Don’t Touch That Bible!

SOME PROTESTANTS believe the Catholic Church used to forbid its members to read the Bible. The Church couldn’t risk letting the average Catholic read the Bible for himself. If that happened, the poor papist would realize he’d been duped by Rome.

“What?” he’d cry upon sneaking a furtive glance at the Good Book. “The Bible disagrees with the Catholic Church! There’s no mention here of priests or popes or Masses, much less rosaries or Mary worship. No wonder they wouldn’t let me have a close look at it!”

Loraine Boettner, in his well-known anti-Catholic handbook, Roman Catholicism, perpetuates the myth of the ‘enmity’ between the Catholic Church and the Bible:

“Up until the time of the Reformation the Bible had been a book for priests only. It was written in Latin, and the Roman Church refused to allow it to be translated into the language of the common people. But when the Reformers came on the scene all of that was changed. Luther translated the entire Bible into German for the people of his native land, and within 25 years of its appearance one hundred editions of the German Bible came off the press. It was also soon translated into most of the vernacular tongues of Europe, and wherever the light of the Reformation went it became the book of the common people. Decrees of popes and church councils gave way to the Word of Life” (p. 95).

Is that true? No. Let’s examine the facts. Before Luther’s translation (1530) there were already at least 33 printed German translations, many of them translated from the original Greek and Hebrew, including Fust’s at Metz in 1462 and Bemler’s at Augsburg in 1467—plus others at Augsburg and Nuremburg in 1477; at Leipzig in 1466 (reprinted at least sixteen times by 1522); at Wittenburg in 1470, 1483, and 1490; at Augsburg in 1518; at Lubeck in 1494; at Cutna in 1498; at Venice in 1506 and 1511.

In fifteenth-century Poland [a century before the Reformation] the Bible was translated into the vernacular at the behest of the Catholic Queen Hedwig; a second version was translated soon after by Andrew Jassowitz. In Spain, King Alfonso the Wise (1221-1284), also a Catholic, commissioned the Bible to be translated into Castilian, and Boniface Ferrier translated it into the Valencian dialect in 1405.

In France, at least sixteen translations were known to be extant before 1547. Archbishop Giacomo a Voragine of Genoa translated the Bible into Italian around 1220. A Swedish translation was made as early as the mid-fourteenth century, and Iceland had its own translation by 1279. The monk Nicolo Malerimi’s Italian translation had been reprinted at least thirteen times before the so-called “light of the Reformation” had ignited Europe into a conflagration of dissension.

In addition to European languages, the Bible was being translated under the direction of the Catholic Church in Rome into Arabic, Syriac, Ethiopian, Armenian, Chinese, and Hindi while the Reformation was getting underway.

A common bogus assertion is that there were no Bibles in English until John Wycliffe—touted by Protestants as the “morning star of the Reformation”— came along in 1382. Wycliffe, a Catholic priest and leading Oxford philosopher and theologian, got himself into hot water by his radical ideas on social issues. Later he went into open rebellion against the Church when he attacked the sacrament of penance and the validity of Apostolic Tradition. He denied the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, taught the heretical doctrine of sola scriptura, and railed against the papacy as being the “institution of the Antichrist.” When Wycliffe and his followers the Lollards (a pejorative term meaning “mumblers”) issued their own English translation of the Bible, the Catholic Church condemned it not because it had been translated into the vernacular—that had been done many times in the past with the Church’s encouragement—but because of its source (which in itself was quite enough of a reason to condemn it) and because of its doctrinal errors.

St. Thomas More (1478-1535)—Lord Chancellor of England and martyr under Henry VIII—explained the issue:

“Wycliffe, whereas the whole Bible was long before his days, by virtuous and well learned men, translated into the English tongue, and by good and godley people with devotion and soberness, well and reverently read, took upon him a malicious purpose to translate it of new” (Dialogue Concerning Tyndale).

In 1408, the Catholic Council of Oxford explained why illicit translations were condemned by the Church:

“It is dangerous, as St. Jerome declares, to translate the text of the Holy Scripture out of one idiom into another since it is not easy, in translating, to preserve exactly the same meaning in all things. We therefore command and ordain that henceforth no one translate any passages of Holy Scripture into English or any other language, in a book or booklet or tract of this kind lately made in the time of the said John Wycliffe or since, or that hereafter may be made either in part or wholly, either publicly or privately, under pain of excommunication, until such translation shall have been approved and allowed by the diocesan bishop of the place or (if need be) by the provincial council.”

St. Thomas More evoked the spirit of the Council of Oxford in his condemnation of Wycliffe’s translation and in his rebuttal to the Protestant claim that the Catholic Church had a history of officially forbidding vernacular translations:

“[The Catholic Church] neither forbiddeth the translations to be read, that were always done of old before Wycliffe’s days, nor damneth his because it was new, but because it was nought; nor prohibiteth new [translations] to be made, but provideth that they shall not be made amiss, till they be, by good examination, amended” (Dialogue Concerning Tyndale).

