The Bible continues to be the best-selling book in English year after year and we have literally dozens of versions readily available to us. But did you know that some Christians suffered horrible deaths to make it possible for us to have the Bible in the English language?
"Lord, open the King of England's eyes"-- many in the crowd heard William Tyndale's loud and earnest prayer just before the authorities strangled him and burned him to ashes. As the flames licked Tyndale's broken body it seemed his lifelong dream and dying prayer would die with him. But, as we will see, both were amazingly fulfilled only two years after he died.
William Tyndale was born near the Welsh border of England in 1494. Forty years earlier, two important events occurred in Europe which would have a great impact on Tyndale's life and work. In May, 1453, the Turks had stormed Constantinople, and the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire fell to the Moslem invaders. Greek scholars fled westward and brought with them a scholarship which had been almost forgotten in the West. Greek language studies of the classics increased, and the Scriptures began to be studied in the original Greek, rather than the Latin Vulgate. The invention of the printing press in 1454 was a second important development. The printing press would eliminate copyist errors and make the Scriptures more easily available in quantity editions. But to have the Bible in English was illegal. In an attempt to restrain the influence of Wycliffe's followers, in 1408 Parliament had passed the "Constitutions of Oxford" which forbade anyone translating or reading a part of the Bible in the language of the people without permission of the ecclesiastical authorities. Men and women were even burned for teaching their children the Apostles' Creed, the Lord's Prayer, and the Ten Commandments in English. William Tyndale, however, had an unquenchable passion to make the Bible available to every Englishman.
Even the Plowboy Should Have Bible
Tyndale studied at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, could speak seven languages, and became skilled in Hebrew and Greek. When the Renaissance scholar Erasmus published a Greek edition of the New Testament, Tyndale discovered the truths of justification by faith and the priesthood of all believers. He realized that the English people were in darkness, following errors and superstition, because of their ignorance of the Scriptures. Tyndale found his own purpose in life expressed in Erasmus' preface to his New Testament:
Christ wishes his mysteries to be published as widely as possible. I would wish even all women to read the gospel and the epistles of St. Paul, and I wish that they were translated into all languages of all Christian people, and that they might be read and known, not merely by the Scotch and the Irish, but even by the Turks and the Saracens. Tyndale exhorted that it was in the language of Israel that the Psalms were sung in the temple of Jehovah; and shall not the gospel speak the language of England among us?... Ought the church to have less light at noonday than at dawn?... Christians must read the New Testament in their mother tongue. Tyndale determined to give the English people a translation of the Bible that even a plowboy could understand.
Tyndale went to the Bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, to seek permission to translate the Bible into English. Tunstall refused. But while in London Tyndale came into contact with several merchants who were smuggling into England some of Martin Luther's writings from Germany. They encouraged Tyndale to go to Europe to translate. They would help smuggle the Bibles back into England.
On Press, On the Run
Tyndale fled England to translate the Bible on the Continent. Even there he had to be careful to avoid English spies and informers, as well as European opponents of the Reformation. His whereabouts are often difficult to determine, but he spent time in Hamburg, Wittenberg, Cologne, Worms, and Antwerp. In 1525 his New Testament was printed and smuggled back into England. It was the first translation of the Bible from the original Greek into English --indeed, it was the first translation of a Greek book into English.
King Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey, and Sir Thomas More were furious at this unlicensed translation. Thomas More wrote a work attacking Tyndale's translation as a mistranslation full of heresy. However, the King's wife, Anne Boleyn, was an admirer of Tyndale (her copy of Tyndale's testament is now in the British Museum). She she was not able to persuade the King to approve such translation of the Scripture.
The King, Wolsey, and More all had agents on the Continent hoping to find and arrest Tyndale. In 1534 Tyndale was betrayed by a false friend near Brussels, arrested by imperial forces, and thrown into prison. He was accused of maintaining that faith alone justifies. He was found guilty and in 1536 was executed.
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