WILLIAM TYNDALE was born in about 1491, into a prosperous Gloucestershire family of wool-merchants, administrators, and landowners. After education at Oxford, and later at Cambridge, he joined the household of Sir John Walsh as tutor and chaplain. He decided to make the translation of the Bible into English his life’s work.
To escape official persecution, he fled to the Continent, where he remained until his capture and execution in Antwerp in 1536. During his lifetime, copies of his translation of the New Testament and much of the Old Testament were smuggled into England, where they eventually became the substance of the 1539 Great Bible: the first to be authorised in English. The Church commemorates him on the anniversary of his martyrdom, 6 October.
“I WISH that the husbandman may sing parts of [the scriptures] at his plough, that the weaver may warble them at his shuttle, and that the traveller may with their narratives beguile the weariness of the way,” Erasmus wrote in the preface to his 1516 edition of the Greek New Testament.
A few years later, Luther and Tyndale used Erasmus’s Greek New Testament to make this dream possible for German- and English-speaking readers.
The availability of the Bible in the vernacular, and the invention of the printing press became the two motivating engines of the Reformation. To them must be added the expansion in the early 16th century of trade between the countries of northern Europe, and the growth of the mercantile class as it supplanted the clergy and the landed aristocracy in power and influence.
The part played in the Reformation by Tyndale’s business contacts in the course of his career cannot be overstated. He had strong family connections with city merchants in London. It was to them that he turned when, as a young man, he failed to secure the patronage of the Bishop of London. He found refuge in the steelyard: an enclosed collection of Thameside quays and warehouses, a chapel, and accommodation belonging to London merchants trading with the Hanseatic ports in the Low Countries and Germany.
Throughout his 22-year exile on the Continent, he made use of these contacts, and was sometimes funded by them. It was in their ships that Tyndale’s Bibles were smuggled into England. When he was finally arrested in Antwerp, he had been living under the protection of the “English house”, the residence belonging to English merchants trading in Flanders and Germany.
TYNDALE’S New Testament was not the first to appear in English. More than a century earlier, Wycliffe and his followers had produced a translation into the vernacular. What was new was that, whereas the Wycliffites had used the Latin version (the Vulgate), Tyndale went back to the original Greek for his translation of the New Testament, and to the Hebrew for the Pentateuch. Also, he was able to use German printers and a network of trade connections by which to distribute his books.
The use of the original Greek text had a profound effect, not only on the accuracy of the translation, but on the style and cadence of the English in which it was written. Tyndale explained the difference between a translation from the Latin and one from the Greek: “For the Greek tongue agreeth more with the English than with the Latin. And the properties of the Hebrew agreeth a thousand times more with the English than with the Latin.” With the Greek text, he said, all you needed was to translate it, word for word, and in the same natural order of common speech. But to translate the Latin, “Thou must seek a compass.”
To unlock the scriptures from the Vulgate was a dangerous thing to do. The Latin straitjacket that had encased them for centuries was the foundation on which was built the entire edifice of medieval theology. Tinker with one part, and the whole building might come crashing down.
Erasmus knew this, and was prepared to take the risk: “I absolutely dissent from those people who do not want the holy scriptures to be read in translation by the unlearned — as if, forsooth, Christ taught such a complex doctrine that hardly anyone outside a handful of theologians could understand it.”
Thomas More, Erasmus’s friend and disciple, knew it, too, but he was cautious, and unwilling to allow such an important matter to fall into the wrong hands. A translation might open the door to heresy.
Among others, Cuthbert Tunstall, Bishop of London, inveighed against Tyndale’s English New Testament. In 1526, he called it “That pestiferous and most pernicious poison dispersed throughout all our diocese of London in great number, which will contaminate and infect the flock committed unto us with most deadly poison and heresy.”
TYNDALE’S manner of life was hardly conducive to study. Branded as a heretic by ecclesiastical authorities at home and abroad, he was compelled to live the life of a fugitive, moving under cover from Wittenberg to Cologne, Worms, Frankfurt, and Antwerp, ever vigilant for informers and ever fleeing the long reach of More’s spies. He was never safe.
Even so, he wrote books and commentaries as well as his translations, all of which were smuggled into England. Among these was his Obedience of a Christian Man, in which he wrote of the two divinely appointed authorities that all must obey: the Bible and the King. Ann Boleyn read it, and commended it to Henry VIII. He read it, and was delighted. “This is a book for me and all kings to read,” he said.
Finally, Tyndale was caught, betrayed by a “debauched and villainous” Englishman, Henry Phillips, who needed the cash to settle his gambling debts. Henry VIII, who had always been ambivalent about his troublesome subject, tried to save him from execution, but the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, in whose jurisdiction Tyndale was held prisoner, was not willing to oblige. Tyndale was convicted of heresy and sentenced to death by strangulation at the hands of the public executioner. His martyrdom took place in Antwerp on 6 October 1536.
Before he died, he was heard to cry out: “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.”
A FEW months later, in 1537, the first complete English Bible was published, this time “With the King’s most gracious licence”. Known as “Matthew’s Bible”, it comprised Tyndale’s New Testament and Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), and the rest of the Old Testament in Coverdale’s translation.
In 1539, a new version, the “Great Bible”, again incorporating Tyndale’s work, was ordered by Act of Parliament to be placed in every parish church. When James I’s Authorised Version was published in 1611, it contained, with some revisions, Tyndale’s New Testament and Pentateuch.
If any single person can be called the father of the English Reformation, it must surely be the exiled and martyred Tyndale.
The Revd Adrian Leak is an Hon. Assistant Priest at Holy Trinity, Bramley, in Surrey.