The decade of work that led to the Bible being widely distributed
The Bible Explosion
- 4 minutes read - 652 words
Every so often in history, it seems everything happened at once. A recent example future historians may evaluate is the rapid downfall of colonial empires from the end of World War II until the 1960’s. Further back was the period of national revolutions beginning with the American Revolutionary War and ending with the Napoleonic Wars.
The most interesting to me, however, is the “explosion” of Bibles in the early modern period. Before the sixteenth century, the Bible—both Old and New Testaments—were inaccessible to most people. The Latin Vulgate was the most extant version, but few except for the Roman Catholic clergy could read it. Translations existed in English, French, German, etc., but they were not published or distributed to commoners, and thus are mostly lost to history. Everything changed, though, with a series of events starting in 1452.
Johannes Gutenberg printed the first Bible on his newly invented movable type printing press between 1452 and 1454. Though it was Jerome’s Bible he printed, it opened the door for further development.
Next, in 1453, with Gutenberg’s hands covered in Bible-printing ink, another earth-shattering event occurred: the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans. Constantinople, capital of the thousand-year Byzantine Empire, had been the keeper of the most widely accessible copies of Greek New Testament manuscripts; with the fall of that empire, its scholars fled far to the west, with the manuscripts in hand, settling in cities like Venice, Rome, Milan, and Florence. For the next sixty years, Greek scholarship spread through the universities of Europe.
Then, beginning in 1516, the “Bible explosion” happened. The renowned humanist scholar Erasmus was tasked to compile a Latin Bible, and while doing so, he chose to include the Greek New Testament. That Greek New Testament was the first to be published, and through the course of five editions, eventually became the famed Textus Receptus. From that base Greek text came the Bibles translated into common languages.
One year after Erasmus published his first Greek New Testament, Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses onto the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, thus beginning the Protestant Reformation. Four year later, Luther took refuge from the Catholic authorities in Wartburg Castle, where he acquired Erasmus’s newly printed Greek New Testament (second edition) and translated the Bible into German. That Bible, called The Luther Bible, was published a year later in 1522.
Also in 1522, William Tyndale acquired Erasmus’s Greek New Testament (third edition) and translated it into English for the first time, releasing a complete edition in 1526. Tyndale’s New Testament would form the foundation of the King James Version (published 85 years later). So, within the span of a decade, the New Testament went from hand-written, centuries-old Greek manuscripts to printed books men could read.
Over the next four decades, more popular New Testaments were translated from the original Greek, namely the Bible d’Olivétan (French, 1535 [side note: translated by a Waldensian pastor]) and the Reina-Valera (1569, Spanish).
Debates rage about when the Middle Ages ended—the Italian Renaissance, the fall of Constantinople, the invention of the printing press, the Protestant Reformation. I’m not here to answer that question, but may I propose that the “Bible explosion” played an important part in transitioning the western world into the Modern Age.
1516: Novum Instrumentum omne (early Textus Receptus)
1517: Beginning of Protestant Reformation
1521: Luther acquires Novum Instrumentum omne and begins translation
1522: Tyndale acquires Novum Instrumentum omne, Luther Bible published
1525: Partial edition of Tyndale New Testament (first in English)
1526: First complete edition of Tyndale New Testament
1535: Coverdale Bible, Bible d’Olivétan (first in French)