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Tyndale, William (William Tindall, William Hutchins, William Huchyns, William Hychyns) (c. 1494–1536) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

tyndale’s english translation books

While his exact parentage is not known, it is known that William Tyndale belonged to that long line of Tyndales (a.k.a. Hutchins), merchants, cloth makers, and landowners who came out of the north and settled in Gloucestershire, a region well known for its associations with Lollardy and the suppressed Wycliffe Bible. He received his B.A. at Oxford on 4 July 1512 (as William Hychyns), was approved to acquire his M.A. on 26 June 1515, and finally received his M.A. on 2 July 1515, also at Oxford, all from Magdalen Hall. While at Oxford, he was scornful of the fact that one could not undertake the study of theology until both the B.A. and M.A. courses were completed, so that, as he would write later, “armed with false principles…he is clean shut out of the understanding of scriptures” ( The Practice of Prelates ). Whether his years at Oxford would have retained the spirit of John Colet’s* call to the literal meaning of Scriptures is a matter of conjecture, as is the influence of the Lutherans during the 1520s at Cambridge, where Tyndale apparently spent the years 1517–21. Yet it is clear that during these years he became deeply affected by Erasmus’* Novum Instrumentum , the Greek New Testament with a facing Latin translation, and by 1524 sought support from the bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, for a translation of Erasmus’ text into English. During this time he translated Erasmus’ Enchiridion (possibly the translation published by Wynkyn de Worde in 1533) as well as one or more orations by Isocrates, which he apparently used to establish his credentials as a translator from the Greek. Nonetheless, he could find no support for translating the Scriptures into English, and by the spring of 1524 he left for Europe.

In 1525, he was on the point of being arrested by the Cologne authorities in the midst of printing what is now known as the Cologne Matthew (largely a translation of Luther’s September Bible with Tyndale’s emendations) at Peter Quentell’s and fled to Worms, where a revised New Testament based upon Erasmus’ Greek text was published in 1526 at Peter Schoeffer’s. Originally he did not append his name as translator because “I followed the counsel of Christ, which exhorteth men (Matt. vi) to do their good deeds secretly, and to be content with the conscience of well-doing, and that God seeth us; and patiently to abide the reward of the last day, which Christ hath purchased for us.” After he was falsely implicated in some scurrilous antipapist poetry written by his assistant William Roye, he dissociated himself from Roye, and, starting with A Compendious Introduction to Romans printed in 1526, he began to attach his name to his work. (For Tyndale’s version of this incident, see his preface to The Parable of the Wicked Mammom .)

By 1528, he was in Antwerp, where, aside from short trips to Germany, he would remain until his betrayal at the hands of Henry Phillips in 1535. During this time he not only translated the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) from Hebrew (1530) and a revised New Testament (1534, 1535) but also produced those works, such as The Parable of the Wicked Mammom, The Obedience of a Christian Man , and The Answer to More , upon which his reputation as a polemicist rests. A rapprochement between Tyndale and Henry VIII almost occurred after Anne Boleyn presented the king with Tyndale’s Obedience of a Christian Man . With Cromwell* as go-between, Henry agreed to let Tyndale return to England if he would write no more; Tyndale agreed that if the king would allow an English translation of the Bible, he would write no more, regardless of who translated it; there was no further movement on either side during Tyndale’s life. On or near 21 May 1535, he was arrested for heresy against the Court at Brussels (and as such against the Holy Roman Emperor himself) and was taken to Vilvorde Castle (between Brussels and Louvain), where he was kept prisoner for one year and 135 days. In his only surviving letter from prison, he asks only for a warmer coat for the winter and his Hebrew Bible, grammar, and dictionary. Whether he received them will never be known (his books were confiscated and used to pay for his stay in prison), but in August 1536 he was convicted of heresy and was degraded from the priesthood. In early October 1536 (commemorated the sixth) he was strangled at the stake and burned. His last words were, “Lord! Open the king of England’s eyes!’


Tyndale wrote in the prologue to the Cologne Matthew: “I have here translated (brethren and sisters most dear and tenderly beloved in Christ) the New Testament for your spiritual edifying, consolation, and solace: Exhorting instantly and beseeching those that are better seen in the tongues than I, and that have higher gifts of grace to interpret the sense of the scripture and meaning of the spirit, than I, to consider and ponder my labour, and that with the spirit of meekness. And if they perceive in any places that I have not attained the very sense of the tongue, or meaning of the scripture, or have not given the right English word, that they put to their hands to amend it, remembering that so is their duty to do. For we have not received gifts of god for ourselves only, or for to hide them, but for to bestow them unto the honouring of god and christ, and edifying of the congregation, which is the body of christ.’

As Daniell notes, it is difficult for a late twentieth-century audience to understand how such mild words could have been “countered by the most vicious burnings, of books and men and women” (121). Yet the immediate reception of Tyndale’s works was the extremes of faithful reception and attacks for heresy. Among the earliest who worked against Tyndale was Sir Thomas More,* who accused Tyndale of 5,000 heresies and whose initial “answer” filled four books. Wolsey and More together would see that hundreds of Tyndale’s books were collected and burned. Henry VIII, while sidestepping the issue of an English Bible, recommended to all his fellow monarchs The Obedience of a Christian Man for Tyndale’s argument in support of the divine right of monarchs (al-though he most likely ignored Tyndale’s proviso in doing so: “As God maketh the King head over his realm, even so giveth he him commandment to execute the laws upon all men indifferently. For the law is God’s, and not the King’s. The King is but a servant, to execute the law of God, and not to rule after his own imagination” 334). After his death it would take less than a year for Henry to authorize an English Bible for which Tyndale’s translation would be the mainstay (as it would continue to be until the revisions in the latter part of the twentieth century).

Tyndale, of course, figures as one of Foxe’s martyrs, but the best testimony to his reputation in the sixteenth century can be seen in the afterlives of his books. His complete works were republished in 1573; there were six posthumous editions of The Obedience of a Christian Man and six of The Parable of the Wicked Mammon . All told at least two dozen separate printings of various of his works were issued by various English printers between his death and the end of the sixteenth century. In the nineteenth century the Parker Society re-published his works; these remain the most accessible source of his words. Throughout most of the twentieth century, Tyndale has been viewed as a minor polemicist, but with the quincentenary republication of both his Old and New Testaments and David Daniell’s major new biography, his importance to Tudor Reformation history should be firmly reestablished.

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