By the 1500s the darkness of the Middle Ages was drawing to a close. New discoveries were illuminating every field of learning, and a spirit of new life permeated society. It was the time of the Renaissance. Two events of that time would have an especially telling influence on the years ahead. The first was Johann Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press sometime during the 1430s.
Gutenberg’s invention required an enormous sacrifice from him, demanding vast amounts of time and his personal indebtedness. He died without realizing much return on his investment; but, like so many other major sacrifices, the result would be a blessing to others, not the least of which would be making the Bible more readily available. Indeed, when he realized he had mastered the technique of printing, he sensed his first responsibility was to print the Bible, and a printed Latin Bible was the first major work to come from this remarkable new invention. The development of printing and the work on the Bible together absorbed over twenty years of Gutenberg’s life.1
The second event to influence the dissemination of the Bible was the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. This caused a major reorientation of the scholastic centers of Europe, attracting to the Roman church and its areas of influence new pioneers of thought and study from the East. There arose a great movement to return to the very origins of knowledge; and among those works whose foundations were sought was the Bible.2
Such developments, joined with the courage of men willing to sacrifice for a righteous cause, were the forces which at last paved the way toward putting the holy scriptures into the hands of the common people.
Among those who gave impetus to the movement for a people’s Bible was a Dutchman best known by his Greek name: Erasmus. In the early 1500s, with a newly obtained knowledge of Greek, Erasmus spent several years teaching at Cambridge as a professor of Greek and Divinity. His Greek studies had spurred in him a desire to produce a New Testament as close to its original Greek form as possible, and from it a better Latin version. Both were revolutionary undertakings in that day; for Jerome’s work, although once bitterly attacked, was now considered sacrosanct and untouchable.3
But Erasmus argued that corruption through the years had crept into the Vulgate. “How is it that Jerome, Augustine, and Ambrose all cite a text which differs from the Vulgate? … Will you, treating all this with contempt, follow a version corrupted by some copyist? … In doing so you follow in the steps of those vulgar divines who are accustomed to attribute ecclesiastical authority to whatever in anyway creeps into general use. …”4
While Erasmus worked on his Greek New Testament, a Spanish Cardinal, Ximines, labored over one containing Hebrew, Greek, and Latin translations. The Cardinal would actually complete his work before Erasmus, but because of opposition from the Inquisition, Erasmus’s work was first to be published.5 Both had the benefit of the new printing techniques, and both would affect later translations of the Bible.
While Erasmus and Ximines experienced bitter opposition, there is no evidence that their lives were seriously endangered. Both were loyal to the authority of the church, seeking reforms from within it rather than outside it.6 Furthermore, the translations both made were in languages in which the scriptures already existed, and were accomplished solely for scholarly purposes.
Yet Erasmus’s work led him to value the right of the people to use the scriptures. “I totally disagree,” he wrote, “with those who are unwilling that the sacred scriptures, translated into the vulgar tongue, should be read by private individuals, as if Christ had taught such subtle doctrines that they can with difficulty be understood by a very few theologians, or as if the strength of the Christian religion lay in men’s ignorance of it. …
“I wish that even the weakest woman should read the Gospel. … And I wish these were translated into all languages, so that they might be read and understood. … I long that the husbandman should sing portions of them to himself as he follows the plough, and that the weaver should hum them to the tune of his shuttle.”7
Although Erasmus had uttered the longing cry, it remained for another, William Tyndale, to fulfill that longing.
