Weekly Reflections

Learning to read.

4 Oct 2009

This week the lectionary sets aside one of the days to remember William Tyndale. Tyndale was an Oxford scholar who did more than anyone to lay the foundations not only for modern English translations of the Bible, but for modern English itself. The 1526 edition of the New Testament was published at Worms and smuggled into England and England was never the same again.

It is hard to imagine today why anyone would oppose having the Bible in the first language of the readers but in Tyndale’s time the opposition was led by the highest in the land. Tyndale himself had to flee to the Continent (where he was eventually assassinated  by agents of the King and the Bishop of London).


Partly it was a fear of the encroachments of “Lutheran” ideas, partly the opposition aimed to maintain the church’s power in a period of turmoil.

Such was the impact of hearing the Bible read in their mother tongue that many learnt to read just so they could read the Bible. Of course there weren’t many other books in English – it was still a developing language.

Tyndale put the Bible’s words into plain English words. He avoided Latin words where he could find a good English one. He coined new words in English, such as Passover, atonement, scapegoat. Many of his pithy phrases have found their way into ordinary English, “the powers that be”, “my brother’s keeper”, “the salt of the earth”, and “a law unto themselves”.

It was Tyndale’s translation more than any other that became the foundation for the Authorised King James version of 1611.

Tyndale was one of a group of people in the 16th century who believed that every Christian should have the Bible in their own language – and should be free to read it themselves.