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.