|Tyndale, from the National Portrait Gallery in London.|
At the age of 12, Tyndale left home to study at Magdalen Hall (later Hertford College) at Oxford University. He began an earnest study of theology immediately he obtained his degrees.
Tyndale was highly critical of the contemporary idea that Christians had to study theology before being allowed to read the Bible. As a gifted linguist and very devout, he read widely, and was soon reading the ideas inspired by the Reformation and by Martin Luther. His views became increasingly unorthodox — indeed radical. He also read Greek versions of the Scriptures, which had only recently become available following the Fall of Constantinople in 1453.
Tyndale eventually believed that God was calling him to translate the entire New Testament into English. By this means, he wanted to help ordinary people understand scripture directly and not through the filter of the Church and its hierarchy. Tyndale would claim that the Bible did not support the Church’s view that they were the body of Christ on earth.
Tyndale left Oxford and went to Cambridge. He learned additional languages and became a leading professor of Greek. He left Cambridge in 1521 to became a chaplain in Little Sodbury, but he was criticised by fellow churchmen for his radical views.
He left Sodbury for London in 1523, still hoping to translate the Bible into English. He struggled to receive support or backing, so left for the Continent the following year. While there, he visited Luther in Hamburg and wrote extensively about the scriptures and continued translating the Bible.
Tyndale published his first English translation of the Bible in 1525, in the town of Worms on the Rhine. It was the first English Bible to draw directly on the original Hebrew and Greek texts; the first of the new English Bibles of the Reformation; the first translation to take advantage of the printing press; and the first to use the name ‘Jehovah’ as the name of God.
Any translation into English was deemed a direct challenge to the authority of both the Roman Catholic Church and the laws of England. Nevertheless, copies were soon smuggled into England, where they were denounced as heretical and even burnt in public. Cardinal Wolsey discovered Tyndale was behind the translation and denounced him as a heretic in 1529.
The next year, William penned a treatise criticising Henry VIII for annulling his marriage to Catherine of Aragon (on the grounds that it contravened Scripture). The King was furious and demanded his extradition.
Tyndale hid successfully for many years, but was betrayed in 1535. The imperial authorities in Belgium tried him and convicted him of heresy. On 6 October 1536, he was strangled (which was bungled, thereby causing extra suffering) and his body burnt at the stake. His last words were said to be, ‘Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes!’
In fact, his dying wish came true. His translations became the basis of all future translations of the Bible. Four years after his martyrdom, Henry VIII authorised an English translation of the Bible — the so-called ‘King’s Bible’, which was heavily based on Tyndale’s original translation. A century later, around 80% of the content in the King James Bible was directly taken from Tyndale’s version.