A History of the English Bible: The Tyndale Bible of 1523

This is the second of a series of posts on the History of the English Bible.  The first part gave an overview of the Bibles created from 1526 to 1611 and the overall textual history of the King James Bible of 1611.  This post deals with the first of the modern English Bibles, The Tyndale Bible of 1523.


The first significant English Bible of the modern era was The Tyndale Bible (ca. 1523). The work of William Tyndale (1494–1536), he produced an English version that, for the first time, translated from the Hebrew and Greek texts, although he also made use of the Latin Vulgate. It was widely opposed by the Catholic Church and initially by Henry VIII of England. As I noted in the first part of this series, Tyndale made some notable changes at variance with traditional church teaching. Four words in particular in the New Testament translation were noted:

  1. Church to “congregation”
  2. Priest to “elder” (although in the first edition he used the word “senior”)
  3. Do Penance to “repent.” (this was the most controversial change)
  4. Charity to “love”

The background of the Tyndale Bible is a little more complex than is often presented in more popular treatments. It was a remarkable achievement by a singularly remarkable individual.[1] Little is known of Tyndale’s early life, even the year of his birth (ca. 1494) and the location of his birth (perhaps the area of Dursley, in Gloucestershire). The normal myth that Tyndale “crept out of humble origins, a small country mouse from an unimpressive clan, and then dared to challenge the great and well-connected lions of London, is not true: indeed it should perhaps be reversed.”[2] On the contrary Tyndale’s family was itself well connected, wealthy, and leaders in the region.

Tyndale first appears in the historical record when he takes both his BA and MA at Oxford in 1512 and 1516 respectively (Magdalen College, where C. S. Lewis was a Fellow and Tudor from 1929 to 1954). He actually had first enrolled under his main family name of Hychyns. By Tyndale’s time Oxford had become the leading European university overtaking the medieval stalwart University of Paris. After Oxford he was at Cambridge for nearly five years (1517–21) but missed working under Erasmus who had departed Cambridge a few years earlier.

Tyndale was clearly a linguistic genius, mastering all of the key European languages of scholarship (French, German, Italian, and Spanish) as well as the Biblical languages (Hebrew and Greek), the mandatory academic language of Latin, and his native English. It seems the key to Tyndale and his Bible translation was that he was able to keep the languages “separate” in his mind. That is, when he translated into English, it was as the expression goes, “the King’s English” the English used in everyday conversation; an English that was both readable and able to be read aloud. This was in contrast to the Wycliffe Bible of 1382. John Wycliffe (ca. 1331–84) is rightly remembered as the “Morning Star” of the Reformation, however his English Bible was a literary cul-de-sac. Wycliffe simply translated the Latin Vulgate into a sort of English. It was not an English that anyone actually would have used, it was highly Latinized and poorly done. Its value was more symbolic than useful and no subsequent English translator would refer to it as a source document.

Once Tyndale completed his education he became the chaplain and tutor to the children of Sir John Walsh at Little Sodbury in the south of Glouchestershire. Almost immediately Tyndale became unpopular with the local establishment clergy. He was certainly aware of Martin Luther’s work and the emerging Protestant Reformation but he also was influenced by the changing politics. England was accelerating its emergence as a world power and Tyndale was perhaps more in keeping with Henry VIII politically than is generally recognized. British nationalism was gaining in popularity and the Renaissance concepts that the monarch modeled were paralleled in Tyndale, albeit Tyndale was perhaps a decade ahead of Henry in his progress.

Walsh did not retain Tyndale who then went to London to seek the patronage of the Bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall for his project of translating the Bible into the vernacular English. Tyndale, perhaps naively, blamed his problem with the clergy in Glouchestershire, on their lack of Biblical knowledge. As Daniell notes,

Tyndale himself, continues the story in the first preface to his Pentateuch. He had recognized the need for the Scriptures in the mother tongue. His own bad experiences had been ‘because the priests of the country be unlearned’, unable to expound Scripture to the laity, whose needs were desperate. Everyone should be able to see ‘the process, order, and meaning’ of the Bible.[3]

