Pursuing the Word

With spies, lies, and a shipwreck thrown in for good measure, his life was anything but dull. But then when you begin to criticize others for their rank ignorance of scripture, as well as for their decidedly unbiblical lifestyles, you can probably figure it will make some folks mad, as indeed it did.

Still, the young man grew convinced that until the scriptures were plainly laid out in their native language that it would be impossible for the average Christian in England to ever really know the truth.  And so he pledged to one clergyman that if God should spare his life, he would so work that “a boy that drives the plough” should know as much about the Bible as that pastor himself.

It was no easy task, to be sure.  For fearing the spread of radical Lutheran ideas, the Catholic bishops in his homeland had actually banned any Bible published in English, preferring instead the use of the rather inaccurate Latin translation of the day known as the Vulgate, and going so far as to actually prescribe the death sentence for anyone who produced an “unlicensed” English version of the Bible. Even the official courses of theology did not include any systematic study of scripture, in fact, for as he later complained, “they have ordained that no man shall look on scripture until he be noselled in heathen learning eight or nine years and armed with false principles, with which he is clean shut out of the understanding of the Scripture.”

And so, with no real encouragement from anyone in the church, William Tyndale left his native England for Europe, never to return.  It was in Wittenberg, the home of Luther, that the thirty-two-year old gifted linguist completed his initial translation in 1525, the first to go directly from the Greek text of the New Testament into English.  When he went to Cologne to print it, however, before the presses could get past Matthew 22, a police raid shut them down, only moments after Tyndall escaped clutching the copies of what had been completed thus far.

The young scholar then fled to Worms, an imperial German city which had already begun to embrace Lutheranism.  And it was there that he managed to finish publishing 6,000 copies of his translation, many of which were soon smuggled back into England and Scotland in barrels of flour, further fueling the opposition to Tyndale’s work.  The religious leaders of those lands attacked him relentlessly, in fact, not only burning those volumes in public, but even sending secret agents to the continent to try and trap him.  What’s more, another problem soon arose in the form of pirated and incorrect versions of his translation that began showing up, including one by his close friend and co-worker George Joye, much to the reformer’s lament.

Tyndale labored on, however, moving to Antwerp where he found the support of a few English merchants who helped to both hide him and advance his work as he turned his attention next to the Old Testament. But early in 1529, having completed his rendering of the Torah, or the first five books of Moses, Tyndale was traveling back to Hamburg when, like the apostle Paul centuries before him, he was shipwrecked off the coast of the Netherlands, and his entire freshly translated Pentateuch perished in the sea, along with all of his reference books, including the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, Hebrew grammars, and the Greek translation known as the Septuagint.

His response was simply to start again, doubling down to do his work all over until he finally finished it once more in 1530. And in the next few years, Tyndale went on to focus on the rest of the Old Testament, translating most of the historical books as well as Jonah.  In May of 1535, however, the authorities finally caught up with Tyndale at Antwerp, arresting him on a charge of heresy and holding him in a dark, dank cell devoid of any sunlight near Brussells for sixteen months where the Englishman waited patiently, “abiding the will of God.”   And sadly, despite the appeals of many, it was there on October 6, 1536, that at the age of just forty-two, William Tyndale was tied to a stake, strangled, and then burned.

His last words were reported to have been, “Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes.” And that prayer was apparently answered, for within four years of his death, four English translations of the Bible were published in that country at the behest of Henry VIII, all of them based on Tyndale’s labors.  It has been said, in fact, that every English New Testament for the four centuries that followed him was simply a revision of Tyndale’s work, with some 90 percent of his words passing into the King James Version of 1611 and even 75 percent into the Revised Standard Version of 1946.

And some 486 years later this very week, it’s a story that those who read the Bible might do well to remember still. For though it may sound odd to us today, in a time in which the Word of God is both ignored by many and contorted to conform to the culture by others, at least to one faithful disciple of Jesus, the scriptures were literally worth dying for, and their careful translation into English was a sacred task deserving of whatever it took.

All, we could say, so that ploughboys and pastors alike might understand the love of God which shines through on every page of that incredible book.


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3 Responses to Pursuing the Word

  1. Kathe Behrend says:

    It was so good to have you at the 40 th Anniversary Sunday! Thankyou for all you have done for LUMC over the years.

  2. Larry Harman says:

    Well said, Dr. Chap! It is tough to think of what we and our culture are doing to promote the Word as compared to what William Tyndale and others have done to provide it to us.

  3. Anne E. G. Berish says:

    Thank you for this article! I read it thanks to a mention in the UMC’s daily online newsletter. You can see a more detailed commentary–with reference to Martin Luther’s chosen strategy in translating the Bible into German (HIS “language of the people”)–in my Facebook post that shares this article. (And if you want to check out my background in German studies, try a Google search of the name “Anne Huntley-Speare.” I have a doctorate in German from The Pennsylvania State University, May 2001. My interest in German came originally from my father, who was a Lutheran pastor–LCA/ELCA. So as you can see, the topic of translating the Bible from Latin to the language of the people is one dear to my heart!

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