On October 6, 1536, William Tyndale was strangled by the civil executioner in Belgium and his dead body was burned at the stake.
His crime? He had translated the New Testament and major portions of the Old Testament from the original languages into English so that English-speaking Christians could read the Scriptures in their own language.
Our Need for God’s Word
The Bible is indispensable to our faith – not just theoretically, but practically; not just through preaching and teaching, but through our own individual reading and study. Since the Bible is God’s revelation of Himself to us, we cannot know Him without knowing it. Without the Scriptures, the God you worship is the god of your imagination.
How many Bibles do you have? I suspect more than one. I have scores – Bibles in different languages, in different translations, in different bindings (leather, bonded leather, imitation leather, hardback, softback, loose-leaf, etc.). Everybody, or at least nearly everybody in our part of the world, has a Bible. But that hasn’t always been the case. In fact, there have been times when owning a Bible would have cost you your life. Take William Tyndale for example.
Opportunities and Obstacles
William Tyndale was trained in Greek and Hebrew. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Oxford in 1512 (at the ripe old age 16 or 17!) and his master’s degree in 1515. He later studied at Cambridge to round out his education. In due time, he became fluent in six or seven languages. In short, Tyndale was no dummy! Furthermore, his sense of English style was unparalleled.
As he was contemplating a fresh translation of the Bible in the 1520s, he came to the realization that it was impossible to do this work in England. The 1408 edict against Bible translation was still in effect. Besides, Tyndale could find no one in England who knew Hebrew. So he traveled to Germany – and there he was introduced to rabbis from whom he learned the language of the Old Testament. While on the Continent, he translated much of the Bible into English. He could not return to England for fear of his life.
He had a passion for getting the Word of God to lay folks. He wanted the boy behind the plough to know more of the Word of God than the literati of his day. His prayer would come true.
By 1525 he had completed his first translation of the New Testament, but it would not get printed until 1526. Three copies of this first edition exist today, only one of which – discovered just a few years ago – is completely intact.
Tyndale later revised the New Testament substantially, and the revision was a bona fide masterpiece. He even coined some new words that found their way into the English vocabulary for the next five centuries – words such as Passover, peacemaker, scapegoat, and even the adjective beautiful were coined by Tyndale. Altogether, he produced five editions of the New Testament, but the third edition of 1534 is the one most remembered.
Tyndale also did substantial work on the Old Testament, but he did not complete the task. As far as we know, he translated through 2 Chronicles.
Betrayal and Martyrdom
As he worked in Antwerp, the agents of King Henry VIII and other opponents were scouring Europe, hoping to find and capture him. He was betrayed by a fellow Englishman, kidnapped, and arrested on May 21, 1535. He was imprisoned in a Belgian fortress and eventually brought to trial for heresy and found guilty. His charge: A corrupt translation of the Bible. The reality: A superb translation of the Bible. But the clergy were ostensibly afraid that common folk could not understand the Bible; they needed the clergy and tradition to interpret it for them. The verdict condemning him to death came in August 1536. On October 6 of the same year he was executed at Vilvorde, Belgium.
Tyndale’s dying words were “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!” But he did not know that just a few months before his death a version of the Bible in English, based largely on his own translation, had already been printed in England with King Henry VIII’s blessing. In the sense which he intended, the King of England’s eyes were already opening when he voiced his dying prayer. An English version of the Bible that drew on his translation was in circulation before his death. Three years after his death, Henry required every English parish church to make a copy of the English Bible available to parishioners.
(source: Daniel Wallace’s lectures on The History of the English Bible)