Christians In History: William Tyndale (1494-1536)
If you read any of the most popular translations of the New Testament, whether the King James Version (KJV), New International Version (NIV), New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), or New American Bible (NAB), you will read the work of William Tyndale. Often called the Father of the English Bible, he may be the single most important Bible translator in history.
Tyndale lived during The Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation, which were periods of religious, artistic, political and economic upheaval in Europe following the Middle Ages. He was a brilliant linguist who was adept in many languages, including the original languages of the New Testament (Greek) and Old Testament (Hebrew).
In Tyndale’s time it was forbidden to produce an English language Bible. The Word of God was controlled by religious authorities who could read and understand Latin. Tyndale, like his contemporary Martin Luther, believed that all people should have access to sacred texts. He once promised that he would “cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures” than the clergy.
Seeking to make good on that promise, Tyndale went to continental Europe where he consulted with Martin Luther. Tyndale translated the New Testament into English using the same Greek text from which Luther made his German translation. Parts of the Old Testament (the Pentateuch and Jonah) also were translated from a Hebrew text. In order to complete these translations, Tyndale actually had to create new words, such as Jehovah, Passover, atonement, and scapegoat – to name a few. He also coined the familiar phrases: “let there be light,” “the powers that be,” “my brother’s keeper,” “it came to pass,” and many others.
By 1526, German printers had produced the Tyndale Bible and copies were being smuggled into England. Religious authorities were so alarmed that they made a practice of confiscating and buying up all of the copies they could find and burning them. In spite of this, Tyndale’s Bible continued to circulate.
Tyndale eventually incurred the wrath of King Henry VIII when he criticized the king’s divorce and remarriage. Charged with multiple heresies, Tyndale was hunted down and found in Antwerp, Belgium, where government authorities had him strangled and burned at the stake.
Ironically, shortly after Tyndale’s death, Henry VIII ordered the publication and countrywide distribution of The Great Bible, which borrows heavily from the Tyndale Bible. Subsequent English versions, like the Geneva Bible (1560) which the Pilgrims in 1620 brought to America on the Mayflower, and the ever popular King James Bible (1611), use about eighty (80) percent of Tyndale’s work. Even today, almost 500 years later, modern translators of the most popular English versions have retained many of Tyndale’s words, tones, cadences, and idioms.