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Stranger in a strange land - Tyndale the brave


William Tyndale defied exile, shipwreck, prison and Henry VIII, and defended freedom of religion and freedom of the press. Image: Jason van der Valk

William Tyndale must have suspected that translating the Bible into English could be hazardous to your health. John Wycliffe, who had worked on an English translation of the Bible from the Latin Vulgate, had escaped death at the stake only by dying of a stroke in 1384. But Wycliffe's story gave hope, too. Despite all the authorities did to destroy his translation, manuscripts of his work survived.


Born around 1495, Tyndale had a knack for languages. He had learned at least seven, including Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. He also possessed an irrepressible personality. He decided to translate the Bible directly from the Greek and Hebrew, and to make the Bible accessible to everyone in England, even 'the boy that drives the plow'. The authorities did not want men and women reading Scripture and deciding what it meant on their own. Henry VIII's henchmen stepped in to stop Tyndale. Warned by friends, he escaped into exile in Europe, fleeing with his manuscripts and books.

Tyndale believed that no matter what adversity he faced, God would give him the strength to overcome it. He had just finished translating the New Testament when a second warning came. Henry's agents had discovered him. Carrying his only copy of his exhilarating English translation of the New Testament, Tyndale fled by boat up the Rhine, and managed to elude the men sent to destroy it.

Printing, smuggling and shipwreck

Tyndale found the money he needed to send his translation of the New Testament through the press. Every port was watched, but he smuggled copies into England in shiploads of corn. Copies were passed from hand to hand. The authorities torched those they were able to find.

Tyndale turned to the Old Testament. Working night and day, he completed the translation. Then, just outside Hamburg, travelling by boat, he was shipwrecked. His boat was smashed to pieces. His manuscript was lost.

He began from the beginning, recalling, correcting, improving on the earlier ms, making his translation true to Scripture and deeply beautiful. He was still at work on the books of the Old Testament when he was betrayed for a handful of silver by a man he had befriended. Tyndale was imprisoned in a castle north of Brussels. He was cold, so cold he asked for a piece of cloth to patch his leggings, and 'a lamp in the evening, for it is worrisome to sit alone in the dark'.


Somehow he managed to continue working and to complete his translation of the Old Testament from Joshua through 2 Chronicles before he was found guilty of heresy. He was then perhaps forty-one. On October 6th 1536 William Tyndale was tied to a stake, strangled, and burned. 'Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!' he cried just before he died.

It appears that the Lord did. Within twelve months, Tyndale’s translation, 'which had been denounced, proscribed, and repeatedly burned at St. Paul’s Cross', was formally approved by Henry VIII and published, under a fictitious name. One likes to think that Tyndale smiled.

Many of Tyndale’s phrases entered the King James Version of the Bible, and have survived to this day. You have probably heard them -

The song of songs
The Living God
Forgive us our trespasses
Stranger in a strange land
The gate of heaven
And the light shineth in the darkness and the darkness comprehended it not.
The apple of his eye. . .

Reposted on Tyndale's feast day, October 6th

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