Today it seems paradoxical and absurd to believe that the Bible should only be accessible to a portion of the population. However, that was the stance of the early Catholic Church and was therefore the reality in the 15th century.
During this period, Bible translations were available in all major European languages except for English. Because of the religious turmoil caused by Wycliffe’s Bible — the chief inspiration of the pre-Reformation movement that rejected many of the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings — anyone found in unlicensed possession of Scripture in English could be put to death. Those who spoke English knew the Latin Bible since it was interpreted by the priests for them, but they’d never had direct access to the Bible themselves.
As an English scholar in the early 1500’s, William Tyndale could speak seven languages and was proficient in ancient Hebrew and Greek. His intellectual gifts and disciplined life could have taken him a long way in the church as a priest, but he had a higher compulsion: to teach English men and women the good news of justification by faith. His life passion was formed after reading Erasmus’s Greek edition of the New Testament, the text that forever changed his life. What better way to share its message with his countrymen than to put an English version of the New Testament into their hands?
After the Bishop of London denied him permission to translate the New Testament from the original Greek into English, Tyndale — with the help of merchants sympathetic to his cause — fled to Germany. The first edition of his New Testament was published in Cologne in 1525. Only a fragment — known as the “Cologne Fragment” — of this first edition still exists today, demonstrating how dangerous it was to attempt this translation. The printer in Cologne (in not his brightest moment) mentioned that he was printing a pro-Lutheran English New Testament for someone named William Tyndale. When the authorities learned of this, they raided the print shop, forcing Tyndale and his partners to follow the Rhine to the city of Worms after only having been able to partially translate the book of Matthew.
In a year’s time, Tyndale was able to complete the translation of the New Testament. His Bible was the first English translation to use “Jehovah”, the preferred name for God by English Protestant Reformers. This was taken to be a direct challenge to the supremacy of the Catholic Church and the laws of England maintaining the church’s position.
Soon after, Tyndale moved to Belgium. Witnessing ordinary people having access to the Bible in Dutch, he wanted the same for his own folk in England. On Saturdays he would walk the streets, seeking to minister to the poor. On Sundays, he would dine in merchants’ homes, reading Scripture before and after dinner. The rest of the week he devoted to translating the Bible.
The bustling city of Antwerp — with its thriving printing industry and busy port — made it easy for Tyndale to smuggle Bibles on a large scale into England. Using tiny loose leaves in his translations, he hid them between the leaves of larger books that weren’t forbidden. In London, someone would have recognized which stacks were marked so that they could find the loose leaves of Tyndale’s Bible.
Unable to reconcile the teachings of the Church with his own studies of the Bible, Tyndale was condemned as a heretic in 1536. He would be degraded from the priesthood and delivered to the secular authorities for punishment. While suffering in prison for over a year, no doubt he contemplated the cruel death that inevitably awaited him. On the day of his execution, he was brought to the middle of the town square and given a chance to recant. Instead, he cried out that the King of England’s eyes would be opened.
This seemed to find its fulfillment just one year after his death when King Henry authorized the Matthew Bible containing Tyndale’s New Testament.
At the time of his death, around 30,000 copies of his Bible were available. It would become a model for subsequent English translations that were authorized by the church of England. In 1611, the 47 scholars who produced the King James Bible drew significantly from his original work. One estimate suggests that the King James Version’s New Testament is 83% Tyndale’s words and the Old Testament 76%.
While he’s renowned for his influence on the English language, his work was more than scholarly ambition. He loved the Bible, deeming its words more valuable than his own life. Despite intense opposition, the Bible and its wisdom survives to this day. Tyndale — quite literally — lost his life for Christ’s sake.
When asked what he was trying to achieve, Tyndale replied, “I will cause a boy who drives a plow to know more of the scriptures than the pope.” Learning about Tyndale’s sacrifice has given me a deeper appreciation for being able to possess a Bible written in my own language. Because of Tyndale’s work, I’m able to have a relationship with God and grasp His unfailing love.
Just as the King of England’s eyes were opened, I pray that Tyndale’s sacrifice allows us to always see the significance and tremendous value of God’s word.