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William Tyndale

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William Tyndale
William Tyndale.jpg
Protestant reformer and Bible translator
Born c. 1494
Gloucestershire, England
Died 6th October 1536
near Brussels, Belgium

William Tyndale (sometimes spelled Tindall or Tyndall; pronounced /ˈtɪndəl/) (c. 1494 – 1536) was a 16th-century Protestant reformer and scholar who, influenced by the work of Desiderius Erasmus and Martin Luther,[1] translated considerable parts of the Bible into the Early Modern English of his day. While a number of partial and complete Old English translations had been made from the seventh century onward, and Middle English translations particularly during the 14th century, Tyndale's was the first English translation to draw directly from Hebrew and Greek texts, and the first to take advantage of the new medium of print, which allowed for its wide distribution. In 1535, Tyndale was arrested, jailed in the castle of Vilvoorde outside Brussels for over a year, tried for heresy and burned at the stake. He was strangled before his body was burnt.

Much of Tyndale's work eventually found its way into the King James Version (or "Authorised Version") of the Bible, published in 1611, which, as the work of 54 independent scholars revising the existing English versions, drew significantly on Tyndale's translations. The King James Version New Testament is 83.7 per cent Tyndale's work, with the KJV Old Testament 75.7 per cent Tyndale's.[2]

Whereas John Wycliffe had earlier produced an English translation of the Bible from Latin, Tyndale was the first to translate from the original Greek language. This was only made possible after Erasmus made the Greek New Testament available in Europe.


Tyndale was born around 1490, possibly in one of the villages near Dursley, Gloucestershire. Within his immediate family, the Tyndales were also known at that period as Hychyns (Hitchins), and it was as William Hychyns that Tyndale was educated at Magdalen College School, Oxford. Tyndale's family had migrated to Gloucestershire within living memory of his birth, quite probably as a result of the Wars of the Roses, and it is known that the family derived from Northumberland but had more recently resided in East Anglia. Tyndale's uncle, Edward, was receiver to the lands of Lord Berkeley and it is this fact that provides evidence of the family's origin. Edward Tyndale is recorded in two genealogies[3] as having been the brother of Sir William Tyndale, KB, of Deane, Northumberland, and Hockwald, Norfolk, who was knighted at the marriage of Arthur, Prince of Wales to Katherine of Aragon. Tyndale's family was therefore derived from Baron Adam de Tyndale, a tenant-in-chief of Henry I (and whose family history is related in Tyndall).

Tyndale was admitted to the Degree of Bachelor of Arts at Oxford University in 1512, the same year he became a subdeacon. He was made Master of Arts in July 1515 and was esteemed to be a man of virtuous disposition with life unspotted.[4] The MA degree allowed him to start studying theology, but the official course did not include the study of scripture.

He was a gifted linguist (fluent in French, Greek, Hebrew, German, Italian, Latin, and Spanish in addition to his native English) and subsequently went to Cambridge (possibly studying under Erasmus, whose 1503 Enchiridion Militis Christiani — "Handbook of the Christian Knight" — he translated into English). It is also possible according to Monyahan that he met Thomas Bilney and John Frith at Cambridge.[5]

Tyndale became chaplain in the house of Sir John Walsh at Little Sodbury in about 1521, and tutor to his children. His opinions involved him in controversy with his fellow clergymen, and around 1522, he was summoned before the Chancellor of the Diocese of Worcester John Bell though no formal charges were laid.[6]

Soon afterwards, he determined to translate the Bible into English and was convinced that the way to God was through His word and that scripture should be available even to common people. Foxe describes an argument with a "learned" but "blasphemous" clergyman, who had asserted to Tyndale that, "We had better be without God's laws than the Pope's." In a swelling of emotion, Tyndale made his response: "I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, I will cause the boy that drives the plow to know more of the Scriptures than the Pope himself!" [7][8]

Tyndale left for London in 1523 to seek permission to translate the Bible into English and to request other help from Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall, a well-known classicist whom Erasmus had praised after working with him on a Greek New Testament. However, the bishop did not regard Tyndale's scholarly credentials highly, was suspicious of his theology and, like many highly-placed churchmen, was uncomfortable with the idea of the Bible in the vernacular. The Church at this time did not deem that a new English translation of Scripture would be helpful. Tunstall told Tyndale he had no room for him in his household.[9] Tyndale preached and studied "at his book" in London for some time, relying on the help of a cloth merchant, Humphrey Monmouth. He then left England under a pseudonym and landed at Hamburg in 1524 with the work he had done so far on his translation of the New Testament. He completed his translation in 1525, with assistance from Observant friar William Roy.

