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William Tyndale

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William Tyndale (ca.1484-1536) was a 16th century priest and scholar who translated the Bible into an early form of Modern English. Although numerous partial and complete English translations had been made from the 7th century onward, Tyndale's was the first to take advantage of the new medium of print, which allowed for its wide distribution. His date of birth is unclear, with sources giving dates varying between 1484 and 1496. About 1494, 1495 or 1496 seem most common.

Besides translating the Bible, Tyndale also held and published views which were considered heretical, first by the Catholic Church, and later by the Church of England which was established by Henry VIII. Because his Bible translation also included notes and commentary promoting these views, Tyndale's translation was banned by the authorities, and Tyndale himself was burned at the stake in 1536, at the instigation of agents of Henry VIII and the Anglican Church.

Old text from Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religion:

Biblical translator and martyr; born most probably at North Nibley (15 miles s.s.w. of Gloucester), England, in 1484; died at Vilvoorden (6 miles n.e. of Brussels), Belgium, Oct. 6, 1536.

He was descended from an ancient Northumbrian family, went to school at Oxford, and afterward to Magdalen Hall and Cambridge, and about 1520 became tutor in the family of Sir John Walsh, at Little Sodbury in Gloucestershire.

Having become attached to the doctrines of the Reformation, and devoted himself to the study of the Scriptures, the open avowal of his sentiments in the house of Walsh, his disputes with Roman Catholic dignitaries there, and especially his preaching, excited much opposition, and led to his removal to London (about Oct., 1523), where he began to preach, and made many friends among the laity, but none among ecclesiastics.

He was hospitably entertained at the house of Sir Humphrey Monmouth, and also financially aided by him and others in the accomplishment of his purpose to translate the Scriptures into the vernacular. Unable to do so in England, he set out for the continent (about May, 1524), and appears to have visited Hamburg and Wittenberg; but the place where he translated the New Testament, although conjectured to have been Wittenberg, can not be named with certainty. It is, however, certain that the printing of the New Testament in quarto was begun at Cologne in the summer of 1525, and completed at Worms, and that there was likewise printed an octavo edition, both before the end of that year.

From an entry in Spalatin's Diary, Aug. 11, 1526, it seems that he remained at Worms about a year; but the notices of his connection with Hermann von dem Busche and the University of Marburg are utterly unwarranted conjectures; and, it being now an established fact that Hans Luft never had a printing-press at Marburg, the colophon to Tyndale's translation of Genesis, and the title pages of several pamphlets purporting to have been printed by Luft at Marburg, only deepen the seemingly impenetrable mystery which overhangs the life of Tyndale during the interval between his departure from Worms and his final settlement at Antwerp.

His literary activity during that interval was extraordinary. When he left England, his knowledge of Hebrew, if he had any, was of the most rudimentary nature; and yet he mastered that difficult tongue so as to produce from the original an admirable translation of the entire Pentateuch, the Books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, First and Second Samuel, First and Second Kings, First Chronicles, contained in Matthew's Bible of 1537, and of the Book of Jonah, so excellent, indeed, that (as of 1911) his work is not only the basis of those portions of the Authorized Version, but constitutes nine-tenths of that translation, and very largely that of the Revised Standard Version.

His Biblical translations appeared in the following order: New Testament, 1525-26; Pentateuch, 1530; Jonah, 1531. There is no general title of the Pentateuch; each book has its own title.

In addition to these he produced the following works. His first original composition, A Pathway into the Holy Scripture, is really a reprint, slightly altered, of his Prologue to the quarto edition of his New Testament, and had appeared in separate form before 1532; The Parable of the Wicked Mammon (1527); and The Obedience of a Christian Man (1527-28). These several works drew out in 1529 Sir Thomas More's Dialogue, etc. In 1530 appeared Tyndale's Practyse of Prelates, and in 1531 his Answer, etc., to the Dialogue,

his Exposition of the First Epistle of St. John, and the famous Prologue to Jonah; in 1532, An Exposition upon the V. VI. VII. Chapters of Matthew; and in 1536, A Brief Declaration of the Sacraments, etc., which seems to be a posthumous publication. Joshua-Second Chronicles also was published after his death.

All these works were written during those mysterious years, in places of concealment so secure and well chosen, that neither the ecclesiastical nor diplomatic emissaries of Thomas Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII, charged to track, hunt down, and seize the fugitive, were able to reach them, and they are even yet unknown. Impressed with the idea that the progress of the Reformation in England rendered it safe for him to leave his concealment, he settled at Antwerp in 1534, and combined the work of an evangelist with that of a translator of the Bible.

Mainly through the instrumentality of one Philips, the agent either of Henry or of English ecclesiastics, or possibly of both, he was arrested, imprisoned in the castle of Vilvoorden, tried, either for heresy or treason, or both, and convicted; was first strangled, and then burnt in the prison yard, Oct. 6, 1536. His last words were, "Lord, open the king of England's eyes."

Tyndale's place in history has not yet been sufficiently recognized as a translator of the Scriptures, as an apostle of liberty, and as a chief promoter of the Reformation in England. In all these respects his influence has been singularly under-valued. The sweeping statement found in almost all histories, that Tyndale translated from the Vulgate and Martin Luther, is most damaging to the reputation of the writers who make it; for, as a matter of fact, it is contrary to truth, since his translations are made directly from the originals.

The Prolegomena in Mombert's William Tyndale's Five Books of Moses show conclusively that Tyndale's Pentateuch is a translation of the Hebrew original.

A monument commemorating the life and work of Tyndale has been erected on the Thames Embankment, London.


Adapted from J.I. Mombert, "Tyndale, William," in Philip Schaff, Johann Jakob Herzog, et al, eds., The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1904, reprinted online by the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Additional references are available there.