Born around 1492 in Gloucestershire at a time of religion turbulence in England, William Tyndale was the first person to translate the Bible to English language.
In the history of England there has been no more contentious issue that that of religion and its role in the state and the life of individuals. From the Christianization of Britain in the 7th century until the formation of the Anglican Church by Henry VIII in 1538, the country was entirely Catholic. The struggle between Catholics and Anglicans lasted from 1538 until the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, with the bloody Civil War hardening the lines between those who broadly accepted the traditional teaching of the Church (minus the authority of the Pope in the case of Anglicans) and those who sought deeper reform.
A key issue was access to the Scriptures by ordinary people. For historic reasons the Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek and these languages were only understood by a small educated elite, chiefly in the priesthood. So all biblical knowledge passed through the filter of the Church and dissidents became increasingly frustrated with this as they can be easily manipulated by what they don’t have proof or idea of the truth of. With the development of Protestantism in Germany by Marin Luther at the beginning of the 16th century, pressure for direct vernacular access to the Scriptures grew and this course Tyndale will give his life for.
According to the educational arrangement of those periods, William Tyndale, having attended Oxford University from 1506 to 1515 and graduated with a Master of Arts was qualified to go on to study theology but he was unhappy that much of that study was of the ancient philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato rather than direct Bible study. Since the Church had taken on the task of controlling all knowledge, this study was designed to continue the propagation of ‘correct’ views in Astronomy, Natural History and so on, but Tyndale considered it inappropriate and irrelevant. So, he spent 1517 to 1521 at Cambridge University, becoming a gifted linguist and fluent in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Latin, Greek and Hebrew, as well as English.
He became private chaplain to a Sir John Walsh, but quickly found himself in trouble with the Church for pressing the supremacy of the Biblical text over Papal edicts and for wishing to make it possible for, in his words, “cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more scripture than the clergy of the day” and to be able to directly learn Christianity from the Bible.
In 1523 he went to London to argue his case for an English-language version of the Bible, but could find no support. Rejected, he headed for Germany where he expected to meet a warmer reception. There he immediately began to translate the New Testament into English, completing the work by 1525.
Those were turbulent times for him and for the gospel and it was until a year later before he was able to find a printer, in the city of Worms, a free-city adopting Lutheranism and therefore free of Catholic interference. Copies of his translation were smuggled into England where they were quickly condemned, booksellers were warned not to sell them and copies publicly burned.
By 1529 Tyndale had been publicly declared an heretic by Cardinal Wolsey, a close religious adviser to the Royal Court and instrumental in forming the Church of England a few years later. Tyndale held several other heretical views, including not praying to saints and the mortality of the soul, which must have strengthened the case against him. He moved to Antwerp and began work on translation of the Old Testament. When he heard of Henry VIII’s intention to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn with the support of Cardinal Wolsey, he wrote a tract – The Practyse of Prelates – condemning the King’s decision as a violation of scripture.
He was later betrayed by a friend to be captured, found guilty and executed. The official date of his execution is October 6, 1536 but there is some dispute that it may have been some weeks earlier. He was defrocked in an elaborate public ceremony and turned over to the civil authorities to be strangled to death and burned at the stake. His last words are said to have been, “Lord! Open the King of England’s eye”. He was strangled with a noose – which was actually considered an act of mercy. Ironically, four years later Henry VIII published versions of the Bible in English, including his Great Bible, which was to be read aloud in the newly-formed churches of the Church of England. These translations followed those of Tyndale closely.
Tyndale’s New Testament formed the basis of numerous future translations, the most famous being the King James Version of 1611 which owes much to Tyndale for phrases it used. Common everyday expressions such as: a moment in time; in the twinkling of an eye; eat, drink and be merry; let there be light; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak; signs of the times; the powers that be, and many others widely used, were all first coined by Tyndale.
It has been suggested that around 90% of the King James Version (or at least of the parts translated by Tyndale) is from Tyndale’s works, with as much as one third of the text being word for word Tyndale. Many of the popular phrases and Bible verses that people quote today are in the language of Tyndale. An example of this is Matthew 5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers” .
Tyndale is considered a martyr by Protestants and it was the reading of the Bible in English perhaps more than anything else that produced the multitude of Puritan sects that led to the English Civil War and the settlement of America. The importance of the Tyndale Bible in shaping and influencing the English language has been mentioned. According to one writer, Tyndale is “the man who more than Shakespeare even or Bunyan has moulded and enriched our language.”