The English Bible
William Tyndale (/ˈtɪndəl/; sometimes spelled Tynsdale, Tindall, Tindill, Tyndall; c. 1494–1536) was an English scholar who became a leading figure in Protestant reform in the years leading up to his execution. He is well known for his translation of the Bible into English. He was influenced by the work of Desiderius Erasmus, who made the Greek New Testament available in Europe, and by Martin Luther. While a number of partial and incomplete translations had been made from the seventh century onward, the spread of Wycliffe’s Bible resulted in a death sentence for any unlicensed possession of Scripture in English—even though translations in all other major European languages had been accomplished and made available. Tyndale’s translation was the first English Bible to draw directly from Hebrew and Greek texts, the first English one to take advantage of the printing press, and first of the new English Bibles of the Reformation. It was taken to be a direct challenge to the hegemony of both the Roman Catholic Church and English Laws to maintain church rulings. In 1530, Tyndale also wrote The Practyse of Prelates, opposing Henry VIII’s divorce on the grounds that it contravened Scripture.
Reuchlin’s Hebrew grammar was published in 1506. Tyndale worked in an age in which Greek was available to the European scholarly community for the first time in centuries. Erasmus compiled and edited Greek Scriptures into the Textus Receptus—ironically, to improve upon the Latin Vulgate—following the Renaissance-fueling Fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the dispersion of Greek-speaking intellectuals and texts into a Europe which previously had access to none. When a copy of The Obedience of a Christian Man fell into the hands of Henry VIII, the king found the rationale to break the Church in England from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534.[page needed]
In 1535, Tyndale was arrested and jailed in the castle of Vilvoorde (Filford) outside Brussels for over a year. In 1536 he was convicted of heresy and executed by strangulation, after which his body was burnt at the stake. His dying request that the King of England’s eyes would be opened seemed to find its fulfillment just two years later with Henry’s authorization of The Great Bible for the Church of England—which was largely Tyndale’s own work. Hence, the Tyndale Bible, as it was known, continued to play a key role in spreading Reformation ideas across the English-speaking world and, eventually, to the British Empire.
In 1611, the 54 scholars who produced the King James Version drew significantly from Tyndale, as well as translations that descended from his. One estimate suggests the New Testament in the King James Version is 83% Tyndale’s and the Old Testament 76%. With his translation of the Bible the first to be printed in English, and a model for subsequent English translations, in 2002, Tyndale was placed at number 26 in the BBC’s poll of the 100 Greatest Britons.
Tyndale was born at some time in the period 1484–96, in Melksham Court, Stinchcombe, a village near Dursley, Gloucestershire. The Tyndale family also went by the name Hychyns (Hitchins), and it was as William Hychyns that Tyndale was enrolled at Magdalen College School, Oxford. Tyndale’s family had migrated to Gloucestershire at some point in the 15th century – probably as a result of the Wars of the Roses. The family derived from Northumberland via East Anglia. Tyndale’s brother, Edward, was receiver to the lands of Lord Berkeley as attested to in a letter by Bishop Stokesley of London. Tyndale is recorded in two genealogies as having been the brother of Sir William Tyndale, of Deane, Northumberland, and Hockwald, Norfolk, who was knighted at the marriage of Arthur, Prince of Wales to Catherine of Aragon. Tyndale’s family was thus derived from Baron Adam de Tyndale, a tenant-in-chief of Henry I (see Tyndall). William Tyndale’s niece, Margaret Tyndale, was married to the Protestant martyr Rowland Taylor, burnt during the Marian Persecutions.
Tyndale began a Bachelor of Arts degree at Magdalen Hall (later Hertford College) of Oxford University in 1506 and received his B.A. in 1512; the same year becoming a subdeacon. He was made Master of Arts in July 1515 and was held to be a man of virtuous disposition, leading an unblemished life. The M.A. allowed him to start studying theology, but the official course did not include the systematic study of Scripture. As Tyndale later complained:
They have ordained that no man shall look on the Scripture, until he be noselled in heathen learning eight or nine years and armed with false principles, with which he is clean shut out of the understanding of the Scripture.
