Thursday, October 06, 2005

The Tyndale-Luther connection

Few realise the connection between English Bible translator William Tyndale, whose feast is October 6th on the Anglican calendar, and the German reformer, Martin Luther. (Or, at least I didn't realize it.) Tracing the publication of Tyndale's works reveal a deep connection between the continental Lutheran and English reformations in the persons of these two men.

William Tyndale was born about 1495 at Slymbridge near the Welsh border. He received his degrees from Magdalen College, Oxford, and also studied at Cambridge. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1521, and soon began to speak of his desire, which eventually became his life's obsession, to translate the Scriptures into English.

Although the Bible was available in the vernacular in much of Europe, the only version of the Scripture tolerated in England was Jerome’s Latin translation, dating back to the 4th century. It was thus a closed book even to most clergymen. Tyndale was determined to make an English translation which would be accessible to all. As he protested to a visiting cleric over the table of John and Lady Anne Walsh in Little Sodbury, "If God grant me life, ere many years pass I will see that the boy behind his plow knows more of the Scriptures than thou dost!"

Finding that the King, Henry VIII, was firmly set against an English translation, Tyndale had fled to Germany, visiting Martin Luther in 1525. (Luther's translation of the New Testament into German was published on September 21, 1522. Luther's Pentateuch appeared in 1523 and the Psalter in 1524. Luther, with the other members of his Collegium Biblieum - Melanchthon, Bugenhagen (Pommer), Cruciger, Justus Jonas, and Aurogallus - freely consulted Jewish Rabbis on matters of Hebrew translation.) Moving in exile from place to place, Tyndale completed his translation of the New Testament in 1525. It was printed at Worms and smuggled into England. Only two survive of the original eighteen thousand copies, but by as early as 1526 more than twenty editions of Tyndale’s New Testament had been circulated. Others followed them like a mighty river. Between 1400 and 1557, Tyndale’s books and tracts (or "pestilent glosses" as his enemies referred to them) were smuggled into England wrapped in bales of wool or cloth, or sacks of flour by fellow "Lollards", Oxford students of John Wycliff. In 1534, he produced a revised version, and began work on the Old Testament. In the next two years he completed and published the Pentateuch and Jonah, and translated the books from Joshua through Second Chronicles, but then he was captured (betrayed by a friend), tried for heresy, and burned to death.

The publication of Tyndale's Old and New Testaments was groundbreaking in many historical respects. Tyndale’s 1526 New Testament was the first ever printed in English. Also, both the Old and New Testaments were the first English translation of the Bible taken directly from the original Hebrew and Greek languages. There was novelty in the Hebrew itself. Hebrew was virtually unknown in England at that time, yet, as Tyndale wrote to a friend from prison: "I entreat and beseech your clemency to be urgent with the Procurer that he may kindly permit me to have my Hebrew Bible, Hebrew Grammar, and Hebrew Dictionary, that I may spend my time with that study." The publication of the first fourteen books of the Old Testament into English in the 1530s made Tyndale the first man to translate anything from Hebrew into English.

Miles Coverdale continued Tyndale's work by translating those portions of the Bible (including the Apocrypha) which Tyndale had not lived to translate himself, and publishing the complete work. In 1537, the "Matthew Bible" (essentially the Tyndale-Coverdale Bible under another man's name to spare the government embarrassment) was published in England with the Royal Permission. Six copies were set up for public reading in Old St. Paul's Church, and throughout the daylight hours the church was crowded with those who had come to hear it. One man would stand at the lectern and read until his voice gave out, and then he would stand down and another would take his place. All English translations of the Bible from that time to the present century are essentially revisions of the Tyndale-Coverdale work.

Recommended reading of Tyndale's writings may ve found in C.S.Lewis' English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (Oxford University Press, 1954)

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