Like much that had been stable in European society, the Bible underwent a profound transformation in the 16th century. New developments in scholarship as well as in the material literary culture meant that the Bible was used and distributed in unprecedented ways.
In the 15th century, parish churches generally were required to have a Latin Bible, and so theoretically the Scriptures were available to those with knowledge of Latin. But the cultural affinity for reading the Scriptures and rooting one’s piety in Bible reading in the home was new in the 16th century. At the advent of the Reformation, Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible, known as the Vulgate (named for the vulgar tongue of his day, Latin), was the authoritative text of the church.
Radical movements within the church, such as the Waldensians and the Lollards, had traditionally seen renewal as stemming from a Scripture-centered piety. This led church authorities to ban the practice of translating the Bible into vernacular languages. In England, for example, the church convened a council in 1407 at which the translation of the Bible into English was condemned. This ban lasted for more than a century, but was seen as necessary only in response to figures like John Wycliffe, who had attempted to translate the Scriptures into English and make them available to all.
The mid-15th century represented a turning point, after which it became impossible for church authorities to control the Scriptures, and the practice of translating the Bible into vernacular languages came permanently into fashion.
There were three decisive factors in this cultural shift:
- First, humanists developed linguistic abilities in Hebrew and Greek, which had been unavailable for centuries.
- Second, there was a widespread attitude, especially but not exclusively among Protestants, that Scripture could lead to spiritual and social renewal.
- And finally, mass movements began to be built by reformers around the idea that Scripture should be given supremacy in the context of the church.
There was significant and even violent conflict in the 16th century around the question of whether or not it was wise or appropriate to translate the Bible into vernacular languages. Opponents of Bible translation argued that unmooring interpretation of the Bible from the traditional teachings of the church would cause widespread social and spiritual chaos as common people dissented against the church. Even Reformers shared these fears and saw an important part of their task as catechistically rooting their theologies in the thought and writings of the Church Fathers.
Catholic Arguments for the Supremacy of Latin
Opponents of biblical translation believed that no language could adequately represent another. Catholics argued for the exclusive legitimacy of Jerome’s Latin Vulgate on a theological-historical basis. The three languages in which Pontius Pilate wrote “the king of the Jews” above the crucified Jesus were Greek, Hebrew (Aramaic), and Latin.
The Catholic Church saw the Greek Orthodox Church as heretical and schismatic, and associated them with the Greek language; and it deemed Jewish people to have fallen out of communion with the universal church on the basis of their denial of Christ’s role as messiah, and associated them with the Hebrew language. Therefore, the official Catholic policy was that the Latin Church was the sole inheritor of the legitimate Christian lineage of salvation.
These arguments were reactionary, and were aimed more at shoring up the power of the church than at an honest appraisal of the Bible. Moreover they were opposing themselves to powerful forces surfacing in the 16th century that medieval systems of control proved unable to subdue. Printing provides an example of a force that radically transformed the social landscape of the 16th century, rendering medieval forms of control increasingly obsolete. We can identify another trend that shaped the emerging dialogue around translation in the work of Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457).
Valla was a humanist scholar and proto-reformer who lived in the 15th century. He is representative of a current within Christian thought that contributed to the explosion in Biblical translation that took place in the 16th century. Valla was a linguist who was interested in the connections between the Latin language, Christianity, and culture. He understood the three to be closely intertwined, and his groundbreaking research into languages led him to conclusions about Christianity and culture that amounted to a strong critique of the church in his day.
Valla revealed the Donation of Constantine to be a forgery. The Donation was a significant document for the church in the wake of the schism between the Eastern and Western churches because it legitimized the imperial governance of the Western Roman Empire by the Latin Church. Valla demonstrated the Donation to have been composed at a much later date by finding several discrepancies in the language of the document, such as the use of Constantinople to name the city that in Constantine’s day was still called Byzantium. Valla wrote that he found “no record of any king, pagan or Christian, turning an empire over to priests.”
Valla’s work was a precursor to scientific philology. Through his scholarly exploits, Valla was undermining the central claims of the Catholic Church’s imperial legitimacy. He understood that there was a fundamental conflict in a religion that was turning away from its believer-centered mission towards an imperial identity and an empire that voluntarily ceded power to the entity it was supposed to foster, the “assembly of believers.”
