Can you imagine the hardship of not being able to read the Bible in your own language? This was the situation throughout the Middle Ages when the scriptures were only available in Latin, which few people could read or understand.
William Tyndale stated his great ambition to a Catholic priest, ‘If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy who drives a plough to know more of the scriptures than you do’.1 Tyndale’s life work was to translate the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek languages into English. This effort was bitterly opposed by the Catholic church, but Tyndale persevered despite tremendous persecution.
Educated at Oxford and Cambridge, Tyndale was fluent in many languages. He had access to an edition of the Greek New Testament compiled by the scholar Erasmus, and published in 1516. Tyndale was forced to flee to mainland Europe in 1524. He not only faced pressure from church authorities in England, but also offended Henry VIII since he opposed the king’s divorce and remarriage.
Tyndale’s complete New Testament in English was printed in 1526 at Worms, a city strongly associated with Martin Luther Some of these precious books were smuggled into England, although, sadly, many were burned by the authorities. Today there are only three remaining copies of Tyndale’s original New Testament edition, one of which is held at the British Library.2
Later, Tyndale moved to Antwerp where he continued working on an English translation of the Old Testament. He was arrested in 1535 and imprisoned in Vilvoorde near Brussels. He spent a cold winter in jail; like the Apostle Paul, 2 Tim. 4. 13, he begged for a warmer coat and some study materials:
‘Send me, for the Lord Jesus’ sake, a warmer cap … and a warmer coat … But above all, I beg and entreat your clemency earnestly to intercede with the lord commissary, that he would deign to allow me the use of my Hebrew Bible, Hebrew grammar, and Hebrew lexicon, and that I might employ my time with that study’.3
Tragically, in 1536 Tyndale was found guilty of heresy and condemned to death. He was strangled then burned at the stake. According to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, Tyndale’s final words were: ‘Lord, open the king of England’s eyes’. This dying prayer was answered remarkably - within two years Henry VIII would approve English Bibles being placed in churches, and within a century James I would commission a full translation of the Bible into. English
Notably, all modern English translations trace their heritage to Tyndale’s work. He coined recognizable phrases like ‘let there be light’ and ‘the salt of the earth’. Tyndale refused to use Catholic idioms in his translation; for instance, he translated the Greek work ekklesia as ‘congregation’ rather than ‘church’. Literary scholars recognize Tyndale as the ‘father of modern English’.4
When we encounter Tyndale’s translation, it does sound strangely familiar to us. Here is a well-known evangelical passage:
‘For by grace are ye made safe thorowe fayth and that not of youre selves. For it is the gyfte of God and commeth not of workes lest eny man shuld bost him silfe’, Eph. 2. 8, 9.
On the other hand, some renderings might cause a wry smile. Here Tyndale describes Joseph:
‘And the LORde was with Ioseph and he was a luckie felowe and continued in the house of his master the Egiptian’, Gen. 39. 2.
If you are interested in reading the full text of William Tyndale’s translation it can accessed online at https://www.biblestudytools.com/tyn/.
So, what is our response to the life and work of William Tyndale? Surely, we must appreciate more fervently the value of the scriptures in our own language. We can thank God for Bible translators - people from centuries ago like Tyndale, together with more modern contributors such as Frances Siewert who compiled the Amplified Bible. Further, we can support the ongoing work of scripture translation and distribution. According to the Bible Society, complete translations of the Bible are available in 700 languages but there are more than 7000 languages in the world.5 Finally, we have renewed confidence in the preservation of God’s word. We close with Tyndale’s translation of the Lord Jesus describing the permanence of scripture:
‘Heven and erth shall perisshe: but my wordes shall abyde,’ Matt. 24. 35.
As quoted in the Actes and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Days, touching Matters of the Church (Foxes Book of Martyrs) by John Foxe. Source: https://quotepark.com/quotes/1939813-william-tyndale-if-god-spare-my-life-ere-many-yeares-i-wyl-cause/.