William Tyndale Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

William Tyndale 1494-1536

English essayist, religious prose writer, and Bible translator.

As the first translator of the Bible into modern English, Tyndale is among the most notable of early English Protestants. Over eighty percent of his translations of the New Testament and parts of the Old Testament was incorporated into the 1611 Authorized Version (“King James Version”) of the English Bible. In this way his translations continue to affect the way that readers experience the Bible, and his rendering of Scripture influences the language of religious thought to this day.

Biographical Information

Tyndale was born in 1494 in western Gloucestershire. It is known that his family was a prosperous one. John Foxe records that Tyndale spent thirteen years at Oxford, where he learned the Latin and Greek he would later use in his translation work. In 1514 Tyndale was ordained a subdeacon and appeared headed for a career in the church, but the traditional approach to theology frustrated him because it postponed direct study of the Scriptures until after long immersion in religious commentaries and other secondary writings. Tyndale left Oxford the following year and moved to Cambridge, where he stayed for four years. Around this time Tyndale was exposed to two intellectual concepts which would influence the course of his life: the direct study of Scripture and Lutheranism (which at this time was just becoming known at Oxford and Cambridge). Around 1521 Tyndale returned to Gloucestershire, where he became engaged in disagreements with the local clergy, who found his theology unorthodox. It was around 1523 that Tyndale decided to translate the Bible into English. That year he traveled to London and spent six months in the household of Humphrey of Monmouth, a wealthy merchant. Monmouth helped Tyndale emigrate to the Continent, where he was more likely to find support for his translation work. In 1524 Tyndale left England forever. By the fall of 1525 he had found a printer named Peter Quente in Cologne, who was willing to print his English translation of the New Testament. This printing was stopped through the efforts of an anti-Lutheran priest, who alerted the authorities, and Tyndale was forced to flee to Worms. There he found a new printer, Peter Schoeffer, who printed the first complete translation of the New Testament in 1526. By the end of that year it had made its way to England, and Church authorities confiscated and burned all copies. For the next decade Tyndale eluded arrest for heresy and not only continued his translation work—his Pentateuch appeared in 1530—but published pamphlets on theological and political issues. He became engaged in a lively debate with Sir Thomas More, and the two published pamphlets attacking each other's works. In 1535 Tyndale was captured and imprisoned. He was convicted of heresy by August, 1536 and was publicly strangled on October 6, 1536.

Major Works

Tyndale's New Testament was the first published modern English Bible. He translated directly from the original Greek text, and his imitation of the simple style and structure of the source mark him as an excellent writer as well as translator. Tyndale's translation, intended for the simple Christian, set the standard for all sixteenth-century translations to follow. In his New Testament Tyndale included a Prologue (eventually published separately as A Pathway into the Holy Scripture [1530]), which significantly expanded upon Luther's 1522 Prologue to his German translation of the New Testament. Tyndale's Prologue was intended to provide guidance to readers of Scripture. This Prologue would also lay the foundation for the majority of Tyndale's later works expounding the ideas of the Reformation. His first pamphlet, A Compendious Introduction … unto the pistle of Paul to the Romans (1526), summarizes the biblical Book of Romans and explains central Reformation doctrines. In 1528 Tyndale further expanded on his political and religious ideas in two works: The Parable of the Wicked Mammon and The Obedience of a Christian Man. Obedience, often regarded as Tyndale's most important nonbiblical work, argues that the Bible is centrally important to a Christian life. Tyndale's Reformation sentiments—including those expressed in The Practice of Prelates (1530), in which he argues against the corruption of the clergy—attracted the notice of the Bishop of London, who commissioned More to respond. More attacked Tyndale's ability as a translator, and Tyndale's response, An Answer unto Sir Thomas More's Dialogue (1531) is bitterly satirical, calling into question More's motives, and changing the nature of the dispute from scholarly to personal.

Critical Reception

The inclusion of the bulk of Tyndale's biblical translations in the King James Version testifies to the high regard his successors had for his skill as a translator. During his lifetime, however, Tyndale was a controversial figure, and his works were widely burned for the ostensibly heretical ideas they espoused. C. H. Williams argues that Tyndale's success in expressing his views can be determined by the activities of his opponents: “Their vigorous efforts to prevent the circulation of his books, and their attempt … to controvert Tyndale's argument bear eloquent witness to the fears they entertained of his skill in propaganda.” According to Rainer Pineas, Tyndale was an expert at using “sarcasm and irony, which served to ridicule the arguments of his opponents.” Tyndale's style, in both his translations and his other works, is precise, using clear, simple language to best advantage. His lively, unadorned writing led to the “plain style” popular in the seventeenth century and has had a seminal influence on many writers from his time to the present. According to Peter Auksi, in the works of numerous other religious and polemical writers “the literary historian can find a studied plainness in diction, syntax, and appeal or an equally artful richness in rhythm and evangelical similitude that echo Tyndale insistently.” Tyndale's work as a theologian, political thinker, and prose stylist make him a major figure in the history of the early sixteenth century, and his views on religious topics have helped to shape religious thought to the present time.