Bible in English: William Tyndale


Footballers usually only remember the last person to touch the ball before it goes into the net.

Wise managers take note not only of the scorer, but of the person who helped them: it’s called an ‘assist’. Great play-makers are not always the highest scorers. But when they are active, the team scorers well because the strikers are well served by their team.

In a similar way, history generally remembers only the people who brought something to a conclusion. Last time we looked at the Book of Common Prayer. What we call the 1662 BCP was written a century earlier by Archbishop Cranmer, in 1549 and 1552. Cranmer is, rightly, a headline figure. He gets the credit for the Book of Common Prayer.

The person we meet this evening is not a headline figure. He is however one of history’s great playmakers. He provided one of the greatest ‘assists’ to the Bible in English. The known landmark is the Authorised Version of the Bible from 1611. And like the 1662 BCP, it had its roots a century earlier, in the New Testament translation by William Tyndale in 1526 and 1534.

I want to spend our time in three sections.

Tyndale’s Times: setting the scene

Tyndale’s story ends just as Cranmer’s begins

Erasmus and More

An outline of William Tyndale’s Life

Three Marks of Tyndale’s achievement

1. He Translated the Scriptures that Everyone Needed

2. He Translated the Scriptures everyone needed into language everyone could read

3. He published his translation in a form everyone could get hold of.

Tyndale’s Translation opened the King’s eyes

Tyndale’s Legacy for us today.

1. Tyndale’s Times: setting the scene

Tyndale’s story ends just as Cranmer’s begins

Last time we set the scene by placing the Reformation within a virtual timeline of English history. Cranmer’s history was all about Henry VIII, and began in 1534 with the break from Rome’s political as well as spiritual power.

I had not realised how strong the pope’s power was over England. Three hundred years before the time we’re thinking of, in the time of Robin Hood and all that, King John was on the throne. And in 1213 he was excommunicated by the Pope. King John surrendered his Kingdom to the Pope and from that time on, English monarchs paid an annual fee of 1000 Marks (£666) to the Pope.

It only stopped in 1534 when Henry broke with the rule of Rome. Cranmer’s story begins in 1534.

Tyndale’s story ends at just about that time – in 1536, so this evening we’re going back half a generation. Tyndale’s work most definitely paved the way for the English Reformation, because the driving force behind change was, and remains, the Scriptures not the Prayer Book.

Erasmus and More

In order to understand Tyndale better, we should meet some of the other key players at the time. Let me introduce Erasmus, and Thomas More.

Erasmus was probably the brainiest person alive at the time. I want us to note two things about Erasmus:

  1. He could see that the Catholic Church was corrupt. He pointed this out in his writings, some of which have a real spitting-image style biting wit about them. But he never dreamed of breaking with the church: he wanted the church to puts its affairs in order.
  2. He published a printed copy of the NT in Greek, which for the first time put the NT in the original language into the hands of many scholars. He wanted people to read the Bible, but he did not want to rock the Roman boat.

In that sense historians speak of Erasmus laying the egg that Luther hatched.

Erasmus put the Greek New Testament into Tyndale’s hands.

Thomas More was also a massive intellect. He became Lord Chancellor of England after Wolsey (he of Hampton Court fame). Some may know of him through the play by Robert Bolt A Man for All Seasons. More wrote a story about a fictional place called Utopia.

Thomas More was also a very loyal Catholic. He served Henry VIII very well. When Henry broke with Rome, More was unable to accept King Henry as the head of the Church in England. And so he died (executed). He said,

“I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first”

More hated everything that Tyndale stood for, but could find nothing in Tyndale’s life that he could attack his personal integrity or holiness.

Thomas More became involved with Tyndale because he wrote a book attacking Tyndale.