In 1525, publication of his work by Peter Quentell in Cologne was interrupted by anti-Lutheran influence, and it was not until 1526 that a full edition of the New Testament was produced by the printer Peter Schoeffer in Worms, an imperial free city then in the process of adopting Lutheranism.[10] More copies were soon being printed in Antwerp. The book was smuggled into England and Scotland, and was condemned in October 1526 by Tunstall, who issued warnings to booksellers and had copies burned in public.[11]Marius notes that the "spectacle of the scriptures being put to the torch" "provoked controversy even amongst the faithful"[12]

Following the publication of Tyndale's New Testament, Cardinal Wolsey condemned Tyndale as a heretic and Tyndale was first mentioned in open court as a heretic in January 1529[13].

Bust Of William Tyndale

Sculpted Head Of William Tyndale from St Dunstan-in-the-West Church London

Tyndale went into hiding, possibly for a time in Hamburg, and carried on working. He revised his New Testament and began translating the Old Testament and writing various treatises. In 1530, he wrote The Practyse of Prelates, opposing Henry VIII's divorce on the grounds that it was unscriptural and was a plot by Cardinal Wolsey to get Henry entangled in the papal courts. This resulted in the king's wrath being directed at him: he asked the emperor Charles V to have Tyndale apprehended and returned to England. In 1532 Thomas More published a six volume Confutation of Tyndale's Answer in response to Tyndale's An Answer unto Sir Thomas More's Dialogue in which he alleged Tyndale was a traitor and a heretic.[14] Moynahan writes that More "despised, feared and loathed Tyndale; he, and his English Testament, were the obsessions of More's life. His hatred was not slaked by the savaging he had given Tyndale in his Dialogue, nor by the half a million words he had poured into the Confutation, this was mere flood of ink, where More was satisfied only by blood and the flames of the 'shorte fyre." Monynahan makes the case that More was a powerful factor in the betrayal and death of Tyndale.[15]

Eventually, Tyndale was betrayed to the authorities. He was seized in Antwerp in 1535, betrayed by Henry Phillips, and held in the castle of Vilvoorde near Brussels.[16]

He was tried on a charge of heresy in 1536 and condemned to death, despite Thomas Cromwell's intercession on his behalf. He "was strangled to death while tied at the stake, and then his dead body was burned". [17] Foxe gives 6 October as the date of commemoration (left-hand date column), but gives no date of death (right-hand date column).[16] The traditional date of commemoration is 6 October, but records of Tyndale's imprisonment suggest the date might have been some weeks earlier.[18]

Tyndale's final words, spoken "at the stake with a fervent zeal, and a loud voice", were reported as "Lord! Open the King of England's eyes."[19] Within four years, four English translations of the Bible,[20] all based on Tyndale's work, were published in England, and one of them was the official English Bible.

Printed works

Most well known for his translation of the Bible, Tyndale was an active writer and translator. Not only did Tyndale's works focus on the way in which religion should be carried out, but were also greatly keyed towards the political arena.

"They have ordained that no man shall look on the Scripture, until he be noselled in heathen learning eight or nine years and armed with false principles, with which he is an clean shut out of the understanding of the Scripture."
A critical John Bell claimed that Tyndale was arguing "we were better off to be without God's laws than the pope's". Tyndale replied that the fact that he defied the pope and all his laws did not mean he rejected the authority of the scriptures:
"If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou doest."[21]

