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William Tyndale — A Lasting Influence

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Who was William Tyndale? What influence could a poor scholar of 500 years ago have on the English-speaking world today? The answer is, much! In this paper I will endeavor to answer the two questions above, with emphasis given in the second question to Tyndale’s influence on all subsequent versions of the Bible (after his).

Contrary to popular legend, Tyndale was not the son of paupers or beggars, but the son of a rather well to do clothes merchant who lived in the land of Gloucestershire, England. Sailors, travelers, and traders came to the region from countries such as Germany, France, Italy, and India. They came for the “white wool of the Cotswold sheep” (Daniell, 1994, p.14), bringing their culture and their language to young William’s town. This is crucial for understanding where Tyndale’s knack for languages originated.

Indeed, as one of his recent biographers has pointed out, other masters of the English language came from places “on the edges of other cultures and other tongues”(Daniell, 1994, p. 13) including two of the most familiar, Chaucer and Shakespeare. Imaging the many dialects and languages that he would have been exposed to, Tyndale’s knack for capturing enduring, timeless English in his translations of the Greek and Hebrew Bibles is seen to have been built on a firm foundation of vulgar philology.

Little else is known about Tyndale’s childhood. The hard facts are that he was born about 1494, earned B.A. and M.A degrees from Oxford in 1512 and 1515 respectively, and spent several years at Cambridge where he “further ripened in the knowledge of God’s word” (Foxe, 1877, p.115). After spending two years back in his homeland as the tutor of Sir John Walsh’s two children (1521-23), he set off for London to offer himself to the Bishop, Tunstall.

Tyndale had hoped to be hired by the Bishop as a full-time scholar and translator. To that end, Tyndale had an English translation of an oration from Isocrates to show his skills, but Tunstall would have none of it (or him). Dejected, Tyndale gained the support of a merchant named Monmouth and set sail for Hamburg in 1524. Betrayed by drunken workers in the printing shop that was producing his translation, he fled to Worms in 1524.

The first version of Tyndale’s New Testament was completed in 1526, with many revisions following. The Pentateuch came in 1530. He also translated the Old Testament books of Joshua through Second Chronicles and Jonah, but these were not printed until a year after his death in the so-called Matthew’s Bible of 1537. All of these works have recently been released in modern spelling, complete with Tyndale’s original notes in the margin.

Tyndale lived the rest of his life an expatriate. He was betrayed while going to dinner at a so-called friend’s place, handed over to the authorities, and spent 16 months in the Vilvorde Castle. On the morning of October 6, 1536, he was taken out to the stake, tied, strangled, and then burned. His crime? Translating a “corrupt” version of the Scriptures. His last words were “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!”

Before we discuss the influence of Tyndale’s monumental English New Testament it is necessary to state, in brief, what were some of the exigencies of circumstance and history that make him such a remarkable person. Scholars (or pseudo-scholars) who today shop for a Greek New Testament on the internet from hundreds and even thousands of wholesale and resale shops can scarcely imagine what an unheard of commodity one of these would have been in 16th century England.

Erasmus published the first Greek New Testament in 1516. Legend has it that Colet’s lectures on Paul’s Epistles at Oxford (1496-9) inspired Erasmus to publish his great work. Many popular histories tell of the powerful expositions from the original Greek, and how this changed the direction of Renaissance learning forever. This would ensure that “England could breathe the clean air of the apostle again”(Daniell, 1994, p. 33). This view, however, is fantasy at best.

Colet never learned Greek. Erasmus, while writing Colet a characteristically flattering letter about the said lectures he heard, was very disdainful of any “Greekless exegete”(Daniell, 34). John Colet only made an attempt to learn Greek in 1516, three years before his death. He did, in fact, give up the endeavor almost as quickly as he had begun.

There was also the reason for Erasmus’ Bible. He was attempting to improve upon Jerome’s Latin Vulgate. Specifically, he was attempting to prove his version superior to Jerome’s by listing it parallel with the Greek. He was using the Greek text to give authority to his Latin New Testament. It would be the second and third editions of Erasmus’ New Testament that Tyndale would use as the basis for his English translation.

