October 6 is the customary date on which the death of the Protestant martyr William Tyndale in Belgium in 1536 is commemorated, though the precise date of his death — which occurred sometime in early October, after his ruthless betrayal by Henry Phillips and sixteen months of imprisonment — is unknown. Although popular narratives of the period have focused far more on the work of figures like John Calvin and Martin Luther, Tyndale played a crucial — albeit different — role in the burgeoning Reformation and the changes to which it led.
Tyndale, born in Gloucestershire, England, sometime around 1494 and educated at Oxford, was shocked to find that his M.A. reading in theology did not include Scripture, and it was probably the publication of the Greek New Testament by Desiderius Erasmus in 1516 that moved his mind toward the project of church reform.
For Tyndale, that meant first and foremost a version of the Bible in the vernacular, over which he began to labor at some point thereafter, making steady progress by the 1520s. When looking for permission from church authorities in London for this endeavor (which he did not receive), David Daniell, the author of numerous studies of Tyndale, notes, “[t]o show his skill in Greek, Tyndale had taken with him his translation of an oration of Isocrates, which has not survived, the first recorded in English: this suggests that both Tyndale’s Greek and his understanding of classical rhetoric were excellent.” In addition to Greek, Tyndale knew Hebrew, Latin, German, Spanish, and French, as well as his mother tongue.
Because there was hostility to a vernacular Bible in England, Tyndale had to flee to Germany, where, in 1525 in Cologne, he tried to see a version of the New Testament through the presses. But the press was raided when the printing had reached the middle of Matthew 22. One copy of the “Cologne fragment,” in the British Library, is extant, which is significant as the first instance of one of the Gospels (or most of it, anyway) translated from the original Greek and published in English.
From Cologne, Tyndale went to Worms, and here, in 1526, he was able to have his entire New Testament printed. The momentousness of this event should not be underestimated. Never before had a New Testament translated from Greek been available in the English language. It was brought to England and Scotland clandestinely, sneaked in inside bales of cloth. By October of that year it had been banned, and Cuthbert Tunstall, a bishop, organized a public burning of this Bible on October 27. Authorities mobilized to buy copies of the book simply for the sake of burning them; Bishop Richard Nix, Daniell reports, wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury that he had done “a gracious and a blessed deed” in participating in this hunt.
But no matter: the genie was out of the bottle and could not be put back, and Tyndale hoped that his translation would bring it about that, as he said to a “learned man” with whom he was disputing, “a boy that driveth the plough, shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.” Daniell calls the Worms New Testament “a treasure of the English-speaking culture, for its mastery of both the Greek and English languages.”
It is a version that still affects the way we speak. The vast majority of the King James Bible, for instance, comprises Tyndale’s words, and it has influenced every subsequent English version of Scripture. Anyone who has ever used the phrases “the powers that be,” “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” or “fight the good fight” is quoting Tyndale, whether he knows it or not, as is anyone who says, “Ask and it shall be given you: Seek and ye shall find: Knock and it shall be opened unto you.“ Tyndale’s New Testament did for the English language what Martin Luther’s German Bible did for the German language: Along with the later Book of Common Prayer, it altered our speech forever. As Daniell remarks, “The great change that came over England from 1526, the ability of every ordinary man, woman, and child to read and hear the whole New Testament in English, accurately rendered, was Tyndale’s work, and its importance cannot be overstressed.”
Tyndale’s classical learning in languages and rhetoric form the indispensable background to his achievement, and demonstrate their enduring significance today. These were gifts that Tyndale used to serve the common people for their edification. As he says in his epistle to the reader at the beginning of his translation of the Pentateuch from Hebrew into English, the reason he had done this work was “[b]ecause I had perceived by experience, how that it was impossible to establish the lay people in any truth, except that Scripture were plainly laid before their eyes in the mother tongue, that they might see the process, order and meaning of the text.” But he wished the same for the elites as well. Even when about to be strangled before having his body burned, he still prayed for those in power: John Foxe reports that his last words were, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.”
In this month of Reformation commemorations, it is worth noting the central role played by translators, sometimes overlooked in comparison to the famous theologians and theological tracts of the 16th century. Without the study of languages and the desire to use them to benefit the ordinary citizen, the epoch-making changes of the Reformation — including a massive rise in literacy spurred on by the desire to read the Bible — could not have occurred.