“Lord, open the eyes of the King of England!” cried William Tyndale.
The 16th Century Language Scholar Was Burned at the Stake for Daring to Translate the Bible Into EnglishIn a few seconds it would all be over. Tyndale had been caught, tried, imprisoned for 16 months, and was about to die. But his English translation of the New Testament and parts of the Old Testament, which the church and state had tried to squelch, was still alive. The officials could burn copies of English Bibles, even burn his body, but people were desperate to hear and read the Bible in English. After all, how could they properly understand God if they couldn’t understand his Word?
Tyndale had been harboring what the church and state regarded as seditious and heretical views for more than a decade. Translating the Bible into English had been considered heresy for more than 100 years, but Tyndale firmly believed the people of England should have access to a Bible in their language and shouldn’t be restricted to church teachings from the Latin text.
“If God spare my life ere many years,” Tyndale famously told church authorities, “I will cause a boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than you!”
Denied by the Bishop of London the right to translate or print the New Testament, Tyndale fled to mainland Europe to finish his New Testament translation and begin work on the Old Testament. In 1526, thousands of copies of his completed New Testament came off the German presses and were smuggled into England in bales of cloth.
Even after Henry VIII declared the Church of England’s independence from Rome, a price was still on Tyndale’s head for spreading sedition. In 1535, he was captured by a bounty hunter in Antwerp. After a 16-month imprisonment at Vilvoorde Castle near Brussels, Tyndale was led outside and strangled before being burned at the stake. He never finished his translation of the Old Testament.
Tyndale’s work and principles would live on in future English versions of the Bible, including the New International Version. A master scholar of eight languages, Tyndale was meticulous in his translation of the Bible’s original Greek and Hebrew, and his style of English was uncommonly beautiful.
Tyndale’s translation of the Bible was simple but elegant. As his translation spread, his plain rhetorical style also spread and began to form the basis of a new English style, one that took common speech and elevated it into comprehensible prose. Some of the most famous phrases in the English language can still be attributed to Tyndale, including “and the truth shall make you free;” “eat, drink, and be merry;” and “the powers that be.”
New translations made few changes to Tyndale’s work and wording. The Great Bible of 1539 was published by the royal authority of King Henry VIII just three years after Tyndale’s death. Ironically, this Bible was based on Coverdale’s Bible, which was essentially Tyndale’s translation with the parts of the Old Testament that Tyndale had not translated filled by translations of Latin and German versions.
The Geneva Bible was the first complete English translation of the Bible from the Greek and Hebrew. The Geneva Bible translators also consulted Tyndale’s earlier work, as would the translators of the 1611 King James Version of the Bible. In fact, 83 percent of the King James Version is based on Tyndale’s translation.
Tyndale’s influence is evident in nearly every English Bible translation available today. The New International Version is based on the same principles demonstrated in Tyndale’s work—accuracy, beauty, clarity—and is inspired by his style and language.