1525 Tyndale Bible
Following the Wycliffe Bible, the next major event in the history of English Bible translations is William Tyndale's Bible. But in order to fully understand the events leading up to this incredibly important event and the significance of it, we need to understand the history of the period, and find out what had happened in the intervening century, over the past 140 years since Wycliffe's Bible was first produced.
So let us once again travel back in time and catch up with events in the 1400s, and what led William Tyndale to produce a new translation of the Bible, and what it meant for him and his followers.
Following Wycliffe's translation of the Bible into English, the Roman Catholic Church had denounced Wycliffe as a heretic. They had exhumed his body and cast his ashes into the river, carrying them to the Severn and outwards to the whole world. They had banned his works, burned his Bible wherever it could be found, forbidden the Bible to be read by the ordinary people, and outlawed translations of the Bible into English. The penalty for disobeying was simple. Death.
Once again, the Catholic Church ruled supreme, with the Pope at its head. The Church permitted no rivals in its insatiable lust for power and wealth, and stood ready to destroy everything and anyone who stood in its path. Following other Inquisitions, the Spanish Inquisition was established in 1478. It would remain in force until 1834, more than 350 years later. The excesses of the Spanish Inquisition are well documented. A reign of terror ensued. Anyone who was suspected of "heresy", of not accepting whatever the Catholic Church taught, was tortured until they either died or confessed. At first mainly Jews and Moslems fell victim, but soon the Inquisition broadened out to all and sundry who opposed the Church, or spoke out against its excesses. Land, goods and lives were forfeited to the Catholic Church. Jews were expelled from country after country across Europe. The Bible was a banned book. The Church knew they dared not let people read God's Word for themselves.
To those who hungered and thirsted to know the Truth of the Bible, the situation seemed hopeless. Europe had become a dark and dangerous place. But light was starting to shine from the darkness. Glimmers of hope were starting to arise. A new dawn of Truth was starting to emerge from the shadows. Despite the Bible still being a banned book, a sequence of events were starting to emerge which would make the translation of the Bible into English, not just a possibility, but an inevitability. The Bible was coming, and coming in an exciting way, to the people of Great Britain and the English-speaking world. These were events which changed history. And history is still feeling its effects.
First, in 1450, the Printing Press was invented. Whereas John Wycliffe and his followers had to produce hand-written manuscripts of his Bible translation, the printing press allowed Bibles to be (painstakingly and meticulously) typeset, but then hundreds of copies made. This made it possible to vastly increase the supply of Bibles.
Second, as our series of videos and resources on Early Printed Bibles shows, the printing press was starting to be used to good effect. Printed copies of the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) were being produced, albeit at great effort and expense. Copies of the New Testament in Greek and Latin were also being produced, as were Polyglot Bibles. Each one had to be personally authorized by the Pope. But these printed Hebrew, Greek and Latin texts allowed scholars in Universities to have access to the Holy Scriptures like never before - even if it was "only" in the Original Languages of the Bible, rather than the language of the common people.
Third, although the Spanish Inquisition was still in full sway and the Pope claimed universal authority over the whole of Christendom, elsewhere in Europe the Church's authority was being questioned and challenged as never before. Like Wycliffe before him, in Germany, Martin Luther and his followers were starting to read and translate the Bible for themselves, armed with the printed copies of the Hebrew, Greek and Latin texts that were now rolling off the printing press. And like Wycliffe, they too could clearly see the gaping chasm between what was written in the Bible, and the beliefs, doctrines, practices and excesses of the Catholic Church.
Into this contrasting world of dangers and challenges, William Tyndale was born in Gloucestershire around 1490. Like Wycliffe before him, he was a scholar and was educated at Oxford University from 1512-1517, and Cambridge University from 1517-1521. As a young man, he knew what could be done with the printing press, he would have access to the printed copies of the Biblical texts in Hebrew, Greek and Latin that were being produced, and he would know how Martin Luther in Germany was boldly challenging the Church's authority, as Luther compared Scripture with Scripture, and Scripture with the Church's teachings. And like Wycliffe and Luther, Tyndale knew that the common people hungered to read the Scriptures for themselves, in a language they could understand.
