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Wycliffe and Tyndale

I have already started the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James or Authorised version of the Bible.


John Wycliffe (c. 1328 – 31 December 1384), an English priest, is sometimes called “The Morning Star of the Reformation”. We are not sure how much of it he translated himself, but Wycliffe’s Bible is an English translation of the Vulgate. The Vulgate is a fourth century Latin translation of the Bible.

At Mass on 28 December 1384, he had a stroke, and died three days later. Followers of Wycliffe were called Lollards (literally “babblers”). He also influenced the Hussites.

On 4 May 1415 the Council of Constance declared Wycliffe a heretic. His books were to be burned. His body was exhumed, burned, and the ashes cast into a river.

As this is prior to the printing press it took about ten months to produce one Bible. One hundred and seventy copies of the Wycliffe Bible survive today. From 1401 many Lollards were burned. Many of them had their Wycliffe Bible hung around his neck and burned with them.


William Tyndale (c. 1494 – 1536) was an English priest. He was the first person to produce an English translation of the Bible directly from the Hebrew and Greek texts. Erasmus had made the Greek New Testament available in Europe. Tyndale was also the first English translator of the Bible to be able to use the printing press – a huge advantage. A strong linguist, there was no one good enough to teach him Hebrew – so he went to contintental Europe to learn that.

In Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (Chapter XII) Tyndale meets a scholar who says, “We were better to be without God’s laws than the pope’s.” Foxe records Tyndale’s reply: “”I defy the pope, and all his laws;” and added, “If God spared him life, ere many years he would cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture than he did.””

Henry VIII’s men pursued him to continental Europe. In 1535, Tyndale was arrested for heresy. He was imprisoned near Brussels for over a year. He was tried, strangled, and burnt at the stake. His last words were, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.”

It is estimated that in the King James New Testament 84% comes from Tyndale’s Bible, and in the Old Testament 76% does.

These are some of the phrases we regularly use that go back to Tyndale:
* lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil
* knock and it shall be opened unto you
* twinkling of an eye
* a moment in time
* fashion not yourselves to the world
* seek and you shall find
* ask and it shall be given you
* judge not that you not be judged
* the word of God which liveth and lasteth forever
* let there be light
* the powers that be
* my brother’s keeper
* the salt of the earth
* a law unto themselves
* filthy lucre
* it came to pass
* gave up the ghost
* the signs of the times
* the spirit is willing
* live and move and have our being
* fight the good fight
Tyndale also created some new words: Jehovah, Passover, scapegoat.

Tyndale used “overseer” where the church previously would have understood “bishop,” “elder” for “priest”, “congregation” rather than “Church”, and “love” rather than “charity”. These choices are taken up in the history of the King James Bible.

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4 thoughts on “Wycliffe and Tyndale”

  1. I read a very good biography of Wycliffe late last year. It was a very old Pelican but it was good. It gave a very balanced picture of Wycliffe and acknowledged what a difficult man he was, but a great one. His discontent with the way he was treated led to him helping others do great things. Like John the Baptist a great forerunner of other’s achievements. For the first time, I was aware when his day in the Church calendar arrived late last year.

  2. Given that developments of any given historical era do not occur in isolation, a fascinating broader background account of reading of the scriptures is Ivan Illich, In the Vineyard of the Text: A Commentary to Hugh of St Victor’s Didascalicon (University of Chicago Press, 1993). This details the shift from reading for prayer – lectio divina, to reading for study – lectio studium; the transition from monastic reading to scholarship

    1. Thanks so much for pointing to that book, Martin. I look forward to reading it. I am very conscious of the tendency some have of using the scriptures primarily as a doctrinal source, for doctrinal debate – rather than primarily for individual and community growing into our relationship with God. I’m also conscious that some (many?) regard the scriptures as the revelation.

  3. Samuel balasingh

    W Tyndale has translated mathew28.19 as Goye make disciples baptizing them in My Name. But the treacherous papal authority has perverted the baptismal formula as in the name of father son holy spirit

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