Year Printed Name of Work Place of Publication Publisher
1525 The New Testament Translation (incomplete) Cologne
1526* The New Testament Translation (first full printed edition in English) Worms
1526 A compendious introduccion, prologe or preface into the epistle of Paul to the Romans
1528 The parable of the wicked mammon Antwerp
1528 The Obedience of a Christen Man[22] (and how Christen rulers ought to govern...) Antwerp Merten de Keyser
1530* The five books of Moses [the Pentateuch] Translation (each book with individual title page) Antwerp Merten de Keyser
1530 The practyse of prelates Antwerp Merten de Keyser
1531 The exposition of the fyrste epistle of seynt Jhon with a prologge before it Antwerp Merten de Keyser
1531? The prophete Jonas Translation Antwerp Merten de Keyser
1531 An answere vnto sir Thomas Mores dialoge
1533? An exposicion vppon the. v. vi. vii. chapters of Mathew
1533 Enchiridion militis Christiani Translation
1534 The New Testament Translation (thoroughly revised, with a second foreword against George Joye's unauthorized changes in an edition of Tyndale's New Testament published earlier in the same year) Antwerp Merten de Keyser
1535 The testament of master Wylliam Tracie esquier, expounded both by W. Tindall and J. Frith
1536? A path way into the holy scripture
1537 The byble, which is all the holy scripture Translation (only in part Tyndale's)
1548? A briefe declaration of the sacraments
1573 The whole workes of W. Tyndall, John Frith, and Doct. Barnes, edited by John Foxe
1848* Doctrinal Treatises and Introductions to Different Portions of the Holy Scriptures
1849* Expositions and Notes on Sundry Portions of the Holy Scriptures Together with the Practice of Prelates
1850* An Answer to Sir Thomas More's Dialogue, The Supper of the Lord after the True Meaning of John VI. and I Cor. XI., and William Tracy's Testament Expounded
1964* The Work of William Tyndale
1989** Tyndale's New Testament
1992** Tyndale's Old Testament
Forthcoming The Independent Works of William Tyndale
* These works were printed more than once, usually signifying a revision or reprint. However the 1525 edition was printed as an incomplete quarto and was then reprinted in 1526 as a complete octavo.
** These works were reprints of Tyndale's earlier translations revised for modern-spelling.



William Tyndale, just before being strangled and burned at the stake, cries out, "Lord, open the King of England's eyes," in woodcut from an early edition of Foxe's Book of Martyrs.

In translating the Bible, Tyndale introduced new words into the English language, and many were subsequently used in the King James Bible:

  • Jehovah (from a transliterated Hebrew construction in the Old Testament; composed from the Tetragrammaton YHWH.
  • Passover (as the name for the Jewish holiday, Pesach or Pesah),
  • Atonement (= at + onement), which goes beyond mere "reconciliation" to mean "to unite" or "to cover", which springs from the Hebrew kippur, the Old Testament version of kippur being the covering of doorposts with blood, or "Day of Atonement".
  • scapegoat (the goat that bears the sins and iniquities of the people in Leviticus, Chapter 16)

He also coined such familiar phrases as:

  • let there be light
  • the powers that be
  • my brother's keeper
  • the salt of the earth
  • a law unto themselves
  • filthy lucre
  • it came to pass
  • gave up the ghost
  • the signs of the times
  • the spirit is willing
  • live and move and have our being
  • fight the good fight

Some of the new words and phrases introduced by Tyndale did not sit well with the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, using words like 'Overseer' rather than 'Bishop' and 'Elder' rather than 'Priest', and (very controversially), 'congregation' rather than 'Church' and 'love' rather than 'charity'. Tyndale contended (citing Erasmus) that the Greek New Testament did not support the traditional Roman Catholic readings.

Contention from Roman Catholics came not only from from real or perceived errors in translation but a fear of the erosion of their social power if Christians could read the bible in their own language "the Pope's dogma is bloody" Tyndale wrote in his Obedience of a Christian Man.[23] Thomas More commented that searching for errors in the Tyndale Bible was similar to searching for water in the sea, and charged Tyndale's translation of Obedience of a Christian Man with having about a thousand falsely translated errors. More was obsessed with persecuting evangelical bible-reading Christians so his claims in this regard are likely to be biased[24] Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall of London declared that there were upwards of 2,000 errors in Tyndale's Bible. Tunstall in 1523 had denied Tyndale the permission required under the Constitutions of Oxford (1409), that were still in force, to translate the Bible into English.

In response to allegations of inaccuracies in his translation in the New Testament, Tyndale wrote that he never intentionally altered or misrepresented any of the Bible in his translation, and would never do so.