Valla wrote, “The Pope himself makes war on peaceful nations and sows discord among states and rulers… Christ lies dying of starvation and exposure among so many thousands of poor.” Valla concluded that the Church’s imperial turn happened after Constantine, and the empire ceding power simply never took place.
The Significance of Lorenzo Valla’s Work for Biblical Studies
Valla represented the essential break between scholasticism and humanism, a crisis of Christian existence between evangelical faith and the science of faith. Valla’s quest to recover the significance of grammar exposed the problems in the theological and political reasoning of the medieval Catholic Church.
Beyond his work on the Donation of Constantine, Valla applied his knowledge of the Greek language to Biblical studies, and argued that the Vulgate does not always adequately reflect the meaning of the Greek New Testament.
Valla pointed out that New Testament studies had to come to grips with the difference between Greek and Latin. He claimed scholasticism never raised a defense of its methods on the basis of scriptural authority. And he attempted to ground the methodology for theology in rhetoric, which became the epistemological foundation for a new specifically humanist biblical and ecclesiological study.
Quest for a ‘Faithful Translator’
Humanists and reformers took up Valla’s argument for a rhetorical theological style, and it entered into their understanding of why the Bible should be translated into the vernacular. Once vernacular translations seemed inevitable in the 16th century, traditionalists who still argued for the superiority of the Vulgate sparked debate over what constituted a ‘faithful translator’ of the Bible. Was a faithful translation one that rendered the original languages in the most literal fashion in the new? Or did a faithful translation best capture the sense of the original text in the vernacular, regardless if some of the literal renderings were lost?
In general reformers favoured the latter approach, while Catholics preferred literal translations. In his Defence of the Translation of the Psalms, Luther argues that the task of the translator is not that of reproducing in one language words exactly equivalent to the words of another, but of reproducing in vernacular idiom the meaning expressed in the original language. He wrote that when translating the Psalms into German, one ought to find the German words that evoke the proper sense, and drop the Hebrew.
Reformed biblical translations tended to reflect this preference, while Catholic translations were more literal. This distinction is imperfect however, given that it was from Catholic humanist figures like Valla and Erasmus that reformers learned the impulse towards a linguistic integrity in their approach to Scripture.
II. New Latin Bible
Problems with the Vulgate
Given the critiques leveled against the Vulgate, both from within the Catholic tradition and from the emergent Protestant tradition, Catholics increasingly became dissatisfied with the Vulgate. There were a variety of responses to the criticism, which included issuing editions of the Vulgate with various corrections, a quest for an authentic Vulgate whose text adhered to the original Latin of St. Jerome, and efforts to create a new Latin Bible.
In approaching the problem of the Latin Bible, certain fundamental questions had to be addressed, and Catholics were determined to complete this task from within their own tradition. They argued that securing an authoritative Greek text of the original Scriptures was difficult and raised criticisms of available Greek New Testaments, such as that published by Erasmus in 1516. The quality of the Hebrew texts available, however, drew praise.
Traditionalists claimed that the Vulgate was in many cases superior to the available Greek texts, which came from a later date and may have had corruptions that the texts from which St. Jerome made his translations did not. In some respects these arguments were correct, for example the Lord’s Prayer ends in a doxology in Erasmus’ Greek text, but it is excluded in the Vulgate.
Pagnini’s New Latin Translation
A French Dominican called Sante Pagnini attempted the first new Latin Bible in Lyon in 1527-1528. He was a literalist in his approach to translation, and his Latin was challenging and arcane. Although it was later used as the basis of translations into vernacular languages, Pagnini’s translation faced significant backlash and was not taken up extensively in the Catholic Church.
Final Victory for the Vulgate
While later Latin translations of the Bible did appear, in 1545 the Council of Trent reaffirmed the place of the Vulgate as the authoritative text of Scripture in the Catholic Church. An official edition of the Vulgate was commissioned though it was not printed until the 1590s. The Council’s decision extended the life of the Vulgate alongside the Church for another four centuries. The Clementine Vulgate was published in 1592 and became the standard Catholic text until the 20th century.