Procuring one of these Greek Testaments was another problem Tyndale faced. True, moveable type had been in existence for over 50 years, but printing was then (as it is now) a business. This means that the printers normally produced books that would bring them a profit. Popular stories such as Chaucer’s tales and Robin Hood were quite popular. Unfortunately, Greek New Testaments were not high on the list.

The other problem, that of actually learning Greek and Hebrew, the languages of the Bible, Tyndale had partially conquered during his years at Oxford and Cambridge. Greek he knew; but Hebrew was unknown on the entire Island. Tyndale would seek Jewish scholars on the continent to master this ancient tongue.

The last obstacle, the one that Tyndale would not overcome, was the habit of the governments of the time to burn, behead, and generally maltreat any man who dared translate the Word of God into a language that the commoners could understand. We now turn our attention to Tyndale’s marvelous Bible translation.

Truly, no modern translation of the Bible is a wholly original work. Tyndale’s is the exception to this rule. The genealogy of the English Bible always begins with Tyndale. Miles Coverdale, an Austin friar, published the first printed English translation of the entire Bible. The New Testament was essentially Tyndale, slightly revised by Coverdale after comparing it to Luther’s New Testament. The Pentateuch is also largely Tyndale’s translation, published by him in 1530.

The next Bible in the line is the “Matthew’s Bible”, published in Antwerp in 1537, authorized by King Henry VIII of England. John Rogers, the translator, also used Tyndale’s New Testament, Pentateuch, and the previously unpublished translations Tyndale made of Joshua through Second Chronicles. The apocrypha and other books were largely based on Coverdale’s Bible. This Bible bears the large, ornamental initials “W.T.” between the Testaments, thus solidifying the tacit acknowledgement of Tyndale’s presence. This Bible was also known as the Great Bible because of its size – 16 x 11 inches!

On the heels of this great work came the Taverner’s Bible, a revision of the Great Bible by Thomas Cromwell’s protg, Richard Taverner. Work on all English translations stopped abruptly on July 6th, 1555 when Bloody Mary took the throne, and all advances for reformation in England were laid low. As Protestants fled the country, God used this horrible time to bring some of the best expatriate scholars together to produce an enduring monument to Puritan scholarship in 1560 – the Geneva Bible.

The Geneva Bible bears the distinction of being the first Bible to be divided into verses. This Bible was less expensive and smaller than the Great Bible, and it soon became the choice of the commoners on the entire island. It was also the Bible used by the Puritans when they migrated to the New World. It was the Bible of Shakespeare and Milton and went through 150 editions before being suppressed in the seventeenth century. This Bible is also called the Breeches Bible because of its translation of Gen 3:7—“They sewed fig tree leaves together and made themselves breeches.”

The clergy of England were a bit miffed over the popularity of the Geneva Bible, so the Archbishop of Canterbury commissioned a revision of the Great Bible, completed in 1568. This revision was four years in the making, and retained in large part the readings of the Great Bible, which was (as I stated earlier) for the most part Tyndale’s translation. It is a historical irony to note that those same clergy who heartily approved of Tyndale’s execution and labeled his translation as “heretical” gave their stamp of approval to essentially the same work just 30 years later.

The next Bible in the line is, without a doubt, the most loved, enduring, and best selling translation in history. Until the 1990s it outsold every other translation, and still ranks as THE Bible with most Christians today. This Bible is the King James (KJV), or Authorized Version (AV). A brief history of this great work is in order before examining the influence Tyndale’s translation had on it.

We owe much to our Puritan forefathers, including what was once considered the magnum opus of the English language. When King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England in 1603, a petition bearing 1000 names known as the “Millenary Petition” was presented to him. It bore a list of grievances the puritan-minded people had with the clergy, claiming many abuses and prejudices toward them. To resolve these problems the Hampton Court Conference was called in 1604. While the result did precious little to relieve the Puritans of their burden, it did inspire the president of Corpus Christi College at Oxford, John Reynolds, to request that King James might authorize a fresh translation of the Bible.

Tyndale’s name is conspicuously absent from the original preface of the AV. This preface (reprinted by Thomas Nelson publishers in their recent reprint of the 1611 version) mentions many foreign language translations, but only mentions in passing the great tradition of earlier English translations that preceded them by stating that their aim was to make “a good translation better”.