A gifted linguist, over the years he became fluent in French, Greek, Hebrew, German, Italian, Latin, and Spanish, in addition to English. Between 1517 and 1521, he went to the University of Cambridge. Erasmus had been the leading teacher of Greek there from August 1511 to January 1512, but not during Tyndale’s time at the university.
Tyndale became chaplain at the home of Sir John Walsh at Little Sodbury and tutor to his children around 1521. His opinions proved controversial to fellow clergymen, and the next year he was summoned before John Bell, the Chancellor of the Diocese of Worcester, although no formal charges were laid at the time. After the harsh meeting with Bell and other church leaders, and near the end of Tyndale’s time at Little Sodbury, John Foxe describes an argument with a “learned” but “blasphemous” clergyman, who had asserted to Tyndale that, “We had better be without God’s laws than the Pope’s.” Tyndale responded: “I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!”
Tyndale left for London in 1523 to seek permission to translate the Bible into English. He requested help from Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall, a well-known classicist who had praised Erasmus after working together with him on a Greek New Testament. The bishop, however, declined to extend his patronage, telling Tyndale he had no room for him in his household. Tyndale preached and studied “at his book” in London for some time, relying on the help of a cloth merchant, Humphrey Monmouth. During this time he lectured widely, including at St Dunstan-in-the-West. [/su_spoiler]
[su_spoiler title=”In Europe”] In Europe
Tyndale left England and landed on the continent, perhaps at Hamburg, in the spring of 1524, possibly traveling on to Wittenberg. The entry of the name
“Guillelmus Daltici ex Anglia“ in the matriculation registers of the University of Wittenberg has been taken to be a Latinization of “William Tyndale from England”. At this time, possibly in Wittenberg, he began translating the New Testament, completing it in 1525, with assistance from Observant friar William Roy.
In 1525, publication of the work by Peter Quentell, in Cologne, was interrupted by the impact of anti-Lutheranism. It was not until 1526 that a full edition of the New Testament was produced by the printer Peter Schoeffer in Worms, a free imperial city then in the process of adopting Lutheranism. More copies were soon printed in Antwerp. The book was smuggled into England and Scotland, and condemned in October 1526 by Bishop Tunstall, who issued warnings to booksellers and had copies burned in public. Marius notes that the “spectacle of the scriptures being put to the torch” “provoked controversy even amongst the faithful.” Cardinal Wolsey condemned Tyndale as a heretic, his first mention in open court being named a heretic in January 1529.
From an entry in George Spalatin’s Diary, on 11 August 1526, Tyndale apparently remained at Worms for about a year. It is not clear exactly when he moved to Antwerp. The colophon to Tyndale’s translation of Genesis and the title pages of several pamphlets from this time are purported to have been printed by Hans Luft at Marburg, but this is a false address. Hans Luft, the printer of Luther’s books, never had a printing press at Marburg.
William Tyndale, before being strangled and burned at the stake, cries out, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes”. woodcut from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563).
Around 1529, it is possible that Tyndale intended to move to Hamburg, carrying on his work. He revised his New Testament and began translating the Old Testament and writing various treatises.
[su_spoiler title=”Opposition to Henry VIII’s Divorce”] Opposition to Henry VIII’s divorce
In 1530, he wrote The Practyse of Prelates, opposing Henry VIII’s planned divorce from Catherine of Aragon, in favour of Anne Boleyn, on the grounds that it was unscriptural and was a plot by Cardinal Wolsey to get Henry entangled in the papal courts of Pope Clement VII. The king’s wrath was aimed at Tyndale: Henry asked the Emperor Charles V to have the writer apprehended and returned to England under the terms of the Treaty of Cambrai; however, the Emperor responded that formal evidence was required before extradition. Tyndale developed his case in An Answer unto Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue.[/su_spoiler]
[su_spoiler title=”Betrayal and death”] Betrayal and death
Eventually, Tyndale was betrayed by Henry Phillips to the imperial authorities, seized in Antwerp in 1535 and held in the castle of Vilvoorde (Filford) near Brussels. He was tried on a charge of heresy in 1536 and condemned to be burned to death, despite Thomas Cromwell’s intercession on his behalf.
