ClassicThoughts: Tush, ye shall not die: Peter Mullen on the fiery life of the Bible translator, William Tyndale, 500 years on

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The Independent Culture
FIRST they strangled him and then they burned his body. That was William Tyndale's fate in 1536, after he translated the Bible into English. And a racy, down to earth translation it was too: where later versions describe Joseph in Egypt as 'a prosperous man', Tyndale's Joseph is 'a lucky feller'. The tempter, the serpent, oozes seduction when he lisps, 'Tush, ye shall not die.'

This year marks the 500th anniversary of Tyndale's birth, and there are hundreds of international and national events in commemoration. And rightly so, for Tyndale's words resonate in English speech and literature as brightly and as productively as Shakespeare's. It is little exaggeration to say that between them those men composed the English language as we know it. 'Eat, drink and be merry'; 'Clothed and in his right mind'; 'scales fell from his eyes'; 'Am I my brother's keeper?' It would be interesting to see who can identify which of a thousand quotations are Shakespeare's and which Tyndale's.

It is hard to imagine, today, a Bible scholar being put to death for his labours. But in 16th-century Europe there was an ideological struggle as tense as that of the 20th century's Cold War. The protagonists were the Papacy and its centralised bureaucracy - the politburo of Christendom - versus the emerging nation states with their turbulent princes and priests such as Henry VIII and Martin Luther.

In such a climate, the translation of sacred books into vernacular languages was an explosive event. Tyndale was explicit about the revolution that he desired. To the authorities he announced, 'If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou does.' He might as well have written his own death warrant.

He was born in Gloucestershire, near the Welsh border in 1494. He went to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he became proficient in Greek and Hebrew. In 1519 he was ordained and he returned to Gloucestershire where, disgusted by the indolence and arrogance of the local clergy, he preached fiery sermons on village greens. He was summoned before the Chancellor of Worcester and accused of heresy, acquitted, but censured as a rabble-rouser.

For all his copious learning, Tyndale was naive. He set off for London to persuade the bishop, Cuthbert Tunstall, to support him in his plan to translate the Bible into English. Tunstall was not keen on giving up his monopoly of Holy Writ, in Latin. So in 1524 Tyndale left England for the continent and never returned. He met Luther in Worms and then proceeded to Cologne where he began his translation of the New Testament. Astonishingly, this great work was accomplished within a single year: 3,000 copies were printed in Germany.

Ports were watched to prevent the book entering England. Some copies did get in, but readers were persecuted and there was a public burning of the book at St Paul's Cross. So ruthless were the authorities that only one copy survived. Meanwhile, Tyndale was a fugitive. In Antwerp he published his Pentateuch - the first five books of the Old Testament. He further riled the authorities by printing in the margins of that book violent attacks on the Pope and the other bishops.

Henry VIII's so-called 'emissaries' - really a sort of late medieval secret police - finally caught up with him, and he was executed in the castle of Vilvorde on 6 October 1536. Foxe reports: 'At the stake he cried with a fervent zeal and a loud voice, 'Lord, open the King of England's eyes]' ' Five hundred years later, the British Library paid pounds 1m for the only surviving complete copy of his work.