While translating, Tyndale followed Erasmus' (1522) Greek edition of the New Testament. In his Preface to his 1534 New Testament ("WT unto the Reader") he not only goes into some detail about the Greek tenses but also points out that there is often a Hebrew idiom underlying the Greek. The Tyndale Society adduces much further evidence to show that his translations were made directly from the original Hebrew and Greek sources he had at his disposal. For example, the Prolegomena in Mombert's William Tyndale's Five Books of Moses show that Tyndale's Pentateuch is a translation of the Hebrew original.

Of the first (1526) edition of Tyndale's New Testament, only three copies survive. The only complete copy is part of the Bible Collection of Württembergische Landesbibliothek, Stuttgart. The copy of the British Library is almost complete, lacking only the title page and list of contents. Another rarity of Tyndale's is the Pentateuch of which only nine remain.

Impact on the English Bible

The Bible in English
Old English (pre-1066)
Middle English (1066-1500)
Early Modern English (1500-1800)
Modern Christian (1800-)
Modern Jewish (1853-)

The men who translated the Revised Standard Version in the 1940s noted that Tyndale's translation inspired the great translations to follow, including the Great Bible of 1539, the Geneva Bible of 1560, the Bishops' Bible of 1568, the Douay-Rheims Bible of 1582–1609, and the King James Version of 1611, of which the RSV translators noted: "It [the KJV] kept felicitous phrases and apt expressions, from whatever source, which had stood the test of public usage. It owed most, especially in the New Testament, to Tyndale." Many scholars today believe that such is the case; Joan Bridgman makes the comment in the Contemporary Review that, "He [Tyndale] is the mainly unrecognised translator of the most influential book in the world. Although the Authorised King James Version is ostensibly the production of a learned committee of churchmen, it is mostly cribbed from Tyndale with some reworking of his translation."

Many of the great English versions since then have drawn inspiration from Tyndale, such as the Revised Standard Version, the New American Standard Bible, and the English Standard Version. Even the paraphrases like the Living Bible have been inspired by the same desire to make the Bible understandable to Tyndale's proverbial ploughboy.[25][26]

George Steiner in his book on translation After Babel refers to "the influence of the genius of Tyndale, the greatest of English Bible translators..." [After Babel p.366]


There is a memorial to Tyndale in Vilvoorde, where he was executed. It was erected in 1913 by Friends of the Trinitarian Bible Society of London and the Belgian Bible Society.[27] There is also a small William Tyndale Museum in the town, attached to the Protestant church.[28]

A bronze statue by Sir Joseph Boehm commemorating the life and work of Tyndale was erected in Victoria Embankment Gardens on the Thames Embankment, London in 1884. It shows his right hand on an open Bible, which is itself resting on an early printing press.

The Tyndale Monument, was erected in 1866 on a hill above his supposed birthplace, North Nibley.

A number of colleges, schools and study centres have been named in his honour, including Tyndale House (Cambridge), Tyndale University College and Seminary (Toronto), the Tyndale-Carey Graduate School affiliated to the Bible College of New Zealand, William Tyndale College (Farmington Hills, Michigan), and Tyndale Theological Seminary (Shreveport, Louisiana, and Fort Worth, Texas), as well as the independent Tyndale Theological Seminary [29] in Badhoevedorp, near Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

An American Christian publishing house, also called Tyndale House, was named after Tyndale.

Liturgical commemoration

By tradition Tyndale's death is commemorated on October 6.[30] There are commemorations on this date in the church calendars of members of the Anglican Communion, initially as one of the "days of optional devotion" in the American Book of Common Prayer (1979)[31], and a "black-letter day" in the Church of England's Alternative Service Book[32]. The Common Worship that came into use in the Church of England in 2000 provides a collect proper to 6 October, beginning with the words:

"Lord, give your people grace to hear and keep your word that, after the example of your servant William Tyndale, we may not only profess your gospel but also be ready to suffer and die for it, to the honour of your name; …"

See the List of Anglican Church Calendars.

Tyndale is also honored in the Calendar of Saints of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as a translator and martyr the same day.

