In my last post we took a tour through the Middle Ages and saw that the Catholic Church has been teaching from the beginning that we are saved by grace through faith. I’ve decided to go back and examine the commonly held belief that the Church kept the faithful from reading the Bible so that they wouldn’t realize how “unbiblical” Catholic doctrine is. After all, in the words of “prophecy expert” Tim LaHaye, the Catholic Church made sure the Scriptures were “locked up in monasteries and museums” during the Middle Ages. It is simply “common knowledge” among Protestants that the Church has opposed access to the Scriptures down through the ages, something I used to believe – until I went to the trouble of doing a little research….
When I was a Protestant I KNEW that Martin Luther was the first German to translate the Holy Scriptures into the vernacular so that everyone could understand them. After all, he himself said, “”Thirty years ago, no-one read the Bible, and it was unknown to all. The prophets were not spoken of and were considered impossible to understand. And when I was twenty years old, I had never seen a Bible. I thought that the Gospels or Epistles could be found only in the postills [lectionaries] for the Sunday readings.” That’s Herr Luther’s story, and most Protestants buy into it. Let’s take another stroll down through the centuries to see how the situation looked on the ground. In 312 A.D. Constantine saw his “In Hoc Signo Vinces” vision. We’ll start there, looking for signs of devotion to God’s word…. (Don’t be shy about clicking on the links – there’s some good info there.)
St. Ambrose (330-397) “The reading of Holy Scripture is the life of the soul; Christ Himself declares it when He says: ‘The words that I have spoken to you, are spirit and life’.”
St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-c.395) “We are not allowed to affirm what we please. We make Holy Scripture the rule and the measure of every tenet.”
St. John Chrysostom (347- 407) “…each of you take in hand that part of the Gospels which is to be read in your presence on the first day of the week or even on the Sabbath; and before that day comes, sit down at home and read it through; consider often and carefully its content, and examine all its parts well, noting what is clear, what is confusing…. And, in a word, when you have sounded every point, then go to hear it read. From such zeal as this there will be no small benefit both to you and to me.”
St. Jerome (347-420) “I interpret as I should, following the command of Christ: Search the Scriptures, and Seek and you shall find. Christ will not say to me what he said to the Jews: You erred, not knowing the Scriptures and not knowing the power of God. For if, as Paul says, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God, and if the man who does not know Scripture does not know the power and wisdom of God, then ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”
St. Egeria (4th century) “And as he [the bishop] explained the meaning of all the Scriptures, so does he explain the meaning of the Creed; each article first literally and then spiritually. By this means all the faithful in these parts follow the Scriptures when they are read in church.”
Sounds like Christian leaders in the 4th century not only loved the word of God themselves, but also were committed to teaching it to the faithful. But the Dark Ages began in the 5th century. Perhaps that is when the Scriptures were taken from the people….
St. Mesrop Mashtots (5th century) “To know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding” – the first words written by St. Mesrop as he translated the Scriptures into Armenian.
Unknown translators (5th century) translated the Scriptures into the Syriac, Coptic, Old Nubian, Ethiopic and Georgian languages.
St. Gregory the Great (540-604) “Those who are zealous in the work of preaching must never cease the study of the written Word of God.”
St. John Damascene (c. 645-749) “Like a tree planted by streams of water, the soul is irrigated by the Bible and acquires vigor, produces tasty fruit, namely, true faith, and is beautified with a thousand green leaves, namely, actions that please God.”
St. Bede the Venerable (c. 672- 735) “I wholly applied myself to the study of Scripture, and amidst the observance of regular discipline, and the daily care of singing in the church, I always took delight in learning, teaching and writing.” St. Bede translated the Gospel of John into English.
Unknown translator (8th century) translated the Gospel of Matthew into German.
Unknown translator (8th century) translated the Psalms into English (Vespasian Psalter).
Sts. Cyril and Methodius (9th century) translated the Scriptures into Old Church Slavonic.
Unknown translator (9th century) translated the Scriptures into Arabic (Mt. Sinai Arabic Codex 151).
Unknown translator (10th century) translated the four Gospels into Old English (Wessex or West-Saxon Gospels).
Ælfric of Eynsham (11th century) translated the first seven books of the Old Testament into English.
Benedictine missionaries (11th century) translated portions of the Scriptures into Hungarian.
Throughout the “Dark Ages,” the Bible was being read in Latin (the official language of the Church in the West. If you could read, you could read Latin!) I know people who believe that Bible reading in the Middle Ages was strictly forbidden. Certainly if that were the case, no translations would be made of the Scriptures into the vernacular languages of the faithful. What would be the point? Yet we have seen numerous examples of vernacular translations of Scripture before the turn of the first millennium!
St. Anthony of Padua (1195-1231) “He who does not know Scripture, knows absolutely nothing.”
St. Bonaventure (1221-1274) “We must study Holy Scripture carefully, and teach it and listen to it in the same way.”
Jaume de Montjuich (13th century) translated the Scriptures into Catalan.
Guyart des Moulins (13th century) translated the Scriptures into French.
Unknown translator (13th century) translated the Scriptures into Spanish (Biblia Alfonsina).
Unknown translator (13th century) translated the Psalms into Polish.
John Wycliffe (1320-1384) praises Anne of Bohemia (1366–1394) because she possesses copies of the Gospels in three languages, Bohemian, German, and Latin.
