William Tyndale and the Birth of the English Bible

On October 6, 1536, Englishman William Tyndale (c.1494-1536) was strangled by the civil executioner in Belgium and his dead body was burned at the stake. His crime? Tyndale had translated the New Testament and major portions of the Old Testament from the original languages into English so that English-speaking Christians could read the Scriptures in their own tongue.

Persecution and Bible burning

In our time, we are privileged to have access to a wide variety of Bible translations in English. The idea that a Bible translator could be hunted down like a criminal and his Bible translation burned and destroyed seems shocking. Why did such a tragedy happen? Let’s briefly explore the religious-political situation in England between 1380 and the 1530s for the answer.

We begin with the first English version of the Bible, translated and published in 1380 by John Wycliffe (c. 1330-1384).1 An Oxford theologian, Wycliffe was a severe critic of what he believed was a corrupt church. He hoped that people could be called back to a more biblical faith, and for this to happen he was convinced that they needed to read the Bible in their own language.

By producing a translation, Wycliffe ran afoul of church authorities. The few Wycliffe Bible copies in existence were banned by a synod of clergy in Oxford in 1408. An edict was issued against any unauthorized translation of the Bible into English. Wycliffe was pronounced a heretic and was called “a son of the old serpent, forerunner and disciple of Antichrist” by the English Archbishop.2 In 1415, the Church Council of Constance condemned Wycliffe’s writings and ordered his bones to be dug out of the ground and to be burned.

We can now begin to understand why Tyndale and his Bible translation would not be appreciated. Church authorities seemed to take a dim view of Christian folk having the Bible in the language of the uneducated laity. In the words of Church historian Philip Schaff, “Down to the very end of its history, the Medieval Church gave no official encouragement to the circulation of the Bible among the laity. On the contrary, it uniformly set itself against it.”3

Genesis 1:1–2, from the Tyndale Bible:

In the begynnynge God created heaven and erth. The erth was voyde and emptie, ad darcknesse was vpon the depe, an the spirite of god moved vpon the water …

The Protestant Reformation begins

Tyndale would be in danger of the church hierarchy solely on the basis of his producing an unauthorized English translation. However, Tyndale had two strikes against him, because he was also enmeshed in the Protestant Reformation, which was in full swing by the time he completed his New Testament in English in 1526. The first shot of the Reformation had been fired nine years earlier, when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. (Luther translated the New Testament into German in 1522.)

Tyndale had thrown in his lot with the Reformers and was highly critical of the church structure in England. The established church in England had no real case for objecting to a Bible in English, except perhaps on the traditional view that it was unhealthy for people to read the Bible for themselves. However, church officials also objected to the critical commentary that Tyndale’s New Testament contained. This gave the clergy the rationale to condemn Tyndale and seize copies of his translation.

A determined Tyndale

Tyndale was aware of the dangers of embarking on the translation project he was contemplating. However, he was convinced that the common people must be able to read the Bible in order to be called back to the biblical gospel. In one debate with a cleric, he vowed that if God spared his life, he would see to it that the plowboy would know more about Scripture than untutored priests.

Tyndale first approached Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall (or Tonstall) of London in 1523 to request permission to translate the Bible into English. He hoped that the bishop would both authorize his translation work and also provide him with a residential chaplaincy so he could support himself financially during his project. The bishop denied both requests and suggested Tyndale look for employment elsewhere.

The next year Tyndale decided to go to the Continent, where, with the support of a group of British merchants, he completed his translation of the New Testament. Tyndale found a printer in Cologne, but opponents raided the printing establishment. Escaping with the pages that were already printed, he headed to Worms, Germany, where his New Testament in English was printed in 1526. The first printing of 6,000 copies was then smuggled into England.

Church officials in England, especially in London, did everything they could to intercept copies of Tyndale’s New Testament and destroy them. But copies kept appearing, to the chagrin of Bishop Tunstall. He hit upon the idea of buying up as many copies as possible. Once he accomplished his aim, the bishop held a public burning of these New Testament copies at St. Paul’s cathedral.

Despite this campaign against Tyndale’s New Testament, new copies kept appearing in England. Tunstall then conceived of a plan to buy up large numbers of copies on the Continent before they made their way to England and then destroy these as well. The bishop made an agreement with Augustine Packington, a merchant in Belgium to buy all of Tyndale’s remaining printed New Testaments.

Tyndale was made aware of this plot and agreed to sell the copies. He would use the money he received to publish a new edition and have even more copies to distribute. The bishop’s plot was foiled. In the words of Edward Halle, a chronicler of the times: “And so forward went the bargain: the bishop had the books, Packington had the thanks, and Tyndale had the money.”4

More translation, opposition and Tyndale’s death

Meanwhile, Tyndale traveled to Antwerp, Belgium, where he began translating the Old Testament into English. By 1530, he had completed and published the English translation from the Hebrew of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament.

Tyndale is also considered to have translated the Old Testament books from Joshua to 2 Chronicles, though his translation did not appear while he was alive. As Tyndale was involved in the theological disputes of the day and because he was hounded by those seeking to capture him, he was unable to complete the translation of the entire Old Testament.

Tyndale’s second edition of the New Testament was finished in 1534. It was his definitive work, and it is this edition that served as the basis of the 1611 King James Authorized Version.

As Tyndale worked in Antwerp, the agents of King Henry VIII and other opponents were scouring Europe, hoping to find and capture him. Tyndale was betrayed by a fellow Englishman, kidnapped and arrested on May 21, 1535. He was imprisoned in a Belgian fortress and eventually brought to trial for heresy and found guilty. The verdict condemning him to death came in August 1536. On October 6 of the same year he was executed at Vilvorde, Belgium.

Tyndale’s final prayer, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes,” is said to have been directed to English King Henry VIII (1491-1547). His prayer was a hope that the king would allow copies of the Bible in English to be circulated. Tyndale’s prayer had already been answered. An English version of the Bible that drew on his translation work was in circulation before his death. Three years after Tyndale’s death, Henry required every English parish church to make a copy of the English Bible available to parishioners.

In the biblical books that Tyndale translated, perhaps up to 90 percent of his wording is found in the King James Version. Where the 1611 King James Version departed from Tyndale’s translation, later revisers of this version often returned to it. For his pioneering work of translation, William Tyndale is considered the “Father of the English Bible.”

In the United States, National Bible Week is celebrated each year from Sunday to Sunday of Thanksgiving week.5 This is a timely opportunity to recall the struggles of individuals such as Wycliffe and Tyndale, who suffered grave injustices to help make the Bible available to people in the English language and to reform the church. It is also an appropriate time to remember that many people around the world do not yet have a Bible in their own language.

1 Wycliffe’s translation was made before the invention of moveable type and the printing press. All copies of his Bible had to be copied by hand. His version was not a translation of the original languages in which the books of the Bible were first written.

2 David Ewert, A General Introduction to the Bible, page 184.

3 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. vi, page 722.

4 From Halle’s 1548 chronicle of England from Henry IV to Henry VIII in F. F. Bruce, History of the English Bible, page 38.

5 The National Bible Week celebration is sponsored by the Laymen’s National Bible Association. The week-long observance began in 1941, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a message in support of the event.

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