The Bible

William Tyndale, Preface to His 1530 Old Testament Translation

[Click on image to enlarge] Prior to the Reformation, most laypeople encountered the Bible through the interpretations of priests, who were able to read it in the Latin translation known as the Vulgate. Protestants insisted that the Scriptures should be available to all laypeople in their own languages. In 1525, an English translation of the New Testament by the Lutheran William Tyndale was printed on the Continent and smuggled into England. Attempts to suppress the edition were futile (although Tyndale himself was arrested and executed in 1536), and in 1530 it was followed by Tyndale's translation of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament). In his preface, "W. T. to the Reader," Tyndale recalled the opposition which had required him to leave England in order to translate the Scriptures.

This illustration shows the first page of the Great Bible (1539), the first authorized version, which was largely based on Tyndale's translation. Three years after Tyndale was burned at the stake, this book was ordered to be placed in every church in England.


When I had translated the New Testament, I added a pistle >> note 1 unto the latter end, in which I desired them that were learned to amend if ought were found amiss. But our malicious and wily hypocrites which are so stubborn and hardhearted in their wicked abominations that it is not possible for them to amend anything at all (as we see by daily experience when their both livings >> note 2 and doings are rebuked with the truth) say, some of them, that it is unpossible to translate the scripture into English, some that it is not lawful for the lay people to have it in their mother tongue, some that it would make them all heretics — as it would no doubt from many things which they of long time have falsely taught, and that is the whole cause wherefore they forbid it, though they other cloaks >> note 3 pretend. And some, or rather every one, say that it would make them rise against the King, whom they themselves (unto their damnation) never yet obeyed. And lest the temporal rulers >> note 4 should see their falsehood if the scripture came to light, causeth them so to lie.

And as for my translation in which they affirm unto the lay people (as I have heard say) to be I wot >> note 5 not how many thousand heresies, so that it cannot be mended or correct, they have yet taken so great pain to examine it, and to compare it unto that they would fain >> note 6 have it and to their own imaginations and juggling >> note 7 terms, and to have somewhat to rail at, and under that cloak to blaspheme the truth, that they might with as little labor (as I suppose) have translated the most part of the Bible. For they which in times past were wont to look on no more scripture then they found in their Duns >> note 8 or such like devilish doctrine, have yet now so narrowly looked on my translation, that there is not so much as one "i" therein, if it lack a tittle over his head, but they have noted it, and number it unto the ignorant people for an heresy. Finally in this they be all agreed, to drive you from the knowledge of the scripture, and that ye shall not have the text thereof in the mother tongue, and to keep the world still in darkness, to the intent they might sit in the consciences of the people, through vain superstition and false doctrine, to satisfy their filthy lusts, their proud ambition, and unsatiable covetousness, and to exalt their own honor above King and Emperor, yea, and above God himself.

A thousand books had they liefer >> note 9 to be put forth against their abominable doings and doctrine, than that the scripture should come to light. For as long as they may keep that down, they will so darken the right way with the mist of their sophistry, and so tangle them that either rebuke or despise their abominations with arguments of philosophy and with wordly >> note 10 similitudes and apparent reasons of natural wisdom. And with wresting the scripture unto their own purpose clean contrary unto the process, order, and meaning of the text, and so delude them in descanting >> note 11 upon it with allegories, and amaze >> note 12 them expounding it in many senses before the unlearned lay people (when it hath but one simple literal sense whose light the owls cannot abide), that though thou feel in thine heart and art sure how that all is false that they say, yet couldest thou not solve their subtle riddles.

Which thing only moved me to translate the New Testament. Because I had perceived by experience, how that it was impossible to stablish the lay people in any truth, except the scripture were plainly laid before their eyes in their mother tongue, that they might see the process, order, and meaning of the text. For else whatsoever truth is taught them, these enemies of all truth quench it again, partly with the smoke of their bottomless pit >> note 13 whereof thou readest Apocalypse 9 — that is, with apparent reasons of sophistry and traditions of their own making, founded without ground of scripture — and partly in juggling with the text, expounding it in such a sense as is impossible to gather of the text, if thou see the process, order and meaning thereof.

