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Tyndale’s Translation of the Bible

October 6, 1998 marks 462 years since another Christian was burned at the stake for his translation and distribution of the English Bible.

William Tyndale was a highly educated man fluent in several languages, including Greek and Hebrew. He had been hired as a tutor for the children of Sir John Walsh at Little Sodbury Manor. During his free time, Tyndale would gaze out into the fields below the manor and observe the ploughboys diligently working in the fields.

The ploughmen represented the uneducated and superstitious people of England. No one really cared about the ploughmen. They were destined for a life of ignorance, imprisoned within their own village.

The scholars had their Latin Bible, and the Erasmus Greek New Testament had recently been completed, but these were of little use to a poor country farmer. Redemption through the blood of Jesus Christ awaited the ploughman. The message of salvation seemed foreign to their existence, and in fact it was, until a man named William Tyndale decided to compile the “Words of Life” in English—the language of the ploughboy!

Tyndale had to hide in Europe under an assumed name to complete his translation.

In 1526, Tyndale’s English New Testament began trickling into England. The Scriptures, now referred to as the “pirate edition,” were printed smaller than conventional books. This made them easier to smuggle in bales of cotton and containers of wheat being shipped into England.

As the “quiet” distribution of Tyndale’s New Testaments continued, it was inevitable that some would fall into the hands of the “enemy.” Upon discovery of Tyndale’s work, officials began buying up as many of the English New Testaments as possible. William Tyndale was publicly denounced and accused of printing over 3,000 errors within his translations. The confiscated Scriptures were then thrown into the fire.

Hearing of the action, Tyndale replied, “In burning the New Testament they did none other thing than I looked for; no more shall they do if they burn me also, if it be God’s will it shall be so. Nevertheless, in translating the New Testament I did my duty....”

Within a decade, Tyndale’s New Testament was widely distributed throughout England. Although the translator’s vision of the ploughboy’s Bible had come to pass, persecution of those caught with this “illegal” book was severe. The prisons were overflowing, hundreds of New Testaments were burned, and believers were even publicly burned at the stake with Tyndale’s New Testament fastened around their necks.

William Tyndale, through his translation and distribution of the English New Testament, became responsible for a wave of severe persecution. Thousands of Christians were executed. Two of Tyndale’s close friends, Little Bilney and Richard Bayfield, were burned at the stake. Weekly, reports would come to Tyndale, who remained in exile in Europe and continued his distribution of the Word of God and translation of the Old Testament.

The persecutions were no longer targeted at the ploughboy. Every man, woman, or child, educated or not, was at risk if they dared possess Tyndale’s New Testament. Even church officials, once persecutors, became martyrs after finding truth in Tyndale’s work. Thomas Moore arrested everyone he could lay his hands upon if he suspected them of holding the new views or possessing the heretical books.

In the spring of 1535, a man named Henry Phillips arrived in Antwerp, where Tyndale had been hiding. Having learned of the failure to arrest Tyndale, Phillips took it upon himself to betray Tyndale in hopes of gaining notoriety and financial reward.

By the end of May, Henry Phillips had made contact with Tyndale and obtained his confidence, noting that Tyndale was “simple and inexpert in the wily subtleties of this world.” Before Tyndale knew what was taking place, Phillips set an ambush for his newfound friend and two English spies made the arrest.

Tyndale knew his mission was quickly coming to an end. He had chosen this path and was well aware of the consequences. His translation of the Old Testament is believed to have been completed during his 18 months in prison. His final words, as he was to be burned at the stake, reveal the heart of God’s martyr, refhttpusing to conform to man’s laws above God:

“Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.”

Tom White and Steve Cleary, “The Smuggler,” The Voice of the Martyrs, October, 1998, pp. 3-4

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