The man behind the plow

Men and women of faith owe a great debt to a great scholar who died as a great martyr.

VANCOUVER, Wa, March 5, 2001—My first trip to San Francisco in 1983 turned a vacation trip into a-once-in-a-lifetime Bible collector’s dream. Reputed for its integrity, the city’s premier rare book dealer, Heritage Books, was a magnet to collectors with its well-stocked shelves of fine quality antiquarian books. Perusing the nearest shelf for a treasure to add to my growing collection, I spied a 1537 first edition folio Matthew’s Bible. The price was out of the reach of a humble theology teacher.

My disappointment quickly evaporated for on the next shelf was a 1552 Tyndale NT. Every rare Bible collector knows the Tyndale NT is the anchor of any collection. I looked inside and saw a price tag of $2500.00. It would be a stretch but wouldn’t it be worth it?  The loose cover definitely hindered its appeal but the overall good condition seemed a good tradeoff, so I made the purchase.

1552 Tyndale New Testament

1552 Tyndale New Testament

When I finally got back to my home in Portland, Oregon buyer’s remorse set in. What had I been thinking? The Tyndale was the price of my wife’s car! Struggling with keeping or returning, my conscience sided with reality; it really should go back. The Heritage clerk had assured me it would be quite acceptable, so back it went.

The story does not end here. In the 30 or so days that followed, I managed to sell a few Items from my collection which gave me the courage to call Heritage back and inquire about the availability of the Tyndale. To my utter surprise and delight they had reduced the price to $2000.00 and rebound it. The foundation of my collection would soon be on my shelf. I could sleep in peace.

William Tyndale (1493/5-1536) translated the first English New Testament from the original Greek language partially published in Cologne in 1525 and completed in Worms in 1526. The Constitutions of 1408 were still very much the law of the theological landscape. No one could translate Scriptures into English without the permission of the authorities.

The times threatened the survival of the “forbidden book.” Nevertheless, Tyndale determined that an English Bible was essential to the vibrancy of faith. When confronted by the authorities Tyndale quipped, “I defy the pope, and all his laws; and if God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough, to know more of the Scripture than the pope.” The battle lines were drawn and Tyndale’s fate sealed.

Tyndale left his beloved London and set sail for Germany where he sought refuge and protection to translate.  Beneath the superficial calm of the Lutheran Reformation the religious pot boiled and the authorities interrupted his work when they discovered his intensions. Fleeing into the night with partial copies flapping under his arm, Tyndale left Cologne and arrived in Worms where the printer Peter Schoeffer published the complete The New Testament in 1526.

Sympathetic merchants began smuggling copies of the NT into England in bales of cotton. When discovered, the town squares smelled of burning books. Was it possible for the author of this lightening-rod book to continue his work?

Meanwhile back in London, the turmoil of Henry VIII’s political reign continued and the pugnacious Cardinal Wolsey and Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall refused to approve an English Bible. In May 1535 Tyndale while staying in Belgium with long standing family friends, Thomas and Anna Poyntz, a false friend, Henry Phillips, betrayed Tyndale. The anti-Protestant authorities imprisoned him in Vilvorde castle near Brussels. On October 6, 1536, the prison guards led Tyndale into the town square where they strangled and burned him at the stake.

Tyndale’s legacy is undeniable. His translation of the New Testament and portions of the Old Testament stand today as one of the finest translations ever produced. His use of the language was simple in expression but profound in its accurate meaning. It is said that 85-90% of the famous King James Version mirrors Tyndale’s work.  A life well-lived, a lasting monumental work and a martyr’s death support his honor as England’s greatest Protestant reformer.

Read more about the World’s Best-Selling Book in The Washington Times Communities.


This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Donald L. Brake, Sr.

Donald L. Brake, Ph.D., is Dean Emeritus of Multnomah Biblical Seminary, past president of Jerusalem University College, Israel; author of A Visual History of the English Bible: The Tumultuous Tale of The World’s Bestselling Book; Baker Books, 2008 (a 2009 ECPA Christian Book Award finalist), A Visual History of the King James Bible: The Dramatic Tale of the World’s Best-Known Translation, Baker Books, 2011, A Royal Monument of English Literature: The King James Bible 1611, Credo House Publishers, 2011; and antiquarian collector with his extensive collection of rare and significant Bibles and artifacts currently at the Dunham Bible Museum, Houston Baptist University, Houston, Texas.

Contact Donald L. Brake, Sr.


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