William Tyndale’s Bible for the People
IT WAS a day in May in the year 1530.* St. Paul’s churchyard in London was crowded with people. Instead of milling around the booksellers’ stalls and exchanging the latest news and gossip as usual, the crowd was visibly agitated. A fire was roaring at the center of the square. But it was no ordinary bonfire. Into the fire, some men were emptying basketfuls of books. It was a book burning!
Those were not ordinary books either. They were Bibles—William Tyndale’s “New Testament” and Pentateuch—the first ever to be printed in English. Strangely, those Bibles were being burned at the order of the Bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall. In fact, he had spent a considerable sum buying all the copies he could find. What could possibly have been wrong with the Bibles? Why did Tyndale produce them? And why did the authorities go to such lengths to get rid of them?
The Bible—A Closed Book
In most parts of the world today, it is a relatively simple thing to purchase a Bible. But this has not always been the case. Even in 15th- and early 16th-century England, the Bible was viewed as the property of the church, a book to be read only at public services and explained solely by the priests. What was read, however, was usually from the Latin Bible, which the common people could neither understand nor afford. Thus, what they knew of the Bible was no more than the stories and moral lessons drawn by the clergy.
But the common people were not the only ones ignorant of the Bible. Reportedly, during the reign of King Edward VI (1547-53), a bishop of Gloucester found that among 311 clergymen, 168 could not repeat the Ten Commandments and 31 did not know where to find them in the Bible. Forty could not recite the Lord’s Prayer and about 40 did not know its originator. True, John Wycliffe had produced a Bible in English in 1384, and paraphrases of various parts of the Scriptures, such as the Gospels and the Psalms, existed in that tongue. Nevertheless, the Bible was in fact a closed book.
Conditions like these made Tyndale determine to make the Bible available to the English-speaking people. “I perceived how that it was impossible to establish the lay people in any truth,” he wrote, “except the Scripture were plainly laid before their eyes in their mother tongue.”
But by translating the Bible into English, Tyndale incurred the wrath of the authorities. Why? Because as early as 1408 a council of clergymen met at Oxford, England, to decide whether the common people should be allowed to have copies of the Bible in their own tongue for personal use. The decision read, in part: “We therefore decree and ordain, that from henceforward no unauthorised person shall translate any part of the holy Scripture into English or any other language . . . under the penalty of the greater excommunication, till the said translation shall be approved either by the bishop of the diocese, or a provincial council as occasion shall require.”
More than a century later, Bishop Tunstall applied this decree in burning Tyndale’s Bible, even though Tyndale had earlier sought the approval of Tunstall.* In the opinion of Tunstall, Tyndale’s translation contained some 2,000 errors and was therefore “pestilent, scandalous, and seductive of simple minds.” But was this an excuse on the part of the bishop to justify his burning of it? Was Tyndale really a poor translator, lacking the necessary scholarship in Hebrew, Greek, and English? How good a translator was Tyndale?
Tyndale—A Poor Translator?
Although the understanding of Hebrew and Greek then was not what it is today, Tyndale’s grasp of these languages compared well with that of most scholars of his time. What makes Tyndale’s work stand out is that he did not merely consult the Latin Vulgate and Luther’s German translation. He went back to the original Greek text published for the first time in 1516 by Erasmus. Tyndale also did not forget his purpose: to make the Scriptures easy enough for the ordinary layman to read, right down to the “boy who plows the field.” So his style and idiom are simple and clear, yet powerful. And his lively rhythm no doubt reflects the joy that he experienced in undertaking the task.
So it is true to say that “Tyndale was a translator whose judgment was unusually good. Working in extraordinarily adverse conditions, at his day’s frontiers of knowledge of biblical languages, he produced translations which set the pattern for all the English translators who followed.”—The Making of the English Bible, by Gerald Hammond, pages 42, 43.
An Accurate Translation
In matters of accuracy Tyndale also set a high standard. For example, in translating from Hebrew, he tried to be as literal as possible while maintaining an easy, flowing English style. He was careful even to reproduce the Hebrew fullness of description with its frequent repetition of the word “and” joining clause after clause in a sentence. (See Genesis chapter 33 in the King James Version, which retains Tyndale’s wording almost entirely.) He paid close attention to the context and avoided additions to or omissions from the original text, even though paraphrasing was resorted to by most translators of the time.