III. Bibles In Vernacular Tongues
It can be gathered from what we have said so far that the intellectual and religious life of the 16th century cannot be understood without the preoccupation with biblical interpretation. In the 15th century there were few commentaries on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, and most were copies of older commentaries. By contrast, in the 16th century there was an explosion of commentaries with well over seventy new commentaries being written. Intellectual, religious, and theological commitments were, however, closely interwoven with political concerns, and when examining the 16th century history of biblical translation, there are as often political interventions in the translations as theological.
The Scriptures were understood as a medium for political and social renewal, and so they became battlegrounds for the various political forces seeking to establish themselves in the European context of the time. These social and political concerns are never entirely separable from theological concerns, as we can see in examples of biblical translations and their stories.
Erasmus’ Greek New Testament
When Erasmus published his Greek New Testament in 1516, he wrote a preface offering an impassioned defence of the worth of the Scriptures to each and every person. In his preface Erasmus effectively endorsed the translation of the Scriptures into vernacular languages.
Erasmus wrote to exhort all men “to the wholesome study of Christian philosophy.” To do so, he claims, one needs only a pious and open mind. The pure and genuine source of Christian philosophy was the Scriptures, and Christ the only teacher. He concluded “these writings bring you the living image of His holy mind and the speaking, dying, rising Christ Himself, and thus they render him so fully present that you would see less if you gazed upon Him with your very eyes.”
It is not difficult to see how Erasmus’ positions conflicted with the authority of the church. The church taught a sacramental model of salvation, requiring church and priest and not a pious and open mind alone. The reformers took up Erasmus’ call with a passion. And the interactions of traditionalist, reforming, and humanist impulses led to the translations that appeared in the 16th century.
French Traditionalist Translation
As large masses of people were mobilized politically, different biblical translations were used to direct their energies and to reinforce orthodoxies. The new dialogues around Bible translations and the faith Protestants held in the transformative power of the Scriptures brought the role of the Scriptures in the life of the church into stark relief. There were Catholic responses to this, with various vernacular translations favouring a literalist approach.
The first printed French New Testament translation was composed for a Catholic audience in 1523. Jacques Lafèvre (1455-1536) did the translation, and it was published in Antwerp, Belgium. Lafèvre favoured a literalist approach and based his translation off of the Vulgate. In this sense his text worked to establish the legitimacy of Catholic political theological arguments in the Scriptures to which Erasmus had called all men to pious study.
English Catholic Biblical Translation
A similar Catholic Bible was written in English by exiles from Protestant England. Like Lafèvre they were traditionalists in their approach to the translation and worked from the Vulgate. There were multiple editions of their Bible, but collectively the text is known as the Douai-Reims Bible.
The Douai-Reims used a lot of Latinate terminology in English that does not appear in reformed translations. The translators had good linguistic arguments for the use of their Latinate terminology, arguing that there was no justification for the manufacture of English words for certain biblical concepts and themes alongside the selective use of Latinate terms. They asked why reformers chose to maintain certain Latin nomenclature and discard others, why not use the Latin pasch for Easter, for example, or why invent the English word Passover?
Although there was scholarly legitimacy to these discussions, the translators were swimming against the cultural tide. The Douai-Reims was illegal in England, it was never widely distributed, and its marginalia reflected the persecuted sentiment of English Catholics without hope of change.
Luther’s German Bible
A very different attitude can be discerned in Luther’s Bible. Although Luther’s Bible was not the first German Bible, and there were something like fourteen attempts prior to his writing to render the Bible in German, there is no question that Luther’s work was revolutionary.
Like other reformers, Luther preferred an understanding of translation that sought to render the original language in the most engaging contemporary idiom, rather than strive for a strictly literal translation. Luther’s Bible was published in stages, with the New Testament and the Psalms appearing as early as 1522, while the entire Bible including the Old Testament was not published in its entirety until 1534.
As a faithful translator, Luther saw his task as rendering the Bible not only in engaging vernacular idiom, but also as conforming to the theological vision he and his companions hoped to realize. Evangelical theology took precedence in his translating to purely scholarly considerations.
Although Luther sought to “give place to the Hebrew language where it does a better job than our German,” and to leave room for men to understand veiled language by the gifts of the spirit, nonetheless Luther concedes there were many places where answers to linguistic questions were guided by theological considerations.