An outline of William Tyndale’s Life

These men were significant because William Tyndale grew up in a world where learning was changing the world, and Tyndale was a player. A list of all his dates would be tedious. The key movements are:

  • He studied at Oxford, and then Cambridge. In Cambridge the reform-minded scholars would meet in the White Horse Inn (which is still there today). It here that the seeds were sown in his heart of craving for God’s word. The apostle Peter writes:

Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Peter 2:2–3)

Steve Timmis and Tim Chester make this assessment of Tyndale’s heart:

William Tyndale so craved the pure spiritual milk of God’s Word that he spent his life on the run, before dying a martyr’s death to bring that milk to the people of England.

  • Tyndale left Cambridge to work in Gloucestershire (Little Sodbury Manor) as a tutor. At the same time, he worked his way through Erasmus’ Greek NT. The seeds sown during his time in Cambridge came to fruit during this period. From there Tyndale determined that his life’s work lay in translation. Tyndale’s host and employer, Sir John Walsh, often had guests coming through and there was conversation at the table on spiritual topics. One Catholic scholar objected to the idea that the Bible should be made available to others. Tyndale answered, in a quote that is the hallmark quote of the man:

If God spare my life, ere [before] many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the scriptures than thou dost.

This was where Tyndale determined to bring the scriptures to the people. The problem is that this was illegal, unless he could get a Bishop to sponsor him.

  • Tyndale went to London, but failed to get permission. The only way forward was leave England, and so he fled to the Continent. He stayed in several places, and smuggled his works back into England. He died in 1536 at the stake. His dying prayer was

Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.

How did the Lord answer Tyndale’s Prayer?

2. Three Marks of Tyndale’s achievement

William Tyndale’s achievements can be summarised under four headings.

1. He Translated the Scriptures that Everyone Needed

There is a joke going round about the time when newer translations of the Bible in English, like the Revised Standard Version and now the NIV, were being introduced. A die-hard advocate of the King James version said, ‘If the Authorised version was good enough for St Paul, then it’s good enough for me!’

I hope it’s not a surprise to you that St Paul did not write in English! The New Testament was written in Greek, and the Old Testament was written in Hebrew (mostly).

But for 1000 years the Church in the West had neither Greek manuscripts, nor the ability to read them. They depended on a Latin Translation from the fourth century called the Vulgate or Common Bible. This was a Roman Catholic Translation, and it contained a number of important errors.

I mentioned earlier that Erasmus laid a very important egg by finding and publishing a Greek New Testament. This was happening across the disciplines: scholars were not content to have books second-hand, they wanted to go back to the originals.

The first step was to go back to the Bible itself: amazingly it seems that scholars were content to rely on second-hand quotes from the bible. Two hundred years before Tyndale, a man called Burley was calling for a return to study of the Bible. A little later (1360), John Wycliffe translated the latin Bible into English.

That was a start. But it only brought the Latin Bible into English.

Tyndale went behind the Latin Vulgate to the Greek. He learned Greek and discovered that the Latin Vulgate translation had introduced a number of important errors. By going back to the original Greek, Tyndale was able to correct these. And that made a big difference. When he started work on the OT, he did the same. He learned Hebrew (not simple because the Jews had been expelled from England two centuries before), and looked at the text.

That principle remains a cornerstone of Bible translation. The preface to the King James Bible makes it clear that it was translated from the original tongues. We will see that 90% of the New Testament was by Tyndale. But every new translation since has started from the original Greek and Hebrew. This is the Bible that everyone needs.

2. He Translated the Scriptures everyone needed into language everyone could read

Tyndale translated the original text into English. Written English was still a developing. One book I read commented that even on the same page there are different spellings of a single word! It’s not that he was a poor speller, but that there simply was no standard. Tyndale coined phrases that have remained as part of our English heritage:

Borne the burden and heat of the day.  (Matthew 20:12)

Take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.  (Luke 12:19)

For in him we live, and move, and have our being  (Acts 17:28)

Because Tyndale had the ploughboy in mind, he wrote in an English that everyone could understand:

By universal agreement, Tyndale succeeded in his great aim; his language and style broke free from the stilted medieval scholastic approach. Tyndale’s New Testament was earthy, almost rustic and certainly plain enough for the ploughman.