Tyndale’s word choice was also careful and accurate. For example, he used “love” instead of “charity,” “congregation” for “church,” and “elder” rather than “priest” where appropriate. This infuriated critics like Sir Thomas More because it changed words that had come to be venerated through tradition. Where the original demanded the repetition of a word, Tyndale was careful to reproduce it. To illustrate: At Genesis 3:15, his translation twice speaks of ‘treading’ done by the seed of the woman and by the serpent.*
Tyndale was also responsible for introducing God’s personal name, Jehovah, into the English Bible. As writer J. F. Mozley observes, Tyndale used it “more than twenty times in his Old Testament” translations.
Looking back on the effect of Tyndale’s efforts and their enduring qualities, this modern assessment well sums up his work: “Tindale’s honesty, sincerity, and scrupulous integrity, his simple directness, his magical simplicity of phrase, his modest music, have given an authority to his wording that has imposed itself on all later versions. . . . Nine-tenths of the Authorized New Testament [King James Version] is still Tindale, and the best is still his.”—The Bible in Its Ancient and English Versions, page 160.
Tyndale’s Work Not in Vain
To escape the persecution of the authorities, Tyndale fled to mainland Europe to continue his work. But he was at last caught. Convicted of heresy, he was strangled and burned at the stake in October 1536. His final prayer was: “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” Little did he know how soon the situation would change. In August 1537, less than a year after Tyndale’s death, King Henry VIII gave authorization to the Bible generally known as Matthew’s Bible. He decreed that it should be freely sold and read within his realm.
What was Matthew’s Bible? Professor F. F. Bruce explains: “On examination it is seen to be substantially Tyndale’s Pentateuch, Tyndale’s version of the historical books of the Old Testament as far as 2 Chronicles . . . Coverdale’s version of the other Old Testament books and Apocrypha, and Tyndale’s New Testament of 1535.” Thus, the writer continues, “it was a signal act of justice . . . that the first English Bible to be published under royal licence should be Tyndale’s Bible (so far as Tyndale’s translation had reached), even if it was not yet advisable to associate Tyndale’s name with it publicly.”
In a few more years, the wheel was to turn full circle. When an edition of the translation known as the Great Bible—a revision of Matthew’s Bible—was issued in 1541 and commanded to be placed in every church in England, the title page included this statement: “Oversene and perused at the comaundemet of the kynges hyghnes, by the ryghte reverende fathers in God Cuthbert bysshop of Duresme, and Nicholas bishop of Rochester.” Yes, this ‘Bishop of Durham’ was none other than Cuthbert Tunstall, formerly Bishop of London. He who had so bitterly opposed the work of Tyndale was now giving approval to the issuing of the Great Bible, a work still essentially that of Tyndale.
It may be surprising today to read of such controversy over the Bible and hatred for its translators. But perhaps more remarkable is the fact that, in spite of their efforts, opposers have been unable to prevent God’s Word from reaching the common people. “The green grass has dried up, the blossom has withered,” said the prophet Isaiah, “but as for the word of our God, it will last to time indefinite.”—Isaiah 40:8.
Tyndale and others worked with the shadow of death looming over their heads. But by making the Bible available to many people in their native tongue, they opened before them the prospect, not of death, but of life eternal. As Jesus Christ said: “This means everlasting life, their taking in knowledge of you, the only true God, and of the one whom you sent forth, Jesus Christ.” (John 17:3) May we, therefore, cherish and diligently study God’s Word.
Events similar to those described here had taken place in 1526 and at other times.
For more details on Tyndale’s life and work, see The Watchtower of January 1, 1982, pages 10-14.
Many modern translators fail to note the repeated Hebrew verb here with its reciprocal meaning. So instead of “bruise . . . bruise” (New World Translation; Revised Standard Version), they use “crush . . . strike” (The Jerusalem Bible; New International Version), “crush . . . bite” (Today’s English Version), “tread . . . strike” (Lamsa), or “crush . . . lie in ambush” (Knox).
[Picture Credit Line on page 21]
From an old engraving in the Bibliothèque Nationale