Rebirth, Reform, And Revision


Rebirth, Reform, and Revision

Reading the Bible during the Reformation — Part 2

In Part I of Rebirth, Reform, and Revision, we introduced late medieval approaches to reading the Bible and the received tradition for understanding Biblical history. As we saw, the innovation of printing in the 15th century at first continued many of these approaches, but at the same time, printing supported the development of new modes of reading the Bible. Starting with Martin Luther’s call for reform, we now turn to the further advance of new approaches to reading, translating, and studying the Bible in the 16th and 17th centuries. Translations into many European vernacular languages appeared, alongside massive polyglot editions with the Biblical text in various early transmissions of the text. Even in England, where translating the Bible into English was long banned, new translations appeared, and by 1540 English had become the “authorized” language for the Bible. Even the Catholic Church supported the resurgence of Biblical studies through reform of the Latin (Vulgate) version, translation into English (Douay and Rheims editions), and the production of Biblical texts in Syriac and Arabic. Finally, we witness the efforts to promote understanding of the Bible through printed imagery in woodcut illustrations and engravings.

Martin Luther (1483–1546)

Born in Eisleben, Saxony, in 1483, Martin Luther was destined for the legal profession, a practical vocation for the son of an ambitious businessman. Instead, Luther underwent a terrifying experience that prompted him to dedicate his life to God. He joined the Augustinian order and studied theology, receiving the Doctor of Theology in 1512, whereupon he was received into the faculty at the University of Wittenberg. While it is not possible here to delineate his entire career, his work 500 years ago set into motion the developments we trace in this exhibit and forever changed the way Christians approach and study the Bible.

A Multitude of Languages

Across Europe the 16th century produced a blossoming of translation activity, with the Bible being printed in most European languages, including English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Slavonic, etc. At the same time, intense study of the sources was underway to find the most accurate copies and to work toward the purest form of the text. The Reformers turned away from the received translations of the Middle Ages—often based on Latin or mixed with non-Biblical materials—and endeavored to work from the earliest languages of the Bible, primarily Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. Catholics responded with their own translations into several languages

Geneva as a Center for Biblical Research

Dissatisfaction with the Roman Church was deep in Switzerland, where Luther’s defiance quickly inflamed existing anger, producing a more extreme approach to reform, in particular through Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) and his followers. The leading city of French Switzerland, Geneva, was slow to embrace the Reformation at first, even expelling John Calvin in 1538, only to call him back a few years later. Under Calvin’s leadership, Geneva became a center for Biblical studies with connections across Europe. His presence and the relative freedom for intellectual curiosity in Geneva attracted other Biblical scholars, such as Théodore de Bèze and Robert Estienne (“Stephanus”), whose innovative work transformed our approach to the Bible. While still in Paris, Estienne published the first critical edition of the Greek New Testament (1550), and shortly after arriving in Geneva as a refugee he published the first Greek New Testament to use verse numbers (1551)—both practices that are still vital to Biblical studies today.

Catholic Response: Translations and Condemnations

Even as it opposed this new generation of Reformers, the Catholic Church was also promoting translation of the Bible into the vernacular. Catholic Bibles were published in the 16th century, for example, in English, French, and German. The Catholics often produced texts quite similar to those produced by the Reformers, even though they usually asserted Jerome’s Latin Vulgate as their source.

The Catholic world was also supporting the study of the source texts through projects like the Complutensian Polyglot Bible (published in Madrid, Spain, 1514-1517) and the Antwerp or Plantin Polyglot Bible (published in 1569-1573), which was prepared for Philip II, the Catholic king of Spain. The Vatican also sought new relations with Eastern Christian churches, which led to translations into non-European languages. Finally, in the late 16th century the Catholic Church undertook the revision of the received Latin Vulgate text, which became the standard Latin text for Catholics for the next four centuries.

Polyglot Bibles

In the 15th century there was a great move toward studying materials in their original languages and not through Latin translations. Interest in the Biblical languages rose sharply, with renewed studies of Greek and Hebrew, as well as other Semitic languages. Polyglot (or “multilingual”) Bibles reproduce the text in multiple languages across parallel columns for easy comparison of different textual transmissions. Already in 1516, the first printed polyglot edition of the Psalms was published in Genoa, Italy, and was soon followed by Erasmus’ Greek New Testament.

Today Erasmus’ edition is criticized for errors introduced by the rush to get published before the Complutensian Bible. This new approach to studying the text, which brings together different avenues of Biblical transmission to establish variants, reached its logical climax a century and a half later in the London Polyglot, which parallels more languages (including Arabic, Persian and Ethiopic) than any of the others

Early English Translations of the Bible

Partial translations of the Bible into English date back to the early Middle Ages, including one into Anglo-Saxon by the Venerable Bede. Early modern translation into English begins in the late 14th century with John Wycliffe (executed in 1384) and his followers. Along with Jan Hus (ca. 1369-1415), Wycliffe is often included as a direct predecessor to the 16th-century Reformers.