See also


  1. Daniell, David (1994) William Tyndale: a biography. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, p. 114
  2. John Nielson and Royal Skousen, ‘How much of the King James Bible is William Tyndale's?’, Reformation, 3 (1998), pp. 49–74.
  3. John Nichol, Literary Anecdotes, Vol IX: Tindal genealogy; Burke's Landed Gentry, 19th c editions, 'Tyndale of Haling'
  4. Brian Moynahan. William Tyndale. If God Spare my Life. Abacus. London. 2003. p11.
  5. Brian Moynahan. William Tyndale. If God Spare my Life. Abacus. London. 2003. p21.
  6. Brian Moynahan. William Tyndale. If God Spare my Life. Abacus. London. 2003. p28
  7. Lecture by Dom Henry Wansbrough OSB MA (Oxon) STL LSS
  8. Foxe's Book of Martyrs, Chap XII
  9. Tyndale, preface to Five bokes of Moses (1530).
  10. Joannes Cochlaeus, Commenataria de Actis et Scriptis Martini Lutheri (St Victor, near Mainz: Franciscus Berthem, 1549), p. 134.
  11. Peter Ackroyd. The Life of Thomas More. Vintage, London 1999. p270.
  12. Peter Ackroyd. The Life of Thomas More. Vintage, London 1999. p270.
  13. Brian Moynahan. William Tyndale. If God Spare my Life. Abacus. London. 2003. p177
  14. Brian Moynahan. William Tyndale. If God Spare my Life. Abacus, London ISBN: 034911532 p248.
  15. Brian Moynahan. William Tyndale. If God Spare my Life. Abacus, London ISBN: 034911532 p340.
  16. 16.0 16.1 John Foxe, Actes and Monuments (1570), VIII.1228 (Foxe's Book of Martyrs Variorum Edition Online).
  17. Michael Farris, "From Tyndale to Madison", 2007, p. 37.
  18. Arblaster, Paul (2002). "An Error of Dates?". Retrieved 2007-10-07. 
  19. John Foxe, Actes and Monuments (1570), VIII.1229 (Foxe's Book of Martyrs Variorum Edition Online).
  20. Miles Coverdale's, Thomas Matthew's, Richard Taverner's, and the Great Bible
  21. Foxe, Acts and Monuments cited in Brian Moynahan. William Tyndale. If God Spare my Life. Abacus. London. 2003. p 31.
  22. The Obedience Of A Christian Man
  23. Brian Moynahan. William Tyndale. If God Spare my Life. Abacus, London ISBN: 034911532 p152.
  24. Brian Moynahan. William Tyndale. If God Spare my Life. Abacus, London ISBN: 034911532 p208.
  25. The Bible in the Renaissance - William Tyndale
  27. Le Chrétien Belge, October 18, 1913; November 15, 1913.
  29. Tyndale Theological Seminary
  30. David Daniell, “Tyndale, William (c.1494–1536),” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004); online edition, ed. Lawrence Goldman, October 2007. Accessed December 18, 2007.
  31. Marion J. Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book (New York: Seabury press, 1981), pp. 43, 76-77
  32. Martin Draper, ed., The Cloud of Witnesses: A Companion to the Lesser Festivals and Holydays of the Alternative Service Book, 1980 (London: The Alcuin Club, 1982).

Further references

  • Paul Arblaster, Gergely Juhász, Guido Latré (eds) Tyndale's Testament hardback ISBN 2-503-51411-1 Brepols 2002
  • Day, John T. "Sixteenth-Century British Nondramatic Writers" Dictionary of Literary Biography 1.132 1993 :296-311
  • Foxe, Acts and Monuments
  • Cahill, Elizabeth Kirkl "A bible for the plowboy", Commonweal 124.7: 1997
  • The Norton Anthology: English Literature. Ed. Julia Reidhead. New York: New York, Eighth Edition, 2006. 621.
  • Brian Moynahan, God's Bestseller: William Tyndale, Thomas More, and the Writing of the English Bible---A Story of Martyrdom and Betrayal St. Martin's Press, 2003
  • John Piper, Desiring God Ministries, "Why William Tyndale Lived and Died" [1]
  • William Tyndale: A hero for the information age," The Economist, 2008 December 20, pp. 101-103. [2] The online version corrects the name of Tyndale's Antwerp landlord as "Thomas Pointz" vice the "Henry Pointz" indicated in the print edition.

Ralph S. Werrell, "The Theology of William Tyndale." ISBN 0 227 67985 7. With a Foreword by Dr. Rowan Williams. Published by James Clarke & Co.

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