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    January 21, 1930

    Tyndale, the Plowboy, and the Pope


    W. W. Prescott

    The gripping story of the contribution of William Tyndale to our English Bible.

    [Signs of the Times, January 21, 1930, The Story of Our Bible, Part 6, pp. 8-10]

    A high place on the roll of the leading translators of the Scriptures has justly been accorded to William Tyndale, who was probably the first one to make a translation of the whole of the New Testament and a part of the Old Testament from the original Greek and Hebrew. His purpose in doing this work is clearly indicated in the following anecdote. A priest having once said to him, “It were better for us to be without God’s laws than the pope’s,” Tyndale replied: “I defy the pope and all his laws;” and he is reported as having added that if God would spare his life, ere many years he would cause a boy that drove the plow to know more of the Scriptures than the pope did. This laudable purpose was fulfilled to a remarkable degree.SITI January 21, 1930, page 8.1


    By 1522 Tyndale had definitely entered upon his great undertaking, and he then spent year in London, seeking help from Bishop Tunstall. Failing to receive any encouragement from this source, he decided to try his fortunes on the Continent. The impressions that he formed as the result of his stay in London are thus expressed by himself: “In London I abode almost a year, and marked the course of the world, and heard our praters (I would say our preachers), how they boasted themselves and their high authority; and beheld the pomp of our prelates; and I understood, at last, not only that there was no room in my Lord of London’s palace to translate the New Testament, but also that there was no place to do it in all England.” It must be borne in mind that at that time England was at least officially loyal to the pope of Rome.SITI January 21, 1930, page 8.2

    Tyndale began his translation of the New Testament in Hamburg in the spring of 1524, but it is claimed that the greater part of the following year was spent in Wittenberg in the companionship of Luther. This has given rise to the declaration made by some of his critics that his own translation was largely influenced by Luther’s; but those who have given this question careful study assert that the charge is unfounded. A critical comparison of the two translations, it is affirmed, testifies to the independence of Tyndale’s work. By April, 1525, he was ready to put his copy into the hands of the printer, with an order for an edition of three thousand copies; but, unfortunately, his plans were betrayed to the Roman Catholic authorities, and he was compelled to flee, with the sheets already printed, to the city of Worms, where he first issued an octavo edition of three thousand copies without notes, and later completed the quarto edition that he had been obliged to abandon hastily.SITI January 21, 1930, page 8.3

    The report was carried to England that a translation of the New Testament was being made on the Continent, with the purpose of circulating it in England, and so vigorous efforts were put forth to prevent its importation; but the authorities were outwitted by the concealing of the books in cases of merchandise, and both editions previously mentioned were soon in the hands of the people, who eagerly sought for copies of the New Testament in their mother tongue.SITI January 21, 1930, page 8.4

    Determined efforts were made by the ecclesiastical authorities to prevent these pernicious books, as they were deemed, from being circulated. Many were publicly burned, both in England and on the Continent, but more were printed, and it is estimated that in the course of three years the number reached eighteen thousand; but so complete was the work of destruction that only two copies, slightly defective, are now known to be in existence. These facts clearly reveal the attitude of the Roman Catholic officials of that day in England toward the circulation of the Holy Word, even without notes.SITI January 21, 1930, page 8.5


    Tyndale next entered upon the work of translating the Old Testament from the Hebrew. He first gave attention to the Pentateuch, a translation of which was published in 1530. The next year the translation of the book of Jonah appeared, and later he is said to have rendered into English Joshua to 2 Chronicles, although these books were not printed until after his death. He never completed the translation of the Old Testament. While residing at Antwerp he was betrayed into the hands of officers of the Emperor Charles V, in 1535, who carried him to a dungeon near Brussels. The following year he was brought to trial, condemned as a heretic, and, after being strangled, his body was burned. Thus Tyndale suffered the death of a martyr to the cause that he loved and to which he devoted his untiring efforts, but the fruit of his labors survived. His translation of the Greek New Testament was of such a character “as largely to determine the character, form, and style of the Authorized Version.”SITI January 21, 1930, page 8.6

    A Latin version of the Old Testament appeared in 1534-35, and a French Bible in 1535; and in the same year a complete English Bible was distributed in England without any previous announcement, dedicated to King Henry VIII by his “humble subjecte and dayle oratour, Myles Coverdale.” This was the first complete English Bible ever published. “In contrast with the incomplete work of Tyndale, it was not translated from the original Hebrew and Greek texts, but was based on (1) the Zurich Bible of Zwingli and Leo Juda, completed in 1529; (2) Luther’s German; (3) the Vulgate; (4) the Latin text of Paginus (1528); and (5) probably on Tyndale’s work in the Pentateuch. In the New Testament Coverdale’s main sources of help were Tyndale’s latest (1534-5) revision, and Luther’s German 1522.... It is apparent, then, that Coverdale was essentially an editor, who gathered together the best materials within reach, and so selected and so modified them as to construct a Bible that would meet both the demands of the public and those of the ecclesiastical authorities. His great good sense, as shown in the use of language to secure beauty, harmony, and melody, made him a wise editor.”-Ira Maurice Price.SITI January 21, 1930, page 8.7


    The cordial reception that was accorded to the work of Tyndale and Coverdale seemed to stimulate others to enter the same field. A friend of Tyndale’s, John Rogers by name, in whose hands Tyndale had placed that portion of the Old Testament that he had translated but had not published, compiled the copy for another edition of the Bible by using all that Tyndale had prepared and supplementing it with Coverdale’s compilation as far as was necessary. This edition was printed in 1537. For some reason this book carried on its title page the name of Thomas Matthew, and therefore came to be known as the Matthew Bible. The circulation of both the Coverdale and the Matthew Bible was authorized by royal permission, and thus the people of England were able for the first time to secure, without involving any trouble to themselves or others, and to read freely the Bible in their mother tongue.SITI January 21, 1930, page 8.8

    So a new day dawned in the history of the Bible.

