Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
March 12, 1964
NUMBER 44, PAGE 4,11b-12a

"My Words Shall Not Pass Away"


"Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away." (Mat. 24:35)

Born in 1484, just one year after the birth of Martin Luther, William Tyndale was destined to be one of the greatest of those human servants by whom Christ's promise, "my words shall not pass away," was to be fulfilled. The story of his life is one of the most thrilling in the annals of English history. He had a singularity of purpose, an almost incredible and consuming determination, a total commitment of his life to the great task of translating the Bible from its original Greek text into the common English language of his day. To him more than to any other one man the English-Amercian world is indebted for the grace, beauty, and strength of the King James Version of the Bible. His was a monumental work which not only gave the world one of the greatest translations of the Bible ever made, but in a very real sense blazed the trail for the "golden age" of English literature which reached its zenith in the myriad-minded Shakespeare.

Trained almost from childhood in the universities first at Oxford then at Cambridge, Tyndale "was so skilled in seven languages, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, English, French, that whichever he spoke you would suppose it his native tongue." (Demaus, William Tyndale, p. 135) He shared with the learned Erasmus a passionate desire to make the Bible available to the common man — "that the weakest woman should be able to read the Gospel and the Epistles of St. Paul; that the husbandman should sing portions of them to himself as he followed the plough; that the weaver should hum them to the tune of the shuttle; and that the traveler should beguile the tedium of the road by repeating their stories."

England during Tyndale's life was Catholic. His efforts to translate the Bible into the common vernacular met with the bitterest kind of opposition. Realizing that his work would be constantly subject to oppression, and that even his life was in jeopardy from the ecclesiastical hierarchy, he fled from his native city (Gloucestershire) and came to London. Here he found a friend and helper in Humphrey Monmouth, an alderman of London, who was later imprisoned in the Tower of London for his having helped the fugitive. Monmouth gives a description of Tyndale in which he says: "I took him into my house half a year; and there he lived like a good priest as me thought. He studied most part of the day and of the night at his book; and he would eat but sodden meat by his good will. I never saw him wear linen about him in the space he was with me. I did promise him ten pounds sterling, to pray for my father and mother, their souls and all Christian souls. I did pay him it when he made his exchange to Hamburg."

In April, 1525, Tyndale was in Cologne to put into print his completed translation of the New Testament. But his enemies (spies for the Catholic Church) by accident overheard some of the typesetters in a tavern discussing the job on which they were working. Cochlaeus, an avowed enemy of the Reformation, insinuated himself into the confidence of these typesetters, invited them to his home where he wined and dined them, and finally got them drunk enough that they talked freely, giving away their secret, viz., that they were printing 3,000 copies of the New Testament in English for Tyndale, and that these books were to be shipped secretly to England for distribution. Cochlaeus immediately informed the Catholic authorities at Cologne, who set out to arrest Tyndale. But being warned of the matter Tyndale escaped by boat up the Rhine river to the city of Worms, taking as much of the printed copy as he could carry with him.

From Cologne the work was finished, and the books were shipped to England, concealed in various cases of merchandise. As soon as word leaked out that the books were available, there was a rushing demand for them by the common people, and also by the Catholic authorities. The people were eager to read the book; the clergy were even more zealous in their efforts to find it that they might burn it! The fight was desperate on both sides the one group determined to disseminate Tyndale's New Testament as widely as possible, the other group equally determined to annihilate it. King Henry VIII (still at this time a loyal and devoted subject of the Pope) entered into the fray, writing strong words of condemnation of the translation, describing it as "imagened and onely fayned to enfecte the peopull." Of this first edition of Tyndale's Testament only two portions are known to have survived — a small fragment of thirty-one leaves containing the first twenty-two chapters of Matthew, and one copy complete except for the title page. The fragment is now in the British Museum, and the complete copy is in the library of Baptist College at Bristol, England.

So bitter was the Catholic hatred for Tyndale, and so furious their opposition to him, that he dared not return to England for fear of his life. But his friends continued to receive new supplies of his book (now revised and more uniformly printed) and to spread them throughout England. Tyndale was making his home in Antwerp, continuously working on translation of both the Old and New Testament, and sending his New Testaments to England as fast as he could gather funds to have them printed. At last the Catholics determined that Tyndale must be put to death. They selected an ardent and fanatical Romanist, Henry Philips, to do the treacherous deed. After pretending great friendship to Tyndale, and worming himself into his confidence, this man betrayed him into the hands of officers of Emperor Charles V, the Catholic monarch who was titular head of the "Holy Roman Empire." Tyndale was thrust into a dungeon in Vilvorde Castle, near to Brussels, where he remained for some little time. But even during his imprisonment, and realizing fully that he would shortly be put to death, Tyndale spent the days in a feverish effort to bring a final revision to his New Testament, and perhaps to translate as much as he could of the Old. On October 6, 1536, he was brought to trial as an heretic, and was condemned to death. Being tied to a stake his last words were a prayer: "Lord, open the King of England's eyes!" He was strangled to death, and his body was burned.

But Tyndale had won his battle. The people of England had had a taste of the Bible! And their hunger for it was so great that the authorities dared no longer try to with-hold it from them. Even in 1534, two years before Tyndale's death, a convocation under the presidency of Cranmer, had petitioned King Henry VIII that he would "vouchsafe to decree that a translation of the Scriptures into English should he made by certain honest and learned men whom the King should nominate; and that the Scriptures so translated should be delivered to the people according to their learning."

Henry VIII had such an antipathy to Tyndale that he was determined to select a man to head his commission of translators who would bring out a Bible so superior to Tyndale's that the people would turn from Tyndale's Bible to the new translation. He selected Miles Coverdale, a man who was neither a Greek nor a Hebrew scholar. But Coverdale did have enough understanding to recognize a good thing when he saw it — so he adroitly and skillfully adapted Tyndale's New Testament changing only enough of it so as to give it the appearance of a New Translation, and got Royal sanction for dissemination of this book as "authorized" by the King! Thus within twelve years from the first issuance of Tyndale's New Testament, which had to be printed abroad and clandestinely smuggled into England, to be wantonly destroyed as much as possible by official sanction, we find almost that same New Testament being spread all over England by the same Royal authority!

So accurate was Tyndale's work that in the next century, when the King James Version was made, the learned and able scholars appointed by James incorporated into their translation entire chapters exactly as Tyndale had rendered them; and, indeed, it has been estimated that as much as seven-eights of the familiar King James Version is actually the work of William Tyndale! (Incidentally, Tyndale's great translation has been recently reprinted and is now available to modern readers.)

F. Y. T.