Tom Wallace, author of the Jack Dantzler mysteries, including the soon to be released Heroes for Ghosts, offers this essay on one of history’s most important forgotten scribe, William Tyndale.
William Tyndale: God’s Forgotten Scribe
Tragically, William Tyndale’s name has been lost to history. It shouldn’t have been, because quite simply, Tyndale is one of the five most-important men in the history of the Western world.
Conversely, Thomas More is deemed a giant of the past, when, in fact, his celebrated reputation is vastly undeserved. First he was knighted, then made a saint by the Catholic Church. He’s also had streets, buildings and colleges named after him, and he was the hero of both the play and movie, A Man for All Seasons. More’s elevation is perhaps even more tragic than Tyndale’s virtual absence from the pages of history.
Who was William Tyndale? And why was he so crucial to not only the lives we lead, but also to the history of the West? Quite simply, he was the man who gave us our Bible. No, he didn’t write the Bible; that was done thousands of years before he lived. But he was the man who translated the New Testament and much of the Old Testament into English. And he did so despite the strenuous objection of the Catholic Church, which wanted to continue using St. Jerome’s Latin translation.
For his efforts, Tyndale was deemed a heretic by the church. He was ferociously pursued by church leaders, and by More, a man who had no qualms about torturing those he called heretics before happily handing them over to local authorities to be executed. Because of this, Tyndale lived much of his adult life in hiding or on the move.
Tyndale had but a single dream: That the boy behind the plough would know as much Scripture as a learned man. In short, he wanted fellow English folks to read God’s words in their native tongue.
This was anathema to the Catholic Church, whose leaders feared that if the populace could read the Bible in English, then it would almost certainly dawn on them that much of what the church taught wasn’t even in the Bible. For instance, an individual could read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation and nowhere would he see the word pope. They also might learn that Purgatory was an 11th or 12th century invention, and isn’t in the Bible.
No, the Catholic Church fought long and hard to ensure that church members only heard God’s words in Latin. Ironically, even most priests couldn’t read or write Latin. They simply memorized the words necessary for sermons or ceremonies.
This struck Tyndale as ridiculous. Why shouldn’t the people of England have the right to read or hear God’s words in their own language? With that as his goal, he set about giving the English what he felt was their right to have, beginning with his translation of the New Testament.
But Tyndale did it the correct way—he translated from the Original Greek rather than from the Septuagint (the first translation from Hebrew to Greek) or the St. Jerome’s Latin translation. What makes this so crucial is that both the Septuagint and Jerome’s work were littered with incorrect translations.
Tyndale set about correcting those errors, once again to the horror of the Catholic Church. In their eyes, those corrections, if allowed to stand, could have devastating results. Because of that fear, the church—and Thomas More—did everything possible to discredit Tyndale’s translation.
For starters, Tyndale translated the word for church into the more-accurate “congregation.” Just ponder for a second the implication of that change. Rather than Jesus saying, “thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church,” instead, Jesus says he will build his “congregation.” Suddenly, with that change, the true power belonged to the people, not to a single, powerful church.
He changed “penance” to “repentance,” “priests” to “elders,” and “charity” into “love.” (The later King James authors changed it back to charity, no doubt at the insistence of the Catholic Church.) None of these changes made More and his fellow church leaders happy. All it did was up their desire to apprehend Tyndale, who More labeled “an evil enemy of the Church.”
Tyndale was a powerful, muscular writer whose writings would have a strong influence on Shakespeare. Tyndale was also smart to translate from the original Greek rather than Latin because Greek fit more comfortably with English. Latin is a subject-object-verb language, whereas English is more of a subject-verb-object language.
Despite being in hiding and constantly on the move, Tyndale words have an enduring beauty about them. When you read “Our Father which art in heaven,” or “Death, where is thy sting?” or “this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the forgiveness of sins,” you are reading Tyndale.
The King James Authorized Version, begun in 1604 and completed in 1611, is without question the most-popular and most-widely read Bible in history. The authors of that monumental work were intelligent enough to know a good thing when they saw it. While they smoothed some things out, and made a handful of changes (some for the better, some not an improvement), for the most part, they left Tyndale’s words intact.
Tyndale was eventually caught and sentenced to death. He was tied to a stake, strangled to death, and then set on fire. At the time of his death, Tyndale had completed translating several books of the Hebrew Scriptures into English. Sadly, he died before having the opportunity show us what he might have done to those great works, including the mighty Book of Job, considered by many as the crown of the Hebrew Bible.
Since history rides with the winning battalions, the Catholic Church and Thomas More claimed victory. Critics were silenced, while More was elevated to legendary status. But that win may have been little more than fool’s gold at best.
William Tyndale, martyred for courageously fulfilling his dream of giving his people (and us) God’s words in our native tongue, may have gotten the last laugh. In a 1998 study, it was found that Tyndale’s words accounted for 84 percent of the New Testament and 75.8 percent of the Old Testament books he translated prior to his death. The glory of his achievement continued down through the ages.
Thomas More may live on the stage and movie screen, but William Tyndale lives in our spirit.