The moment Martin Luther nailed his “Ninety-Five Theses” to the door of the university chapel at Wittenberg, he set into motion a series of events that brought about a great Reformation. This Reformation would soon spread beyond Germany and as it did so, it would forever transform the Christian faith. One of the jewels of that Reformation is now in the collection of the British Library: William Tyndale’s New Testament. It is the next of the twenty-five objects through which we are telling the history of Christianity.
William Tyndale was born in 1494 in Gloucestershire, England. Born into a wealthy family he had the privilege of studying at Magdalen Hall, Oxford and at Cambridge. He was a brilliant scholar who was soon fluent in eight languages. At Cambridge he studied theology, but remarked later that the study of theology had involved little study of the Bible. Also at Cambridge he encountered the teachings of Desiderius Erasmus and became convinced that the Bible alone should be the Christian’s rule of faith and practice and that, for this reason, every Christian ought to have access to the Bible in his own tongue. The established church regarded these as dangerous ideas associated with Lutheranism and the Reformers. His controversial opinions led him to a disciplinary appearance before the Chancellor of the Diocese of Worcester, but no formal charges were laid against him.
In 1523 Tyndale went to London to seek support for a new English translation of the Scriptures that would be based on Erasmus’ Greek New Testament text. In that day the Latin Vulgate remained the authorized translation of the Bible and only fragments of God’s Word were available in English. He hoped that Cuthbert Tunstall, bishop of London, would sponsor this work, but Tunstall declined, being more concerned with preventing the spread of Lutheran ideas than with the study of the Bible.
Realizing that England would not be a safe place to complete this English translation, Tyndale departed for mainland Europe. He would never return to his native land. He initially sought Luther’s help and settled in Germany, perhaps even in Wittenberg. By 1525 he had completed his translation of the New Testament and had begun having it printed in Cologne. However, before even a single volume could be completed, the Dean of Frankfurt learned of the project and made Cardinal Wolsey aware of Tyndale’s presence and activities. Tyndale was forced to flee for his life and ended up at Worms where Peter Schoeffer, a sympathetic printer, completed the first volumes. These were soon smuggled into England in bales of cloth. Though it was illegal to own or to read a Tyndale Bible, there was unrelenting demand for them and they were snatched up the moment they arrived on England’s shores.
The volume in the British Library is one of 3,000 Schoeffer printed, and one of only two to survive. It is small—pocket-sized—ideal for smuggling and concealing, and far different from the oversized Bibles of the day that were meant to be displayed on lecterns and pulpits. The original binding has been lost and it is now bound in red leather with gold tooling. It is beautifully illuminated with coloring added by one of its owners long after its printing.
Of course the book itself is far less important than the words, for it was in translating the words of Scripture that Tyndale left his enduring mark. Earlier in his life, in the midst of a theological disagreement with an ignorant clergyman, Tyndale had exclaimed, “I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!” The rest of his life was dedicated to this task and it was accomplished in his New Testament.
Tyndale’s New Testament would have an immediate influence on English Christianity. As he translated from Greek he replaced many traditional words with new ones reflecting his Protestant theology: “Congregation” was used in place of “Church;” “repentance” replaced “penance,” and “elder” replaced “priest.” Where the Bible had been available to only the few with knowledge of Latin, it was now in the common tongue and even the lowly plow boy could read it.
Tyndale’s influence would be felt in his day, but also long afterward. His influence is seen in every subsequent English translation. Scholars estimate that between eighty and eighty-five percent of the King James Version of the New Testament is Tyndale’s, along with more than seventy percent of the Pentateuch. Many words in the Christian lexicon that we take for granted today were coined by Tyndale: passover, atonement, Jehovah, scapegoat, and many more. So too with many precious phrases: “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted,” “salt of the earth,” and “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” It is not going too far to state that Tyndale must be credited as one of the inventers of modern English.
After Tyndale completed his New Testament translation, he began to translate the Old Testament from Hebrew, completing the first five books along with Jonah. In 1534 Henry VIII led the Church of England in its split with Rome and at this point Tyndale moved to Antwerp and began to exercise less caution. A friend soon betrayed him and he was arrested. After spending more than a year in prison, Tyndale was charged with heresy and treason. On October 6, 1536, he was strangled to death and then burned at the stake. His final words were a prayer: “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.” This prayer would soon be answered, for just three years later Henry would publish his “Great Bible,” based substantially on Tyndale’s work.
At the cost of his life, William Tyndale set God’s Word free in the English language, and once set free, it would prove itself living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It would make an indelible imprint upon the souls of countless individuals and the lives of entire nations.
For more on Tyndale’s enduring influence, you may wish to consult this excellent article.
More in The History of Christianity in 25 Objects:
- The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Introduction
- The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Augustus of Prima Porta
- The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Rylands Library Papyrus P52
- The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Alexamenos Graffito