It is generally agreed that William Tyndale was born in the early 1490s, around the same time as the discovery of America. At the age of twelve or thirteen, Tyndale went to Oxford, then to Cambridge for additional schooling. Although he arrived in Cambridge after Erasmus had left, he undoubtedly fell under the lingering influence of Erasmus’s teachings and writings.8 Even so, the great influence on Tyndale was of a more primal origin. “William Tyndale was … [learned] especially in the knowledge of the Scriptures, whereunto his mind was singularly addicted, [and he] read privily to certain students and fellows … instructing them in their knowledge and truth.”9
Fresh from his university education, Tyndale accepted a position in Sodbury as chaplain or tutor to the prominent Walsh family. It was a comfortable position which permitted him time for study. But his discontent grew as he perceived a great ignorance on scriptural matters among many of the clergy as well as the laity, and he found it difficult to keep his peace. Eventually, his continued disputations with others because they lacked knowledge of what the scriptures said brought him before local ecclesiastical authority, where he was harshly scolded for his views.10
No one knows precisely when Tyndale decided on his life’s course, but at one point, during an encounter with a learned gentleman, Tyndale was provoked to exclaim that if God would spare his life, before many years the boy who guided the plough would know more scriptures than those who were supposedly learned.11
And so Tyndale embarked on a mission to open the scriptures to the people. Like so many before him he nurtured a hope that his work could be done with the church’s blessing. This was difficult, however, because there were powerful laws against vernacular translations unless previously approved by a bishop. Since Erasmus had written highly of Tunstal, bishop of London, as one who supported the new learning, Tyndale hoped to obtain a position with Tunstal and his support for the work. To help pave the way, Tyndale took with him a letter of introduction and samples of his translative skills. Tunstal’s disappointing and abrupt reply was that he had no room in his house for him, that he should seek employment elsewhere.12
Still, Tyndale’s trip to London was not without success. While waiting for his interview with Tunstal, he preached a few times at a local church. There he impressed a wealthy merchant named Monmouth who befriended him, and, after Tyndale’s rejection by Tunstal, made a place for him in his household. Tyndale remained there for six months, quietly working, obtaining information and making useful acquaintances among Monmouth’s business associates, who brought back news from the Continent about Luther’s work there and of the printing capabilities in Germany. Fortified by these reports and supported by his new friends, in the spring of 1524 Tyndale sailed for Germany. He would never return.
Tyndale’s life abroad has been difficult to trace because he felt it necessary at times to travel and live under assumed names, but it is now believed he traveled first to Wittenberg, where Luther resided, possibly because Luther had already made a vernacular translation of the New Testament into German.13 The spread of Lutheranism in Europe had moved the Roman church to constant watchfulness and strong action, and so Tyndale found it wise to work in secret, and several times to quietly disappear for safety’s sake. Indeed, after a year in Wittenberg, growing danger forced him to move to Hamburg.14
We know little of the difficulties Tyndale faced in preparing his manuscript for printing, but we would be mistaken if we assumed it had come easily. Luther, relating the struggles in making his translation, observed: “Sometimes for three and four weeks we have sought and asked for a single word and sometimes we have not found it even then. In working at the book of Job, [my associates] and I could sometimes scarcely finish three lines in four days.”15 Tyndale, working alone, surely did not find translating any easier. For obvious reasons, the printing had to be done in secret.
However difficult the work had been, by August 1525 Tyndale was in Cologne, a city well known for its printing presses, with a nearly completed manuscript. Unfortunately, the printers were not always circumspect. One commented to a friend that a certain work they were printing would make all of England Lutheran. The remark was noted by a man with strong Roman sentiments who, through trickery, obtained from the printers a description of the work. This information was relayed to authorities in Cologne and England, and the Cologne authorities immediately prevented further printing of the book.16
Tyndale again fled, taking the printed sheets with him. His destination this time was Worms, where Lutheran sympathies were much stronger and the printing safer. Knowing that the English authorities had been forewarned and thus expected his work, Tyndale tried to outmaneuver them by printing two editions, neither of which would bear his name nor the correct names and places of the printing houses.
