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William Tyndale died for the right to read the Scriptures
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William Tyndale died for the right
to read the Scriptures

Richard F. Griffiths
By Richard F. Griffiths
The writer is a member of the independent Churches of God and an avid student of history and psychology. This article, in tone and content, is drawn from David Daniell's The Bible in English and from his masterful biography of William Tyndale.

KINGSTON, Mass.--It was a small alcove. The bare furnishings of the room were crowded with books and papers. At the desk a scholarly looking man sat working diligently on a manuscript, his face furrowed in concentration.

In the spiritual realm a light of indescribable beauty hovered around this man.

Remarkably, as he worked, the light seemed to pulsate and at times even breathe into him.

The light, of course, was God's Holy Spirit; the man was William Tyndale; and his assignment from God was an incredibly dangerous one: to translate His Word into the English tongue so all could read for themselves what God had to say.

In the beginning of the New Testament church, most Christians could read what God had to say for themselves or at least hear it spoken verbatim. The early church followed the Jewish tradition of open access and discussion of the Scriptures.

However, as the faith spread and the Roman hierarchy grew in power, attitudes toward open access to the Bible changed. It was seen as too complicated for the common person to understand and would remain, as David Daniell notes, almost totally inaccessible in Latin--a language known only by the elite--for 1,000 years.

William Tyndale
William Tyndale

Before the dawn

In England, bits and pieces of the Bible in Old English were present but the Bible was not accessible in its entirety.

Then, in the 1380s, the light shown, if just for a moment--almost as if God had pulled up a window shade--with the sudden appearance of numerous handwritten manuscripts in English of the entire Bible.

These manuscripts were attributed to the work of a great Oxford scholar, John Wyclif, and his supporters. The appearance of these manuscripts, not surprisingly, shook the ecclesiastic authorities, but what made Wyclif extremely dangerous was his advocacy for the primacy of Scripture above the traditions and institutions of men. Wyclif eventually would be declared a heretic, but his ideas and influence spread.

Article 7

In 1409 Archbishop Arundel held a church council at Oxford in which a number of church constitutions and articles were adopted. Of particular importance was Article 7, which forbade the translation of any text of Holy Scripture into English or any other language.

From that time on, even reading the Bible aloud in English or the mere possession of a Bible in English resulted in an assumption of heresy; those found guilty were to be handed over to the state for burning.

This repression lasted a century and drove Bible advocates underground. Those who thirsted for a new translation of God's Word into English would have to wait for William Tyndale.

William Tyndale, like Wyclif, was a scholar who also had a thirst for God and His Word. After attending Oxford he graduated from Magdalen College with an M.A. in 1515 and became an ordained priest.

Tyndale, a genius, would then master eight languages and set himself to the task of translating the Bible into English from the original Greek and Hebrew (Wyclif initially relied on the Latin Vulgate, but the scholar Erasmus had recently shown the Vulgate contained errors).

Tyndale realized what was needed was a pure translation from the original languages into English.

In exile

In the summer of 1523 Tyndale requested the help of the bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, a fellow scholar, for his work on a new English translation. Receiving no support, Tyndale left England for the Continent and the great trading ports of Northwest Europe.

Before he left, though, he stated to another scholar: "If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough [to] know more of the Scripture than thou dost."

From 1524 to 1535 Tyndale would reside in a series of ports: Cologne, Worms and Antwerp. These and other cities housed large numbers of printers and Bible advocates and saw a lively commerce with England that was essential for Tyndale to spread his Bible translation.

At Cologne in 1525 Tyndale's first attempt to print his English translation of the New Testament was interrupted by news that the authorities planned to arrest him. He fled up the Rhine to Worms, where at Peter Schoeffer's print shop he successfully managed to print thousands of copies of the New Testament in English.

Tyndale next appeared in Antwerp, where he completed a revision of his New Testament translation in 1534 and began a new English translation of the Old Testament from the original Hebrew. During this time his work was smuggled into England and quickly spread across the land.

Tyndale's genius as a translator was to master the original languages and then write a translation that would make sense.

He would take the New Testament's common Greek, written for the average person, and translate it into simple yet beautiful and rhythmic English prose that emphasized the Saxon syntax: subject, verb, object. By doing so, Tyndale (under the influence of the Holy Spirit) would take a boorish language and ennoble it.

"At a time when English was struggling to find a form that was neither Latin nor French, Tyndale gave the nation a Bible language that was English in words, word-order and lilt," writes David Daniell.

As a result, subsequent versions of the Bible (most notably the KJV) would be drawn principally from Tyndale (83 percent of the KJV's New Testament is Tyndale's).

When you read memorable phrases--I am the good Shepherd; the salt of the earth; the spirit is willing--it's all Tyndale.

The altar of sacrifice

Tyndale finished his race on a cold day in October 1536 at Vilvorde, Belgium.

If you had stood in the crowd that day, you would have seen him led as a prisoner, his head held high, to a huge cross placed in the middle of large circular space.

Tyndale's executioners tied his feet to the lower portion of the cross and placed a chain of iron around his neck. His sentence for heresy: strangulation and burning.

In his final moments tied to the cross, Tyndale undoubtedly thought of his life and work.

Perhaps in those final moments the images of his unfinished translation of the Old Testament, the arrest in Antwerp, the last 16 months spent in prison and the burning of his English translation of the New Testament in a huge pile before the cathedral of St Paul by Bishop Tunstall (a vain attempt to block the spread of God's Word) floated in his mind.

In those final moments Tyndale probably also assessed his life.

"Was it a good life, a life worthy of praise from his God?" asks David Daniell.

"Yes, he had given it all: the best years of his life devoted to God's Word; living in poverty; hunted by authorities; no wife or property; and caring for the poor and oppressed when he could."

The cold iron of the chain tightening around his neck interrupted his thoughts.

"A few seconds now," he lamented. "Father!" he cried in his mind.

And then, with all his might, he spoke loudly to the crowd witnessing his final sacrifice:

"God open the eyes of the King of England."

Tyndale's throat was then crushed as the iron chain bit through his neck.

He didn't feel it, though, for in those last milliseconds in his mind's eye he saw the light, the indescribable light.

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