Introductory Note: This part concludes the look at William Tyndale; hopefully when it is finished, the reader will be able to appreciate a more complete spectrum on who this man was, and why he is so important to English-speaking’s history.
Tyndale, the Fugitive
John D. Long argues that it was back in England, after his education was finished, that “Tyndale experienced his moment of decision. He saw his life’s work to be the provision of the printed Bible in the English language…proficient in Greek and Hebrew as well as in Latin and English, [he] aspired to translate directly from the Greek…and Hebrew…” (93). Once Tyndale was able to translate a large portion of the Bible, his main obstacle was to have it printed.
An amazing thing occurred between 1525 and 1536, as almost fifty thousand copies of Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament flooded into England. This was unheard of, and made possible through the invention of the printing press. Prior to this, not even one thousand copies existed (those translated by the Lollards and others), and within eleven short years England was overrun by them. Sadly, though, the leaders of England were not as thrilled as the people, making it illegal even to point of death to own one of these copies. Yet Tyndale wisely did two things to overcome this. The Bibles printed were only five by four inches, and relatively easy to hide. Secondly, the Bibles were smuggled in via the trading ships full of cotton and cloth, to the area of his hometown in Gloucestershire (Long 93-4).
Once he decided to leave for Hamburg in 1524, he would never again return to England, yet his desire and love for it never left him. Thus his long years of intense education went to full use in a very short time period, largely beginning in 1525, at age thirty-one, and ending suddenly at age forty-one, in 1536. During this time persecution ensued and danger upon his life grew steadily. Thomas More, who was on a mission to crush William Tyndale, grew in rabid-hatred towards his work. Daniell explains this as follows in the introduction to Tyndale’s The Obedience of a Christian Man:
All More’s writings against Tyndale, almost three-quarters of a million words—frequently intemperate, as even his supporters, early and late, acknowledge-can be boiled down to his objection to Tyndale’s translation of six words. In place of the standard ‘priest’, ‘church’, ‘charity’, ‘grace’, ‘confess’ and ‘do penance’, from the fourth-century Latin, deeply built in to the church’s practice for centuries, Tyndale from the original New Testament Greek gave ‘[elder]’, ‘congregation’, ‘love’, ‘favour’, ‘knowledge’, and ‘repent. (xx-xxi)
In response, Tyndale responded humbly and with only one book, being no more than 80,000 words in his An Answer to Thomas More’s Dialogue. When More again wrote to attack Tyndale, he amazingly did not answer (xx).
A strange chain of events led to Tyndale’s betrayal and death, and little is known accurately. A seeming friend of his, Philips, turned him over to be imprisoned in Brussels, being “betrayed in Judas-fashion by a thorough-going scoundrel” (Long 113). In Fox’s Book of Martyrs, he plays out the devious plan that was laid out for soldiers to take Tyndale in an alleyway. Later the officers confessed, “that they pitied to see [Tyndale’s] simplicity” (185). Once under arrest, Tyndale endured sixteen months of intense interrogation, not being allowed a fair hearing in England, but was under the attacks of Catholic “heresy-hunters” there in Holland (Tyndale, The Obedience of a Christian Man xviii). John Fox then outlines Tyndale’s end,
At last, after much reasoning, when no reason would serve, although he deserved no death, he was condemned…Brought forth to the place of execution, he was tied to the stake, strangled by the hangman, and afterwards consumed with fire, at the town of Vilvorde…crying at the stake with a fervent zeal, and a loud voice, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes” […] As touching his translating of the New Testament, because his enemies did so much [hate] it, pretending it to be full of heresies, he wrote to John Firth [his best friend], as followeth, “I call God to record against the day we shall appear before our Lord Jesus, that I never altered one syllable of God’s Word against my conscience, nor would do this day, if all that is in earth, whether it be honor, pleasure, or riches, might be given me.” (184)
Few men have done so much in so little time, and it is amazing to think that William Tyndale has influenced more people than anyone who ever graduated from his alma-mater, Oxford, and more people have read what he translated than Shakespeare’s work (Tyndale, The Obedience of a Christian Man xix). It is true what Christ said, “And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, ‘If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all’” (Mark 9:35; ref. Mat. 19:30, 20:16; Luke 13:30).
What exactly is his legacy, and why speak so highly of this simple, quiet man of God?