The first edition off the presses was a translation of the New Testament in English. It carried a simple, unsigned postscript begging the readers to come to the scriptures with pure minds and with eyes single to the truth, that they might harvest spiritual blessings. Tyndale further pleaded that they not be overly critical of defects, for it was his first attempt at translating the sacred books. Not yet totally satisfied with his rendering, he vowed that if God would permit, he would in the future perfect this initial offering. “Count it as a thing not having his full shape, but as it were born before his time, even as a thing begun rather than finished.”17
Once the printing was completed, the help of the merchants Tyndale had met in England became particularly valuable. English authorities were on the alert, and strict instructions had been given to prevent Tyndale’s New Testament from entering England. But the testaments entered anyway—six thousand copies of them, hidden under bales of innocent-appearing imported goods. There were many eager hands waiting to receive them.18
Having failed in keeping the books from being printed and from entering England, the church took strong measures to at least prevent them from being read. To demonstrate their opposition, church authorities built a bonfire where they publicly burned any books they found. Tunstal and others, including Sir Thomas More, publicly attacked the accuracy of the translation itself, claiming it contained thousands of errors.19 Tunstal also ordered that anyone coming into possession of these New Testaments must relinquish them for burning or face excommunication. The authorities felt their actions justified, insisting that “No burnt offering could be better pleasing to God.”20
Tyndale later commented that “in burning the New Testament, they did none other thing than I looked for; no more shall they do if they burn me also, if it be God’s will it shall so be.”21 Out of an estimated 18,000 copies printed between 1524 and 1528, fewer than a handful of copies have survived to modern times.22 And yet, ironically, the burning actually helped provide resources for more printing. The story is told that Tunstal decided the policy of burning books would be more effective if the books could be confiscated before they reached England. While on a visit to Antwerp, he approached a merchant named Packington and expressed his desires to obtain and burn New Testaments because of their errors and evil influence. He offered Packington considerable money to buy all he could. Packington agreed to the bargain; but, sympathetic to Tyndale, he went immediately to him and described what Tunstal was doing.23
Tyndale was quite pleased. He saw two advantages in such a bargain: the money paid would get him out of debt and provide the resources to continue his work, and the public burning of scriptures would outrage the public. The bargain was accepted.24
Much of the money which Tunstal had paid to purchase the Bibles for burning had been raised by him from other clergymen. Thus, he unwittingly became Tyndale’s biggest single source of financial assistance. But the books also sold well on their own, in spite of the warnings and the burnings, in spite of arrests and imprisonments of sellers and buyers. Despite the fact that the cost of a New Testament was as much as a full week’s pay for a skilled laborer, the books were bought, secreted, and read. So good was the market for them, in fact, that enterprising businessmen in Holland printed copies of their own and sought to undersell those from Germany.25
With the publication of the New Testament, Tyndale next translated the Pentateuch; but on his way to Hamburg to print it, his ship was wrecked. All his manuscripts were lost, all his labor destroyed. Fortunately, Tyndale was joined in Hamburg by Miles Coverdale, who assisted him in retranslating the work and who would in time make many significant contributions to the translation of the Bible. Together they worked, and in January of 1530 the Pentateuch was printed in English, again with its printing source disguised. The Pentateuch too was shipped to England—and there it, too, was sought for burning.26
It was shortly after the Pentateuch arrived in England that certain individuals tried to persuade the king to bring Tyndale back to England in peace if he would agree to certain conditions. Tyndale was wary of the volatile situation in England but declared he would return if one condition was met—that the king would approve an English Bible of some sort for the people, if not his own. As a part of these negotiations, Tyndale revealed much of what he had suffered for the cause, including “poverty, … exile out of my natural country and bitter absence from my friends, … my hunger, my thirst, my cold, the great danger wherewith I am everywhere encompassed, … and hard and sharp rightings which I endure.”27 He insisted that death would be more pleasant than life if it were really true that men could not endure truth and that knowledge of the scriptures would bring more harm than good.
When negotiations failed, other attempts were made to bring Tyndale to England, though not so peacefully. Appeals were made to the German emperor to surrender him, and instructions were given to kidnap him. Living like a fugitive, he managed to elude his pursuers.28
Despite his frequent uproofings Tyndale continued to work and even to rework that which he had already done. Nothing testifies so strongly of his desire to produce a faithful English version of the scriptures as do his efforts to improve his own previous translations. In 1534 there was printed “The Newe Testament dylyggently corrected and compared with the Greke by Willyam Tindale,” and in 1535 “The Newe Testament yet once again corrected by Willyam Tindale” as well as revised editions of the Pentateuch. The corrections he made on the New Testament alone numbered in the thousands. Scholars generally agree that the changes were indeed for the better, lifting the good work he had done into the realms of excellence.29
But Tyndale’s pen was soon immobilized. In 1535 he lived in Antwerp in a house established by English merchants. There he developed a close friendship with another Englishman, not realizing the friendship to be treacherous. So trusting had Tyndale become that he lent his friend forty shillings—just hours before he was betrayed by him into the hands of the emperor’s soldiers. Tyndale was taken to Vilvorde Castle, just north of Brussels, where he was imprisoned.