Tyndale quickly showed a talent for Hebrew, Greek, Latin and several modern European languages including German, French, Italian and Spanish. As a scholar and a linguist, it was natural for him to want to translate the Bible into English. But translating the Bible into English was still regarded as heresy, and the Bible in English was still a banned book. Tyndale told the Church leaders of the day about his desire to translate the Bible into English, and he was met with hostility, animosity and bitter hatred. In a clash with an ordained clergyman, Tyndale issued his immortal words:
I defy the Pope, and all his laws, and if God spare my life, ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scriptures than thou dost. (William Tyndale)
Tyndale made good on his promise. But he knew that, in England, his life would be in mortal danger and the Church would stop at nothing to destroy both him and the Bible he produced. Although the Spanish Inquisition was confined to Spain and its territories, the Pope held authority over the whole of Christendom, and the vile tentacles of the Church would reach England with ease.
Tyndale therefore fled from England to Germany in 1524, never to return to his homeland. In Germany he would be with supporters of Martin Luther who already understood that the beliefs and practices of the Church were at odds with the Bible, and who wanted to produce their own translation of the Bible into German. But even here, Tyndale was betrayed and persecuted time and again. He was forced to flee from city to city as he relentlessly continued his translation of the Bible into English.
Tyndale produced a partial edition in 1525, with a full edition of the New Testament in 1526. He produced revised editions in 1534 and 1536. Tyndale published the Pentateuch in 1530. The translations of other books followed, but many have not survived in their original forms. After his death in 1536, Tyndale's work came into the possession of one of his followers (John Rodgers) and his translation led to the creation of the Matthew Bible in 1537. Whereas Wycliffe had translated from the Latin Vulgate because that was all he had access to, Tyndale translated from the Hebrew and Greek printed editions that were now available. Tyndale used Erasmus' 1522 edition of the Greek New Testament, Erasmus' Latin New Testament, Luther's German Bible, as well as the Latin Vulgate. His source of the Hebrew Old Testament may have been the Complutensian Polyglot.
Although Tyndale's Bible was gladly received by the common people who were now able to read God's Word for themselves, the reaction of the Catholic Church was as furious and violent as it had been in the days of John Wycliffe's Bible. The Church understood that allowing ordinary people to read the Bible would undermine their own authority, and their wealth and power would be challenged. Tyndale's Bible was condemned in England. His work was banned and all copies burned when found. Tyndale himself was betrayed to Church officials in 1536, whereupon he was strangled to death and burned at the stake.
Like Wycliffe before him, Tyndale died a martyr. His "crime" was to allow ordinary people to read the Bible for themselves. Just as the prophets of Israel were betrayed by the religious authorities of their day - beaten, stoned, persecuted and killed for revealing the Word of God - and just as Christ was betrayed to be crucified and killed by the religious authorities of his day, so too was Tyndale persecuted and killed by the religious authorities. God's servants remain steadfast and faithful against a sea of opposition, against all the slings and arrows of a world that is at enmity against God, a world which seeks to extinguish the Bible, because they know it is the Word of God.
As Tyndale was dying, as he gasped his last dying breaths, even as copies of his New Testament were rolling off the printing press into the hands of eager readers of the Bible, Tyndale uttered a final heart-felt prayer to the God of Heaven whom he had served, and to whom he had laid down his life in the ultimate sacrifice:
Lord, open the eyes of the king of England! (William Tyndale)
Just as Tyndale's former prayer was answered, that a boy that driveth the plough would know more of the Scriptures than the Church authorities, so too was Tyndale's latter prayer answered in full measure. The tide of history was changing. Soon, in England, followed by the entire English-speaking world, the Bible (in English) would be respected, treasured, promoted and honoured. Wycliffe and Tyndale gave their lives for this moment. Their memories live on, their work remembered, their sacrifice not in vain, and their Bibles forming an immortal chain of jewels that would lead to God's Word being an unstoppable witness against this evil and adulterous generation.