William Tyndale, pioneer Bible translator and reformer

by Keith Bassham

The last Sunday of October is traditionally Reformation Day among Protestant churches. We Baptists ordinarily take little note of the day, but we should not overlook the importance of the Reformation, and the events preceding and following. In fact, two events that made the Reformation a reality were the translation and printing of non-Latin Bibles.

John Wycliffe, among the first of the English translators, had begun translating in the 1300s and earned the title the Morningstar of the Reformation. William Tyndale, born about a century after Wycliffe’s death, became acquainted with the Greek New Testa­ment as a student at Cambridge and Oxford in the early 1500s, and he saw with his own eyes that the church-sanctioned Latin version distorted the gospel. He illegally obtained a copy of Martin Luther’s German Bible in 1522, and was thereafter committed to taking the Bible directly to the people of England.

Defying the law (but only after he had been refused official per­mission), he began translating from the Greek, just as Luther had. By August 1525 his translation of the New Testament was complete. Printing began at Cologne, Germany, but authorities destroyed nearly all known copies (I think only one is known today). Tyndale moved up the Rhine, and arranged for copies to be printed and sold in England in the spring of 1526. Official opposition in England led to the destruction of most of these early copies, and Tyndale then became a fugitive. Eventually, he was imprisoned in Belgium, and in a letter he wrote in 1535 from his cell he asks his keepers for “a warmer cap…warmer coat also,…cloth for repairing my leggings,…a woolen shirt of mine,” and “I also ask for leave to use a lamp in the evening, for it is tiresome to sit alone in the dark. ” Finally he asks for “my Hebrew Bible, Hebrew Grammar, and Hebrew Lexicon, and that I might employ my time with that study.”

You can hear in the letter an echo of the phrases Paul used in his second letter to Timothy: “Do thy diligence to come shortly unto me: …The cloke that I left at Troas with Carpus, when thou comest, bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments….”

Tyndale did not live to complete his Old Testament transla­tion. He was executed for heresy at Vilvorde, Belgium, on October 6, 1536, his dying prayer that the Lord would open the eyes of the King of England. He left behind a manuscript containing the translation of the historical books from Joshua to 2 Chronicles that was finally published in 1537.

His dying prayer was answered in 1539, when Henry VIII de­creed that an English Bible should be made available in the churches of England, and we are still reading Tyndale’s work today, since 90 percent of the New Testament in the King James Version (KJV) is his. Without question, Tyndale’s first printed English New Testa­ment became the basis of all future English translations.