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William Tyndale: The Overlooked Reformer

Sometimes larger events dominate smaller ones. Such is the case with the Protestant Reformation and William Tyndale. Martin Luther and John Calvin dominated the Reformation and not Tyndale. But his influence was so great that we still feel it today.

Tyndale was born sometime between 1484 and 1496. He received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Oxford, and became fluent in English, French, German, Hebrew, Greek, Italian, Latin, and Spanish. That aided him in his greatest work: Tyndale dreamed of publishing the first English-language copy of the Bible.

To be clear, that was illegal. It sounds odd today, but at that time new translations had to be approved by the king of England. For example, John Wycliffe and his associates produced an English copy of the Bible in the late 1300s. In the early 1400s King Henry IV enacted censorship rules against it including arrest for owning a copy.

But still Tyndale dreamed his dream. In 1523 he traveled to London to meet with someone who might fund his project: Bishop Tunstall. However, the bishop turned down Tyndale’s request. Tyndale spent the rest of that year and some of the next preaching, lecturing, and working on his dream. He decided to tackle the New Testament first.

In 1524 he left England and traveled to Germany. He completed his English-language New Testament (NT) translation from the Greek in 1525. He published it in Worms, Germany, in 1526. This is the first printed copy of the NT; other copies of the NT in English had been translated, but they came out before the printing press was invented by Gutenberg in the 1450s and so were copied by hand. This was the first printed English NT.

Some of the English NTs were smuggled into England. Bishop Tunstall had copies of the Bibles seized and publicly burned. Tyndale himself was declared a heretic in 1529. At some point Tyndale began his translation of the Old Testament from the Hebrew.

Then Tyndale got involved in politics while translating the OT into English. King Henry VIII was considering a divorce and Tyndale wrote a pamphlet disagreeing with this in 1530. (Henry did divorce his wife and marry Anne Boleyn, along with breaking with the Catholic Church and forming the Church of England.) The king ordered Tyndale’s arrest. He was captured in Belgium in 1535, tried for heresy there and strangled to death and then his body burned at the stake. There are reports that he was not fully strangled and, while being burned, prayed aloud, “Lord, Open the King of England’s eyes.”

But that is not the end of his contribution. We use phrases today from Tyndale’s English translation of the Bible:

We know these phrases because they are in the King James Version Bible: over 75% of the KJV Bible comes from Tyndale’s version.

Plus he coined the word “Passover” (meaning the Jewish celebration). The Hebrew word for “Passover” is “Pesach,” which is found in the Bible. Tyndale, however, did not like to use foreign words that had no meaning once they are transliterated (meaning the sound of the word remains the same but different letters are used as you go to a different language), and so coined the word “Passover” to be used instead of “Pesach.” So, along with everything else he did, Tyndale also created the word “Passover.”

©2013 Mark Nickens All Rights Reserved