Let’s take an extended quotation from Fr. Stenhouse’s pamphlet Catholic Answers to “Bible” Christians:

“St. Thomas More says, in essence, that the Church, far from forbidding translations, simply believed that standards of translation should be strict. Quality control is taken for granted in all aspects of daily life these days. The Church still expects that Sacred Scripture should be given at least the same respect we pay the food we eat, the homes we inhabit, or the cars we drive!

“In 1844, the Rev. S. R. Maitland, librarian to the Archbishop of Canterbury, published a book entitled The Dark Ages, in which he demolished, one should have thought forever, the myth that no Catholic (in pre-Reformation England) ever knew his Bible well. None of the facts collected by Maitland, a non-Catholic historian, supports the Fundamentalist claims.

“Thus, in 705 St. Adhelm is reported to have bought a Bible from a ship that entered Dover Harbor and presented it to the Abbey of Malmsbury; King Offa, king of the Mercians, presented a Bible to the church at Worcester in 780; Paul, abbot of St. Alban’s, in 1077 presented two Bibles, adorned with gold and silver and precious stones, to the church there; his successor, Abbot Walter, donated a ‘golden text of the Gospels.’

“Maitland quotes a letter of one monk to another written about 1170: ‘A monastery without a library is like a castle without an armory. See to it, therefore, that in your armory of defense, the greatest defense of all others is not wanting. That defense is the Holy Bible.’

“Maitland confesses that in the course of his research he came across not a single instance in which the Bible was treated disrespectfully, and no instance of its being kept from the people. Nor did he discover any hint that the Bible was regarded simply as a valuable piece of furniture, hardly used at all, or simply by the monks themselves. Many of the Bibles to which Maitland refers would have been in Latin, but the author makes frequent reference to copies in Anglo-Saxon.”

The Catholic Church is frequently accused of keeping the Bible in Latin so the common man couldn’t understand it for himself. Not true. The fact is that the Church encouraged vernacular translations so long as they were (1) faithful to the original texts (or the Latin Vulgate—itself faithful to the original texts) and (2) not translated in an ambiguous way that would promote doctrinal error.

Two facts are often missed by both Catholics and Protestants. The first is that until the late Renaissance most Europeans were illiterate. The clergy and the nobility were lettered, but rarely was the common man. The second point is that for those who could read, Latin posed no obstacle. For over a thousand years Latin had been the lingua franca of Europe.

One key reason the Church made the Latin Vulgate the official Bible of Christendom was precisely because anyone who could read could read Latin. But what about the poor fellow who couldn’t read the Bible? The Bible was read to him. Very early on, the Bible became increasingly accessible to the average European in his native idiom.

Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656), the Protestant bishop of Armagh, Ireland and a staunch foe of the Catholic Church, gives the date for the first English translation of the Bible as 1290 (a century before Wycliffe and nearly 250 years before Luther’s revolt against the Church). But Ussher didn’t go back nearly far enough.

The Venerable Bede (672-735) translated the entire Bible into Saxon (the precursor of English) so it would be understandable to his newly-converted flock in England—virtually none of whom yet knew Latin. In 734 he wrote to Egbert, the Archbishop of York, instructing him to preach to the people from the translated Bible, especially from the Pauline epistles.

In 747, at the Catholic Council of Cloveshoe, England, the bishops emphasized the importance of reading the Bible in the vernacular, something not easily done if there were no vernacular translations extant. The council further required that the Creed, the Our Father, and the administration of the sacraments should be in the vernacular in order that the people’s spiritual benefit might be greater.

In 1109 Pope Innocent III wrote:

“The Bishop of Metz has told us . . . that many laymen and women too, led by a desire, mainly of understanding the Bible, have translated for themselves the Gospels, the Epistles of St. Paul, [and] the Psalms. Their aim is that with the help of this translation, made at their own discretion—and we could wish that it had been made prudently— laymen and women could expound such matters and preach to each other. Now, the desire to understand the Bible is something to be praised, not condemned. Yet it seems that here certain lay people have justly merited criticism; for they hold meetings in secret and usurp the function of preaching.”

In the same way that Protestant ministers would admonish their parishioners not to use the Jehovah’s Witness’s defective Bible version—the New World Translation—because of its many errors and misleading footnotes, the Catholic Church also warned (and warns) Catholics to avoid Bible translations that have similar problems.

Contrary to the claims made by Loraine Boettner and other non-Catholic writers who want us to believe otherwise, the Catholic Church did not and does not “hide” the Holy Bible from the faithful, but it does take seriously its obligation to shield Christians from inaccurate translations and heretical interpretations of the Bible.

Copyright © Patrick Madrid 1989 Published with permission.

Patrick Madrid is an acclaimed public speaker and has authored or edited 26 books, which have sold over a million copies worldwide, including foreign-language editions. He hosts The Patrick Madrid Show daily on Relevant Radio.