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With the invention of the movable type printing press in 1456, Johann Gutenberg printed the first Latin Bible, making scribal hand copying obsolete. Then, in 1516, Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536)— with the help of Froben, a printer in Basel, Switzerland—published his groundbreaking Greek-Latin New Testament.* “This was the first time that the Greek New Testament had been printed. It is no exaggeration to say that it set fire to Europe. Luther (1483-1546) translated it into his famous German version in 1522. In a few years there appeared translations from it into most European vernaculars. They were the true basis for the popular reformation” (David Daniell, Tyndale’s New Testament, p. 58). Indeed, Erasmus’ New Testament ignited the fires of the Protestant Reformation, which inspired Martin Luther to nail his 95 theses to the Wittenberg Cathedral door on Halloween Eve, October 31, 1517.
As instrumental as Luther’s papal challenge was in instigating the Protestant Reformation against Roman Catholicism in Europe, the single most important figure in the history of reformation in England was unquestionably William Tyndale—the first man to publish an English version of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, by translating it directly from the original Greek and Hebrew. In fact, as Tyndale biographer Daniell writes, his “translations have been the best-kept secrets in English Bible history” (Ibid, p. vii).
From the historical facts of Tyndale’s life, it is evident that God had called and prepared him for this most profound work. Tyndale “was born about 1494 in Gloucestershire, took his B.A. at Oxford in 1512 and his M.A. in 1515, and apparently spent time in Cambridge” (Ibid, p. viii). In addition to Latin and Greek, he was master of six languages, speaking as if any one of them was his native tongue; he could move from one language to another without skipping a beat.
Led by the Holy Spirit of God, Tyndale had an indomitable, burning, holy passion to translate the Word of God into English. He believed everyone—from the lowly plowboy to the common man and woman; to the king sitting on the throne of England—should have access to the Word of God, that they might come to know God the Father and Jesus Christ in order to be saved.
Though he dutifully sought official permission, both Catholic authorities and King Henry VIII denied Tyndale the right to translate the New Testament from the original Greek into English. “Realising he could not translate the Bible in England, Tyndale accepted the financial help of a London cloth-merchant and sailed for Hamburg in 1524” (Ibid., p. ix). In self-exile for the next 12 years, Tyndale first translated the New Testament into English from Erasmus’ 1516 Greek New Testament. While in Germany in 1526, he published three to six thousand English New Testaments translated from the original Greek. He published a revised version in 1534. Rather than starting with Wycliff’s 1394 English version translated from the Latin Vulgate, which was hand copied by scribes before the invention of the printing press, “Tyndale’s pioneer work was to start afresh; to translate the New Testament from the original Greek, at least twice [1526 and 1534], and a good deal [if not all] of the Old Testament from the original Hebrew” (Ibid., p. xi).
English merchant friends of Tyndale bought these New Testaments and smuggled them into England in bags of flour and bolts of cloth. Beginning in 1530-35, Tyndale’s works started pouring into England at an astounding rate—fanning the flames of the Protestant Reformation. These works included all of his New Testaments; major parts of the Old Testament; essential commentaries, prefaces, and prologues on how to understand the Scriptures; and finally several vital books: A Pathway Into the Holy Scriptures; The Parable of the Wicked Mammon; The Obedience of the Christian Man; and The Practice of Prelates.
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