King Denis of Portugal (14th century) translated the first 20 chapters of Genesis into Portuguese.
John of Montecorvino, Franciscan missionary to China (14th century) translated the New Testament into Uyghur, the language of the Mongols.
Unknown translator (14th century) translated the books of Genesis through II Kings into Norwegian (Stjorn).
Unknown translator (14th century) translated the Scriptures into the Czech language.
Unknown translator (14th century) translated the book of Revelation into English.
Matthias von Beheim (14th century) commissioned the translation of the Gospels into German.
Unknown translators (14th century) translated the Psalms into Polish and German (St. Florian Psalter).
Unknown translator (14th century) translated the Old Testament into German (Wenzel Bibel).
King John I of Portugal (15th century) translated the Psalms and parts of the New Testament into Portuguese.
Andrzej z Jaszowic (15th century) translated parts of Scripture into Polish (Biblia królowej Zofii).
Unknown translator (15th century) – translated parts of Scripture into Croatian.
Unknown translator (15th century) – translated the New Testament into English.
Johannes Mentelin (1460-Strasburg) printed the first German language Bible.
Heinrich Eggestein (1466 -Strasburg) printed the Bible in German.
Jodocus Planzmann (c. 1470-Augsburg) printed the Bible in German.
Wendelin von Speyer (1471-Venice) printed the Bible in Italian.
Guenter Zainer printed two Bible editions in German, in c. 1475 and 1477 (Augsburger Bibel).
Johann Senseschmidt and Andreas Frisner (c. 1470-Nuremburg) printed the Bible in German.
Anton Sorg (1477-Augsburg) printed the Bible in German.
Barthélemy Buyer (1477-Lyons) printed the Bible in French.
Jacob Zoen and Mauritius Temants Zoem (1477-Delft) printed the Bible in Dutch (De Delfste Bijbel).
Niccolò Malermi (1477) printed the Bible in Italian.
Bonifacio Ferrera (1478-Valencia) printed the Bible in Spanish.
Heinrich Quentel (1480-Cologne) printed the Bible in German.
Anton Koburger (1483-Nuremburg) printed the Bible in German (Koburger Bibel).
Martin Luther is born (1483).
Johann Gruninger (1485-Strasburg) printed the Bible in German.
Hans Schoensperger printed two Bible editions in German, in 1487 and in 1490, in Strasburg.
Joan Ross Vercellese (1487) printed the Bible in Italian.
The Bible is printed in Bohemian (1488-Prague).
Stephan Arndes (1494-Luebeck) printed the Bible in German.
Hans Otmar (1507-Augsburg) printed the Bible in German.
Silvan Otmar (1518-Augsburg) printed the Bible in German.
When Martin Luther broke away from the Catholic Church, he began the task of translating the Scriptures into German. This was quite obviously not the ground-breaking, cutting-edge undertaking that many Protestants would like to believe. I had always thought of it as something hitherto unheard of – but look at all those German editions of Holy Scripture that came before Luther’s!
Catholics after Luther’s time continued doing what they had been doing….
St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) ” Taking Scripture as our guide we do not err, since the Holy Spirit speaks to us through it.”
St. Lawrence of Brindisi (1559-1619) “God’s word is so rich that it is a treasury of every good. From it flow faith, hope, love, and all the virtues, the many gifts of the Spirit.”
St. John Baptiste de la Salle (1651-1719) “Let your chief study be the Bible, that it may be the guiding rule of your life.”
Ignazio Arcamone (17th century) translated parts of Scripture into Konkani, a language spoken in India.
Jesuit missionaries (17th century) translated parts of the New Testament into Japanese.
Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903) “…it is well to recall how, from the beginning of Christianity, all who have been renowned for holiness of life and sacred learning have given their deep and constant attention to Holy Scripture.
Pope Benedict XV (1854- 1922) “Our one desire for all the Church’s children is that, being saturated with the Bible, they may arrive at the all-surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ.”
Blessed Titus Brandsma (1881-1942) Particularly the reading of Holy Scripture, which is the law of God, should fill us with great joy from the fact that God lives in us by his grace, and we are able to progress like giants, carried away beyond our strict obligations by the pure love and joy which is the cause of our election.
Blessed John Paul II (1920-2005) “Theology must take its point of departure from a continual and updated return to the Scriptures read in the Church.”
The above list of translations of Holy Scripture into various vernacular languages down through the centuries is not complete; I simply couldn’t include them all. Bear in mind that these vernacular translations are the ones that we know about. Not all translations, especially those from the first millennium, are extant.
The writings of the saints are full to bursting of quotes from Scripture. Sit down one afternoon and read St. Bernard (12th century), St. John of the Cross (15th century), or St. Alphonsus Liguori (18th century). According to the Carmelites, St. Teresa of Avila quoted from Scripture over 600 times in her writings. So many of the saints wrote commentaries on the Scriptures. You can’t seriously investigate the writings of the saints down through the ages, and then try to claim that the Church didn’t want anyone to know what the Bible said!
I’d like to re-emphasize that in the Middle Ages to be educated meant to know Latin. In other words, the Latin Scriptures were not the mystery to the educated layperson of the Middle Ages that they would be to 21st-century North Americans. IF YOU COULD READ, YOU COULD READ LATIN! On that point alone, the entire “vernacular argument” falls apart….
On the memorial of Sts. Andrew Kim Taegon and Paul Chong Hasang and companions
Deo omnis gloria!