Tyndale’s Crucible

William Tyndale was the first person to translate and print most of the Bible into English from the original Greek and Hebrew. Yet many English speakers are unfamiliar with his translations. David Daniell is the author of William Tyndale: A Biography and the editor of Tyndale’s New Testament and Tyndale’s Old Testament: Being the Pentateuch of 1530, Joshua to 2 Chronicles of 1537, and Jonah. Daniell’s latest book, The Bible in English: Its History and Influence, is being published this summer by Yale University Press.

Vision contributor Robyn Page spoke recently to Daniell about Tyndale and the often overlooked importance of the 16th-century translator’s work.


RP You’ve said that Tyndale has been “most unfairly neglected.” Why?

DD The first and most important reason is that he died as a heretic. By giving the English people the Bible in English, particularly the New Testament, he was disobeying the church and the pope and therefore he was labeled a heretic. Because heretics had to be burned and everything about them burned, he could not be mentioned. There were people who referred to him throughout the 16th century, among them John Foxe. But when the Authorized (or King James) Version was prepared in 1611, there was no mention whatsoever of Tyndale, even though computer figures show that 83 percent of the King James New Testament is Tyndale.

The second reason is that in the writing of history there has always been a powerful “establishment influence.” This means that there’s really only one kind of history, which is about kings and queens and high church dignitaries. Tyndale disturbed all that and therefore couldn’t be mentioned. So accounts of history have, for nearly 500 years, deliberately missed him out.

RP How is it that Tyndale’s translation of the Bible into English disturbed the established order as much as it did?

DD He allowed everybody to read the New Testament in English. Particularly in the Epistle to the Romans, people could see that almost everything the church stood for was wrong—especially the emphasis on justification by works, where you go to heaven if you give enough money to keep the ecclesiastics rich and yourself very poor, which is not at all what Jesus Christ said.

Secondarily, a great deal of the Roman Catholic Church’s strength came from what were called “unwritten verities.” This is the church’s tradition (which is still alive); in other words, parallel to the New Testament, there is a very large body of oral teaching by Jesus or the disciples as to how to run a church. This teaching has never been written down but has been handed down from bishop to bishop. There is no trace outside the Catholic Church, however, of any doctrine like this.

RP Several European countries had vernacular translations of the Bible long before Tyndale’s English New Testament was published in 1526. Why did it take so long for England to get an English Bible?

Why did it take so long for England to get an English Bible? 

Robyn Page

DD It goes back entirely to John Wycliffe in the 1380s. He was a very great scholar and had been Master of Balliol College, Oxford. Under his initiative, the Latin Bible was translated into English—manuscript, not printing—and circulated widely. The groups of people who carried them about and preached from them were called Lollards. It was a rude word, invented by their enemies, the Catholic Church, and meant “mutterers.” The Lollard Bibles were extensively copied and circulated around the country in spite of the fact that the church systematically burned thousands of them. More Wycliffe, or Lollard, Bibles have survived than any other medieval manuscript—230 copies. The closest are manuscripts by the poet Chaucer, which number only 60.

Two dramatic official establishment interventions attacked the Lollard Bible. One was an act of Parliament passed in 1401 called De Heretico Comburendo, which decreed that heretics must be burned. The second was a set of official church declarations made in 1408 under Archbishop Arundel, called the Constitutions of Oxford. Under these, not only was the possession of an English Bible forbidden, but the possession of even a word of an English Bible was forbidden, and there was also a tremendous clampdown on any sort of theological thinking. We know, for example, that as late as 1530 a young man in one of our towns was burned alive for possessing a piece of paper upon which was written the Lord’s Prayer in English.

As late as 1530 a young man in one of our towns was burned alive for possessing a piece of paper upon which was written the Lord’s Prayer in English.” 

David Daniell

It was the most violent repression ever in English history, lasting from 1408 to the 1530s. It overlapped the invention of movable-type printing and effectively prevented any kind of printing of Bible translations in England until Tyndale—and he was burned for doing it.

By the time Luther translated into German in 1522, there were already between 12 and 20 German Bible translations in print, as well as translations in French, Czech, Catalan and Dutch. But not in English.

