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Today we remember the martyrdom of William Tyndale

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:




"mercy seat"


And scores of his phrases have proved impossible to better in the last five centuries...

“Let there 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 married 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.

8 thoughts on “Today we remember the martyrdom of William Tyndale

  1. Si Hollett

    Amen and Amen.

    While there were some poor translations from the Latin in existence, Tyndale's from the original languages was so timely, so needed and so desired - for instance in 1521 Joan Norman, a woman from my town of Amersham, was blind, but saved up to buy a Bible and was saving up to get someone to read it to her when she was arrested, tried by the Bishop in the church, and burnt along with 5 men (including a John Scrivener whose children were forced to light the pyre). It's not like she didn't know the risks - in 1506, someone else had been burnt in the same spot for owning an English Bible, and other townsfolk were executed elsewhere, plus some nearby nobles from the next village along were sent to the Tower for being Lollards.

    The banning of the Bible in English helped us understand that there's power in those words and gave us a thirst for them as a nation - Tyndale's comment about the plough boy was proved right, if not in his lifetime, then not that long afterwards, thanks to his work. However, even in the Church, we've lost that understanding of that power and lost that thirst.

  2. Glen

    I had heard the Scriveners were lollards. I didn't know John Scrivener was burnt. My name is actually John Scrivener (Glen's my middle name). A "friend" has just suggested I aim to enter glory in similar fashion on the 500th anniversary. Martyrdom in ten years, eh? Everyone's gotta have a goal.

    Thanks for that Si, fascinating stuff!

  3. Amy

    So, if Tyndale added all of these words and phrases to the bible, is it still the word of God, or is it now the word of Tyndale?

  4. Glen

    Hi Amy, the bible is certainly the word of God written. At the same time, what we have in English are *translations* of the original Greek and Hebrew. What do you mean by "added"?

  5. Hilary N Wirasinha

    Hello Glen,

    I came across your article quite by chance. Somewhat of a coincidence since a couple of months ago I spoke to our church group about the great contribution made by Tyndale in translating the Bible into English and of his subsequent martyrdom.

    I am a member of the Anglican Church in the Diocese of Colombo, Sri Lanka, - known now as the Church of Ceylon. The CMS missionaries established a mission station in the area I live, way back in 1822 !.

    We were 'schooled' on the KJV as kids and I love its rolling phrases and the memorable poetic language. However I do think this translation is dated and for clarity, I now prefer the NEB.

    We have a Study group meeting every Saturday, with the participation of liberals, (I belong here), evangelicals, traditionalists and middle- of- the- roaders, and have very lively and free ranging discussions.

    Good wishes to you and your blog.


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