Author: Bible Society, 6 October 2021
The English reformer, William Tyndale (1494–1536), was the first person to translate the New Testament directly from Greek to English. Tyndale was a priest and distinguished Oxford scholar who strongly believed that everyone should be able to read the Bible.
In 1523, he asked the bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, for permission to translate and print a new English Bible. But the bishop viewed Tyndale as a troublemaker, so said no.
However, Tyndale pressed ahead anyway, with the support of some merchant friends. He moved to Worms in Germany where in 1525, he produced a translation of the New Testament. Six thousand copies of this translation were printed and smuggled into England hidden inside bales of wool and wine casks with false bottoms.
His version of the New Testament angered Tunstall and the then Lord Chancellor of England, Thomas More. They disagreed with the way he had translated certain biblical words and were unhappy with his footnotes, which criticised the Catholic Church. So smuggled copies of Tyndale’s translation were systematically collected and then publicly burned. This was to backfire spectacularly, however.
A merchant named Augustine Packington was a secret supporter of Tyndale, and persuaded Tunstall that he could get copies of Tyndale's Bible for him to burn. As John Foxe put it in his famous Book of Martyrs, ‘The Bishop, thinking he had God by the toe, said: ‘Do your diligence, gentle Master Packington. Get them for me and I will pay whatsoever they cost, for I intend to burn them all at Paul's Cross.’ Packington forwarded the profits to Tyndale; so, as Foxe said, ‘the Bishop of London had the books, Packington had the thanks, and Tyndale had the money’.
At that time, Henry VIII was opposed to Bibles in English. Tyndale began to translate the Old Testament, but never managed to finish it. In 1536, he was arrested and executed for heresy. But the story didn’t end there. His priest friend, Miles Coverdale, picked up the baton and continued his work.