RP Growing up in Gloucestershire, a Lollard county, Tyndale heard the Bible preached in English. Did this lead to a “road to Damascus” experience, where he realized that he should devote his life to translating the Bible into English?

DD We don’t have any record of that kind of experience. I think it was while he was in Oxford University that he realized what he had to do. (He was 10 or 12 years in Oxford.) But what comes out is the double element. First, the New Testament is about the promises of God. It’s not about obedience to the church, it’s not about liturgy in Latin, it’s not about paying all your money.

Second, Tyndale knew and understood the desperate need of the people who had been reduced to poverty by the church. In his book The Obedience of a Christian Man, Tyndale points out that while Christ gave Himself freely to everybody, nobody in England at that time—however poor—could even go to an Easter Mass without paying something.

RP After the Bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, refused to give Tyndale permission to translate the New Testament into English, Tyndale fled to Worms, Germany, where it was safe to print his English translation. Who funded his efforts?

DD A very successful, wealthy wool merchant, Henry Monmouth, was Tyndale’s only funder as far as we know. Gloucestershire was a wool county and had a wide range of trade, because they would export wool abroad to be manufactured into cloth, and then it would be brought back again.

RP The wool traders who smuggled Tyndale’s completed translations into England were engaged in very dangerous work because of the heresy hunters. Why were they willing to risk their lives?

DD It’s just the presentation of the Truth. There were people who loved Tyndale as the translator of the New Testament and wanted to get it into England. The need was desperate.

RP Shortly after copies of Tyndale’s 1526 New Testament arrived in England, Bishop Tunstall alleged that it contained 2,000 errors. Were there really that many errors, or was this just a ploy to dissuade people from obtaining copies?

DD Tyndale says in his book The Obedience of a Christian Man that they were so concerned about making him a heretic that if he failed to dot an i in one of his printed translations, they would denounce it as heresy. They were obviously going to find what they were looking for. But the thing to remember is that Tyndale translated from the original Greek and Tunstall had to speak to the Latin Vulgate. What Tunstall was saying is that there were 2,000 differences between Tyndale’s translation from the Greek and the translation from the Latin.

Tunstall was under the thumb of Cardinal Wolsey, who wanted to be pope. Cardinal Wolsey hated Lutherans and burned Lutheran books. Tunstall couldn’t risk his position, so it was a totally political move.

RP What was it about Tyndale’s translation that made the Roman Catholic authorities so angry?

DD His translation of five Greek words enormously angered his enemies, especially Thomas More. In each case his translation was absolutely accurate to the Greek. He translated the Greek word presbuteros as “elder,” whereas the church had always translated it as “priest”; he translated agape as “love,” where the church had always had it as “charity”; he translated ekklesia as “congregation,” whereas the church had had it as “church”; and he translated exomologeo as “acknowledge,” where the church used “confess.”

Above all, he translated the Greek word metanoeo as “repent.” Metanoeo is a classical and New Testament Greek word meaning “a change in the mind.” It means that sort of complete change that can come over people’s minds and change the direction of their lives. The Latin church had always translated that as paenitentiam agite, meaning “do penance.” Now, to do penance involves paying money, so they didn’t want the New Testament to be saying “repent.” But if you look in Luke 17:3–4, Christ says “repent.” In Acts 2:37, the people asked Peter and the apostles, “What shall we do?” The Greek in verse 38 says “repent.” The church, however, says “do penance.”

G. Lloyd Jones, in his Discovery of Hebrew in Tudor England, writes about 16th-century clerics who were unfamiliar with Greek and whose understanding of the Roman church’s doctrinal teachings was therefore based solely on the Latin Vulgate: “Ignorant and illiterate monks, alarmed at the progress of the new learning, thundered from the pulpit that a new language had been discovered called Greek, of which people should be aware, since it was that which produced all the heresies. A book called the New Testament written in this language was now in everyone’s hands, and was ‘full of thorns and briers.’”

RP Copies of Tyndale’s translation were seized and burned by the thousands. Why were his efforts so vehemently opposed? Did the Catholic Church fear the spread of Lutheranism and a subsequent loss of control?

