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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

The Bible in the Language of the People

Vernacular Bible translations did not begin with the Reformation. The first German Bible was published at Strasbourg in 1466. By 1522, when Luther's fresh New Testament appeared, almost twenty German editions had been issued. Unlike the Vulgate, from which they were all translated, these volumes were well illustrated, especially in the Old Testament. An Italian Bible was first printed at Venice in 1471, while in France an extensive Bible historiée—a kind of thorough paraphrase with glosses—was delivered from presses in Lyons before and after 1500.

Martin Luther's Das Neue Testament Deutzsch (Wittenberg, 1522) was made, with some help from Melanchthon, direct from Erasmus's Greek (2nd edn., 1519) and in a German meant to be generally accessible. Although a folio in size, it cost only as much as a manual worker's weekly wage. Luther and colleagues pressed on with the Old Testament, and the whole Bible in High German was published at Wittenberg in 1534, and the same year in Low German at Lübeck, the work of unknown revisers of Luther's masterpiece. These Bibles included the apocryphal (deuterocanonical) books, translated largely from the Vulgate and Septuagint. Collaborative revision continued almost unbroken until Luther's death in 1546.

This German Bible not only blazed the trail for other vernacular translations made by Reformers from Hebrew and Greek, but won unchallenged acceptance in German-speaking territories. Frequent reprints, especially of sections or individual books; the thoroughly German character of the translation, making it a landmark in the development of literary German, not least in vocabulary (‘I endeavoured’, Luther said, ‘to make Moses so German that no one would suspect he was a Jew’); the woodcuts domesticating biblical scenes and personages in modern Germany; and not least the growing demand for direct access to holy scripture nurtured by the ever-louder clamour for Reformation—all ensured the widest readership and audience. As Luther set out in his Letter on Translation of 1523, in defence of his addition of ‘alone’ to ‘justified by faith’, common- language Bibles responded to an evangelical and theological imperative. That famous Reformation slogan, ‘Scripture alone’, is not frequent in Reformation literature, but it voiced the conviction that the highest authority in faith and works resided in the Word of God written—‘Scripture supreme’, we might say. Luther, Zwingli, and many others had been preaching and lecturing from the Greek New Testament before the new vernacular versions entered into print. When Zwingli in 1519 in Zürich set out to preach right through Matthew's Gospel, not merely on the selected liturgical lections, he not only reintroduced a practice followed by distinguished expositors of the early centuries, like John Chrysostom and Augustine, but he also exemplified a new-found confidence in the clarity and certainty of the biblical Word of God.

Publication of the Bible in the language of the people without ecclesiastical authorization defied the Catholic Church's assumption that scripture was subject to its control. This claim was not yet as well defined as it would become in response to the Protestant challenge. The Council of Trent in 1546 declared the Vulgate the ‘authentic’ Latin version of the Bible, on the grounds of its centuries-long use and its approval by the church. In lectures, disputations, sermons, and expositions the Vulgate must be employed. Furthermore, it was not to be interpreted ‘contrary to that sense which holy mother Church, to whom it belongs to judge of their true sense and interpretation, has held and holds’. No Bible or part thereof or commentary thereon was to be published without explicit church permission.

By permission of the British Library.

By permission of the British Library.

This decree left much unsaid or unsettled. It did not as such exclude vernacular translations made presumably from the Vulgate's Latin and certified by appropriate ecclesiastical officers. English-speaking Roman Catholics would for three centuries use the Douai–Rheims Bible (New Testament 1582, Old Testament 1609–10), so named from the two locations in France of the English Catholic college responsible for it. Translated from the Vulgate with a closeness that at times provided a highly Latinized English (e.g. ‘supersubstantial bread’ in the Lord's Prayer in Matthew 6: 11 , but not in Luke—for the Vulgate strangely rendered the difficult Greek word ‘daily’ in the Lucan version; ‘He exinanited Himself’ in Philippians 2: 7 ), it was equipped with a prologue and notes that ensured dogmatic correctness of interpretation. It was surely intended to counter the marginal notes of the 1560 Geneva Bible. The latter, often unfairly stigmatized as extremist, were generally Protestant rather than markedly Calvinist; so they emphasize justification by faith and frequently target the papacy. Sometimes Douai–Rheims and Geneva were closer than either expected, for the latter deliberately allowed for the perpetual virginity of Mary in its notes on the apparent brothers of Jesus and related texts.

The Council of Trent also instructed that in future ‘the Holy Scriptures, especially the old Vulgate edition, be printed in the most correct manner possible’. The Council could not specify which printing of the Vulgate was authenticum. The lack was supplied by an edition produced under the authority of Pope Sixtus V in 1590 and issued in a revised text under his successor Clement VIII in 1592. This ‘Clementine’ Vulgate has never been formally superseded, although Trent's silence has allowed the Roman Church in the modern era to function with the Hebrew and Greek scriptures no less than other scholastic and ecclesial communities. The Clementine Bible had two further editions, in 1593 and 1598. The practice of continuing correction while printing was in process meant that copies of the same edition do not agree in all respects. Such a risky procedure resulted in the third edition being the least correct.

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