William Tyndale was a theologian and scholar who translated the Bible into an early form of Modern English. He was the first person to take advantage of Gutenberg’s movable-type press for the purpose of printing the scriptures in the English language.
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.
Tyndale enrolled at Oxford in 1505 and grew up at the University receiving his master’s degree in 1515 at the age of twenty-one! He proved to be a gifted linguist. One of Tyndale’s associates commented that Tyndale was, “so skilled in eight languages – Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Spanish, French, Italian, English, and German, that whichever he speaks, you might think it his native tongue!” This gift undoubtedly aided him in his successful evasion of the authorities during his years of exile from England.
Around 1520, William Tyndale became a tutor in the family of Sir John Walsh, at Little Sodbury in Gloucestershire. Having become attached to the doctrines of the Reformation he devoted himself to the study of the Scriptures. His disputes with Roman Catholic dignitaries and his preaching, excited much opposition, and led to his being transferred to London where his preaching attracted many friends among the laity but none among church leaders.
A clergyman hopelessly entrenched in Roman Catholic dogma once taunted Tyndale with the statement, “We are better to be without God’s laws than the Pope’s”. Tyndale was infuriated by such Roman Catholic heresies, and he replied, “I defy the Pope and all his laws. If God spare my life ere many years, I will cause the boy that drives the plow to know more of the scriptures than you!”
In London, Tyndale 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 commonly spoken English of the day.
While unable to do this in England as it was against the law, he travelled to the continent spending time in Hamburg and Wittenburg. It is thought that he translated the New Testament in Wittenberg with the assistance of Martin Luther. The printing of his English New Testament was begun at Cologne in the summer of 1525 and completed at Worms.
Tyndale’s literary activity while living in isolation 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 texts, admirable translations of the entire Pentateuch, the Books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings and Chronicles. His translations of these books are included in the Matthew Bible of 1537. Tyndale’s translation of the Book of Jonah was considered so excellent that it was included in the Authorized King James Version of 1611.
Much of Tyndale’s writings were done in places of concealment so secure and well chosen, that neither Henry VIII’s ecclesiastical or diplomatic emissaries who were charged with tracking and hunting him down were able to seize the fugitive.
Under the idea that the progress of the Reformation in England rendered it safe for him to leave his concealment, Tyndale settled at Antwerp in 1534, and combined the work of an evangelist with that of a translator of the Bible.
Tyndale was betrayed by a friend who was either an agent of Henry VIII or of English ecclesiastics, or both. Tyndale was arrested and imprisoned in the castle of Vilvoorden for over 500 days of horrible conditions. He was tried for heresy and treason in a ridiculously unfair trial and convicted. Tyndale was then strangled and burnt at the stake in the prison yard on October 6, 1536.
His last words were, "Lord, open the king of England's eyes." This prayer was answered three years later, in the publication of King Henry VIII’s 1539 English Great Bible, the first authorized edition of the Bible in English.