A Bible in the Language of the People

William Tyndale (1494-1536), a martyr at the age of 42, has never received appropriate recognition. The 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible (KJV) in 1611 is an apt time to correct this omission.

The KJV has been described by The Times as “the most famous of English translations and the greatest work of literature ever written by a committee.” The explanation for the latter is simple. The translation was the voice of one man, William Tyndale. Though his name is never mentioned, 84% of the KJV New Testament was from his 1536 translation. Similarly 75% of the Pentateuch and much of the rest of the Old Testament is Tyndale in word and rhythm. “Tyndale is the mainly unrecognised translator of the most influential book in the world.”

The TranslatorL~

Tyndale’s translation work was outstanding for three reasons:

  1. The first translation into English directly from the original languages, Hebrew and Greek. Wycliffe’s earlier work had been based on the Vulgate, the Latin translation of Jerome one thousand years earlier. The enormous difference between the two are seen in their versions of Genesis 1:3. Wycliffe rendered the Vulgate’s “Dixitque Deus: fiat lux! Et facta est lux” as “And God said: Be made light; and made is light”. (So much for word-for-word translation!) After nearly 500 years the very first translation from Hebrew into English has not been improved upon, Tyndale’s “God said, Let there be light and there was light.”

  2. The first English translation to be printed. (Wycliffe’s had been copied out by hand). This not only affected the quantity produced but it made possible a new form of Bible study. For the first time scripture could be compared with scripture in a single volume. The people of this country became the people of one book and our history cannot be understood without it. 

  3. Its enduring quality. It was Tyndale’s staggering achievement that the first translation proved to be the most enduring of all English translations. It was the basis of many more.

His first New Testament appeared in England in 1526, his revised edition in 1534. Two years later he was dead.

The TheologianL~

Tyndale was killed as a heretic. He was born in the Vale of Severn, an area of strong Lollard influence where parts of Wycliffe’s translation survived and where anti-clericalism and reforming sympathies were strong. His contacts in the cloth trade were later to be important in the smuggling of his New Testament from the continent. At Oxford he became a lifelong student of the Greek New Testament. He didn’t need to wait for Luther for he discovered the doctrine of justification by faith himself through his own reading and this he shared with those he gathered around him. He wanted others to share his experience of finding Christ in the Scriptures. At Cambridge, with others who were later also martyred, “he further ripened in God’s word.” In 1520 and 1521 public burnings of Luther’s books took place in Cambridge and London. The course of Tyndale’s life was set. After two years as a tutor at Sudbury Manor in Gloucestershire, where he translated much of the New Testament, he fled to the continent in 1524, and the only evidence he was still alive came from the flow of writings that was smuggled home.

Although his life-work was to be cut short, Tyndale has claims to being the theologian of the English Reformation. Alongside his Bible translation work, he produced a series of books on the reformed doctrines that provoked wide condemnation from the church authorities. In 1528 The Wicked Mammon was published. It was the first time anything about Justification by Faith had been published in English, explaining that outward deeds are signs of inward faith, not a means of salvation. Soon The Obedience of the Christian Man appeared. It is said Anne Boleyn read this to Henry VIII, who was impressed as Tyndale suggested that Protestantism was not dangerous, for Christians should obey their rulers. Henry was not so happy with The Practice of Prelates published in 1529. Tyndale’s study of the relevant texts concluded that the King was not free to divorce Catherine and denounced the bishops who were encouraging Henry.

The LinguistL~

It was because Tyndale was a theologian and a skilled linguist that he became a famous translator. He was fluent in eight languages. He learned Hebrew when Hebraists in England could be counted on one hand. This not only enabled him to translate a large part of the Old Testament, it gave him new light on the New Testament. He realised how much previous translations had been influenced by the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) and so when the Old Testament was quoted, he translated into English directly from the Hebrew, rather than from the Greek version of the Hebrew. He famously coined new words like passover, scapegoat, mercy-seat, atonement, lovingkindness.

For supremely, like all outstanding linguists, Tyndale was a master of his own language. His influence on the development of the English language, even on Shakespeare and Milton it is claimed, was enormous, just as Luther and Calvin had similar impact on German and French language development. From 6 million English speakers in the sixteenth century to today’s one billion English speakers, many of Tyndale’s memorable phrases are unwittingly used in ordinary conversation. The list is endless:

to pass by on the other side,
the burden and heat of the day,
the spirit is willing etc.

When Wolverhampton played an under-strength team against Manchester United last season, one headline was a twist on a Tyndale phrase, “Sheep in Wolves’ clothing”.

Tyndale’s character was shown in his insistence on working in unfashionable English when Latin was very much the language of prestige. Its predominance was seen in the Oxford University library where out of six thousand books, only sixty were in English, one in a hundred. He was going against the grain of scholarship.

An analysis of Tyndale’s language shows his skill as a linguist. English Language Professor David Daniell has shown that firstly, Tyndale used Anglo-Saxon words rather than more complicated words of Latin origin. Hence there is an abundance of monosyllabic words.

