William Tyndale Biography

English Bible Translator and Christian Martyr

William Tyndale
Illustration of William Tyndale (1494-1536) while imprisoned at Vilvorde. Getty Images

1494 - October 6, 1536

Nearly 150 years after John Wycliffe produced the first complete English translation of the Bible, William Tyndale followed in his ground breaking footsteps. Yet, some Bible historians refer to William Tyndale as the true father of the English Bible.

Tyndale had two advantages. While Wycliffe's earlier manuscripts were handwritten, painstakingly produced before the invention of the printing press in the mid-1400s, Tyndale's Bible—the first printed English New Testament—was copied by the thousands.

And while Wycliffe's translation was based on the Latin Bible, Tyndale's chief ambition in life was to give common English speakers a translation based on the original Greek and Hebrew languages of Scripture.

William Tyndale, English Reformer

Tyndale lived at a time when only clergymen were deemed qualified to read and accurately interpret the Word of God. The Bible was still a "forbidden book" by church authorities in Western Europe.

But suddenly the printing press now made wide distribution of the Scriptures feasible and affordable. And brave reformers, men like William Tyndale, were determined to make it possible for common men and women to fully explore the Scriptures in their own language.

Like Wycliffe, Tyndale pursued his ambition at great personal risk. He lived by the conviction he had heard expressed by his professor of Greek at Cambridge, Desiderius Erasmus, who said, "I would to God the plowman would sing a text of the Scripture at his plow, and the weaver at his loom with this would drive away the tediousness of time.

I would that the wayfaring man with this pastime would expel the weariness of his journey."

When a priest criticized Tyndale's life ambition, saying, "We are better to be without God's laws than the Pope's." Tyndale replied, "If God spare my life, ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plow shall know more of the Scripture than thou doest."

In the end, Tyndale paid the ultimate sacrifice for his convictions. Today he is considered the single most important reformer of the English church.

William Tyndale, Bible Translator

When William Tyndale began his work of translation, the English Reformation was well underway. With the Church of England in turmoil and firmly opposed to this bold new movement, Tyndale realized he could not successfully pursue his goal in England.

So, in 1524 Tyndale went to Hamburg, Germany, where Martin Luther's reforms were changing the shape of Christianity there. Historians believe Tyndale visited Luther in Wittenberg and consulted Luther's recent translation of the Bible in German. In 1525, while living in Wittenberg, Tyndale finished his translation of the New Testament in English.

The first printing of William Tyndale's English New Testament was completed in 1526 in Worms, Germany. From there the small "octavo editions" were smuggled into England by hiding them in merchandise, barrels, bales of cotton, and sacks of flour. Henry VIII opposed the translation and church officials condemned it. Thousands of copies were confiscated by authorities and publicly burned.

But opposition only proved to fuel the momentum, and the demand for more Bibles in England increased at an alarming rate.

In the years ahead, Tyndale, ever the perfectionist, continued to make revisions to his translation. The 1534 edition in which his name appeared for the first time, is said to be his finest work. Tyndale's final revision was completed in 1535.

Meanwhile, Tyndale had also begun translating the Old Testament from the original Hebrew. Although he wasn't able to complete his translation of the entire Bible, that task was fulfilled by another ground breaker, Miles Coverdale.

In May of 1535, Tyndale was betrayed by a close friend, Henry Phillips. He was arrested by the king's officials and imprisoned in Vilvorde, near modern-day Brussels. There he was tried and convicted of heresy and treason.

Suffering under the extreme conditions of his prison cell, Tyndale remained focused on his mission. He requested a lamp, his Hebrew Bible, dictionary, and study texts so that he could continue his work of translation.

On October 6, 1536, after nearly 17 months in prison, he was strangled and then burned at the stake. As he died, Tyndale prayed, "Lord, open the king of England's eyes."

Three years later, Tyndale's prayer was answered when King Henry VIII sanctioned the printing of an authorized version of an English Bible, the Great Bible.

William Tyndale, Brilliant Scholar

William Tyndale was born in 1494 to a Welsh family in Gloucestershire, England. He attended Oxford University and received his master of arts degree at age 21. He went on to study at Cambridge where he was strongly influenced by his professor of Greek language studies, Erasmus, who was the first to produce a Greek New Testament.

Tyndale's story is largely unknown by Christians today, but his impact on English translations of the Bible is greater than anyone else in history. His belief that the Bible should be in the spoken language of the people set the tone of his work by avoiding overly formal or scholarly language.

Likewise, Tyndale's work strongly influenced the English language in general. Shakespeare mistakenly receives much of the credit for Tyndale's contributions to literature. Called by some the "Architect of the English Language," Tyndale coined many of the cherished phrases and familiar expressions we know today. "Fight the good fight of faith," "give up the ghost," "daily bread," "God forbid," "scapegoat," and "my brother's keeper" are a small sampling of Tyndale's language constructions that continue to live on.

A brilliant theologian and gifted linguist, Tyndale was fluent in eight languages, including Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. Without a doubt, God had equipped William Tyndale for the mission he would fulfill in his short but laser-focused life.

(Sources: How We Got the Bible by Neil R. Lightfoot; The Origin of the Bible by Philip Comfort; A Visual History of the English Bible by Donald L. Brake; The Story of the Bible by Larry Stone; How We Got the Bible by Clinton E. Arnold; Greatsite.com.)