Tyndale’s New Testament was a gem of a translation. Accurate and beautifully written, it was a page-turner.

It is these two revolutionary aspects of Tyndale’s translation that really lit the fire of reformation in England.

  • Because it was in English, anyone could understand it, including the ploughboy.
  • Because it was from the original Greek and Hebrew, everyone could understand what the scripture really says, including the ploughboy.

I mentioned that the Vulgate latin translation had some errors. Tyndale corrected these errors and gave us the original meaning. And that is when the trouble started. Here are some of the key words that he changed:

  • From penance to repent. Penance is something the Priest tells you to do in order for your sin to be forgiven – much as a GP would give you antibiotics to get rid of a cough. Repentance is completely different: it means turning from sin and no longer living without God, and beginning a new life with him. That is what God calls us to do, and it breaks the power of a corrupt church.
  • From priest to senior (later changed to elder). A priest is someone who makes sacrifices, and who acts as a mediator. Because the Catholic priesthood saw itself in this way, you cold not get to God without a priest. But the New Testament never uses the word ‘priest’ to refer to a Christian leader. It uses the word ‘presbyter’, which means elder. The only priest we need is Jesus, the great high priest. That is what God calls us to do, and it breaks the power of a corrupt church. Ministers are ‘elders’, or leaders of the community of God’s people.
  • From church to congregation. The Greek word for church, ekklesia, means a gathering or congregation. It does not mean the Roman Catholic Church. Therefore if you are in a gathering of people united around the message of the Gospel, then even if you are outside the Roman Catholic Church, you are in a Christian church. This is a key truth of the Reformation, which comes to us in Article 19 of the 39 Articles:

XIX Of the Church
The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.

  • From charity to love. This change did not make it into the AV, which famously tells us:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.  (1 Corinthians 13:1)

Fine you say, I’ll put something in the collecting tin, and then I will have ‘charity’. No says the Bible: you need love from the heart. Charity lets us get away with thinking we can buy love, and we cannot. Where there is love, then we are but a clashing symbol, however gifted we feel.

Do you see that when Tyndale’s Bible connected the real text of the Bible with real people, the impact was dynamite! Brian Edwards comments:

The [Catholic] Church’s use of these terms did not agree with what the Scriptures meant by them and Tyndale’s replacements set the words free from their traditional interpretation.

3. He published his translation in a form everyone could get hold of.

William Tyndale’s translation was produced while he was on the run and on the Continent. The first NT was ready in 1526 (8 years before Henry’s break with Rome) and revised in 1534 (the year of Henry’s break). His first translation of the first five books of the OT was lost in a shipwreck; he reworked it from scratch and this was ready in nine months in 1529!Other books followed.

As long as William Tyndale’s translation remained on the Continent, it could do the English ploughboy no good. Two factors put Tyndale’s translation into the hands of the English.

  • The first was the invention of the printing press. Before the printing press, books could only be copied by hand (slow and unreliable), or by individual woodcuts of every page (expensive). John Wycliffe’s New Testament was copied in this way. Once moveable-type printing was available, books could be printed reliably, quickly and cheaply. Printers were entrepreneurs, and if there was a market they would find a way to print and sell.
  • The second was trade routes into England. While he was on the Continent, Tyndale was harboured by merchants. They had come across Reformation ideas during their travels in Europe. And they were constantly bringing goods into and out of England. It was ideal for smuggling Bibles into England.

Tyndale’s New Testament could be mass-produced and then smuggled into England hidden in bales of cloth. It passed its way into the cities and people would club together to buy a copy, and gather round the person who could read. The price was relatively cheap, probably not more than half a week’s wages for a labourer.

That’s about the price of a television or an iPad: not completely impossible if you really felt you had to have it. And people were willing to pay that. It has been estimated that some 16,000 copies of Tyndale’s Bible found their way into England.

When you think that the population of England was 2.5 million (most of whom were illiterate), that’s an astonishing one copy per 156 people!

