ore than to any other person, we are indebted to William Tyndale for our English Bible.1 Apart from a few manuscript translations from the Latin, made at the time of John Wycliffe, the Bible was not available to English people in their own language. Tyndale was called by God, he believed, to provide a translation of the Bible so that even “a boy that driveth the plow” would be able to read and understand it.2 The keeping of that promise is the story of Tyndale’s life.
William Tyndale was born in 1494 in the remote west-country Forest of Dean on the border of Wales. He studied at Magdalen Hall, Oxford, earning his bachelor of arts degree in 1512 and his master’s three years later. Thomas More, who later became Tyndale’s bitter enemy, admitted that during his early life Tyndale was well known as “a man of right good living, studious and well learned in scripture, and in divers places in England was very well liked, and did great good with preaching.”3
After Oxford Tyndale spent a few years in Cambridge, furthering his biblical knowledge and absorbing the Lutheran ideas being discussed in the White Horse Inn and spreading throughout the country. In 1521 he became a tutor at Little Sodbury Manor, north of Bath. Probably already ordained as a priest, he was soon known as a preacher of evangelical convictions and penetrating power of expression.
England, unlike any major European country, was without a printed vernacular translation of the Bible. To translate the Bible into the vernacular was still illegal in England. For more than a hundred years, the Catholic authorities had seized fragments of the Wycliffe manuscript Bibles, forcing their owners to recant, even burning them at the stake. But Tyndale was not deterred. He went to London, hoping to receive encouragement. Soon, however, he came to believe that not only was there “no room” in London for him to translate the Bible, “but also that there was no place to do it in all England.”4
Tyndale left England in April 1524, never to return. He planned to publish Bible translations on the Continent for distribution in England. After traveling in Germany, probably spending some months in Wittenberg, he went to Cologne, one of the great trading ports of northeast Europe. When his work was disrupted by the magistrates of the city, Tyndale moved to Worms, where Luther had made his famous defense before the Diet a few years earlier. There, early in 1526, he successfully completed the translation and printing of the New Testament. Tyndale wrote in his prologue, “I have here translated (brothers and sisters most dear and tenderly beloved in Christ) the New Testament for your spiritual edifying, consolation and solace.”5 Tyndale’s New Testament was the first printed New Testament in English and his prologue, heavily dependent on Luther but also including his own ideas, was the first English Protestant tract. The pages of his New Testament were smuggled into England, where they found eager readers, despite the public burning of Bibles and books at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Tyndale worked steadily, revising his New Testament translation, learning Hebrew so as to translate the Old Testament, and writing theological treatises to support the Reformation. He moved from city to city, seeking a place where he could safely work and have his translations sent across the sea and sold in England. It did not matter to Tyndale who did the work or got credit for it. He even offered to return to England and write no more if the king would allow the publication of an English translation of the Bible.
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