Tyndale “was strangled to death while tied at the stake, and then his dead body was burned”. His final words, spoken “at the stake with a fervent zeal, and a loud voice”, were reported as “Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes.” The traditional date of commemoration is 6 October, but records of Tyndale’s imprisonment suggest the actual date of his execution might have been some weeks earlier. Foxe gives 6 October as the date of commemoration (left-hand date column), but gives no date of death (right-hand date column).
Within four years, at the same king’s behest, four English translations of the Bible were published in England,[a] including Henry’s official Great Bible. All were based on Tyndale’s work.
Impact on the English language
In translating the Bible, Tyndale introduced new words into the English language, and many were subsequently used in the King James Bible:
Passover (as the name for the Jewish holiday, Pesach or Pesah)
Jesus Birth (the holiday of Christmas)
Coinage of the word atonement (a concatenation of the words ‘At One’ to describe Christ’s work of restoring a good relationship—a reconciliation—between God and people) is also sometimes ascribed to Tyndale. However, the word was probably in use by at least 1513, before Tyndale’s translation. Similarly, sometimes Tyndale is said to have coined the term mercy seat. While it is true that Tyndale introduced the word into English, mercy seat is more accurately a translation of Martin Luther’s German Gnadenstuhl.
As well as individual words, Tyndale also coined such familiar phrases as:
lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil
knock and it shall be opened unto you
twinkling of an eye (another translation from Luther)
a moment in time
fashion not yourselves to the world
seek and you shall find
eat, drink and be merry
ask and it shall be given you
judge not that you not be judged
the word of God which liveth and lasteth forever
let there be light
the powers that be
my brother’s keeper
the salt of the earth
a law unto themselves
it came to pass
gave up the ghost
the signs of the times
the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak (which is like Luther’s translation of Mathew 26,41: der Geist ist willig, aber das Fleisch ist schwach; Wyclif for example translated it with: for the spirit is ready, but the flesh is sick.)
live and move and have our being
fight the good fight
Controversy over new words and phrases
The hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church did not approve of some of the words and phrases introduced by Tyndale, such as “overseer”, where it would have been understood as “bishop”, “elder” for “priest”, and “love” rather than “charity”. Tyndale, citing Erasmus, contended that the Greek New Testament did not support the traditional Roman Catholic readings. More controversially, Tyndale translated the Greek “ekklesia”, (literally “called out ones”) as “congregation” rather than “church”. It has been asserted this translation choice “was a direct threat to the Church’s ancient—but so Tyndale here made clear, non-scriptural—claim to be the body of Christ on earth. To change these words was to strip the Church hierarchy of its pretensions to be Christ’s terrestrial representative, and to award this honour to individual worshipers who made up each congregation.”
Contention from Roman Catholics came not only from real or perceived errors in translation but also a fear of the erosion of their social power if Christians could read the Bible in their own language. “The Pope’s dogma is bloody”, Tyndale wrote in The Obedience of a Christian Man. Thomas More (since 1935 in the Roman Catholic Church, Saint Thomas More) commented that searching for errors in the Tyndale Bible was similar to searching for water in the sea, and charged Tyndale’s translation of The Obedience of a Christian Man with having about a thousand falsely translated errors. Bishop Tunstall of London declared that there were upwards of 2,000 errors in Tyndale’s Bible, having already in 1523 denied Tyndale the permission required under the Constitutions of Oxford (1409), which were still in force, to translate the Bible into English.
In response to allegations of inaccuracies in his translation in the New Testament, Tyndale in the Prologue to his 1525 translation wrote that he never intentionally altered or misrepresented any of the Bible in his translation, but that he had sought to “interpret the sense of the scripture and the meaning of the spirit.”
While translating, Tyndale followed Erasmus’ (1522) Greek edition of the New Testament. In his preface to his 1534 New Testament (“WT unto the Reader”), he not only goes into some detail about the Greek tenses but also points out that there is often a Hebrew idiom underlying the Greek. The Tyndale Society adduces much further evidence to show that his translations were made directly from the original Hebrew and Greek sources he had at his disposal. For example, the Prolegomena in Mombert’s William Tyndale’s Five Books of Moses show that Tyndale’s Pentateuch is a translation of the Hebrew original. His translation also drew on the Latin Vulgate and Luther’s 1521 September Testament.
