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In Praise of William Tyndale
April 14, 2016
by William P. Meyers

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Why would this atheist praise the Bible's biggest promoter?

In England (before it was Great Britain), in 1519, in the town of Coventry, seven people were burned at the stake "for having taught their children and servants the Lord's prayer and the ten commandments in English." No, Islam had not taken over the town. Nor satanists, now witches.

It is hard for us to imagine the religious and cultural context of England in 1519. The closest comparison we might find today would be living in a territory controlled by the Islamic State. But ISIS is much more tolerant (and much less brutal) than the Roman Catholic Church was at the beginning (or end) of the 16th century. I guess that could pass for progress.

We now know that the New Testament of the Bible was originally written down in Greek, Hebrew, or most likely Aramaic (closely related to both Hebrew and Arabic). However, the Roman Catholic Church insisted that the Bible could only be read or spoken in Latin. In addition, even the Latin version was normally available only to priests, many of whom repeated the Latin by rote, not understanding its meaning.

The first English translation of the Bible that we know of was by John Wycliffe, who was born around 1325. Wycliffe translated his Bible from the official Catholic version, the Latin Vulgate. Because it began to be circulated before the printing press came to Europe, each book had to be copied by hand. Nevertheless it had an impact on England, helping people to realize how far the Roman Catholic Church of that era had deviated from the teachings in the New Testament.

Wycliffe's followers came to be called Lollards, and were persecuted by the church and state. Wycliffe was condemned and excommunicated, but died of natural causes (or maybe poisoning) at the end of 1384. The Peasants' Rebellion of 1381, though largely resulting from economic injustice, was at least partly inspired by the growing knowledge about the Bible.

About a century later, in 1483, William Tyndale was born. The world was changing rapidly. Martin Luther was born the same year. America was about to be discovered. And while Tyndale was studying at Cambridge, in 1516, Erasmus published the New Testament in Greek. Tyndale studied it and decided an English language Bible was needed. In an argument at the university he declared, "I defy the Pope and all his laws; and if God spare me I will one day make the boy that drives the plough in England to know more of the Scripture than the Pope himself!"

The Roman Catholic suppression of heresy (aka Protestantism) was in full swing by then. Just translating the Bible was dangerous. So Tyndale moved to Germany to complete his work. There he had the Bible printed in English for the first time. It was just the New Testament, and it was printed in a small format so as to be easy to conceal. It had to be smuggled into England, where any copy found by the authorities was burned.

The introduction of this book in 1526 set English minds on fire.

William Tyndale was burned at the stake near Brussels on Friday, October 6, 1536. Thousands of English men, women, and even children would be arrested, tortured, and executed, usually by burning, for simply owning or even being able to quote in English from a Bible, until about the time of Queen Elizabeth I.

William Tyndale should be a hero to all scholars and thinking people, not just to Protestant Christians. He showed an interest in telling the truth at a time the Establishment enforced a universal falsehood on all citizens. He did not take the easy path of just whining about injustice. He learned Greek, no easy task. He studied a Greek Bible and determined to share his learning, not just by teaching the Bible in Greek to scholars, but by translating it into English. He even arranged for the book to be smuggled into England. And he refused to recant, and so showed the evil of the Roman Catholic Church with his own personal suffering.

Atheists typically would dismiss Tyndale with contempt. After all, even in his era, some people had realized that the whole religion thing, Jesus thing, and God thing were just a pack of lies. For rational thinkers the revival of Greek learning is more associated with the dawn of the new age of science than with reforming Christianity.

But I think Tyndale aided in this cause as well. If Latin was a mystery language, how could one criticize it? If religion was based on the Bible, but only priests could look at a Bible, how could anyone argue effectively with priests? The English Bible made it possible for any person in England to decide for themselves on the merit of the Jesus story. Which likely did help increase the number of critical thinkers, humanists, agnostics, and even atheists.

Today we have almost the opposite problem. There is so much information, and misinformation, including pseudo-science, that many people don't know what to make of it. Children educated in the West try to join ISIS. University educated people fall for demagogues, quack medicines, and pyramid schemes.

On the whole, having too much information is the better problem to have. Fortunately, while cults can always seem to find new victims, there are so many cults now, no one has been able to dominate.

Disclaimer: I am an atheist. But I own copies of the Koran, Bible, Buddhist and other scriptures, in English translation, and I have read them. They are part of our history and cultural heritage.



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