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Tyndale — England’s greatest Bible translator

The date of 31 October 1517 has been recorded as the commencement of the Protestant Reformation. On this day five hundred years ago, the converted German monk, Martin Luther, nailed ninety-five ‘theses’ to the door of the cathedral church in his home city of Wittenberg. They were an analysis of the moral and spiritual corruption of the Roman Catholic Church at that time.

Whilst the focus of the Reformation is on Martin Luther, we should never forget that, in reality, it had begun much earlier. Before the close of the fourteenth century John Wycliffe, known as ‘the morning star of the Reformation’, had led a team of translators to provide the whole Bible in English from the Latin version. As the printing press hadn’t been invented then, and thus the scripts were written entirely by hand, these Bibles weren’t widely available.

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However, in England our Reformation is understood best through the life and work of William Tyndale. Born in Gloucestershire around 1491 and educated at Oxford and then Cambridge, his single vision was to ensure that the entire Bible could be read in English by the common people. A brilliant linguist, Tyndale was fluent in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, French, and German, and a contemporary commented that whichever he spoke, it was as if it was his native language. At this time, the Roman Catholic Church in England forbade anyone to read the Bible in English on pain of death.

Declaring to a travelling Friar: ‘I defy the Pope, all his laws. If God spare my life, ‘ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth a plough, shall know more of the Scriptures than thou dost’, Tyndale soon had no option but to escape to the continent. By 1526 the first ever printed New Testament translated from the Greek was being smuggled into England. Slipping from place to place to avoid government agents, Tyndale was revising his New Testament, translating the Old Testament from the Hebrew, and writing vital books for England explaining the true gospel.

By 1536 Tyndale had been betrayed, arrested, tried for heresy, strangled and burnt at the stake. His final prayer ‘Lord, open the King of England’s eyes’ was magnificently answered. In that year, Henry VIII ordered the free distribution of the Bible in English! The New Testament was almost entirely Tyndale’s and as much of the Old Testament as he had been able to translate before his arrest.

Tyndale’s single-minded vision to provide the whole Bible in English in defiance of the Roman church, his brilliant translations, his helpful books sent to England outlining the true gospel, and the quality of his life — as one who knew him well wrote to the king: ‘Not many perfecter men in this day living’ — is all a vital legacy to the value of the Reformation in England.

(The story of his life is available from Brian at £3)