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by Frederic G. Kenyon
William Tyndale (c. 1490-1536) devoted himself early to Scripture studies, and by the time he had reached the age of about thirty, he had taken for the work of his life the translation of the Bible into English. He was born in Gloucestershire (where his family seems to have used the name of Hutchins or Hychins and that of Tyndale so that he is himself sometimes described by both names). He became a member of Magdalen Hall (a dependency of Magdalen College) at Oxford, where he definitely associated himself with the Protestant party and became known as one of their leaders. He took his degree as B.A. in 1512, as M.A. in 1515, and at some uncertain date, he is said (by Foxe) to have gone to Cambridge. If this was between 1511 and 1515, he would have found Erasmus there; but in that case, it could have been only an interlude in the middle of his Oxford course, and perhaps it is more probable that his visit belongs to some part of the years 1515 to 1520, as to which there is no definite information. About 1520 he became resident tutor in the house of Sir John Walsh, at Little Sodbury in Gloucestershire, to which period belongs his famous saying, in controversy with an opponent: “If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plow shall know more of the Scriptures than thou dost.” With this object, he came up to London in 1523 and sought a place in the service of Tunstall, bishop of London, a scholar and patron of scholars, of whom Erasmus had spoken favorably, but here he received no encouragement. He was, however, taken in by Alderman Humphrey Monmouth, in whose house he lived as chaplain and studied for six months; at the end of which time, he was forced to the conclusion “not only that there was no room in my Lord of London’s palace to translate the New Testament, but also that there was no place to do it in all England.”
About May 1524, therefore, Tyndale left England and settled in the free city of Hamburg, and in the course of the next 12 months, the first stage of his great work was completed. Whether during this time he visited Luther at Wittenberg is quite uncertain; what is certain, and more important, is that he was acquainted with Luther’s writings. In 1525, the translation of the New Testament being finished, he went to Cologne to have it printed at the press of Peter Quentel. Three thousand copies of the first ten sheets of it, in quarto, had been printed off when rumors of the work came to the ears of John Cochlaeus, a bitter enemy of the Reformation. To obtain information, he approached the printers (who were also engaged upon work for him) and having loosened their tongues with wine he learned the full details of Tyndale’s enterprise and sent warning forthwith to England. Meanwhile, Tyndale escaped with the printed sheets to Worms, in the Lutheran disposition of which place he was secure from interference and proceeded with his work at the press of Peter Schoeffer. Since, however, a description of the Cologne edition had been sent to England, a change was made in the format. The text was set up again in octavo, and without the marginal notes of the quarto edition; and in this form, the first printed English New Testament was given to the world early in 1526. About the same time an edition in small quarto, with marginal notes, was also issued, and it is probable (though full proof is wanting) that this was the completion of the interrupted Cologne edition. Three thousand copies of each edition were struck off; but so active were the enemies of the Reformation in their destruction, that they have nearly disappeared off the face of the earth. One copy of the octavo edition, complete but for the loss of its titlepage, is at the Baptist College at Bristol, whither it found its way from the Harley Library, to which it once belonged; and an imperfect copy is in the library of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Of the quarto, all that survives is a fragment consisting of eight sheets (Mat 1:1–22:12) in the Grenville Library in the British Museum.
The hostility of the authorities in church and state in England was indeed undisguised. Sir Thomas More attacked the translation as false and heretical, and as disregarding ecclesiastical terminology. Wolsey and the bishops, with Henry’s assent, decreed that it should be burnt; and burnt it was at Paul’s Cross, after a sermon from Bishop Tunstall. Nevertheless, fresh supplies continued to pour into England, the money expended in buying up copies for destruction serving to pay for the production of fresh editions. Six editions are said to have been issued between 1526 and 1530; and the zeal of the authorities for its destruction was fairly matched by the zeal of the reforming party for its circulation. I was, in fact, evident that the appetite for an English Bible, once fairly excited, could not be wholly balked. In 1530, an assembly convoked by Archbishop Warham, while maintaining the previous condemnation of Tyndale, and asserting that it was not expedient at that time to divulge the Scripture in the English tongue, announced that the king would have the New Testament faithfully translated by learned men, and published “as soon as he might see their manners and behavior meet, apt, and convenient to receive the same.”