He would never be freed from the dungeon there, suffering its isolated darkness and dampness for over sixteen months. While in prison, he wrote a touching letter which provides clues to his condition and state of mind.
“If I am to remain here during the winter, you will request the Procureur to be kind enough to send me from my goods which he has in his possession, a warmer cap, for I suffer extremely from cold in the head, being afflicted with a perpetual catarrh, which is considerably increased in this cell. A warmer coat also, for that which I have is very thin: also a piece of cloth to patch my leggings: my overcoat is worn out. He has a woollen shirt of mine, if he will be kind enough to send it. I have also with him leggings of thicker cloth for putting on above; he also has warmer caps for wearing at night. I wish also his permission to have a lamp in the evening, for it is wearisome to sit alone in the dark. But above all, I entreat and beseech your clemency to be urgent with the Procureur that he may kindly permit me to have my Hebrew Bible, my Hebrew Grammar, and Hebrew Dictionary, that I may spend my time with that study.”30
Just two events brought Tyndale out of his dark dungeon. One was a bitter trial; another was an attempt to disgrace him by publicly stripping him of his ecclesiastical authority. Throughout his imprisonment he endured intense pressures to recant. Finally, on October 6, 1536, twelve years after he left England, he was led from prison to the stake. There he was strangled, then his body burned. He had time to utter one last cry: “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.”31
It is one of the ironies of history that Tyndale died not knowing the battle was nearly won.
In the 1530s, the political climate in England underwent many significant changes. Henry VIII had split with Rome to facilitate his divorce and remarriage, and Anne Boleyn, his new love, favored a translated Bible. Others also had come to see the folly of denying the scriptures to the people—including Sir Thomas More.32
Working behind the scenes to effect this change in policy were a number of enlightened men. One of these was Tyndale’s assistant, Miles Coverdale. A man of peace, Coverdale established good friendships with men of all persuasions; Tyndale, More, and Cromwell all considered him a friend. In 1530, Coverdale had written Cromwell, patiently reasoning the need for an English scripture. Evidently, he helped influence Cromwell, because he later lent support to Coverdale to accomplish that work.33
Finally, in 1534, a group of prominent church authorities petitioned the king to allow scriptures in the English language. The king, always in touch with political expediency, responded positively, and a process was begun by which an “official” translation might be obtained. Some of those chosen to work toward that end, however, were actually obstructionists, and the project quietly died.
But while the “official” translation work was grinding to a halt, Coverdale secretly worked on his own version—a project supported by Cromwell. In making his translation, Coverdale used Tyndale’s Pentateuch and New Testament, but improved upon them where he could, using his own natural sense for linguistic harmony and rhythm. The rest of the Old Testament Coverdale translated himself, referring for guidance to several other works, including Luther’s Bible.34
Coverdale’s accomplishment, the first printed complete English Bible, was published overseas and shipped to England. There were hopes this time for a favorable reception, based on changing opinion and a very flattering dedication to King Henry, who Coverdale compared to Moses and King Josiah in leading the people from darkness to light.
It is believed that Cromwell drew the king’s attention to the new translation. The king, likely weary of ecclesiastical divisions and flattered by the dedication, asked the bishops for their opinions. They offered various criticisms, but Henry demanded, “Are there any heresies maintained thereby?” When they could point out none he exclaimed, “If there be no heresies, then in God’s name let it go abroad among our people.”35
The English people were at last free to purchase, own, and read a Bible without fear of retribution. Many received the new Bible warmly. But there was still reluctance, even hostility, among a significant number of the clergy. Though they no longer had the power to seize or burn the scriptures, their strong disfavor worked against its universal acceptance.
When Coverdale’s Bible came out, Tyndale was yet alive, in prison. Coverdale was aware of Tyndale’s plight, and though not daring to use his name openly, made vague reference to his situation in the prologue to his Bible. He also revealed the forces that had brought him to finish Tyndale’s work:
“It was neither my labor nor desire to have this work put in my hand: nevertheless it grieved me that other nations should be more plenteously provided for with the Scripture in their mother tongue than we: … when I considered how great pity it was that we should want it so long, and called to my remembrance the adversity of them [Tyndale chiefly] which were not only of ripe knowledge but would also with all their hearts have performed that they began, if they had not impediment.”36
So Coverdale finished what Tyndale began. Unlike others, who suffered death for their roles, Coverdale’s diplomacy kept him alive, though he was forced into exile at least three times. Nevertheless, he was able to maintain deep respect from diverse parties, and thus wield a strong influence on several succeeding biblical translations. He revised and republished his own version in 1537, but it remained too much Tyndale’s work to be widely accepted by the clergy.
