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Feb 1 - Translating the Bible

Updated: Jul 22, 2021

Today we remember the life and work of Erasmus the Dutch priest and 'Prince amongst Humanists'. This is the day in 1516 he dedicated his translation of the New Testament to Pope Leo X. This allows us to briefly explore the history of translating the Bible, from the first Jewish attempt to translate the first books by a community of scholars ('The Septuagint') - to St Jerome's attempt to produce an authoritative Latin translation (the Vulgate).

Today, Erasmus produces one of the first authorised attempts to correct errors that had crept into copies of the Vulgate. How this act of translating became a matter of life and death during the Reformation, Erasmus's relationship with Martin Luther on one hand, and various monasteries on the other? Was this the falling of small stones that lead to the avalanche of the Reformation?


Today, the Dutch priest and scholar Desiderius Erasmus dedicated his "amendment" of St Jerome's Latin translation of the Bible to Pope Leo X. This was one of the small stones that caused the avalanche that was to come. The enterprise of publishing biblical translations, and amendments to previous translations was a politically sensitive issue in the 16th Century. To have got the Pope’s blessing was a sign of the trust and esteem in which Erasmus was held as one of the greatest scholars of the northern Renaissance. He was known as the "Prince of the Humanists" as he prepared important new Latin and Greek editions of the New Testament and his writings touched many topics, most famously On Free Will, On Civility in Children, and In Praise of Folly. It is worth clarifying here that unlike modern humanism, Renaissance Humanism was not an ideological programme but a body of literary knowledge and linguistic skill based on the revival of a ancient philology and grammar. Sometimes referred to as a revival of letters, this earlier form of humanism was driven by many in the church.

This endeavour to look at the Bible with more scrutiny, meant taking into account the process of Biblical Translation, which scholars were beginning to understand. It was very complex, the Bible had not just dropped out of the sky, but had been written over hundreds of years by multiple authors. Also, the process of translating the Bible into languages other than those in which it was originally written, had been happening for over a thousand years. For the reformers it was necessary to continue this, and translate the Bible into common languages in order to reach a wider audience, for the Pope and Bishops this process had to be controlled carefully, as it was complex. Thus, it became a power game, who had the right to translate and the authority to do so. So many of the customs everyday life were justified by the Bible, and so many people were illiterate and relied on local priests to tell them what to do that there was a lot at stake. Much of the beautiful stained glass that was in the cathedrals and churches were designed to tell Biblical stories to illiterate people.

The Old Testament, was originally written almost entirely in Hebrew, with a few short elements in Aramaic. This had become the lingua franca at a time when the Persian empire controlled the eastern Mediterranean basin, and the Jewish communities of the region had translated into the common language from traditional Hebrew. Some Aramaic fragments had survived whereas Hebrew ones had been lost. However, by the mid-3rd century, a third language, ancient Greek had become the dominant language, and Jewish scholars translated the Hebrew canon into Greek. This was the first attempt at an organised translation in the third century BC, and the legend was that each of the 12 tribes of Israel had contributed six scholars to the project, This Greek version of the Jewish Bible came to be known later (in Latin) as the Septuagint (acknowledging the 70 translators) .

As the early Christian church spread out through the Greek-speaking world, they adopted the Septuagint. In this new emerging culture of ‘The Way’ many of the books of the Christian Bible, the New Testament, were first written or recorded in Greek, and others in Aramaic. However, the continuing spread of Christianity then lead to further translations into Coptic, Ethiopian, Gothic, and Latin. With this proliferation of translations, it was crucial that in the year 405, St. Jerome had finished a translation of the whole Bible which became the authoritative Latin version, the Vulgate. This became the standard of Western Christianity for a thousand years. However being copied and spread by monks, it was inevitable that errors had been introduced by copyists.

Erasmus, had studied Greek at a Venetian printing house and began a philological analysis of the Gospels, comparing the Greek originals with their Latin translations. He hoped to correct errors and began issuing new translations, unintentionally laying the groundwork for the Protestant Reformation. It was a time of great turmoil, and although Erasmus was critical of the abuses within the Catholic Church he chose to remain within it and called for reform. He kept his distance from Luther, Henry VIII, and John Calvin and continued to recognise the authority of the pope. Rejecting Luther's emphasis on faith alone he argued for a middle way and thus disappointed, and even angered both camps.

Today’s publication of his critical edition of the Greek New Testament had been rushed out to beat a similar effort by that of a Spanish Team lead by Cardinal Cisneros. Cisneros more ambitious project, had put together translators to create a compilation of the Bible in four languages: Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic and Latin.. This team had already completed and printed the full New Testament, including the Greek translation, two years previously. Cisneros had been in touch with Erasmus to let him know about his work, however, the Spanish team wanted the entire Bible to be released as one single work. This lead to Erasmus requesting a "Publication Privilege" for his Greek New Testament to ensure that his work would be published first. This he received from both Pope Leo X, to whom he would dedicate his work, and Emperor Maximilian. The more ambitious Complutensian Polyglot Bible was published six years later with only fifteen errors in the entire six volumes and four languages of Cisneros's bible, an extraordinarily low number for the time. Erasmus grabbing the opportunity offered to him by the Spanish delay admitted that his work was "rushed into print rather than edited",. The result although impressive included a large number of translation mistakes, transcription errors, and typos, that required further editions to be printed.

Luther, Tyndale and other Protestants based their vernacular versions on his translations and hailed Erasmus's calls for reform. The Reformation began the year following the publication of his edition of the Greek New Testament and this tested Erasmus's character. Erasmus, at the height of his fame, but still a disciplined scholar, was inevitably called upon to take sides, but partisanship was foreign to his nature and his habits. Despite all his criticism of clerical corruption and abuses within the Catholic Church and the fact that he supported lay access to the Bible, he shunned the Reformation movement along with its most radical offshoots and sided with neither party.

Attacks soon came from both sides, in a bitterly divided age. In a letter to Nikolaus von Amsdorf, Luther objected to Erasmus's catechism and in his typical intemperate language, called Erasmus a "viper," "liar," and "the very mouth and organ of Satan". On the other side, Erasmus was accused by monks to have prepared the way for Martin Luther. Erasmus, they said, had laid the egg, and Luther had hatched it. Erasmus couldn’t effectively defend himself from either side as he wrote in Greek and Latin, the languages of scholars, to an elite and small audience. His rebuttal to the monks claiming that Luther had hatched a different bird entirely was missed by most in the frenetic atmosphere of the time.

Reflection (not in pod) - holding on to our translations lightly

John Calvin famously described scripture as a nose of wax, because "it can be formed into all shapes". If you are using scripture as the sole locus of authority, then this takes on even greater significance. Maybe the first step is one of humility in acknowledging that you can use the Bible to justify many, many differing and opposing positions. Then a commitment to never stop learning about what is being discovered about the Bible, the different literary genres it encompasses, the different weight of meaning or truth one can reasonably associate with different parts.

The recent 'Bible Project' is an excellent example of the use of visual storytelling to deepen love and knowledge of scriptures. Produced by two friends Tim Mackie ( who has a deep love and understanding of the Bible) and Jonathan Collins (a talented digital visual storyteller) they have over 150 videos and 200 podcasts, which care accessible on different platforms - a website, an App, YouTube, Vimeo, etc. They have a large outreach over many different countries (A bit like this enterprise...... one can only dream!) It seems they met studying together in Portland Oregon, and have done a great service.... Thanks Guys!