Of the first (1526) edition of Tyndale’s New Testament only three copies survive. The only complete copy is part of the Bible Collection of Württembergische Landesbibliothek, Stuttgart. The copy of the British Library is almost complete, lacking only the title page and list of contents. Another rarity of Tyndale’s is the Pentateuch of which only nine remain.
Impact on the English Bible
The Bible in English
Old English (pre-1066)
Middle English (1066–1500)
Early Modern English (1500–1800)
Modern Christian (1800–)
Modern Jewish (1853–)
The translators of the Revised Standard Version in the 1940s noted that Tyndale’s translation inspired the translations that followed, including the Great Bible of 1539, the Geneva Bible of 1560, the Bishops’ Bible of 1568, the Douay-Rheims Bible of 1582–1609, and the King James Version of 1611, of which the RSV translators noted: “It [the KJV] kept felicitous phrases and apt expressions, from whatever source, which had stood the test of public usage. It owed most, especially in the New Testament, to Tyndale”. Many scholars today believe that such is the case. Moynahan writes: “A complete analysis of the Authorised Version, known down the generations as “the AV” or “the King James” was made in 1998. It shows that Tyndale’s words account for 84% of the New Testament and for 75.8% of the Old Testament books that he translated. Joan Bridgman makes the comment in the Contemporary Review that, “He [Tyndale] is the mainly unrecognised translator of the most influential book in the world. Although the Authorised King James Version is ostensibly the production of a learned committee of churchmen, it is mostly cribbed from Tyndale with some reworking of his translation.”
Many of the English versions since then have drawn inspiration from Tyndale, such as the Revised Standard Version, the New American Standard Bible, and the English Standard Version. Even the paraphrases like the Living Bible have been inspired by the same desire to make the Bible understandable to Tyndale’s proverbial ploughboy.
George Steiner in his book on translation After Babel refers to “the influence of the genius of Tyndale, the greatest of English Bible translators…” [After Babel p. 366]. He has also appeared as a character in two plays dealing with the King James Bible, Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn (2010) and David Edgar’s Written on the Heart (2011).
A memorial to Tyndale stands in Vilvoorde, where he was executed. It was erected in 1913 by Friends of the Trinitarian Bible Society of London and the Belgian Bible Society There is also a small William Tyndale Museum in the town, attached to the Protestant church.
A bronze statue by Sir Joseph Boehm commemorating the life and work of Tyndale was erected in Victoria Embankment Gardens on the Thames Embankment, London in 1884. It shows his right hand on an open Bible, which is itself resting on an early printing press.
A stained-glass window commemorating Tyndale was made in 1911 for the British and Foreign Bible Society by James Powell. In 1994, when the Society moved their offices, the window was reinstalled in the chapel of Hertford College, Oxford. Tyndale was at Magdalen Hall, Oxford, which became Hertford College in 1874. The window depicts a full-length portrait of Tyndale, a cameo of a printing shop in action, some words of Tyndale, the opening words of Genesis in Hebrew, the opening words of John’s Gospel in Greek, and the names of other pioneering Bible translators. The portrait is based on the oil painting that hangs in the college’s dining hall.
A number of colleges, schools and study centres have been named in his honour, including Tyndale House (Cambridge), Tyndale University College and Seminary (Toronto), the Tyndale-Carey Graduate School affiliated to the Bible College of New Zealand, William Tyndale College (Farmington Hills, Michigan), and Tyndale Theological Seminary (Shreveport, Louisiana, and Fort Worth, Texas), the independent Tyndale Theological Seminary in Badhoevedorp, near Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Tyndale Christian School in South Australia and Tyndale Park Christian School in New Zealand.
A life sized bronze statue of a seated William Tyndale at work on his translation by Lawrence Holofcener (2000) was placed in the Millennium Square, Bristol, United Kingdom. In 2008, vandals attacked the statue, which was taken away, repaired, and reinstalled