Tyndale’s Translation opened the King’s eyes

Tyndale was betrayed to the authorities while he was living in Antwerp, now in Belgium. He was tried and eventually executed by being first strangled (as a mercy) and then burned, in October 1536.

His life’s work had been to bring about a translation of the Scriptures that could be put into that hands of the ploughboy. Remember his claim at the dinner table in Little Sodbury Manor:

If God spare my life, ere [before] many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the scriptures than thou dost.

History records a plough-girl who read the scriptures: John Foxe writing in the following century records the tale of a woman of Suffolk, Alice Driver. She told her judges that she had never been brought up in a university but had ‘driven the plough before my father many a time’. Yet she ran rings round the churchmen in her knowledge of the scripture.

She was able to do this because William Tyndale had translated the scriptures from the original, into an english she could understand, available in a form she could get her hands on.

Tyndale’s last words were the prayer,

“Lord, open the King of England’s eyes”

Tyndale died before he could see that massive change brought about by his translation. Within a few years of his death, the kings and bishops were beginning to awaken to the need for the Scriptures in English. Henry VIII ordered that an English Bible be placed in every church in the land. Officially the translators were Miles Coverdale and John Rogers, but much of the work was in fact taken from Tyndale. Here’s an interesting comment:

It was not that Tyndale’s translation … was accepted because times were changing. On the contrary it as Tyndale’s translation that was changing the times and thus the whole course of English history.

Thus God did indeed answer Tyndale’s prayers: the King of England’s eyes were opened.

3. Tyndale’s Legacy for us today.

I said at the start that Tyndale was not the striker, but the playmaker who scores an ‘assist’. He did not live to see the fruit of his labours. And fruits there were:

As English Bibles multiplied, it became important to have a single, reliable translation. So King James I commissioned a new translation, to become the Authorised Version of 1611. It was to be a new translation from the original languages. Tyndale was hard to improve on, and 90% of the NT is in fact Tyndale’s translation, as are many parts of the OT.

As Tyndale’s reforming light went out, the baton passed to others. In England, it was the turn of Cranmer. In Europe, it was the rise of men like John Calvin. In the year that Tyndale died (1536), Calvin published the first edition of his most famous book: the Institutes of Christian religion. The so-called heresies for which Tyndale was executed have become normal, mainstream biblical Christianity:

    1. That faith alone justifies [Well, so do I, and so do the 39 articles]
    2. That salvation comes to those who believe in the forgiveness of sins and trust in the mercy offered in the Gospel [Well, so do I, and so do the 39 articles]
    3. That human traditions cannot bind the human conscience [Well, so do I, and so do the 39 articles]
    4. The we do not have free will (over God). [Well, so do I, and so do the 39 articles]
    5. That there is no purgatory [Well, so do I, and so do the 39 articles]
    6. That neither the Virgin Mary nor the Saints are to be invoked in prayer [Well, so do I, and so do the 39 articles]
    7. And so on.

We (evangelicals) do not consider any of these to be radical: they represent simple, basic, biblical Christianity. These foundational beliefs all come from the scriptures. Men like William Tyndale worked and even died so that we might know the truth, and the truth set us free. And we thank God for them.

We who gather here today have unparalleled access to the Scriptures.

  • Our access to the original texts is about 1,000 times greater than it was in Tyndale’s day. We have astonishingly accurate and early copies of the original text. And we know so much more about the original languages.
  • We have a multitude of translations into English. And each year the Bible is translated into more local languages.
  • We have easier access than ever before: Bibles are cheap, the text is on the internet.

One thing has not changed: if God’s word is to open our eyes, we need to begin by reading it. If you do one thing as a consequence of this talk, why not pick up a Bible and read it again? Start in the NT as Tyndale did, and as you read, thank the Lord that you have the Scriptures, and ask him to speak to you through them.

William Tyndale English Bible Lent Talk 2012 PDF version (contains footnotes)

Audio mp3 will shortly be available on the sermons page at