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
Published in January 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
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 lo…