He is the most widely read English-language author in history, read by at least ten thousand times more people than Chaucer, yet more than likely you will not recognize his name: William Tyndale. He was a theologian and scholar born in North Nibley, England in 1494 and died at Vilvoorden, Belgium in 1536. (The first date is only an approximation, no one is actually certain about the year of his birth). He was strangled to death and burned at the stake for being the first person to publish the New Testament in Early Modern English. (Others had translated the Bible into English before him, such as John Wycliffe, but Tyndale was the first to take advantage of Gutenberg’s new printing press and widely disseminate his translation.) At the time Tyndale published his New Testament translation, it was a crime punishable by death according to the Roman Catholic Church, and eventually he was found and killed for fulfilling his goal of putting the Word of God into the hands of the common people.

William Tyndale studied at Oxford and received his Master’s degree in 1515. He was a priest, scholar, and talented linguist who spoke eight different languages fluently. He was very much influenced by Erasmus and Martin Luther for their previous work on the Bible. In 1516, Erasmus had published a new Latin version of the Bible, which consisted of two columns of text: the first, his original Greek sources, and the second his Latin translation. He did this so other scholars could check his work. Later, Martin Luther used Erasmus’s version to translate the New Testament into German. Then Tyndale used the Greek sources in Erasmus’s version to translate the Bible into the modern English of his time. Wycliffe had produced a handwritten translation of the Bible before Tyndale, but he had not used the original Greek sources. Instead, he had relied upon St. Jerome’s 4th century Latin translation, which was the only version then tolerated in England. When Tyndale made his translation, even many priests did not fully understand the Latin version.

Tyndale endorsed the movement to reform the Roman Catholic Church, and in his translation he included notes and comments that supported his Reformation views. Hence, when he finished his work, it was immediately banned by the authorities. (Between the years of 1400 and 1557, at least 1000 people were burned at the stake because of the Bible.) But the New Testament could now be obtained by the common people, thanks to Tyndale, and he had fulfilled his goal. The Roman Catholic Church referred to Tyndale’s translation (and his other writings) as œpestilent glosses because of his Reformation opinions, and they went on a search and destroy mission for the book. Only two copies of Tyndale’s original work have survived to the present day. Tyndale went into hiding once his version was banned, but eventually he was betrayed by a friend, Philips, and was put into a prison cell in the castle of Vilvoorden. There he endured terrible conditions for more than 500 days until he was tried for treason and heresy. Then in 1536 he was convicted, strangled to death, and burned at the stake. “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes,” were Tyndale’s last words.

Now let’s look at portions of Tyndale’s actual translation and see why he has been referred to as the œarchitect of the English language. Many of the phrases he coined are still used to this day. “The salt of the earth,” “the powers that be,” “fight the good fight,” œlet there be light, were all used in his version. Here is a passage from the Christmas portion of the Tyndale Bible, Luke 2:1-20, which is still impressive for its clarity and concision:

     And lo: the angel of the Lord stood hard by them, and the brightness of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.
     But the angel said unto them: Be not afraid. For behold, I bring you tidings of great joy that shall come to all the people: for unto you is born this day in the city of David, a saviour which is Christ the Lord.

And here is a passage from the Beatitudes section, Mathew 5:8-10.

     Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
     Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
     Blessed are they which suffer persecution for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

After translating the New Testament, Tyndale wanted to start on the Old Testament. But he was not familiar with the Hebrew language. Over the next few years he studied it intensely, mastered it, and began his translation. He finished œThe First Book of Moses Called Genesis soon after and became the first man to translate a Hebrew text into English (Hebrew was almost unknown in England at the time.) Eventually he completed the first 14 books of the Old Testament, and the scholars who worked on the King James version of the Bible used 83 percent of Tyndale’s work without giving him credit. Some still consider his translation to be the best and clearest. Thus, Tyndale made a very worthy and significant contribution to God’s work.