And even in the Bishop of London's house I intended to have done it. For when I was so turmoiled in the country where I was that I could no longer there dwell (the process whereof were too long here to rehearse), I this wise thought in myself: this I suffer because the priests of the country be unlearned, as God it knoweth there are a full ignorant sort which have seen no more Latin than that they read in their portesses and missals, >> note 14 which yet many of them can scarcely read (except it be Albertus's De secretis mulierum, >> note 15 in which yet, though they be never so sorrily learned, they pore day and night and make notes therein and all to teach the midwives as they say, and Lindwood, >> note 16 a book of constitutions to gather tithes, mortuaries, >> note 17 offerings, customs, and other pillage, which they call, not theirs, but God's part and the duty of holy church, to discharge their consciences withal — for they are bound that they shall not diminish, but increase all thing unto the utmost of their powers), and therefore (because they are thus unlearned, thought I) when they come together to the alehouse, which is their preaching place, they affirm that my sayings are heresy. And besides that they add to of their own heads which I never spake, as the manner is to prolong the tale to short the time withal, >> note 18 and accuse me secretly to the Chancellor and other the Bishop's officers. And indeed when I came before the Chancellor, he threatened me grievously, and reviled me and rated me as though I had been a dog, and laid to my charge whereof there could be none accuser brought forth (as their manner is not to bring forth the accuser), and yet all the priests of the country were that same day there. As I this thought, the Bishop of London came to my remembrance, whom Erasmus (whose tongue maketh of little gnats great elephants and lifteth up above the stars whosoever giveth him a little exhibition >> note 19) praiseth exceedingly among other in his annotations on the New Testament for his great learning. Then thought I, if I might come to this man's service, I were happy. And so I gat me to London, and through acquaintance of my master came to Sir Harry Milford the King's Grace's Controller, and brought him an oration of Isocrates which I had translated out of Greek into English, and desired him to speak unto my lord of London for me, which he also did as he showed me, and willed me to write a pistle to my lord, and to go to him myself which I also did, and delivered my pistle to a servant of his own, one William Hebilthwayte, a man of mine old acquaintance. But God which knoweth what is within hypocrites saw that I was beguiled, and that that counsel was not the next way unto my purpose. And therefore he gat me no favor in my lord's sight.

Whereupon my lord answered me, his house was full, he had mo >> note 20 than he could well find, and advised me to seek in London, where he said I could not lack a service. And so in London I abode almost an year, and marked the course of the world, and heard our praters — I would say "our preachers" — how they boasted themselves and their high authority, and beheld the pomp of our prelates and how busied they were, as they yet are, to set peace and unity in the world (though it be not possible for them that walk in darkness to continue long in peace, for they cannot but either stumble or dash themselves at one thing or another that shall clean unquiet all together), and saw things whereof I defer to speak at this time, and understood at the last not only that there was no room in my lord of London's palace to translate the New Testament, but also that there was no place to do it in all England, as experience doth now openly declare.

Under what manner therefore should I now submit this book to be corrected and amended of them, which can suffer nothing to be well? Or what protestation should I make in such a matter unto our prelates, those stubborn Nimrods >> note 21 which so mightily fight against God and resist his holy spirit, enforcing with all craft and subtlety to quench the light of the everlasting testament, promises, and appointment made between God and us? And heaping the fierce wrath of God upon all princes and rulers, mocking them with false feigned names of hypocrisy, and serving their lusts at all points, and dispensing with them even of the very laws of God, of which Christ himself testifieth (Matthew 5) that not so much as one tittle thereof may perish or be broken. And of which the prophet sayeth (Psalm 118): Thou hast commanded thy laws to be kept "meod", that is in Hebrew "exceedingly," with all diligence, might, and power, and have made them so mad with their juggling charms and crafty persuasions that they think it full satisfaction for all their wicked living, to torment such as tell them truth, and to burn the word of their soul's health, and slay whosoever believe thereon.

Not withstanding, yet I submit this book and all other that I have other made >> note 22 or translated, or shall in time to come (if it be God's will that I shall further labor in his harvest) unto all them that submit themselves unto the word of God, to be corrected of them — yea, and moreover, to be disallowed and also burnt, if it seem worthy when they have examined it with the Hebrew, so that they first put forth of their own translating another that is more correct.

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