Tyndale and the Protestant Reformation

A leaf from the Gutenberg Bible

The fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries were a time of great intellectual change throughout Europe – change which directly influenced the availability of scripture in the vernacular to the average reader. In Italy, the movement known as Humanism renewed scholarly interest in antique Latin and Greek texts. Humanists, seeking out old manuscript exemplars of classical and early Christian writers, eventually began to examine and compare the earliest known manuscripts of the Bible in Latin and Greek. Another fifteenth-century development, the printing press, sped both the production of texts and the transmission of ideas. The Latin Bible was a popular item in the early years of printing. After the appearance of the Gutenberg Bible (printed in Mainz, Germany about 1455), over 90 other editions of the Vulgate, some with commentary, originated from presses across Europe.

Desiderius Erasmus, a Dutch humanist, undertook a comparison of the Bible in Greek and the Latin Vulgate, around 1511. He simultaneously edited the Greek New Testament for publication and updated Jerome’s Latin translation based on the Greek text. Erasmus published his work, the first New Testament to be printed in the original language, in 1516.

The following year, 1517, marked the first of Martin Luther’s posting of 95 theses on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther, like Wycliffe and other reformers, believed that scripture should be available to all people in a language they could understand, and shortly after he broke with the Roman Church he began translating the Bible into the vernacular. Rejecting the Vulgate for its ties to Catholicism, Luther based his translation on the Greek text published by Erasmus. Luther’s translation of the New Testament was first printed in September 1522, after which he began work on the Old Testament.

Inspired by Luther, William Tyndale (c. 1494-1536), an English scholar, decided to embark on his own translation project. Under English law, vernacular Bible translations were prohibited unless they had the approval of the local diocese, so Tyndale approached the bishop of London for official endorsement. When his application was rejected, Tyndale moved to Germany and began translating the New Testament into English from Erasmus’ Greek and Luther’s German texts. This translation went to press in Cologne in 1525, but the printing shop was raided by local authorities and Tyndale had to flee. Tyndale resumed work in the city of Worms and was able to publish a full translation of the New Testament the following year, and the book was smuggled into England.

Tyndale then began an English translation of the Old Testament from the Hebrew. He published the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses) in Antwerp in January 1530. Shortly after Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church, Tyndale moved to Antwerp to continue his translation project, where he published a revision of his New Testament in 1534. However, in May 1535, he was arrested. Charged with heresy and fomenting sedition in England, Tyndale was convicted and executed in August 1536.

Tyndale is often revered as “The Father of the English Reformation.” Tyndale’s work had a great influence on subsequent Bible translators, who adopted much of his phrasing and style in their translations, including the King James Version.

Selected resources at L. Tom Perry Special Collections

Fragment of Tyndale’s 1525 English New Testament (facsimile, 1926).
Facsimile of the only surviving fragment of Tyndale’s first translation, comprising Matthew 1-22:12. With an introduction by Alfred W. Pollard.

Call number: Rare Book Collection BS 2040 1926

Erasmus’ Greek New Testament (Basel: Johann Froben, 1522).

A later edition of the Erasmus translation, with the Latin and Greek texts in parallel columns. Erasmus includes alternate translations and his own commentary.

Call number: Vault Collection Quarto 094.2 F92 1522

Luther’s German New Testament (Zürich: Hans Hager, 1524).

This edition of Luther’s New Testament translation is illustrated with wood engravings by Hans Holbein and Hans Lützenburger.

Call number: Vault Collection 225.44 L97 1524

Selected online resources

Two copies of the Gutenberg Bible (Mainz: Gutenberg, Fust, and Schöffer, 1454-55) at the British Library.
Fully-digitized copies of Gutenberg’s Bible, one printed on paper and another on vellum. The site allows for browsing the volumes one at a time or comparing them side-by-side.

Tyndale’s 1525 New Testament (Cologne, 1525) from Early English Books Online (accessible through BYU)
Black-and-white copy digitized from a microfilm of the original in the British Library.

Tyndale’s Pentateuch (Antwerp, 1530) from Early English Books Online (accessible through BYU)
Black-and-white copy digitized from a microfilm of the original in the Cambridge University Library.

Tyndale’s New Testament (Antwerp, 1534) from Early English Books Online (accessible through BYU)
Black-and-white copy digitized from a microfilm of the original in the British Library.