Book Review – William Tyndale: A Biography

tttWilliam Tyndale was the man raised up by God to give us a real translation of the Bible in English from the original Greek and Hebrew text for the first time in history. Before Tyndale, there was no real English Bible. Others, such as John Wycliffe, produced translations from the Latin. Tyndale was different; he gave us the entire New Testament in English directly from the Greek text. He finished a good portion of the Old Testament (Genesis – 2 Chronicles, and Jonah) before he was betrayed by a vile and treacherous fiend and martyred for his faith in Jesus Christ.

Daniel Daniell wrote and explained:

Very many of the treasures which have enriched the lives and language of English speakers since the 1530s were made by Tyndale: a long list of common phrases like ‘the salt of the earth’ or ‘let there be light’ or ‘the spirit is willing’; the haunting phrasing in parables like the Prodigal Son, ‘this thy brother was dead, and is alive again: and was lost, and is found’; the gospel stories of Christmas (‘ there were shepherds abiding in the field’) through to the events of the Passion in Jerusalem and the Resurrection: in the Old Testament, the telling of Creation and of Adam and Eve, right through the history told there to the Exile in Babylon. All these things came as something new to the men and women of Tyndale’s time in the 1520s and 1530s. That was because Tyndale translated them, for the first time, from their original texts in Greek and Hebrew, into English; and then printed them in pocket volumes for everyone to own.

Apart from manuscript translations into English from the Latin, made at the time of Chaucer, and linked with the Lollards, the Bible had been only in that Latin translation made a thousand years before, and few could understand it. Tyndale, before he left England for his life’s work, said to a learned man, ‘If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.’ He succeeded (KL 77-79).

John Foxe, in his classic Book of Martyrs, tells us how Tyndale met his end:

Brought forth to the place of execution, he was tied to the stake, strangled by the hangman, and afterwards consumed with fire, at the town of Vilvorde, A.D. 1536; crying at the stake with a fervent zeal, and a loud voice, “Lord! open the king of England’s eyes.”

William Tyndale’s influence on the English language cannot be measured. The old King James Version of the Bible owes everything to Tyndale’s 1534 edition of the New Testament, and his 1530 Pentateuch. In fact, if you manage to procure a copy of his 1534 New Testament with modern spelling, I think you’ll find that is a far superior version. It has a biting edge, a directness, a poetic lilt and melodious cadence that the KJV cannot match. 90% of the KJV is Tyndale.

One representative example, pulled at random, will make the point. At the beginning of Peter’s famous sermon on the day of Pentecost, he rose to his feet along with the other apostles, and addressed the large crowd of curious and incedulous Jewish pilgrims gathered in the temple courtyard. The KJV has, “Ye men of Judaea, and all ye that dwell at Jerusalem, be this known unto you, and hearken to my words,” (Acts 2:14). This is an accurate translation, but it is flat. Boring. Lifeless. You can’t imagine somebody actually talking like this. You get a mental image of a philosophy professor droning on in front of a whiteboard; “Now class, hearken unto my words . . .” Tyndale, writing approximately 75 years earlier, rendered this as, “Ye men of Jewery and all that inhabit Jerusalem: be this known unto you and with your ears hear my words.” This is more direct, more forceful, more realistic. You can almost imagine Peter pausing for deliberate emphasis, pointing to his own head and saying “Use your ears and listen to what I’m about to tell you!”

William Tyndale was a genius. Anybody who speaks or writes English owes him a monumental debt. Any Christian who holds an English translation of the Bible in his hands should praise God for such a man as William Tyndale. Every New Testament Greek student should use Tyndale’s 1534 New Testament (along with modern, conservative versions) to check his own translations. You will be surprised how good he was. Some English Bible translations are technically accurate, but read like inter-office memos and have as much pizazz as a flat Coke. Not Tyndale. As one biographer put it;

By translating the Bible into English, this brilliant linguist ignited the flame that would banish the spiritual darkness in England. Tyndale’s translation of the Scriptures unveiled the divine light of biblical truth that would shine across the English-speaking world, ushering in the dawning of a new day (Steven J. Lawson, The Daring Mission of William Tyndale [Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust, 2015; Kindle ed.], KL 61).

Daniell explained:

William Tyndale was a most remarkable scholar and linguist, whose eight languages included skill in Greek and Hebrew far above the ordinary for an Englishman of the time— indeed, Hebrew was virtually unknown in England. His unsurpassed ability was to work as a translator with the sounds and rhythms as well as the senses of English, to create unforgettable words, phrases, paragraphs and chapters, and to do so in a way that, again unusually for the time, is still, even today, direct and living: newspaper headlines still quote Tyndale, though unknowingly, and he has reached more people than even Shakespeare. At the centre of it all for him was his root in the deepest heart of New Testament theology, a faith of the sort that can, and did, move mountains (KL 85-91).

This biography by David Daniell is the story of that man, and his single-minded, relentless quest to translate the Bible into English so the common man could have his very own copy of the Scriptures – and actually read and understand them! This work is long and very thorough. The author has a fondness for ridiculously complicated, run-on sentences and sometimes does not explain things clearly. However, these modest shortcomings do not detract from the value of this marvelus work. This is the definitive scholarly biography on William Tyndale, and anybody who wants to know the story of the English Bible simply must read it.

Below is an interview with another Tyndale biographer, Steven J. Lawson. Watch it, and see if your interest isn’t kindled to know more about this remarkable man and hero of the faith. For New Testament Greek students, see if your blood, sweat and toil over classifications of the infinitive have better context now!

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