By Heath Jarrett
While most of you know the name of Martin Luther, I want to introduce you to this lesser known ancestor of ours. This is William Tyndale, and you need to know this man.
Why? Because we in the English speaking world have inherited his greatest treasure: the English Bible. Though his earthly possessions were few, Tyndale managed to enrich an entire people.
In the 1500’s, the recently invented printing press coupled with the publication of the Greek New Testament gave way to the greatest change Europe had experienced. We call it the Reformation.
For the first time, scholars across Europe began reading the Bible in its original languages, instead of the Latin translation. And they found stark differences. Prominently, the doctrine of salvation by faith alone thundered from the pages of Scripture. The church, they found, did not control access to heaven.
This gave people like Luther, and soon Tyndale, the confidence to oppose the abuses of the church. It also compelled them to make Scripture accessible to all. For 1,000 years, the Bible was restrained to a Latin translation that few could read and fewer understood. Tyndale’s desire was for Englishmen to read the Bible in their native tongue. Rome’s desire was to kill him for it.
Tyndale, in his 20s, acquired the printing press’s first best seller, the Greek New Testament, and went to work translating its powerful truth for the people. At first he sought official government sanction for his translation—a risky proposition. Two English laws from 1401 and 1408 made heresy punishable by death and translating (or even reading) the Bible into English illegal. These laws were passed in response to Tyndale’s forerunners, John Wycliffe and the Lollards. Wycliffe had translated the Latin Bible into English, but only a few handwritten copies circulated among the people. The Lollards were Christians who preached along the lines of the reformers 130 years earlier.
The response from the king was a definite NO! Tyndale became a fugitive. Fleeing England, he lived on Europe’s continent for his last 12 years. Though he never returned to England, his Bible translations did, smuggled aboard merchant ships whose cargoes concealed England’s most valuable import.
Tyndale published follow-up versions of his New Testament, all the while learning Hebrew and working on translating the Old Testament. He made it half way through before he was betrayed by a confidant, imprisoned and later executed. He was burned as a heretic.
Christ died that you might live. Tyndale died that you might read. Under God’s providence, that which has supreme value has been made freely available to us all. Knowing what it cost to put God’s word into our hands will ensure that we do not cheapen its contents.