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William Tyndale: A Biography

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William Tyndale is a hero of mine. If you have read this site for any length of time, you already know this, for just a few weeks ago I reviewed a DVD that featured an interview with David Daniell, a prominent Tyndale expert. Having watched this DVD presentation, and being intruiged by Daniell’s knowledge of his subject, I knew I would have to read his biography of William Tyndale.

Considering the importance of his contribution, both to Christianity and to the English language, there are surprisingly few biographies written about William Tyndale. In the introduction to this biography, Daniell claims that “there has not been a full-scale study of him for nearly sixty years, since J.F. Mozley’s biography of 1937.” This leads him to conclude that “there is need for something more modern, especially as the quincentenary of Tyndale’s birth in 1494 is widely celebrated.” Of course this date passed some twelve years ago, for this volume was printed in 1994. Daniell fills this need with William Tyndale: A Biography.

The outline of Tyndale’s life is well-known. He was, as you may know, a brilliant man who was the first to make and print a translation of the Scriptures from the Greek into English. His translation formed much of the basis for what was to become the King James version. In that way, his work continues to be in use today and is still precious to many believers. Of lesser significance, many of the words and phrases he coined, such as my brother’s keeper, passover and scapegoat are still in use, even five centuries later. He dedicated his life to the great work of translation which eventually totalled all of the New Testament and the first two sections of the Old. He gave his life for the privilege of translating Scripture and was eventually martyred for the “sin” of giving the Scriptures to the common man in a common language. It is a great tragedy that his life was taken before he was able to complete the remaining books of the Old Testament and, in particular Proverbs, Psalms and other books of poetry.

Surprisingly, for a man of his stature, relatively little is known about Tyndale, for he spent many years of his life toiling in secrecy and obscurity. This book represents a compilation and analysis of most of the important facts available to historians. Many gaps remain, but it seems unlikely that we will ever know significantly more than we do today.

Perhaps the best way of describing this biography is “thorough.” This is not a book for the feint-of-heart. While it is only slightly over 400 pages, it is, nonetheless, very thorough and sometimes tough-going. Thankfully, Daniell is a capable writer and he does a very satisfying job of making relevant even what may seem, at first glance, to be mundane. Beyond merely relaying the facts of his subject’s life, the author expends great effort in understanding the sources Tyndale used for his translation and the results of his dependence upon particular texts. He examines particular words and phrases Tyndale chose to use, showing him to be a master communicator with a gift for expressing himself with great clarity. He describes even the religious and social implications that arose because of Tyndale’s work. Truly Tyndale’s influence extended far beyond a simple translation of the Bible.

I was particularly glad to see that Daniell endeavoured to present Tyndale as something more than merely the opponent of Sir Thomas More. Tragically, More has gone down in history as a noble and just man, but the reality is that he was anything but. He proved his lack of character time and again through his bitter hatred of William Tyndale. There is much more to the life of Tyndale than his ongoing confrontations with More and Daniell is careful to document this.

William Tyndale: A Biography was as thorough and interesting a biography as I could hope to read. It was not always easy to read, but it was well worth the effort. I would not hesitate to recommend it.

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