The 16th century was populated with some of the brightest minds in history; Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Knox, Wishart, Latimer, Cranmer, Ridley, Farel…and fitting comfortably in this crowd of luminaries was William Tyndale; translator of the English Bible.
Tyndale was born in Gloucestershire in 1494 and grew up in the small village of North Nibley England, marked today by a monument atop a nearby hill. He was educated at Oxford, completing his BA in 1512 and his MA in 1515. While at Oxford Tyndale came across a copy of Erasmus’ translation of the New Testament which he read with interest. In Reading the Bible he found that while all of his intellectual pursuits thus far had served to invigorate his mind, the Bible alone was able to regenerate his heart. It was a significant turning point in his life and he began to preach the truths he had learned in the Bible at Oxford. However, Oxford was not ready to hear what Tyndale had to say about the Bible and he was forced to leave Oxford and move to Cambridge where he joined two other would-be Reformers: Thomas Bilney and John Frith.
Once he had completed his education at Cambridge, Tyndale returned to Gloucestershire and took up the position of tutor in the family of Sir John Walsh at Sodbury Hall. While he was here he fraternized with many of the local clergy who frequented Sodbury Hall and it was during these interactions that he heard about Luther and his work in Germany.
Tyndale, with his Bible by his side, emphatically argued for the Biblical legitimacy of Luther’s views, which surprised half his audience and scandalized the other half. He was soon decried as a heretic by the lower clergy but this didn’t stop him from preaching the word of God to Sir John’s household and tenantry which vim. His preaching then extended to the nearby villages and beyond but he began to see that no sooner had he sowed the truth among the people, the clergy swooped down to destroy the seeds he had scattered. It was at this juncture that an idea began to percolate in his mind: what if the people could have access to the Scriptures in their own language? The more he thought about it the more he realized that unless this happened the truth of the gospel could not be firmly established among the common people.
He left Sodbury Hall in 1523 and traveled to London where together with Frith he began to translate the Bible into English. Their work was stopped by the establishment of the Inquisition in England and Tyndale chose to flee to Germany. He traveled through Europe, from Hamburg to Cologne to Worms and then on to Antwerp, using the Greek and Hebrew texts to craft a masterpiece of the English language. The printing was completed at the end of 1525 and soon thereafter 1500 copied were despatched to England. The translation received a mixed response of public enthusiasm and Papal hostility accompanied by numerous attempts on the part of the latter to sabotage his work.
One account tells of how the Bishop of Durham, while in Antwerp sent to Tyndale’s publisher asking to purchase all available copies of his translation of the Bible. The publisher, Packington, complied with the request but, thinking it odd, alerted Tyndale to the development. Tyndale’s response to Packington was that if the Bishop was purchasing copies of his translation of the Bible he was only doing so in order to burn them all, which he ultimately did. But, instead of impeding the work this merely provided the money he needed to produce a larger number of better quality bibles. Tyndale contributed as much to the scholarship of English literature as Shakespeare and Chaucer, providing us with many of the translations of the Bible we use today. In fact, much of the King James Bible produced 60 years later, was taken almost verbatim from Tyndale’s bible.
Phrases such as ‘O Death, where is thy sting’, ‘Seek ye first’, ‘The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’ – these all came from William Tyndale.
Sadly Tyndale was betrayed by Henry Phillips in Antwerp, who feigned friendship to gain Tyndale’s trust and betrayed him into the hands of guards as he was leaving his house. He was taken to the castle of Vilvorde, condemned as a fanatic, strangled and then burned in 1536. His last words were “Lord! open the King of England’s eyes. “. So powerful was his witness that he converted his keeper and others in his household before his death.
The poignant Christian song tells us “Martyrs blood stains each page, they have died for this faith, hear them cry through the years, O heed these words and hold them dear” The word of God has come to us at a great cost, may we treasure it and commit to spending time in studying it Daily.