Throughout the history of the church, the lives of those whose influence has lingered the longest have been the men and women of faith who willed one thing, said Timothy George at Samford University Wednesday, Oct. 28.
Such was William Tyndale, the martyred, multi-lingual 16th century Englishman who is credited with translating the Bible into the English language.
“The fact that you can hold in your hand and read the Holy Scripture is because of people like William Tyndale who knew that the purity of heart is to will one thing,” said Dr. George, dean of Samford’s Beeson Divinity School.
God, said George, uses in a special way those who have a passion for one thing, just as a multi-talented Billy Graham could have done many things but had a single passion: evangelism
George’s lecture on Tyndale and the making of the English Bible was part of this year’s Reformation Heritage Lecture series. Other topics were “Suddenly Calvin: What the Reformer of Geneva can Teach us Today,” and “1609-2009: The Baptist Story.” The latter lecture was in recognition of the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Baptist movement.
Tyndale studied at Oxford at the beginning of the Reformation, shortly before Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses in Germany in 1517, said George, and he later studied at Cambridge with other scholars who were interested in recovering the Bible and its message. As Tyndale pored over the Bible in Greek text, the idea of translating the words into English began.
“It came into his heart that the thing to do in life was to translate the scripture into the common language of the people,” George said of Tyndale, who was soon accused of heresy.
Refused permission by a Catholic bishop to translate the Bible, Tyndale fled to Germany and printed his first New Testament. He then smuggled books into England, where his translation was banned and burned.
Some of Tyndale’s life reads like a spy novel, said George, detailing events that included a 1529 shipwreck in which the scholar’s translations and books were lost. Five years later, Tyndale published a revised New Testament and book of Genesis and moved to Belgium, where he was betrayed and arrested. He spent the last 16 months of his life in a cold, dark dungeon in a castle in Brussels.
Even in that dreary place, said George, Tyndale begged for a Hebrew Bible and dictionary so that he could continue to translate the Old Testament.
Tyndale’s last words before being strangled and burned at the stake in 1536 were, ‘Oh Lord, open the King of England’s eyes,’ said George. The martyr’s prayers were answered in 1539 when King Henry VIII allowed the Bible in every parish church in England. The King James Bible was published in 1611.
A majority of the King James Version is taken directly from Tyndale’s translation, which used active, Anglo-Saxon words, said George.
Tyndale’s language, such as the phrase “pondered them in her heart,” to describe Mary’s demeanor in Luke chapter 2, survives well today, “and shines through with a brilliance,” said George.
A specialist in church history, George noted that the Bible has been translated since the earliest days of Christianity. Unlike the religion of Islam, for instance, which believes that the Arabic language is the only authoritative one for the Koran, he said, “Christians believe that the Bible can be translated into any language that people can speak.”
The desire in England for a Bible in the mother tongue actually began some 200 years before the Reformation, and was realized in the 1380s when John Wycliffe and others translated the Scriptures from Latin into Middle English.
Two developments, the invention of the printing press and the attention of scholars to recovery of ancient texts, played key roles in the English Bible time line, said George.
“What the computer and Internet did for our generation, the printing press did in the days of Wycliffe and Tyndale,” said George, noting that it could take up to a year to copy the Bible by hand.
A facsimile edition of a 1455 Gutenberg Bible, the first book ever printed, and to George, “the most beautiful Bible ever printed,” was among copies of early Bibles displayed at the lecture.
The display, assembled by Samford special collections librarian Elizabeth Wells, is available for public view and use in the Samford library.