Under the influence of Luther and Erasmus, William Tyndale (ca. 1494-1536) translated the New Testament from Greek and Hebrew into English. The English ban on Bible translation forced him to hide on the continent, as well as publish in secret. After Tyndale’s arrest (May 1535), Miles Coverdale added his own translations (chiefly from German and Latin) to publish the first full English Bible (1535). Tyndale’s work appeared again in the “Matthew’s Bible” (1537), which was succeeded by the “Great Bible” (1540), the Geneva Bible (1560), the Douai-Rheims Bible (1582/1609-1610), and finally by the King James Bible (1611).

Supporting the Study of the Bible

Already in the earliest days of the Christian Church, there was a need to explain Biblical texts and create commentaries on them. Some of the earliest commentators on the Bible, such as Augustine or Gregory, were studied throughout the Middle Ages, and over time, several of their works were compiled into larger glosses or commentaries like the Glossa Ordinaria and the Catena Aurea (Thomas Aquinas).

The Reformation ushered in a whole new set of commentaries and other secondary resources, especially with new readings based on the original languages. While many popular medieval authors continued to be printed in the 16th century (e.g. Denys the Carthusian, Rupert von Deutz), their works began to fade from view as newer collections of commentaries, concordances, sermons, etc. were authored by both Protestants and Catholics. Several of the leading Reformers, such as Luther, Calvin and Melanchthon, made major contributions to Biblical studies through their commentaries.

Depicting the Bible in Woodcuts and Engravings

Popular reception of the Bible during the Reformation was heavily influenced by the visual depictions of Biblical stories and characters. The closest of these artistic treatments to the printed book were woodcut illustrations (chiefly in the 15th and 16th centuries) and intaglio prints (later 16th and 17th centuries). Such illustrations were perfect for including within the Bibles and other devotional works. As we saw earlier in the King James’ Bible (1660), some plates even have captions in multiple languages that make it possible to market them in several different countries and linguistic regions.

Some plates stand by themselves, such as a series depicting the Lord’s Prayer (AAP1483-AAP1490) and another that provides Biblical examples for the Beatitudes (AAP1085-AAP1091).

Such visual arts were both widely circulated and much utilized by all sides in the religious and political conflicts of the 16th and 17th centuries. Many images had great satirical effect, like the famous woodcut in Luther’s September Bible (1522) showing the papal tiara on the Whore of Babylon in the Book of Revelation. The agility of the printing industry in responding to the needs of the time firmly established its cultural importance.


Dr. Matthew Z. Heintzelman


Special thanks for their contributions to Tim Ternes, who installed the original exhibition in 2017; Katherine Goertz, who helped locate and identify materials from the Arca Artium Art Collection; David Calabro, who provided an improved romanization for the title of the Syriac New Testament; Wayne Torborg and Mary Hoppe, who provided the digital photos throughout the exhibition; and to John Meyerhofer, who prepared the online version.


Rebirth, Reform, and Revision

Late Medieval and Early Modern Sources on the Bible in Special Collections at HMML/Saint John’s University: a selection

I. Bible Manuscripts

Mabon Book of Hours, 15th century. SJU Ms. 1, Saint John’s Rare Books.

Latin New Testament, ca. 1300. SJU Ms. 12, Saint John’s Rare Books.

Gospel of Luke, fragment, 13th century. Ms. Frag. 19, HMML Special Collections.

Latin Bible, fragment. Arca Fragment 26 (aap1306), Arca Artium Rare Book Collection.

Gospel of Matthew, fragment. HMML Ms. 2, HMML Special Collections.

II. Printed Bibles in Exhibition

Bibles, Polyglot (by date)

Psalterium, Hebraeum, Graecum. Arabicum, & Chaldaecum: cum tribus Latinis interpretatonibus & glossis. [Genoa]: Petrus Paulus Porrus, for Nicolaus Justinianus Paulus, 1516. Arca Artium Rare Book Collection.

Nouum Testamentum omne multo quàm antehac diligentius ab Erasmo Roterodamo recognitum. Basel: Johann Froben, 1519. Arca Artium Rare Book Collection.

Basil Hall. The great polyglot Bibles: including a leaf from the Complutensian of Acalá, 1514-17. San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1966. Arca Artium Rare Book Collection.

