Tyndale's New Testament

Tyndale's New Testament was the very first Bible to be printed in English. It was highly illegal to translate the Bible into English at this time.  This is one of only two complete copies surviving from the 3000 or more printed in 1526 by Peter Schoeffer in the German city of Worms and then smuggled into England in bales of cloth.

What was the significance of a Bible in English

Although the Old Testament had first been written in Hebrew and the New Testament in a dialect of Greek, the 'official' language of the medieval Church was Latin - the language of the Roman Empire. Church services were conducted in Latin throughout the Christian world and Christians were governed from Rome by the Pope. Though they were frowned upon, 'vernacular' Bibles, those written in the local languages that many people could understand, were available in parts of Europe. Their existence added fuel to the debate initiated by Martin Luther who questioned religious authorities such as the Roman Catholic Church. In England, however, it was strictly forbidden to translate the Bible into any language.

Most people in England were unable to speak Latin, and so could not understand the Bible directly. The Church therefore acted as the mediator between God and the people, with Priests interpreting the Bible on behalf of their congregations.

Tyndale, however, believed that ordinary people should be able to read the Bible for themselves, and this spurred him to translate the Bible into English. He wrote that the Church authorities banned translations of the Bible in order '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...and to exalt their own honour, above God himself'. But his Bible was highly illegal: the book was banned, and Tyndale was eventually executed.

Tyndale replaced traditional words with new ones, emphasising the argument for a shift in the balance of religious power: for example, he used the word 'congregation' instead of 'Church', 'elder' in place of 'priest' and repentance for 'penance'.

Who was William Tyndale?

William Tyndale, born in Gloucestershire at the end of the fifteenth century, was educated at Oxford and then at Cambridge. He was an impressive scholar, fluent in eight languages, and was ordained as a priest in around 1521. He was influenced by the writings of Erasmus who argued for personal faith between an individual and God rather than a faith mediated and controlled by a Church authority. The purpose of Tyndale's translation of the Bible into English was to make it accessible to the laity, or general population. His plans were, however, unpopular with the clergy and his translation was considered heresy. Those discovered to own his Bible were punished and while, at first, it was only books that were destroyed, soon heretics were burned too, including Tyndale himself in 1536.

How did this copy come to the British Library?

The British Library bought what it called 'the most important printed book in the English language' for a little over a million pounds in 1994. When Lord Oxford bought it for his collection in the 1700s, it had cost him just 20 guineas.

Taken from: William Tyndale's New Testament
Author / Creator: William Tyndale
Publisher: Peter Schoeffer, Worms, Germany
Date: 1526
Shelfmark: C.188.a.17