Tunstall (1474–1559) was also a significant scholar and classicist and, importantly for Tyndale, was an admirer of Erasmus. Tunstall was a man of great ability and was an advisor and special envoy for Henry VIII. He was something of a “liberal Catholic” and ultimately sided with Henry in the split with Rome. However, when Edward came to the throne Tunstall finally reached the limit of his tolerance for Protestantism and ran afoul of Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset (1500–52), was deposed as bishop and sent to the Tower of London. He was released and reinstated when Mary came to the throne but then again was deposed by Elizabeth for failing to support the Act of Uniformity. He died shortly thereafter at the age of 85. As Daniell states,

The true nature of Tunstall, a moderate learned man, is now quite difficult to grasp. Almost a saint to what might call the Catholic humanists, almost an ogre to the pious reformed, he warrants neither label. He was generally a considerate and considering cleric and politician who shunned the certainties at either extreme, and moved in a reasonable way through the difficulties that presented themselves in his long life.[4]

Every indication is that Tunstall was sympathetic to Tyndale and his project to translate the Bible into English. He certainly had supported scholarly endeavors in the past, such as second edition of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament. Tyndale was recommended to Tunstall by William Latimer (c. 1467–1545) one of the foremost scholars of the day, teacher and advisor to Thomas More and advisor to Henry VIII. This gives some indication as to the reputation of Tyndale as a scholar in those early days. Latimer was apparently willing to overlook, or was sympathetic to, Tyndale’s theological views. Tyndale remained in London in 1523 waiting on Tunstall. A local merchant, Henry Monmouth, supported him and he also lectured regularly in the area. Tunstall ultimately declined to bring Tyndale, more likely because of his cautious nature and political astuteness more than his opposition to the project itself.

Tyndale traveled to Germany, and quite possibly in Wittenberg at the university completed the translation of the New Testament. He gained the assistance of William Roye. Roye is an interesting character. He was a friar, apparently fallen, a man of more than adequate learning, useful, but apparently of dubious character. He was able in Latin and Greek, but also seemed to take credit for translating more than he actually did (or was able) and ultimately they went their separate ways. Roye was put to the stake in 1531 for heresy in Portugal.

Tyndale’ first edition of the New Testament was printed in Worms in 1526 and then more notably in Antwerp. It was printed in various sizes, but the normal size that was smuggled into England was roughly 7 x 5 inches. They were easily hidden in various commodity bundles. It quickly came to the notice of the authorities and by October Bishop Tunstall had warned book dealers not to sell it and had copies burned. Although this effort produced results almost the reverse of his intentions. The literate (and pious) public in London was significantly outraged by the “spectacle of scriptures being put to the torch”[5] also had the effect of creating interest and more importantly a market. It was clearly politically expedient for Tunstall to do this, but it also ran contrary to all of humanist ideals and had a tendency to also create interest in Tyndale’s work amongst those Erasmus had influenced. However, it wasn’t until 1529 that Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII’s court openly declared Tyndale to be a heretic.

Greenslade provides the most likely answer to the reason for the opposition:

Why was Tyndale’s enterprise so bitterly opposed? To say, because it was not authorized, merely forces the question back a step. Why did not the English Bishops, several friends of Erasmus among them, welcome a translation at once so readable and so scholarly? In general the answer must be that Tyndale’s work as a whole, treatises and translations, came before them as part of the Lutheran movement.[6]

Martin Luther, whose translation of the entire Bible into German Tyndale made significant use of, although Tyndale clearly varies from Luther in significant ways, was viewed as the most dangerous man in Europe by not only the Pope, but the Catholic monarchs of Europe. Henry VIII, himself a man of singular genius and a significant scholar in his own right, wrote, Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (A Defense of the Seven Sacraments) in response to the Lutheran Reformation in 1521. This was the work that earned him the title “Defender of the Faith” from the Pope (a title carried by the English crown to this day). Any connection with Lutheran ideals was viewed as seditious as well as heretical.[7]

The problem of being closely identified with Luther and his movement perhaps would not have been singularly fatal to Tyndale, but his treatises were. His 1528 treatise, The Obedience of a Christen Man (and how Christen rulers ought to govern), despite being officially banned was widely read in England. Anne Boylen owned a copy and apparently had Henry read it and said, “this is a book for me and all kings to read.”[8] The tone of Obedience, was remarkably, for Tyndale, mild and despite some flaws it was both popular and influential. Had Tyndale stopped here and simply continued with his Bible translation, his relationship with Henry may have had a much happier conclusion.