Tyndale’s first New Testament was epoch-making in many ways. It was the first English printed New Testament; it laid the foundations, and much more than the foundations, of the Authorized Version of 1611; it set on foot the movement which went forward without a break until it culminated in the production of that Authorized Version, and it was the first English Bible that was translated directly from the original language. All the English manuscript Bibles were translations from the Vulgate; but Tyndale’s New Testament was taken from the Greek, which he knew from the editions by Erasmus, published in 1516, 1519, and 1522. As subsidiary aids he employed the Latin version attached by Erasmus to his Greek text, Luther’s German translation of 1522, and the Vulgate; but it has been made abundantly clear that he exercised independent judgment in the use of these materials, and was by no means a slavish copier of Luther. In the marginal notes attached to the quarto edition his debt to Luther was greater; for (so far as can be gathered from the extant fragment) more than half the notes were taken directly from the German Bible, the rest being independent. It is in this connection with Luther, rather than in anything to be found in the work itself, that the secret of the official hostility to Tyndale’s version is to be found. That the translation itself was not seriously to blame is shown by the extent to which it was incorporated in the Authorized Version, though no doubt to persons who knew the Scriptures only in the Latin Vulgate its divergence from accuracy may have appeared greater than was, in fact, the case. The octavo edition had no extraneous matter except a short preface, and therefore could not be obnoxious on controversial grounds, and the comments in the quarto edition are generally exegetical, and not polemical. Still, there could be no doubt that they were the work of an adherent of the Reformation, and as such the whole translation fell under the ban of the opponents of the Reformation.
Tyndale’s work did not cease with the production of his New Testament. Early in 1530 a translation of the Pentateuch was printed for him by Hans Luft, at Marburg in Hesse. The colophon to Genesis is dated Jan. 17, 1530. In England, where the year began on March 25, this would have meant 1531 according to our modern reckoning; but in Germany the year generally began on Jan. 1, or at Christmas. The only perfect copy of this edition is in the British Museum. The different books must have been set up separately, since Genesis and Numbers are printed in black letter, Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy in roman; but there is no evidence that they were issued separately. The translation was made (for the first time) from the Hebrew, with which language there is express evidence that Tyndale was acquainted. The book was provided with a prologue and with marginal notes, the latter being often controversial. In 1531, he published a translation of the book of Jonah, of which a single copy (now in the British Museum) came to light in 1861. After this, he seems to have reverted to the New Testament, of which he issued a revised edition in 1534. The immediate occasion of this was the appearance of an unauthorized revision of the translation of 1525, by one George Joye, in which many alterations were made of which Tyndale disapproved. Tyndale’s new edition was printed by Martin Emperor of Antwerp and published in November 1534. One copy of it was printed on vellum, illuminated, and presented to Anne Boleyn, who had shown favor to one of the agents employed in distributing Tyndale’s earlier work. It bears her name on the fore-edge and is now in the British Museum. The volume is a small octavo and embodies a careful revision of his previous work. Since it was intended for liturgical use, the church lections were marked in it, and in an appendix were added, “The Epistles taken out of the Old Testament, which are read in the church after the use of Salisbury upon certain days of the year.” These consist of 42 short passages from the Old Testament (8 being taken from the Apocrypha) and constitute an addition to Tyndale’s work as a translator of the Old Testament. The text of the New Testament is accompanied throughout by marginal notes, differing (as far as we are in a position to compare them) from those in the quarto of 1525, and very rarely polemical. Nearly all the books are preceded by prologues, which are for the most part derived from Luther (except that to Hebrews, in which Tyndale expressly combats Luther’s rejection of its Apostolic authority).
The edition of 1534 did not finally satisfy Tyndale, and in the following year he put forth another edition, “yet once again corrected.” (The volume bears two dates, 1535 and 1534, but the former, which stands on the first titlepage, must be taken to be that of the completion of the work.) It bears the monogram of the publisher, Godfried van der Haghen, and is sometimes known as the GH edition. It has no marginal notes. Another edition, which is stated on its titlepage to have been finished in 1535, contains practically the same text, but is notable for its spelling, which appears to be due to a Flemish compositor, working by ear and not by sight. These editions of 1535, which embody several small changes from the text of 1534, represent Tyndale’s work in its final form. Several editions were issued in 1536, but Tyndale was not then in a position to supervise them. In May 1535, through the treachery of one Phillips, he was seized by some officers of the emperor and carried off from Antwerp (where he had lived for a year past) to the castle of Vilvorde. After some months’ imprisonment he was brought to trial, condemned, and finally strangled and burnt at the stake on October 6, 1536, crying “with a fervent, great, and a loud voice, ‘Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.’”