How We Got Our Bible (7): The Ploughboy’s Bible – William Tyndale

The Matthew Bible, first published in 1537 was the first English Bible to be printed with official approval. Thanks largely to the skilled lobbying of Miles Coverdale, King Henry VIII had given it his royal approval. It is difficult to know how carefully the king had read the copy submitted to him by Coverdale. He seems to have missed or misunderstood the large and ornate “W.T.” which followed the end of Malachi. Had he recognized Coverdale’s tribute to a notorious heretic executed just a few years earlier, he might have thought twice about giving his consent to this revolutionary project.

Such a tribute was well earned. Any history of the Reformation and any telling of the story of the English Bible would be incomplete if it did not pay attention to the remarkable life and work of William Tyndale, if it failed to acknowledge his towering intellect, steely determination, and total devotion to the truth of God’s Word.

Tyndale was born in Gloustershire, England around 1494. His family was involved in the cloth trade. This, along with his place of birth, is significant. The clothiers of Gloustershire were notorious for their Lollard or Wycliffite sympathies. It is not clear at what point Tyndale decided to give his life to the translation of Scripture, but his upbringing seems almost certain to have been a vitally important factor and Tyndale’s life work may, in a sense, be the most enduring legacy of John Wycliffe.

From Gloustershire, Tyndale went first to Oxford and then to Cambridge. In both institutions he was identified with those who gathered to read and discuss the Scriptures. At this time Cambridge, in particular, was a hotbed for the teachings of Martin Luther, and included among its students some of the most influential figures of the English Reformation.

Tyndale left Cambridge early in the 1520s, and took a position as a tutor to the children of a wealthy Gloustershire family. By this time he was firmly committed to the ideas of the Reformation. He upset and annoyed many of the important local clerics who enjoyed his master’s hospitality by the anti-clerical tone of his table talk. But the life work that he had chosen – to “cause the boy that drives the plough to know more of the Scriptures than the Pope himself” – meant that he could not remain in his comfortable and congenial position.

The Constitutions of Oxford, which had been passed, we might recall, to suppress the Wycliffite movement, made it illegal to translate the Bible into English without the endorsement of a bishop. Tyndale, proceeding within the law, sought out Tunstall, the Bishop of London. Tunstall must have seemed a promising prospect – he was known as a scholarly and moderate cleric. However, he refused to approve Tyndale’s proposal, and Tyndale realized that, if his work of translation was to be done, it would have to be done outside of England. So, for his country’s blessing, he went into exile, leaving England behind him forever.

Germany seemed an obvious place to set up operations. Here, at the center of Luther’s teaching, Tyndale could find opportunity to begin the translation of Scripture. Furthermore, a location at one of the great European ports would make it easy to get the finished Bibles to England. And, just as importantly, printing technology in Germany and the Low Countries (the Netherlands) far surpassed anything available in England. So, after spending time in Hamburg and Wittenberg, Tyndale arrived in Cologne early in 1525.

His work prospered and, by the summer of 1525, he saw the first printed pages of the English Bible coming off the press. But there was little room for complacency. Cardinal Wolsey’s network of spies had reported Tyndale’s location and identity, and tipped off the Cologne authorities who raided the printers. Printing had reached as far as Matthew 22. Tyndale and his assistant just had time to flee, grabbing the printed sheets, and took off, up the Rhine to Worms. There the work continued and, in 1526, the first complete printing of the English New Testament was completed. The shift to Worms had a profound and providential influence on the shape of the English New Testament. The Cologne printing had been a large and fairly ornate book modeled closely on Luther’s September Testament. The complete Worms edition was smaller and simpler, but clearly printed, a book that could be easily used. Just as importantly, the book could readily be smuggled into England, often by those cloth merchants with whom Tyndale had lifelong links.

The availability of Scripture in English dismayed and alarmed Church authorities in England. Since the beginning of the European Reformation, books by Luther, Calvin, and other Reformers, had been burned from time to time. Now, for the first time, and to the horror of Tyndale and others, the Word of God was put to the fire. Even this was used in the furtherance of Tyndale’s work. Some reports from the period suggest that Tunstall, now implacably opposed to Tyndale and his work, was sold Bibles for burning at inflated prices by Tyndale’s supporters, who channelled the money raised back to Tyndale.

Tyndale’s work continued. He was busy revising his translation of the New Testament, improving and refining his work. But he also came to face new challenges. In spite of the complexity of finding a qualified teacher of Hebrew, and the difficulty of mastering Hebrew in his middle age, Tyndale began work on the translation of the Old Testament. The Pentateuch was published in 1530. Though Tyndale’s translation of the historical books of the Old Testament was never published under his own name, it provided the basis for Coverdale’s Old Testament. These books reveal his brilliance as a translator, especially when we realize how little was known about Hebrew during the early modern period.

We would give much to have Tyndale’s translation of Old Testament poetry. But he was never to complete it. Tyndale was befriended by a man named Henry Philips. Philips, the wastrel son of a wealthy English family, acted as an agent for Wolsey and other powerful English clergy. He befriended Tyndale, entered into his confidence, and betrayed him to the authorities in Antwerp. Tyndale was charged with heresy and, in spite of intercession on his behalf by Thomas Cromwell (Henry VIII’s pro–Reformation chief minister), was sentenced to death.

So it was that, in the early days of October 1536, one of the spiritual giants of the English Reformation was delivered by the ecclesiastical court to the secular authorities. Brought to the place of execution, he was tied to the stake amidst a pile of firewood. Some little mercy was shown to him – he was strangled before the executioner’s torch was laid to the wood. But before his breath was stopped, his final prayer restated the preoccupation of his life and expressed the desire of his heart. With a fervent zeal, and a loud voice he cried “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.”

Only eternity will reveal whether this prayer was answered in relation to Henry’s personal salvation. Sadly, it is very far from clear that it was. But Henry was soon to give his approval to the Coverdale Bible, and, within four years of Tyndale’s death, four translations of the Bible, all drawing heavily on Tyndale’s work, were in print in England. The progress of reformation and the spread of the gospel in England would not, in the future, always be smooth. But, thanks to Tyndale’s steadfast commitment and remarkable ability, the availability of Scripture in English was secured for the future. It is no small tribute to that zeal and ability that Tyndale’s work has survived. His coinages have become an integral part of the English language but, more than that, his work provided the backbone to English Bible translation for centuries to come.