However, in 1530 Tyndale wrote The Practyse of Prelates in 1530. It was an incisive indictment of Henry VIII’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon (the mother of the future Queen Mary) for Anne Boleyn. Tyndale condemned the divorce as unscriptural but also that it was part of a larger plot by Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey, in fact failed to obtain the annulment, was dismissed and later would have been tried for treason had he died before that could occur.

While Tyndale might be praised for the courage of writing the treatise and confronting the powerful monarch, it was a Quixotic enterprise and ultimately doomed Tyndale as Henry’s wrath was now directed squarely towards him. This is where Tyndale’s political ineptitude showed the most. To call into question the biblical basis of the divorce was entirely unnecessary and was quite beyond the question at this point (at these level of power biblical injunctions were routinely ignored by both government and church). But to insinuate that Henry was a dupe of Wolsey, the church, or anyone else could only lead to one outcome.

Tyndale managed live, albeit often on the run, for the next five years. He produced new editions of the New Testament (1534) and completed the translation of the Pentateuch (1530). He also translated Erasmus’ 1501 Enchiridion Militas Christiani (Handbook of a Christian Knight) into English in 1533. It was one of Erasmus’ most influential and popular works and Tyndale’s translation was a significant product and showed Tyndale’s appreciation for the great scholar’s work.

In 1535 Henry Phillips, an associate, betrayed Tyndale to the imperial authorities of Emperor Charles V. Arrested in Antwerp and held, tried for heresy, and executed near Brussels. In early fall 1536[9] he was strangled to death and then his corpse was burned at the stake (this was the common practice, very few were actually burned alive at the stake). His last remark before he was strangled was reported to be “Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes.” In fact Henry’s eyes were already opened. He was singularly outraged that Tyndale had not been sent to England for trial before him. Thomas Cromwell (1485–1540), Henry’s Chief Minister at the time personally interceded for Tyndale but was rebuked, further cementing the break of Henry and England from Catholicism.

Tyndale’s Bible was never actually the “entire” Bible. Most significantly it was the New Testament and the Pentateuch. It would be left to one of his final assistants, Myles Coverdale to produce a complete Bible in English about a year after Tyndale’s death. The Coverdale Bible would be completed with the tacit approval of Henry VIII, and during the remainder of his reign, no fewer than four new English Bible versions would be produced.

Tyndale was a singular genius in linguistics and translation. His ability to work with the Biblical languages as well as the Latin and German translations, place the Bible into an English version which was both readable and felicitous enough to be read aloud, was the turning point not only for the dissemination of the Bible, but also set a standard for translation that has stood to the present day.


[1] The best biography of Tyndale is undoubtedly, William Tyndale: A Biography, by David Daniell (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994). Daniell is perhaps the most knowledgeable scholar on Tyndale. He does tend however, to overemphasize Tyndale’s work as over against later works. His claim that “nine-tenths of the Authorized Versions New Testament is Tyndale” (1), is rather hyperbolic, even for the original 1611 edition. By its final revision of 1769 the English language, lexically, grammatically, and syntactically, had changed radically from Tyndale’s day.

[2] Daniell, Tyndale, p. 11. Daniell notes, that Tyndale’s chief adversaries, Bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall; Henry VIII’s close advisors Thomas Cromwell, and Thomas More, all came from much humbler families than Tyndale.

[3] Daniel, Tyndale, p. 83.

[4] Daniell, Tyndale, p. 84.

[5] Peter Ackroyd, The Life of Thomas More. (London: Oxford, 1999), 270.

[6] S. L. Greenslade (ed) The Cambridge History of the Bible: The West from the Reformation to the Present Day (Cambridge: The University Press, 1963), 141.

[7] The problem was not, as it would be in later English versions, most notably The Geneva Bible, the marginal notations. Luther’s German Bible contains very few notations and Tyndale’s first quarto edition from Worms none at all.

[8] William Tyndale, The Obedience of a Christian Man, [editors preface] (New York: Penguin Books, 2000), xxiv.

[9] Tyndale’s death is normally listed as October 6th, 1536, but the records indicate that he may actually have been executed several weeks earlier..