.  Nearly all were confiscated and burned in front of St. Paul's Cathedral by order of Catholic Church and the King.  An act of Parliament (35 Hen. VIII. cap. 1) forbade the use of all copies of Tyndale's "false translation."  His translation angered Catholics and the King not only because the scriptures were published in English, but he deliberately selected the word ecclesia as ‘Congregation’ instead of Church; ‘elder’ in place of ‘priest’; and ‘repentance’ for ‘penance’.

William Tyndale Bible Leaf

About this photo – This is a leaf taken from a 1552 printing of Tyndale’s Bible.  For a brief period of time between 1552 and 1553, Tyndale’s version was printed legally inside England.  However, Queen Mary quickly put an end to protestant Bible translations.

Persecution

Tyndale's works were produced by a man with a price on his head, on the run from his enemies, who having burned his books were out to burn him. Tyndale’s own words tell us what he was feeling.

"...my pains therein taken, ...my poverty, ...my exile out of my natural country, and bitter absence from my friends, ...my hunger, my thirst, my cold, the great danger wherewith I am everywhere compassed, and finally, ... innumerable other hard and sharp fightings which I endure..."

Tyndale was eventually captured, imprisoned for over a year and in October 1536, he was killed by strangulation and then burned at the stake.  His last words were reported to be "Lord, open the King of England's eyes!"

Publication

In just three years, William Tyndale's dying prayer would be answered. Where Tyndale's pen fell, his friends John Rodgers and Miles Coverdale picked it up and finished the work of publishing the entire Bible in English.  John Rodger's final product was published under the fake name "Matthew Thomas" to preserve his identity.  King Henry VIII, now the head of the newly-formed Church of England, was presented with the Matthew Thomas Bible by the Bishops of the Anglican Church and declared it to "contain no heresy."  He authorized that this version of Tyndale's work be "set forth with the King's most gracious license". A short time later, Coverdale also obtained the “King’s most gracious license” for his work.

Tyndale Bibles that Survive Today

The original copies of Tyndale's 1526 work are exceedingly rare - only three copies are known to have survived to this day.  The British Library holds a complete copy with only the title page missing. In 1994 the British Library purchased their copy from Bristol Baptist College.  The Library paid over 1 million pounds. St. Paul's Cathedral, the site of Tyndale Bible burnings in the 1520’s, now protects a precious copy with 71 leaves missing.  This copy was discovered in 1852. A third "Stuttgart Copy" was discovered in November 1996, during a project to create on-line records for 16th century holdings. The binding was stamped 1557, but a library employee took the book off the shelf and opened it to discover Tyndale's 1526 copy.  This copy contains the only known title page and proves that Tyndale published his work anonymously.  Queen Anne Boleyn's personal copy of the 1534 New Testament is also displayed at the British Museum. 

Between 1552 and 1553, Tyndale’s New Testament was printed again, but this time in England by the royal printer William Jugge under the protestant-friendly reign of Edward VI (1547-1553).  The page you see in this book is from the 1552 printing. Following Edward was Queen "Bloody" Mary (1553-1558), who once again outlawed English Bibles and persecuted Protestants for the duration of her reign, making this page one of the last of Tyndale’s forbidden Bibles.

The Heritage of all English Translations

It is surprising that the name of William Tyndale is not more familiar, for there is no man who did more to enrich the English language. Approximately 80% of the wording of the King James Version is taken directly from Tyndale's translation.  These phrases from the KJV are pure Tyndale:
• And God said, Let there be light, and there was light (Genesis 1)
• And God shall wipe away all tears from there eyes (Revelation 7)
• Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you (Matthew 7)
• With God all things are possible (Matthew 19)
• In him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17)
• Be not weary in well doing (2 Thessalonians 3)
• Fight the good fight of faith; lay hold of eternal life (1 Timothy 6)
• Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12)
• Behold, I stand at the door and knock (Revelation 3)
• Am I my brother's keeper (Genesis 4)
• Ye are the salt of the earth (Matthew 5)
• The signs of the times (Matthew 16)
• Where two or three are gathered together (Matthew 18)
• They made light of it (Matthew 22)
• Eat, drink, and be merry (Luke 12)
• Scales fell from his eyes (Acts 9)
• Full of good works (Acts 9)
• The powers that be (Romans 13)
• Filthy lucre (1 Timothy 3)
• The patience of Job (James 5)

The fact that the King’s translators in 1611 took these quotes (and many others) from Tyndale speaks to his greatness as a translator.  English, a language that had been in rapid change and development, now had a standard format that continues even to this day. Tyndale is truly the man who taught England how to read and showed Shakespeare how to write.