In 1537 another version of the Bible mysteriously appeared. It is believed that after Tyndale’s death, among his effects were found his translations of Joshua to 2 Chronicles. These were left to some of his friends. One of these men, John Rogers, put together a new Bible which consisted of all of Tyndale’s translations, including these last ones, with Coverdale’s translation from Ezra to Malachi. The book was meant to honor Tyndale, now deceased; but it was thought wisest not to prejudice the work with his name, which was still bitterly despised by many. Hence it was published as the translation of “Thomas Matthew,” a false name.37
Strangely, whether or not it was known how much of this work was Tyndale’s, the authorities granted it license as an approved version (though Tyndale’s first publications were still under condemnation). There were several reasons for the license. It was obvious that the public wanted an English Bible, and the petition of 1534 by church leaders requesting an authorized Bible had not yet been fulfilled. Indeed, because of opposition from certain bishops, Archbishop Cranmer, a moderate with leanings toward an English Bible, decided that to give license to this version would save face for both the crown and clergy, as they could go along with the pretense that it was “new.” So Cranmer wrote a letter to Cromwell, saying of this work, which was almost wholly as Tyndale had written it, “you shall receyve by the bringer herof, a Bible in Englische, both of a new translacion and off a new prynte, dedicated vnto the Kinges Maieste. … So farre as I have redde thereof I like it better than any other translacion hertofore made.”38
So now two versions of the Bible were available, though only so far as the people’s ignorance and poverty allowed. The books were still not used, read, or taught in churches, where the uneducated might learn and the poor might hear. But finally, even that barrier began to crumble.
As early as 1536, Cromwell had considered a decree that English Bibles be placed in every church; but the time was not ripe. And for many, the Bible translations available were still not right. Conservative clergy particularly objected to pro-Protestant leanings in the notes of the Coverdale and Matthew Bibles. And so Cromwell began to envision a Bible worthy to be placed in churches—free from criticism, done with the very best of scholarship, and with an external beauty worthy of its place.39
Coverdale was picked for the task. But this time he was given every advantage. France was selected as the place for the work. There they could obtain the best quality of paper and printing. Cromwell saw that Coverdale had all the help he needed in the way of grammars, dictionaries, other scholarly resources, and a personal assistant.
Coverdale’s work was indeed thorough. He used the Matthew Bible as his original source, making corrections wherever he felt best. If he found a translation better than one in his own previous work, he did not hesitate to set aside his own.
After much labor, the translation and printing neared completion. Then, just as it appeared that at last the way to an unhampered printing of the Bible had been won, the work was suddenly confiscated and the printing ordered stopped. Political relations between France and England had deteriorated, and the work was halted by the French inquisitor-general. Through diplomatic channels England finally obtained permission to bring the presses back to England, but without the printed sheets. Coverdale had managed to ship some home prior to the seizure, and some that had been sold as waste paper to a haberdasher were retrieved; but for the most part, the work had to be reprinted.
In 1539, the “Great” Bible was released. It was called “Great” because of its size—but it was splendid in other ways, too. Perhaps its only outward flaw was small hands appearing on the pages pointing at nothing. They were originally intended to signify explanatory notes. But the king, tired of controversy over notes, had forbidden their inclusion.
