Today we remember the martyrdom of William Tyndale

In the 16th century, nowhere was as dangerous for a would-be Bible translator as England.  In 1517 (the year of Luther’s 95 theses), seven parents were burnt at the stake for teaching their children the Lord’s Prayer in English.

Back in 1215AD, the Fourth Lateran Council declared:

“The secret mysteries of the faith ought not to be explained to all men in all places… For such is the depth of divine Scripture that, not only the simple and illiterate, but even the prudent and learned are not fully sufficient to try to understand it.”

Two centuries later the English church, under Archbishop Thomas Arundel, turned this “ought not” into a heresy punishable by burning.  England was the only major European country where translation was banned outright.

It was in this English context that Tyndale, aged just 22, spoke his famous words to another clergyman:

“If God spare my life ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plow, shall know more of Scripture than thou doest.” (1522, Foxes Book of Martyrs)

Tyndale was fluent in eight languages, a genius of translation and a true reformer.  It was this passion to make the “plow-boy” know the Scriptures that cost him his freedom and then his life.  He moved to the continent and in 1525 he produced the first printed New Testament in the English language.  His prologue was a combination of his own views on the gospel (he was an ardent believer in justification by faith alone) and a part translation of Luther’s forward to his 1522 New Testament.

The first print run was 3000 and they were smuggled into England in bales of cloth.  This New Testament was incredibly popular despite the fact that, if found with a copy, you would be burnt along with your Bible.

Tyndale has been called the architect of the English language, and in many cases he invented words to better convey the original:

“atonement”

“scapegoat”

“Jehovah”

“mercy seat”

“Passover”

And scores of his phrases have proved impossible to better in the last five centuries…

“Let there be light”

“In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God”,

“There were shepherds abiding in the field”

“Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name”

“The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak”

“Signs of the times”,

“Skin of your teeth”,

“In Him we live and move and have our being”

“Fight the good fight”

This year I have marvelled at the beauty of so many ‘King James phrases’.  Yet on closer examination the great majority turn out to be Tyndale phrases.  Only around 20 of the 365 phrases I have been considering this year are original to the King James Bible.  And Tyndale has provided the bulk of the rest.

Computer analysis has revealed that more than three quarters of the King James Version can be traced directly to Tyndale (83% of the NT and 76% of the OT).  Many times we can wish he was followed even more closely.  Consider Tyndale’s matchless translation of Genesis 3:4.  The serpent tempts Eve saying, “Tush, ye shall not die”!

By 1535 he had translated all of the Old Testament from Genesis to 2 Chronicles as well as the book of Jonah.  But he was betrayed by a friend and imprisoned for 18 months.  He was condemned as a heretic, degraded from the priesthood, strangled and then his body burnt.  But not before he cried out a famous prayer: “O Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.”

He was 42 years old.  He had been on the run for 12 years.  He had never married and was never buried.  But within three years his prayer was answered.  In 1539 Henry VIII ordered an English translation (the Great Bible) to be placed in every pulpit in England.  Miles Coverdale was responsible for the translation.  He was not a linguist.  So whose translation did he depend upon?  Tyndale’s.

Between Tyndale and the King James Version there were another 5 English translations, but none of them could get away from the monumental work of this giant of the reformation.

The King James Version is sometimes called ‘the greatest book written by committee.’  And I suppose there is something to celebrate about that.  Yet, for the most part, those 47 scholars, working in peace and prosperity, could not improve on the work of a young evangelical who gave his liberty and his life for the gospel.

Thank God for William Tyndale.

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17 Responses to “Today we remember the martyrdom of William Tyndale”

  1. [...] this article considers the impact of Tyndale on the King James Bible and hence many of the Bible translations [...]

  2. Interesting article. I wonder how those who ascribe to a KJV-only stance will take such news.

  3. Cindie says:

    I enjoyed reading the article. Thanks. I did notice a couple of typos that need to be changed (since this is the King’s English): “Let there (not their) be light”, and “he never married (not marred)”. :)

  4. Nora says:

    I taught at a KJV-only Christian school several years ago, and you could hear the gasp of disbelief that resulted when I said something like, “So, in essence, class, William Tyndale wrote much of what we know as the Bible, and many of the words and phrases that we love are actually his.” Then I had to add, “Well, of course GOD wrote the Bible, but I think we can all agree that he used Tyndale mightily.”

    Still, one of the parents contact the principal about the English teacher who was telling their kids that the Bible was the word of some English dude, and not God.

  5. Glen says:

    Thanks Jonathan, Cindie and Nora.

    I’ve fixed the typos (how embarassing! If I’d have known Tim Challies would link, I’d have spell checked!)

    Interesting story Nora. No KJV-only comments on this thread. Yet. There a couple of funny ones elsewhere on the blog though ;-)

  6. SLK says:

    Great tribute to a man who deserves to be better known. Thanks!

  7. Gene Veith says:

    Tyndale’s main persecutor was Henry VIII, and this was after his break with Rome! (Tyndale was burned in the Netherlands, as I recall, but at the English king’s behest.) Thomas More–hailed recently as a patron saint of tolerance!–was also involved in the killing of Tyndale, though he too would die at Henry’s hands later.

  8. Glen says:

    Thanks SLK and Gene.

    Yes, certainly Henry’s hands have blood on them. I’d have to chase up the links with Thomas More, that’s very interesting! As is your blog which I’ve been enjoying. Thanks!

  9. Bibbit says:

    I believe Tyndale was strangled, then his dead body burned. He was not burned alive. Simply look at the picture above and you will see him being strangled, there is no fire nor provsion for one.

  10. Xpo4us says:

    Slightly tangential to Tyndale himself, but this attribution: “back in 1215 AD, the Fourth Lateran Council declared” is false.

    The passage which you quote in fact comes from a letter written by Pope Innocent III in 1199 to the faithful of the Diocese of Metz. It can be found at Innoc. III Regestorum 2.141 (PL 214, Col. 695B-698D). The letter has nothing whatsoever to do with the translation of Scripture, but forbids lay preaching; it is furthermore not clear how widely this letter circulated beyond Metz, or whether it was ever read by Thomas Arundel.

    The Fourth Lateran Council says nothing about the subject of Biblical translation – the Canons of the Council may be found here:

    http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/lateran4.asp

  11. Michael Snow says:

    Between the spell checkers and fact checkers, this excellent article is being fine tuned by committee. How appropriate.

  12. Glen says:

    :) Hi Bibbit, my article does say that he was strangled then his body burnt. (5th para from end).

    Hi Xpo4us, thank you. My source for that was a lecture – I should have checked my facts!

    Hi Michael – indeed!

  13. Bibbit says:

    Hi Glen,

    I’m sorry, I meant my comment as regards the first post. Titled “The anniversary of Tyndale burned at the stake « Strengthened by Grace” it links to another article referencing this one. I meant to be more clear in saying it was for that post, but rushed it since I myself posted from work. It’s too bad so many have him being burned alive.

    Oh well, I have provided an example of why one shouldn’t post when in a rush.

  14. Tina says:

    Great article, thank you so much for remembering him. My 12th Great-Grandfather was John Rogers the Martyr, the first to be put to death by Bloody Mary. I have read that he worked with Tyndale. How grateful I am for those that have gone before us to share the Word of God.

  15. Glen says:

    Thanks Bibbit.

    And that’s amazing Tina! Yes Rogers was a real hero of the English Bible! In the last week or so I’ve learnt that a Scrivener was burnt in 1521 for being a Lollard. I’ll have to find out if I’m related.

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