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UCGia Bible Insights Thursday, February 18 2021

William Tyndale: He gave his life to give us the Bible

We owe a great debt to early Bible translators, like Tyndale and his predecessor John Wycliffe. Tyndale's version was the first rendering of the Bible into English directly from Hebrew and Greek, the original biblical languages (along with a small portion in Aramaic).

William Tyndale: He gave his life to give us the Bible
Portrait of William Tyndale. Source: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
by John Ross Schroeder

According to British author Brian Moynahan, William Tyndale's most recent biographer, "A complete analysis of the Authorised Version [KJV] ... was made in 1998. It shows that Tyndale's words account for 84 percent of the New Testament, and 75 percent of the Old Testament books that he translated" (William Tyndale: If God Spare My Life, 2003, p. 1).

Persecution by the Catholic bishops in England, motivated by Cardinal Wolsey, prompted Tyndale to escape to Europe in 1524 in order to continue his translation work, with his first stop probably being Hamburg, a fairly tolerant German city at that time.

Later Tyndale moved to Wittenberg in eastern Germany, where Martin Luther had dramatically confronted the Roman Catholic Church. (Luther had barely preceded Tyndale by translating the New Testament into the German language in 1522. The Old Testament followed in 1534.)

Then, sometime in 1525, Tyndale travelled to Cologne, where a small portion of his English New Testament was first printed by Peter Quentell's press. The printing got as far as Matthew 22 before the authorities raided the premises, with Tyndale barely escaping with copies of what had been completed thus far.

Tyndale then fled via the Rhine River to Worms, where in 1526 he managed to publish 6,000 copies of the "Worms Edition," a pocket-sized rendition of the New Testament and his first complete version including all 27 books. (In 1994 the British Library purchased the sole remaining complete copy for £1 million.)

According to The Columbia Encyclopedia, Cardinal Wolsey ordered Tyndale seized at Worms, but the translator found refuge in Marburg, and then moved on to Antwerp in Belgium. Here Tyndale completed the translation of the Torah or Pentateuch—the five books of Moses.

Unfortunately in early 1529, on a voyage to Hamburg, William Tyndale was shipwrecked off the coast of the Netherlands and his entire, freshly translated English Pentateuch perished in the sea. Tyndale biographer Brian Moynahan wrote: " He lost all of his books, and was 'compelled to begin all again anew, to the 'doubling of his labours.'" (William Tyndale: If God Spare My Life, p. 177).

Tyndale therefore spent most of 1529 translating the Pentateuch into English, finishing it in 1530 and then completed the revised New Testament of 1534. Between 1530 and early 1535, Tyndale also translated Joshua, Judges and the six historical books of 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles along with the book of Jonah.

These manuscripts were passed on to John Rogers, who published them in Matthew's Bible in 1537. David Daniell adds: "John Rogers assembled all of Tyndale's biblical translations, and a complete English Bible was printed by Matthew Crom in Antwerp" (The Bible in English, p. 157). John Rogers was himself martyred later during Queen Mary's reign.

In May of 1535, the authorities finally found and arrested Tyndale in Antwerp, halting his goal of translating the entire Bible into English. On Oct. 6, 1536, at age 42, William Tyndale was affixed to the stake, strangled and then burned. Tyndale's last words on the stake consisted of a prayer that God would open the eyes of the king of England.

F.F. Bruce summarized: "Tyndale died a martyr's death, vilified by authorities in church and state in England. Nothing was too bad to say about his translation. Thousands of copies were seized on entering this country and publicly burned" (The Books and the Parchments, 1984, p. 216).

Paradoxically, Tyndale's final prayer was answered only months later when the English-language Bible was finally accepted by the crown. "Within months of Tyndale's martyrdom, a complete English Bible, two-thirds of it Tyndale's work, and licensed by Henry VIII, was circulating in Britain" (Daniell, The English Bible, p. 157).

Although Tyndale received no personal credit after his death—and even several centuries afterwards—F.F. Bruce adds: "But when royal policy changed in England ... and the translation of the Bible into English was authorised, the version which won the royal favour and was placed in every parish church in England was basically Tyndale's ..." (The Books and the Parchments, 1984, p. 216).