Biblia Sacra Hebraice, Chaldaice, Graece, & Latine: Philippi II. Reg. Cathol. pietate, et studio ad Sacrosanctae Ecclesiae usum. Antwerp: Christopher Plantin, 1569-1572. Arca Artium Rare Book Collection.

Biblia sacra polyglotta: complectentia textus originales, Hebraicum, cum Pentateucho Samaritano, Chaldaicum, Græcum. Versionumque antiquarum, Samaritanæ, Græcæ LXXII Interp., Chaldaicæ, Syriacæ, Arabicæ, Æthiopicæ, Persicæ, Vulg. Lat. quicquid comparari poterat. London: Thomas Roycroft, 1657. Saint John’s Rare Books.

Bibles, Arabic

Al- Inǵīl al-muqaddas li-rabbinā Jasūʻ al-Masīḥ ... Mattā wa-Marqus wa-Lūqā wa-Jūḥannā; Evangelium Sanctum Domini nostri Iesu Christi, conscriptum a quatuor evangelistis sanctis. Rome: Typographia Medicea, 1590/1591. Saint John’s Rare Books.

Bibles, English (by date)

Allen Paul Wikgren. A leaf from the first edition of the first complete Bible in English, the Coverdale Bible, 1535. San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1974. Arca Artium Rare Book Collection.

Here begynneth the Pystles and Gospels of euery Sonday and holy daye in the yere. [Rouen : N. le Roux], 1538. Bound with the Primer in English and Latin (1538). Arca Artium Rare Book Collection.

The Byble that is to say all the holy Scripture: in whych are contayned the Olde and New Testamente, fragment. London: S. Mierdman for John Daye and William Seres, 1549. Arca Artium Art Collection.

The Nevv Testament of Iesvs Christ: translated faithfvlly into English, out of the authentical Latin, according to the best corrected copies of the same … Reims: Jean de Foigny, 1582. Arca Artium Rare Book Collection.

Thomas Sternhold. The whole booke of Psalmes. London: John Daye, 1584. Saint John’s Rare Books.

The Holie Bible faithfully translated into English, out of the authentical Latin, Diligently conferred with the Hebrew, Greeke, and other editions in divers languages. Douai: Laurence Kellam, 1609-1610. Arca Artium Rare Book Collection.

Thomas Sternhold, et al. The Whole Booke of Psalmes. London: Robert Young, 1633. Bound with the Book of Common Prayer; A Briefe Concordance or Table to the Bible of the Last Translation; and: The Way to True Happinesse … (all dated 1633). HMML Special Collections.

The Holy Bible : Contayning the Old and New Testaments, newly translated out of ye originall tongues, and with ye former translations diligently compared and revised. London (?): John Field, 1657.

The Holy Bible, Containing the Bookes of the Old & New Testament. Cambridge: John Field, 1660. Arca Artium Rare Book Collection.

The Holy Bible, containing the Old Testament and the New, newly translated out of the original tongues, and with the former translations diligently compared and revised. London: Henry Hills and John Field, 1660. Saint John’s Rare Books.

Bibles, French (by date)

Le premier volume de la Bible en francois ; Le second volume de la Bible en francoys. Paris: [Pierre II Regnault], 1544-1546. Arca Artium Rare Book Collection.

La Bible, qui est toute la Saincte Escriture du Vieil & du Nouueau Testament: Autrement l’anciene & la nouuelle alliance. Geneva, 1588. Saint John’s Rare Books.

Les Pseaumes de David mis en rime françoise. Sedan: Jean Jannon, 1623. Arca Artium Rare Book Collection.

Bibles, German (by date)

[Bible in German], fragment. Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, 1483. Arca Artium Art Collection.

[Bible in German], fragment. Strasbourg: Johann Grüninger, 1485. Arca Artium Art Collection.

Bibell, Alle Bücher alts und news Testaments, translated by Johann Dietenberger. Cologne: Gerwin Calenius and the heirs of Johan Quentel, 1572. Saint John’s Rare Books.

Biblia, das ist, Die gantze heilige Schrifft deutsch, translated by Martin Luther. Wittenberg: August Boreck, 1626. Arca Artium Rare Book Collection.

Bibles, Greek (by date)

Hē kainē diathēkē. Paris: Simon de Colines, 1534]. Arca Artium Rare Book Collection.

Tēs Kainēs Diathēkēs hapanta; Nouum Testamentum: ex Bibliotheca Regia. Paris: Robert Estienne, 1546. Arca Artium Rare Book Collection.

Tēs Kainēs Diathēkēs hapanta. Euangelion kata Matthaion. Kata Markon. Kata Loukan. Kata Iōannēn. Praxeis tōn Apostolōn.; Nouum Iesu Christi D.N. Testamentum. Paris: Robert Estienne, 1550. Arca Artium Rare Book Collection.