    Under the patronage and encouragement of Cromwell, a revision of his work was undertaken by Coverdale. Instead of compiling the results of the labors of others he now attempted to provide a translation of the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Complutensian Polyglot, employing scholars to do what he was unable to do himself. As a result of this revision there appeared in 1539 what was designated as “The Great Bible,” on account of the large size of the page. The title page carried the following statement, interesting both for its matter and its spelling: “The Byble in Englyshe, that is to saye the content of all the Holy Scripture, both of ye Olde and Newe Testament, truly translated after the veryte of the Hebrue and Greke textes, by ye dylygent studye of dyverse excellent learned men, expert in the forsayde tonges.”SITI January 21, 1930, page 9.1

    I regret being obliged to state that the royal permission to possess and read the Bible granted in 1537 was withdrawn by the same king in 1543, and it was enjoined “that no women but noble women, no artificers, apprentices, journeymen, servingmen, husbandmen nor laborers were to be allowed to read the Old or New Testament in English,” and a little later both the versions of Tyndale and of Coverdale were proscribed by Parliament. This unfavorable condition continued for a short time only, and on the accession of the next king, Edward VI, these restrictions were immediately removed, and the circulation and reading of the Bible encouraged. “During this short reign of six and one-half years, no less than thirteen editions of the whole Bible and thirty-five of the New Testament were published.”SITI January 21, 1930, page 9.2

    I am compelled by lack of space to omit the history of the various versions in Latin, French, and Italian that appeared about this time, and to confine my story to the English translation, of which the Genevan next demands attention. Several different scholars united in the production of this version, prominent among them, and perhaps their leader, being William Whittingham, the brother-in-law of John Calvin. The New Testament was published in 1557, and the whole Bible in 1560.SITI January 21, 1930, page 9.3

    “The popularity of the Genevan version on its appearance was immense, and the demand for it unparalleled in the previous history of English Bible translations. Ninety editions of the whole or a part of this Bible—more than double those of all others—were required during the fifty-four years intervening before the completion of the ‘Authorized Version’ of 1611; and by this time so firm was the hold which it had acquired of the popular feeling, that it long disputed rank and reputation with that version itself. From the beginning, it became preëminently the household edition of the Bible.”—Bissell.SITI January 21, 1930, page 9.4


    Inasmuch as the Genevan Bible was produced outside of England and was obviously anti-episcopal in its bearings, it seemed desirable to the church authorities that a Bible should be prepared by themselves, which would carry the atmosphere of the Church of England. This work was accordingly undertaken under the superintendence of Archbishop Parker, who secured the services of fifteen scholars, eight or nine of whom were bishops, but himself revised their translation. This edition of the Bible was published in 1568, and was sometimes called “Matthew Parker’s Bible,” but more generally “The Bishops’ Bible.” As a section of the Bible was handled by each one of the translators, it is not surprising that there was a lack of uniformity in the translation as a whole. The Old Testament was quite largely a reproduction of “The Great Bible,” but the New Testament gave evidence of some real revision. This Bible naturally was used in the public services of the churches, but it was not popular either with scholars or with the common people, and there yet remained the desire for a really satisfactory version of the Scriptures.SITI January 21, 1930, page 9.5

    During all these years the Bible of the Roman Catholic Church was the Latin text of Jerome with its later revisions, but the free circulation of the Scriptures translated into English by Protestants, sometimes with notes that were frankly anti-Roman, imposed upon the Roman Catholic authorities the necessity of preparing an English translation made by themselves, with notes inculcating the dogmas of their own church. This work was done on the Continent by Roman Catholics who had emigrated from England, the New Testament being published at Rheims in 1582, and the Old Testament at Douai in 1609-10. This translation was not made from the Hebrew and the Greek, but from the Vulgate, the authorized text of the Roman Church, and was definitely in the interest of the Roman creed, substituting “do penance” for “repent,” and freely using ecclesiastical words and phrases.SITI January 21, 1930, page 9.6

    The chief merit of this translation “consists in the fact that it has added to the English vocabulary from the Latin some words of importance, among others that might better have been omitted. Occasional English phrases also, subsequently domesticated in our ecclesiastical literature, are due to the same source. This is almost the only claim that the version of Romanists, in the beginning of the seventeenth century, possesses to the honor of being mentioned in connection with the history of English translations of the Scriptures. Archbishop Trench speaks of it as a ‘Latinized version, whose authors might seem to have put off their loyalty to the English language with their loyalty to the English crown.’”SITI January 21, 1930, page 10.1

    The story of the Bible has now been followed to the time of the most important of all the translations thus far made, the Authorized Version, and this will next have consideration.SITI January 21, 1930, page 10.2

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