In the 16th century, nowhere was as dangerous for a would-be Bible translator as England. In 1517 (the year of Luther's 95 theses), seven parents were burnt at the stake for teaching their children the Lord's Prayer in English.
Back in 1215AD, the Fourth Lateran Council declared:
“The secret mysteries of the faith ought not to be explained to all men in all places... For such is the depth of divine Scripture that, not only the simple and illiterate, but even the prudent and learned are not fully sufficient to try to understand it.”
Two centuries later the English church, under Archbishop Thomas Arundel, turned this "ought not" into a heresy punishable by burning. England was the only major European country where translation was banned outright.
As a side-note, it's interesting to see that in England it's the Bible that got you burnt, while on the Continent it was doctrine that was truly deadly (gross generalisation!). But a similar split occured a century later in philosophy - the Continent produced the rationalists (climbing into their ovens and thinking hard about reality), while England produced the empiricists (who went out into the world to gather sense data). Still today it's the English speaking world that populates biblical studies while the Europeans produce theologians. (Again, gross generalisation, but some truth to it I think).
It was in this English context that Tyndale, aged just 22, spoke his famous words to another clergyman:
“If God spare my life ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plow, shall know more of Scripture than thou doest.” (1522, Foxes Book of Martyrs)
Tyndale was fluent in eight languages, a genius of translation and a true reformer. It was this passion to make the “plow-boy” know the Scriptures that cost him his freedom and then his life. He moved to the continent and in 1525 he produced the first printed New Testament in the English language. His prologue was a combination of his own views on the gospel (he was an ardent believer in justification by faith alone) and a part translation of Luther's forward to his 1522 New Testament.
The first print run was 3000 and they were smuggled into England in bales of cloth. This New Testament was incredibly popular despite the fact that, if found with a copy, you would be burnt along with your Bible.
Tyndale has been called the architect of the English language, and in many cases he invented words to better convey the original:
And scores of his phrases have proved impossible to better in the last five centuries...
“Let their be light”
“In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God”,
“There were shepherds abiding in the field”
“Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name”
“The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak”
“Signs of the times”,
“Skin of your teeth”,
“In Him we live and move and have our being”
“Fight the good fight”
This year I have marvelled at the beauty of so many ‘King James phrases’. Yet on closer examination the great majority turn out to be Tyndale phrases. Only around 20 of the 365 phrases I have been considering at the King's English are original to the King James Bible. And Tyndale has provided the bulk of the rest.
Computer analysis has revealed that more than three quarters of the King James Version can be traced directly to Tyndale (83% of the NT and 76% of the OT). Many times we can wish he was followed even more closely. Consider Tyndale’s matchless translation of Genesis 3:4. The serpent tempts Eve saying, “Tush, ye shall not die”!
By 1535 he had translated all of the Old Testament from Genesis to 2 Chronicles as well as the book of Jonah. But he was betrayed by a friend and imprisoned for 18 months. He was condemned as a heretic, degraded from the priesthood, strangled and then his body burnt. But not before he cried out a famous prayer: "O Lord, open the King of England's eyes."
He was 42 years old. He had been on the run for 12 years. He had never marred and was never buried. But within three years his prayer was answered. In 1539 Henry VIII ordered an English translation (the Great Bible) to be placed in every pulpit in England. Miles Coverdale was responsible for the translation. He was not a linguist. So whose translation did he depend upon? Tyndale's.
Between Tyndale and the King James Version there were another 5 English translations, but none of them could get away from the monumental work of this giant of the reformation.
The King James Version is sometimes called ‘the greatest book written by committee.’ And I suppose there is something to celebrate about that. Yet, for the most part, those 47 scholars, working in peace and prosperity, could not improve on the work of a young evangelical who gave his liberty and his life for the gospel.
Thank God for William Tyndale.