Dr. Dan Wallace, professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, tells us that over 90% of the AV is Tyndale. An examination of Matthew chapter five reveals the truth of this statement. Of the 1,063 words, there are only 108 differences, making the percentage roughly 90%—spot on with Dr. Wallace’s figure. Examination of entire books would, no doubt, reveal similar results.

The AV has given English-speaking people some of the most memorable and well known phrases and verses. Here are some examples (we should note that every one of these is pure Tyndale):

  • And God said, Let there be light, and there was light (Genesis 1)
  • And God shall wipe away all tears from there eyes (Revelation 7)
  • Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you (Matthew 7)
  • With God all things are possible (Matthew 19)
  • In him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17)
  • Be not weary in well doing (2 Thessalonians 3)
  • Fight the good fight of faith; lay hold of eternal life (1 Timothy 6)
  • Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12)
  • Behold, I stand at the door and knock (Revelation 3)
  • Am I my brother’s keeper (Genesis 4)
  • Ye are the salt of the earth (Matthew 5)
  • The signs of the times (Matthew 16)
  • Where two or three are gathered together (Matthew 18)
  • They made light of it (Matthew 22)
  • Eat, drink, and be merry (Luke 12)
  • Scales fell from his eyes (Acts 9)
  • Full of good works (Acts 9)
  • The powers that be (Romans 13)
  • Filthy lucre (1 Timothy 3)
  • The patience of Job (James 5)

The fact that the translators took these quotes (and many others) from Tyndale speaks to his greatness as a translator. His greatness today is still unknown to the general church-going public. The pundits who promote the AV as the only version we should use (in contrast to the “corrupt” modern translations) would be less apt to speak if they only read Tyndale’s translation.

Listed in figure one is the genealogy of the Bible from Tyndale down to the present day. There are only three “families” of versions: The Tyndale, the New English Bible, and the New International Version. If the influence of one translation can be seen as “head and shoulders above the rest,” it is Tyndale’s.

Reflection on the life and times of this lesser-known giant should always be considered when calculating influence. Here was a man who had some of his greatest work before him—the Psalms and Proverbs would surely reveal his keen sense for translation and verse; the prophets would surely speak of his passion for the Word and directness of force; further revisions of his New Testament would almost certainly bespeak of his genius and meticulous work as a scholar.

What would the world be like without the AV, Shakespeare, or Milton? When pondering the answer to this question, consider also Tyndale risking (and giving) his life to the work that God had for him. Without him, the landscape and history of English would be unimaginable. With him, the language we use became a thing of beauty, elegance, and has evolved into the universal language of the twenty first century.

In conclusion, our great tradition of English Bibles began with one man listening to the Spirit of God. The Spirit put upon Tyndale’s heart a burning passion to see the commoners read God’s unadulterated, de-barnacled Word. Being a learned man, Tyndale saw the abuses that came from a corrupt, uneducated clergy who knew little about the Word of God, and even less about the Latin verses that they recited each week.

When Tyndale first translated his New Testament, the English language was thought of as weak and unfit for Holy Writ. He changed the language and proved to all that it was rich, dramatic, and colorful; that it was fit to communicate God’s Word. Unfortunately, most people have never heard of this man, except as a passing sentence in a history book mentioning the cohorts of Martin Luther during the reformation.

More work should be done to enlighten all Christians about how the Bible they hold in their hands is, to a great degree, the result of one man’s willingness to “kick against the pricks” (Acts 9:5—also used in the AV and taken directly from Tyndale).

THE GENEALOGY OF TYNDALE1

Works Cited

Campbell, W.E. (1949). Erasmus, Tyndale and More. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode.

Daniell, David, (1994). William Tyndale – A Biography. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Gospel Communications Network (2001). The Bible Gateway. http://bible.gospelcom.net (2001).

May, Herbert Gordon (1965). Our English Bible In The Making. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

Tyndale, WIlliam (1989). The New Testament, (David Daniell, Ed.). New Haven: Yale University Press.

Tyndale, WIlliam (1989). The Old Testament, (David Daniell, Ed.). New Haven: Yale University Press.

Wallace, Dr. Daniel (2001). History Of The English Bible—Part 4. [Film] Available: Indianapolis, IN.—College Park Baptist Church.

Wild, Laura H. (1929). The Romance Of The English Bible. New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc.


1 This chart is based on the work of Dr. Dan Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary.

Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word), History