The genius of William Tyndale (and the King James translators)

On October 6, 1536, English authorities paraded William Tyndale through the streets, chained him to a cross, strangled the life out of him, and set his body on fire. His last words were, Lord! open the king of England’s eyes.” Tyndale lived as a fugitive and died a martyr for the sole cause of putting the Bible into the hands of the plowboy. Though he didn’t live long enough to see it, God answered his final prayer only months later.

Tyndale long believed the people of England needed the Bible in their own language and made it his mission to provide them with one. When a Catholic acquaintance once remarked that having the pope’s law was better than having God’s, he famously quipped, If God spare my life, ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of Scripture than thou dost.” He would be a hunted and hated man for the remainder of his life because he held the simple conviction that even the least literate people should have access to a Bible they can easily read and understand.

In 1537, John Rogers, a Catholic priest-turned-Protestant, providentially received King Henry VIIIs permission to print Tyndale’s Bible. The very king who authorized Tyndale’s execution for translating the Bible would demand that every church in England possess a copy of his translation less than a year later. More than that, the most used and influential Bible of all time, even in our present day, would borrow heavily from Tyndale’s work. Scholars estimate the King James Version is up to eighty percent identical to Tyndale’s text.

Whenever I’m confronted by those who claim the King James Version is the only true Word of God in English—it happens more than you would think—William Tyndale comes to mind. I’ve known more than a few people who reject all modern translations, at least in part, because (1) the KJV represents the highest, most accurate form of English, and (2) it sounds as Scripture ought to sound. While it may seem that way now, the man behind most of the KJVs wording primarily translated for the benefit of the uneducated plowboy. As one Tyndale biographer notes, One key to Tyndale’s genius is that his ear for how people spoke was so good. The English he was using was not the language of the scribe or lawyer or schoolmaster; it really was, at base, the spoken language of the people.”

Tyndale didn’t die for a translation of the Bible. He certainly didn’t give his life for an archaic translation. He sacrificed everything to give the English-speaking world a Bible in their modern vernacular. Understanding this, the King James translators followed suit, as they mentioned in their original preface, stating, We desire that the Scripture may speak as it did in the language of Canaan; that it may be understood even by the very vulgar [ordinary] person.” They were wise to trust Tyndale’s ear for how people spoke” for most of their text.

Sadly, some people in the church today would rather cling to a tradition than honor Tyndale’s legacy by maintaining the plowboy’s accessibility to the Bible. Lord! open their eyes.