Bibles, Italian

Il Nuovo ed eterno Testamento di Giesu Christo. Lyons: Jean de Tournes and Guillaume Gazeau, 1556. Arca Artium Rare Book Collection.

Bibles, Latin (by date)

A. Edward Newton. A Noble Fragment: Being a Leaf of the Gutenberg Bible, 1450-1455. New York: Gabriel Wells, 1921. College of Saint Benedict Rare Books.

Psalterium Benedictinum, fragment Mainz: Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer, 1459. Arca Artium Art Collection.

Biblia Latina [with the Glossa Ordinaria]. Strasbourg: Adolph Rusch for Anton Koberger, 1481. Arca Artium Rare Book Collection.

Biblia Integra. Basel: Johann Froben, 1491. Arca Artium Rare Book Collection.

Biblia cum concordantijs Veteris et Noui Testamenti et sacrorum canonum: summa cum diligentia reuisa correcta et emendata. Venice: Lucantonio Giunta, [15 October 1519]. Saint John’s Rare Books.

In hoc libello contenta Psalterium Dauidicum cum aliquot canticis ecclesiasticis, litanie, hymni ecclesiastici. Paris: C. Chevallon, 1536. Arca Artium Rare Book Collection.

Biblia Sacra vtrivsqve Testamenti, et Vetvs qvidem post omnes omnivm hactenus aeditiones : opera D. Sebast. Mvnsteri euulgatum, & ad Hebraicam ueritatem quoad fieri potuit redditum. Zurich: Christoph Froschauer, 1539. Saint John’s Rare Books.

Biblia Sacra ad optima quaeque veteris, ut vocant, tralationis exemplaria summa diligentia, parique fide castigata. Lyons: Jean de Tournes, 1558. Arca Artium Rare Book Collection.

Biblia Sacra Vvlgatae editionis. Rome: Ex typographia Vaticana, 1598. Arca Artium Rare Book Collection.

Bibles, Slavonic

Biblīa sirēch knigy vetkhago i novago zavĕta po i͡azykū slovenskū. Ostroh (Ukraine): Ivan Fyodorov, 1581. Arca Artium Rare Book Collection.

Bibles, Syriac

Ktābā d-ʼEwangeliyon qadíšā d-Māran w-ʼAlāhan Yešúʻ Mšíḥā: Liber sacrosancti evangelii de Iesv Christo Domino & Deo nostro. Vienna: Michael Cymermannus, 1555. Arca Artium Rare Book Collection.

III. Other Printed Works in this Exhibition

Théodore de Bèze. Les vrais povrtraits des hommes illvstres en piete et doctrine. [Geneva]: Jean de Laon, 1581. Arca Artium Rare Book Collection.

Jean Calvin. Commentarii in Isaiam prophetam. Geneva: Jean Crispin, 1559. Saint John’s Rare Books.

Johann Ludwig Lindhammer. Der von dem H. Evangelisten Luca beschriebenen Apostel-Geschichte ausführliche Erklärung und Anwendung. Halle: Waisenhaus, 1725. Saint John’s Rare Books.

Martin Luther. Colloquia, oder Tischreden Doctor Martini Lutheri. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Schmid and Sigmund Feyerabend, 1569. Saint John’s Rare Books.

Martin Luther. Tomus primus [-quartus et idem ultimus] omnium operum. Jena: Christian Rödinger, 1556-1570. Saint John’s Rare Books.

Mordecai Nathan. Sefer ya’ir nativ : Concordantiarum Hebraicarum capita. Basel: Heinrich Petri, 1556. Saint John’s Rare Books.

Nicholas of Lyra. Postillae perpetuae in Vetus et Novus Testamentum, vol. 3 Rome: Conrad Sweynheim and Arnold Pannartz, 1470. Arca Artium Rare Book Collection.

Ordnung des Herren Nachtmal: so man die Messz nennet, sampt der Tauff vnd Insegung der Ee. [Strasbourg: Johannes Schwan], 1525. Saint John’s Rare Books.

Claude Paradin and Bernard Salomon. Quadrins historiques de la Bible. Lyons: Jean de Tournes, 1553. Arca Artium Rare Book Collection.

Thomas Aquinas. Diui Thome Aquinatis continuum in librum ewangelij secundum Mattheum. Venice: Andreas de Asula and Thomas de Alexandria, 1486. Saint John’s Rare Books.

Thomas Aquinas. Catena aurea. Rome: Conrad Sweynheim and Arnold Pannartz, 1470. Fragment. Arca Artium Rare Book Collection.

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