Luther’s translation offers a very Christological reading of the Old Testament. He worked closely with Rabbinical Hebrew scholars in order to make the translation, but departs from their traditions and interpretations. Luther described rabbinical interpretation as giving the Old Testament a “Jewish slant,” and interpreted it in light of the New Testament whenever questions arose.
Luther also wrote summaries of the biblical texts further reinforcing his theological perspectives, despite writing he would rather see the biblical text stand alone. Although Luther’s translation displays a more reconciliatory attitude towards the linguistics of Scripture than the Catholic attitude of the purity of Latin as opposed to Greek and Hebrew, he leaves us with a divided legacy in his exclusionary stance towards his Jewish teachers.
IV. The History of the English Bible
William Tyndale and the Birth of the English Bible
The movement to translate the Bible into the vernacular was ultimately unstoppable and rapidly proliferated. The earliest vernacular Bibles were published in German in 1466, in Italian in 1471, in Dutch and French in 1477 and 1487, and in Portuguese in 1495. Although a team led by Wycliffe translated the Bible into English in the late 14th century, he worked from the Latin Vulgate, and his text was illegal and did not receive widespread circulation.
William Tyndale (1494-1536) was the first person to translate the Bible into English from the original languages. While he worked, translation of the Bible into English was still forbidden in England. So while he sought sponsorship from the English church, and claimed that he aspired to let the ploughboy of England know more of the Scriptures than those who criticized him, the church refused him support and he was forced into exile. He fled to Germany where he became perhaps the first Englishman to meet Luther in the flesh.
Luther’s text inspired Tyndale, demonstrating a common theme of the reformation era where translators take inspiration and borrow passages from one another as well as the source texts. Tyndale used Erasmus’ Greek New Testament for his translation. He completed his work in Hamburg and Wittenberg. In 1525 Tyndale’s New Testament was printed and smuggled into England.
Tyndale worked on his translation of the Old Testament in the 1520s and 1530s and it was published over the course of several years. Tyndale was betrayed, kidnapped, and imprisoned while in Belgium. He completed work on his Old Testament translation while he was in prison.
On October 6th, 1536, Tyndale was tried, strangled, and burned as a heretic. In his final moments Tyndale cried out in prayer, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” Little did he know his prayer was being answered and soon publications of English Bibles would be legally produced in England.
Tyndale’s Bible was a Lutheran document. But in characteristically puritan fashion Tyndale went further than Luther in his understanding of the Bible as covenant. Tyndale desired to deny what sola scriptura did not teach, which became a hallmark of the English puritans who put forward a sustained effort to live a godly life on the basis of Scripture.
Tyndale’s reputation as a translator has endured because of his ability to find the right English phrasing. He resurrected words and coined new ones (like ‘atonement’, ‘Passover’ respectively). Because he was an outlaw he could not be mentioned, but it is theorized that much of King James’ 1611 version goes back to Tyndale. Tyndale was to the English Bible what Luther was to the German.
Despite Tyndale’s reputation and influence, it was Myles Coverdale who published the first complete English Bible. Some of Tyndale’s work made it into this Bible thanks to one of his friends working under a false name. However, Coverdale’s Bible is remembered mainly for its Psalter, which was entered into the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. An edit of Coverdale’s Bible known as the Great Bible became the first English Bible authorized by the crown.
The Geneva Bible and English Calvinism
A major turning point came with the publication of the Geneva Bible. English Protestants who were exiled in Geneva during the reign of Mary composed the Geneva Bible. The New Testament was published in 1557, and it benefited greatly from scholarly work done on the source texts on the continent. However, it was not published in England until 1575.
The authors of the Geneva Bible hoped to supplant the Great Bible as the authorized Bible of the English church. However these hopes were thwarted by the outspoken Calvinist marginalia published alongside the text. This commentary caused the monarchy in England to turn against the Geneva Bible. Eventually led James declared it the worst English translation of the Bible. This was clearly for political rather than scholarly reasons, as by all accounts it was the best English translation produced so far.