John Piper expounds, “William Tyndale gave us our English Bible. The sages assembled by King James to prepare the Authorized Version of 1611, so often praised for unlikely corporate inspiration, took over Tyndale’s work.” And Brian Moynahan explains why this is true, showing that Tyndale’s translation “account[s] for 84 percent of the [King James Version] New Testament and 75.8 percent of the Old Testament books that he translated” (1). David Daniell explains the influence of Tyndale’s Old Testament translation:
These opening chapters of Genesis are the first translations—not just the first printed, but the first translations—from Hebrew into English. This needs to be emphasized. Not only was the Hebrew language only known in England by 1529 and 1530 by, at most, a tiny handful of scholars in Oxford and Cambridge, and quite possibly none; that there was a language called Hebrew at all, or that it had any connection whatsoever with the Bible, would have been news to most of the ordinary population. (Tyndale 287)
Adding to this, John Piper exclaims: “He translated two-thirds of the Bible so well that his translations endured until today,” in the form of the KJV Bible, which has in turn influenced every translation of today’s Bibles, five-hundred years later. He continues, “[T]his was not merely a literary phenomenon; it was a spiritual explosion. Tyndale’s Bible and writings were the kindling that set the Reformation on fire in England.”
There is much more to be said about William Tyndale, this soldier and martyr for the sake of Christ and God’s glory. Too little has been said about such a man, and too much has been said about far less worthy men and women of history. May God reward our brother Tyndale for all of his labor and struggle to change the world as we know it.
To conclude, I will reminisce on how much this man taught me; more through silence than through words. I have been mesmerized by the incredible degree of his dedication to his single task—producing the first Bible in English from the original languages. Even though this was against the law, he had a higher calling, bringing people the opportunity to meet their Savior through the Scriptures. Not only is his dedication admirable, but also his steadfast focus to this single task. Once God gave Tyndale a calling he did not look back, instead he pressed forward to the goal as one who lived out his faith, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (II Cor. 4:17). Another, more subtle characteristic that I am desirous that all Christians had and that is greatly needed in me, is the silent humility I see in William Tyndale. He is worthy of imitation as one who lived this: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Col. 3:23-4). My desire is that all those who say they love God would share the drive to serve God as this man did, in work and not simply words.
Lastly, I end with a call to see the Scriptures in new, bold, and fresh light. It is not religion that changes men, or good morals, or adequate education. God changes men, and His chosen instrument is His Word, the Holy Scriptures, and His workmen are the believers who find their faith founded on the truths therein. Let us not think lightly of this great gift, but worship God for it, read it, meditate on it, and ultimately live by it. Tyndale did not simply die to bring us a book; he died to bring us to the Book that gives the knowledge of eternal life which is ours through Jesus Christ. Truly the Bible that is today in our hands is God’s greatest tangible gift known to mankind.
Daniell, David. The Bible in English: Its History and Influence. New Haven and London: Yale University, 2003. Print.
—. William Tyndale: A Biography. New Haven and London: Yale University, 1994. Print.
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Fox, John. Fox’s Book of Martyrs. Ed. William, D.D. Byron Forbush. Philadelphia: Universal Book and Bible House, 1926. Print.
Frassetto, Michael. Great Medieval Heretics, The: Five Centuries of Religious Dissent. Bluebridge, 2008. Print.
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More, Thomas. Utopia. Trans. Paul Turner. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.
Moynahan, Brian. God’s Bestseller: William Tyndale, Thomas More, and the Writing of the English Bible–A Story of Martyrdom and Betrayal. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002. Print.
Piper, John. “Always Singing One Note–A Vernacular Bible: Why William Tyndale Lived and Died.” 2006. Desiring God. 11 September 2010 <http://www.desiringgod.org/resource- library/resources/always-singing-one-notea-vernacular-bible>. Web.
Sauer, Joseph. “Desiderius Erasmus.” The Catholic Encyclopedia 1909. Print.
Tracy, James D. Europe’s Reformations, 1450-1650. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999. Print.
Tyndale, William. Obedience of a Christian Man, The. Trans. David Daniell. London: Penguin, 2000. Print.
—. Tyndale’s Answer to Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue. Ed. Henry Rev., B.D., F.R.S. Walter. Cambridge: The University Press, 1850. Print.
—. Work of William Tyndale, The. Ed. G.E., M.A. Duffield. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965. Print.
—. Works of William Tyndale, The. Vol. 2. East Peoria: Banner of Truth, 2010. Print.
—. Writings of the Rev. William Tyndale. Lewes: Focus Christian Ministries Trust, 1986. Print.
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Writings of Tindal, Firth, and Barnes. London: Clowes, William, n.d. Print.