For example, Genesis 3:8, “They heard the voice of the Lord God as he walked in the garden in the cool of the day.” Luke 5:11, “And they brought their ships to land, and forsook all and followed him.” 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For he hath made him to be sin for us which knew no sin.” Secondly, he used simple sentence structures in some cases using a series of “ands” as in a narrative section like Genesis 28:10-12 or the Joseph story. Thirdly, his skill in choosing words was outstanding. Daniell suggests he must have had a remarkable poetic and musical ear. “He gave the English people what has been called a Bible language with a simplicity, a directness, a dignity and a harmony that was perfect for what he was doing.” For example, his preference for “pondered” in Luke 2:19, used in his very first translation, has never been improved upon, although many synonyms were available. The main 20th century translations (RSV, NEB, Jerusalem Bible, NIV) retained Tyndale’s word.

The OppositionL~

The opposition Tyndale encountered was dramatically illustrated by the death by burning of men who taught their children the Lord’s Prayer in English in Coventry in 1519. During his exile he saw opposition fury escalate from the burning of Luther’s and then his own books, to the burning of the Word of God, to the burning of men, those who propagated this book and its message, several of Tyndale’s personal friends, culminating in his own martyrdom.

The reason for the virulent opposition from the church leaders was the fear of heresy. This English brand of Lutheranism was regarded as an attack on the church as an institution. In a famous outburst to a church dignitary, Tyndale expressed his aim, “I defy the Pope and all his laws. If God spare my life ere many years, I will cause the boy that drivest the plough to know more of the Scripture than thou dost”. While Tyndale was outraged at the ignorance of the clergy, they in turn were outraged that he proposed to give the Bible to lay people. There was a link in their mind between Wycliffe and the Peasants’ Revolt and between Luther and the Peasants’ War. Indeed it is no coincidence that democracy has flourished most readily in Protestant countries. So Tyndale was regarded as socially, as well as spiritually, dangerous. As people became familiar with the New Testament, the teaching of the church was challenged in a number of areas, in the doctrine of salvation by works, ritual, ceremonies, pilgrimages, the role of Mary, purgatory.

But it was Tyndale’s translation of five particular words that caused deepest offence. The familiar words of the Vulgate were not all inaccurate translations but usage had given them a meaning that contradicted the teaching of Scripture. So in some cases it seems Tyndale used shock-tactics to make people realise where the church had led people astray.

  1. ecclesia, he translated not “church” but “congregation”. Hence, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my congregation”.
  2. presbuteros not “priest” but “elder”.
  3. exomologeo not “confess” but “acknowledge”. Confession had become a technical term for confessing to a priest.
  4. metanoia, not “do penance” but “repent”. This suggested an inner change.
  5. agape, not “charity” but “love” (KJV reverted to “charity”).

Changing these words challenged the role of the clergy and in effect undercut the entire sacramental structure of the Church, built up over a thousand years. These new words emphasised that religion is a matter of the heart not of ritual.

His special opponent was Sir Thomas More who had a phenomenal hatred of Reformers. His reputation strangely has survived, despite his pages of vicious invective against Tyndale.

The ExileL~

Tyndale needed a licence to publish a translation. When the Bishop of London refused to help he decided he must go to the continent where he stayed until his betrayal and death. His translations and his books were printed in Germany and the Netherlands and smuggled to England through the cloth trade. Men suffered in this country because of association with him and in prison they received letters of encouragement from him. There was sadness across Europe as fine English scholars were killed. Tyndale himself proved quite elusive as he moved from one place to another. King Henry was frustrated by his agents’ inability to locate him, whilst Tyndale’s influence in England grew through his translations and his other writings. The King protested, “He is nowhere, but he is everywhere.”

The MartyrL~

It was the church rather than the king who pursued Tyndale to his death. The Bishop of London commissioned Henry Phillips, who betrayed him in Antwerp to the authorities. For 16 months he was imprisoned in Vilvoorde Castle in Belgium, awaiting trial. From his cell Tyndale wrote requesting his Hebrew Bible, Hebrew Grammar and Hebrew Dictionary so he could spend time in study. “I suffer greatly from cold in the head and am afflicted by a perpetual catarrh.” He asked for his warmer coat, thicker leggings and warmer cap and begged “to have a lamp in the evening; it is indeed wearisome sitting alone in the dark.” He was tried for heresy (not specifically for translating the Bible into English) by the church authorities and condemned to death. On 6th October 1536 (aged 42) he was strangled and then burned. His last words are said to have been: “Lord open the King of England’s eyes.” It was a prayer that had a speedy answer.

The AchievementL~

Tyndale had given the English language a translation that would last for over four hundred years. Westcott’s verdict was that its simplicity gave it its permanence. In this anniversary year there have already been calls for a return to the beauty and dignity of the King James Version of the Bible. Tyndale himself would not be impressed. The conviction behind his immense achievement was that the Bible should be in the language that people spoke, not what the scholars wrote, because its purpose was not to please ears but to change hearts. He would want a Bible in the English of 2010.

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Further reading / resources:-

  • William Tyndale, A Biography - David Daniell (Yale 1994)

  • God’s Outlaw – Brian Edwards (Evangelical Press 1976)

  • DVD God’s Outlaw (Vision Video)