The Geneva Bible came to be one of the best loved Bible translations in English, and was known and circulated amongst the common English people, lending English religion its Calvinist flavour. The Geneva Bible and its marginalia moved theological discussion to a new level. It realized the relevance of interpretive perspective. While early English reformers like Cranmer believed in the power of the pure text of Scripture in the hands of the people, by the late 16th century that position appeared somewhat naive. The meaning of passages had to be gathered from the overall context, as verses could too easily be taken out of context and misapplied. The theological controversies that raged at the time brought this point home.
The Bishop’s Bible
At the time of Queen Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne, the Geneva Bible had shown that there were problems with the Great Bible and that new theological and political ideas had aged it rapidly. However, Elizabeth found the Geneva Bible to be too radical to be accepted as the authorized bible of the Church of England, of which she was becoming the Supreme Head. As such she commissioned the composition of a new English Bible translation. Her bishop Matthew Parker (1504-1575) oversaw the project, and largely bishops did the translation work. Owing to this fact, Elizabeth’s authorized Bible became known as the Bishop’s Bible.
The marginalia in the Bishop’s Bible was significantly different than the Geneva Bible. But in terms of the textual content they borrowed significantly from the exiles’ translation work. The Bishop’s Bible was published in 1568, and by examining the preface Parker attached at the time we can catch a glimpse of its real inspiration: all of the Scriptural references in Parker’s preface were to the Geneva Bible!
The Authorized Version: An English Masterpiece
Catholics criticized the 16th century proliferation of Bibles in Protestant countries. Protestants claimed to have the true Scriptures and yet they were in a state of disunity and could not even agree upon a single Bible, instead they changed it every few years. These arguments had to be responded to, although not much could be done about it during Elizabeth’s reign given her attachment to the stipulations of her religious settlement. During the reign of James I (1567-1625), however, things were different.
After James’ accession to the throne in 1603, a new authorized Bible was commissioned. It would become known as the Authorized Version, or the King James Version. The King James Version remains one of the highest achievements of English literary culture. It has shaped the English language profoundly, bringing new words and idioms into use which are still common today.
Even at the time the language of the King James was archaic. The translators rendered some of Tyndale’s translation from nearly a century earlier into an even older English. Since then it has entered into the English language and will always sound like the “real” Bible to those whose mother tongue is English.
Historically speaking, only the Vulgate has enjoyed more success than the King James Version. The emerging English empire in James’ reign made it so that the KJV was carried to all corners of the earth and innumerable copies were published. James’ Authorized Version was deeply tied to the state; its composers were generous towards the King, hoping to use the opportunity to bring about further reforms. However their actions in this respect have had unintended consequences, and the King James Bible’s ties to the state have met with criticism on political and theological grounds. James’ vision of kingship was inscribed into Scripture at the dawn of the colonial era, despite that much of the content of the Authorized Version was borrowed from the Geneva Bible, rather than the Bishop’s Bible as the King had requested.
V. Conclusion: Popular Reception and Official Opposition
As we have seen, different groups hoping to assert their vision of religious orthodoxy used the Bible in very different ways, creating a situation where theological and political concerns would be permanently tied together.
The common people of Europe met the advent of cheap and available vernacular bibles with enthusiasm. In surveying the pamphlet literature as early as the 1520s we can see a deep if at times naive biblical literacy. Protestant vernacular liturgy required poetic renderings of Scripture to feature in new kinds of public worship centered on Scriptural piety. These trends are demonstrative of mass movements rallying behind ardent belief in the transformative and redemptive power of Scripture.
European church and state rulers were in general much less enthusiastic about the translation of the Bible into the vernacular. Translations were often met with harsh punishments, such as in the case of William Tyndale. There was a sense of fear around what it would mean to allow access to the biblical text to all, and how that would affect the existing structures of power. This fear and uncertainty can be seen in the reactions of Elizabeth and James to the Geneva Bible. State policies throughout Europe were frequently censorial, and many Bibles and human beings were burned or otherwise destroyed as a result of controversies around translation.
The wide variety of responses to biblical translation in both Catholic and Protestant countries is indicative of important theological and political considerations that were being worked through by European society at the time. The various political-theological factions each sought to establish its orthodoxy and legitimacy in the wake of the new power vacuum that opened up with the breakdown of Catholic hegemony. Vernacular translations of the Bible became essential tools for realizing both aspirations to power, and to authentic truth.