DD Yes, there was fear of loss of control and of the spread of Lutheranism. Some of it was invented, of course. Luther didn’t say the things he was said to have said, nor did Tyndale. When you are on weak ground, you make up the remarks of your enemies. Nowhere were reformers like Luther, Zwingli and Tyndale preaching dissension. They weren’t saying you must disobey the government, which is why Tyndale wrote his Obedience of a Christian Man. He said that the Christian must obey the government, provided that the government obeys God. Tunstall is famously reported to have said, “They can’t have the English Bible, because if they do, they’ll see what we do.” The church considered the New Testament a horrifying document for the people to have.

When you are on weak ground, you make up the remarks of your enemies.”

David Daniell

RP How much did Tyndale’s translations influence the English Reformation?

DD Totally. You see, the tidal wave that we call the Reformation was a popular movement. Patrick Collinson, a historian at Cambridge, asks, “How did the most Catholic country in Europe become the least?” And the answer is, by reading the Bible. Between Tyndale’s first New Testament in 1526 and the King James Bible in 1611, over one million English Bibles were bought. The population of England was around six million. At that time reading meant reading aloud; you didn’t read to yourself. So every Bible would be heard by a dozen or 20 people.

RP What impact did Tyndale’s translations have on the English translations that followed?

DD It’s unbelievably great. Obviously he impacted the Matthew’s and Geneva Bibles, which are far more important than anybody realizes, and 83 percent of the King James New Testament is Tyndale. His translations had, first, an accuracy and clarity that were completely new. Second, if I can put it this way, he wrote for adults. And the third thing is that his translation is theologically very strong, sometimes even harsh. So that combination eventually had very great effect—though not, I’m afraid, at the beginning of the 21st century, because so many translations have gone soft.

RP Could you give me an example of “soft” translation?

DD For example, at the beginning of John 14, Christ is telling his disciples something of the greatest possible importance. He’s telling them that He’s going to go away from them, that He’s going to be killed, and that He’s going to come back to them. The Greek has a few words which Tyndale translates as “Let not your hearts be troubled.” A “troubled heart” is about grief; it’s about bereavement; it’s about vocation quite often—people’s vocation comes out of a troubled heart. A very celebrated and widely used modern translation has Jesus telling them, “Don’t be worried and upset.” It’s completely wrong. It’s totally wrong for the Greek. “Worry” is a self-centered thing; being “upset” is even more narcissistic. Now, why change it? Why kill the Greek and kill the English?

RP What effect did Tyndale’s translations have on the English language?

DD They had an unbelievably great impact. First of all, not only did everybody read them, but he empowered ordinary people with good, clear Saxon language. Second, God wrote or spoke like this, so it’s permitted to write like this. If God said, “Let there be light,” then we can write like God. He doesn’t mind if we write like that. And third, the huge thing, which has hardly begun to be understood, is that you could develop your imagination or your science or whatever, without a charge of heresy. Shakespeare and Bacon were not burned as heretics.

RP In spite of the daunting obstacles he faced, Tyndale persevered with his translations until he was imprisoned and ultimately martyred. What motivated him to keep going?

DD His faith in God’s promises. He knew that the New Testament spoke of the promises of God, and he knew he must tell everybody about them. I see him as a very special man. The more you look at Tyndale, the more you see a single-minded immersion in work on a vast scale. The Old and New Testaments are very big books. And never mind the danger, the fear of being arrested and burned. I always use the illustration that he was alone—literally alone, in danger, in a foreign country, in poverty, and in hunger—translating the New Testament. Today this work is done by salaried committees with full secretarial backup in some leafy campus in North America. The contrast is colossal.

Tyndale’s vision, his craft, his genius, to me can be best illustrated by somebody like Beethoven. Beethoven was the greatest innovative genius in music ever. You take any musical form and Beethoven changed it forever. You take any form of the English language, of theology, even of human speech and writing, and Tyndale changed it forever, not to mention the fact that he gave us, at the same time, the root promises of God in a very simple way.