In 1538, prior to this Bible’s actual publication, Cromwell had issued an injunction that there be kept in every church a Bible for the people, and that the people be freely allowed to read it. Though there is evidence that the Matthew Bible was sometimes used, the decree was in anticipation of the Great; and when it was available, it became the Bible “appointed to the use of the churches.”40
There are many interesting reports of reactions to this sudden exposure to the Bible. It was now available to people of all classes, and the great controversy had surely aroused immense curiosity about its contents. On the one hand, “it was wonderful to see with what joy this book of God was received not only among the learneder sort and those that were noted for lovers of the reformation, but generally all England over among all the vulgar and common people; and with what greediness God’s word was read and what resort to places where the reading of it was. Everybody that could bought the book or busily read it or got others to read it to them if they could not themselves, and divers more elderly people learned to read on purpose.”41
The way had been opened, and the people responded. Those with enough money purchased the Great Bible for private use, then often read to crowds who gathered. But its cost of ten to twelve shillings prevented its availability to the majority, except at the churches. There the poorer flocked to marvel that they could see and hear and handle a whole Bible, printed in the English tongue.42
Nevertheless, there were still dark days ahead. In Henry’s later years he turned against the Protestants. Cromwell was executed. Persecutions resumed. “The crafty, false, and untrue translation of Tyndale” (specifically the Matthews and Coverdale versions) were denounced and again publicly burned.43 The Great Bible, also mostly Tyndale’s work, was not attacked, but its reading by common people was again forbidden. These events were only the first of very turbulent times during which the opinion toward vernacular translations rose and fell precipitously.
During Edward’s reign, Protestants returned to favor and Bibles again were set up in the churches. Even weekly scripture reading in the churches was encouraged.
Then Mary Tudor came to power. Bitterly anti-Protestant, Mary sentenced readers of the English Bibles to death. Many of those instrumental in bringing about English translations lost their lives, among them Archbishop Cranmer and John Rogers.44
Coverdale and numbers of other Protestant leaders fled to the Continent, finding safety in Geneva, whence sprang yet another version of the Bible. But this was not just another version. A free intellectual climate had brought to Geneva some of the finest religious scholars in all of Europe. Drawing upon each other’s knowledge and upon original sources not previously available, these scholars helped produce new translations of English, French, and Italian Bibles. In the English, they found the greatest need for revisions in that part of the Old Testament not done by Tyndale.
By the time the Geneva Bible was ready for publication in 1560, Queen Elizabeth had replaced Mary on the throne, and she again allowed free access to English Bibles.
Because of its smaller size, its simplicity, and certain innovations that made it easier to read (namely Roman type rather than Gothic, and the use of verses), the Geneva became the most popular Bible for private use among the people. Indeed, it became the common family Bible for the next 50 years and was the Bible the Pilgrims carried to America. However, because of its Protestant bias in the marginal notes it was never approved by the Church of England, although its high quality of scholarship was grudgingly conceded. The Great Bible remained the Bible of the churches.45
This awkward situation—one version of the scriptures in the homes but another in the churches—aroused the desire for yet another version. Thus, the plan which had once been suggested, that there be an “official” version done by ecclesiastical authorities of the church, was finally set into motion. Approximately sixteen men, mostly bishops, labored on this new translation. Here at last was hope for a version that would be accurate and non-controversial.
But while the “Bishops’ Bible,” as it was designated, did officially replace the Great Bible in the churches, it could not uproot the Geneva Bible in the hearts of the people. Although it did make improvements in a few areas, in general it was too uneven and too literal. The beauty of Tyndale’s “Cast thy bread upon the waters,” for example, had become “Lay thy bread upon wet faces.”
The work which Tyndale began had through the years been taken up by many men. Each had sought to improve it, and indeed they had; a work so vast and challenging could hardly have been made perfect by one mere man. And yet, the amazing truth is that while Tyndale’s work was eventually refined, it was of high quality from the start. Eighty to ninety percent of the biblical work Tyndale performed remains today in the form in which he set it.46 For his was the gift of capturing accuracy in a rhythmic-poetic way, thus adding beauty and power to the scriptural message.
While many circumstances combined to make the scriptures accessible to the English people, surely Tyndale’s work, life, and death were among the chief factors. He gave for this cause all that he could give, for he knew in a very personal way the immeasurable worth of the scriptures. And he recognized that for these eternal jewels, no price was too great.
The translation Tyndale made of the Sermon on the Mount may well serve as the only epitaph he needs:
“Blessed are they which huger and thurst for rightewesnes: for they shal be fylled. … Blessed are they which suffre persecucion for rightewesnes sake: for thers is the kingdom of heven. Blessed are ye whe men shall revyle you/and persecute you/and shal falsely saye all manner of evle sayings agaynst you for my sake. Reioyce ad be gladde/for greate is youre rewards in heven. For so persecuted they the prophetts which were before youre dayes.”47
End of Part 6. To be continued.