Tyndale’s radical take on the structure of Christianity prodded into life a debate on democracy that changed our nation foreverby Melvyn Bragg / December 13, 2017 / Leave a comment
It is said that Erasmus of Rotterdam laid the eggs that Martin Luther hatched. You could also say that Luther sowed the seeds for the crop that William Tyndale harvested.
Tyndale’s English translation of the New Testament is one of the most important books ever written. The accident of history that made English the language of two great empires—the British and American—has meant it is his Bible that has carried Luther’s message around the world. His New Testament formed more than 93 per cent of the King James Bible of 1611. And yet Tyndale, who was executed in Antwerp in 1536, gained little credit until recently.
Born in 1494 into a wealthy West Country wool family, educated at Oxford, and possibly Cambridge, from an early age Tyndale dedicated his life to providing the English with a Bible in their own tongue, a radical idea in a Catholic country where an educated priesthood enjoyed an effective monopoly on access to the Latin book. Wycliffe’s English Bible of 1381 had been outlawed for a century and further attempts had been met with arrests, torture and even execution. By the time Tyndale was working on his version in the early 16th century, Germany, Italy and France had published vernacular Bibles. England held out. Henry VIII and his advisers, especially Cardinal Thomas Wolseley, saw the Latin Vulgate as a way of controlling information and knowledge.
Tyndale preached on the streets of Bristol. He harangued bishops and divines. On one occasion a bishop asserted that should there be a choice between following the laws of the Pope or the laws of God then he would follow the Pope. An enraged Tyndale replied: “Ere long I will teach a ploughboy to know the Bible as well as Thee.” He meant it.
He wrote the Bible to be read aloud and to be understood. He used simple monosyllables. His immeasurable literary influence would have surprised him (phrases such as “let there be light,” “salt of the earth,” “filthy lucre” and scores of others came from Tyndale’s pen).
He believed that once the truths of the scriptures were known to the people then peace and piety would follow. Once
purgatory, pilgrimages, indulgences and priests were abolished then Christ would be seen as the only intermediary between people and God, and all would be well.
He was hounded out of the West Country and, despite his acknowledged genius as a scholar, denied opportunities in London. In 1524 he went to Germany, where he found sympathetic printers, and never returned. He began to lead two lives. The first was Tyndale the scholar, working 12 to 16 hours a day, learning German, Hebrew and Anglo-Saxon the better to translate the New and Old Testaments. But for more than a decade he was also on the run, a secret agent for his native tongue, escaping raids on his printers, surviving a shipwreck—but never losing sight of his goal.
In 1525 he finished his first translation of the New Testament from the Greek. Several thousand copies were shipped to England and it was a sensational bestseller. Until Wolseley and Henry VIII saw that they had Luther on their doorstep and in their language. They turned on Tyndale. Thomas More was ordered to break his reputation.
The Bishop of London burned 3,000 copies of his New Testament outside St Paul’s. Burning books soon turned into burning people. London became a nest of spies. If you had known Tyndale, or had a copy of his New Testament or were thought to be sympathetic to him, you were seized, often tortured and could be executed. The fires of human flesh began to pollute the air of Smithfield.
Henry VIII tried to tempt Tyndale back with elaborate promises. But the translator knew very well that as soon as he landed in England he would be seized as a heretic, tried and executed. Three intelligence services pursued him: Henry VIII’s, the Pope’s and the Holy Roman Emperor’s. The last planted a Judas figure inside his stronghold, “the Wool House,” in Antwerp. He was betrayed, imprisoned for 16 months and then burned to death.
Before his death Henry VIII, by now having broken with Rome, authorised translations of the Bible into English. But he still refused to countenance anything by Tyndale. Between Tyndale’s death and the King James Version, Bible after Bible emerged that were either total rip-offs or substantial plagiarisms of Tyndale. So it was that Shakespeare was influenced by Tyndale perhaps without even knowing who he was. And after Shakespeare, the deluge.
Tyndale’s radical take on the structure of Christianity—that there should not be a Church but a congregation; that no priest was needed except Jesus Christ—prodded into life a debate on democracy that got under way in England in the mid-17th century. Tyndale had made people equal before God’s word, and so the door was open to make them equal under a “divine” King as well. When that formula proved unsustainable, we got the civil war and the eventual execution of Charles I in 1649—the birth of our democracy—all of which can be traced to Tyndale’s influence.
But for all Henry’s viciousness, Tyndale remained a monarchist to the end. After all, Kings were in the Bible; what was in the Bible—properly translated—had to be followed. As the flames seized him, he cried out “Lord open the King of England’s eyes.”