The Bible was at the center of the Protestant Reformation and the debates and discussions on Christian theology and practice. The reformers engaged with the Bible in new ways, studying the original Greek and Hebrew texts, and teaching and preaching the Bible to the people. They taught that the Bible was the word of God, the highest spiritual authority. They believed the Bible was clear and understandable, full of truth and wisdom. They worked tirelessly to translate the Bible into the languages of the common people. The German reformer Martin Luther wrote that “we must ask the mother in the home, the children in the street, the common person in the market about this. We must be guided by their tongue, the manner of their speech, and do our translating accordingly.” The English Bible translator William Tyndale desired “to have all the scripture unlocked and opened before thee; so that if thou wilt go in, and read, thou canst not but understand.” The Bibles of the Reformation were meant to be opened, read, and studied so that all could engage with the Bible.
This modern map indicates the printing date of the first significant translation of biblical text into that country’s language during the Reformation era. Not all were Protestant translations, but the map does show the widespread influence of the Protestant emphasis on vernacular translations of the Bible.
300 BC to AD 1970
Martin Luther and the Reformation Special
During the medieval era (AD 500-1500), the Western church and the pope possessed immense spiritual and political authority. The Bible of the West was the Vulgate, a translation adapted from Jerome’s fourth- century Latin revision. Access to the Bible was limited primarily to scholars, clergy, and the wealthy. Most people could not read Latin, and books were rare and expensive, produced by hand. The church taught that popes, councils, the Bible, and tradition were all considered sources of spiritual authority. The church also asserted it had the sole authority to interpret the Bible, and prohibited vernacular (common language) translations.
John Wycliffe, sometimes called the “morning star of the Reformation,” struck a spark that ignited the flame of an impending revolution. In the 1380s, Wycliffe’s followers produced the first complete translation of the Bible in English. Then another momentous development impacted Europe. In the 1450s, Johannes Gutenberg developed a metal movable-type printing press, allowing for faster and cheaper book production. His first major printed work was the Latin Vulgate.
Access to the Bible was limited primarily to scholars, clergy, and the wealthy. Most people could not read Latin, and books were rare and expensive, produced by hand.
In 1517, Martin Luther, a German monk, challenged the church’s authority. He wrote the Ninety-Five Theses, arguing that the pope did not have the authority to issue indulgences for the forgiveness of sins for the living or for souls in purgatory. This document, and Luther’s reputation and writings, spread throughout Europe, initiating the Protestant Reformation.
Luther appeared before a papal representative in Augsburg, Germany, in 1518, and refused to recant of his teachings and writings. His teachings were condemned by the pope in 1520 and he was officially excommunicated in January of 1521. A few months later, Luther was called before the Holy Roman Empire at the Diet of Worms. When asked to recant yet again, he refused, famously declaring: “my conscience is bound in the word of God, cannot and will not recant anything.”
Luther came to believe that the Bible, not the church, was the highest spiritual authority. Luther also wanted a vernacular Bible that was accessible to common people. From 1521 to 1522, he translated the New Testament into German from Greek, using Desiderius Erasmus’s recent edition of the Greek New Testament. With the help of other colleagues, Luther finished the translation of the entire Bible in 1534.
Luther’s thought impacted the study of theology and the practice of western Christianity. Luther left a complicated and controversial legacy, but he is nonetheless one of the most significant figures in Western Christianity.
The ideas of Luther and other Protestant reformers spread throughout Europe. Bible translations, from Greek and Hebrew into the vernacular, often followed the influx of Protestant ideas. But, Protestantism was not welcome in all corners of Europe. Resistance from church and royal officials often prevented the spread of the Protestant Reformation. But, Protestants in exile continued to write and translate. The city of Geneva became a haven for Protestant exiles from France, Spain, England, and across Europe, including most famously, John Calvin, the prominent French scholar and theologian.
The Reformation spread into England during the reign of King Henry VIII. In 1526, William Tyndale, inspired by Luther, illegally printed his English New Testament. Henry ordered every copy collected and burned. William Tyndale was tried for heresy in 1536, and was strangled and burned at the stake. Just one year before, in 1535, Myles Coverdale had printed the complete English Bible. Coverdale then helped publish the Great Bible, the first and only authorized English translation of the Bible in 1539.
Bible translations, from Greek and Hebrew into the vernacular, often followed the influx of Protestant ideas.
After the death of the Protestant king Edward VI in 1553, Mary Tudor, a devout Catholic, ascended the throne of England. She sought to return England to Catholicism. Several English Protestant leaders and scholars fled to the European continent during her reign, and produced many significant works. About 300 of the exiles settled in Geneva, the home of John Calvin. The English exiles in Geneva produced the 1560 Geneva Bible, translated into English from the Hebrew and Greek texts. In the preface, the translators encouraged the reader to “earnestly studie it and in your life practise it.” It was intended to be a study Bible, and included illustrations, charts, and marginal notes with commentary. These notes were controversial, as they contained principles of Calvin’s theology, and adopted a somewhat anticlerical and antimonarchical position. When they returned to England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, these exiles became the core of the Puritan movement.
The sixteenth century also marked a time of reform in the Catholic Church. In 1545, the church called the Council of Trent. The council solidified Catholic doctrine in response to the Protestant Reformation and implemented reform through the church. The council also declared the Latin Vulgate the authoritative and authentic text of the Bible. English Catholics in exile produced an English translation, called the Reims New Testament, based on the Latin Vulgate. In 1590, Pope Sixtus V produced a revised Latin Vulgate for print which Pope Clement VIII amended.
The Protestant Reformation changed how the Bible was read in the West. People all over Europe could now read the Bible in their own language and listen to the Bible preached in their own language. Bibles were available in all shapes and sizes, with chapters and verses, illustrations, maps, prefaces, and marginal notes, features intended to help a person read and interpret the Bible for themselves.
The Bible has been translated for over 2,000 years as people brought it to new places and new cultures. The sixteenth century experienced a significant increase in the number of new Bible translations, due to the Protestant Reformation. Modern missionary efforts, starting in earnest in the 1800s, sparked massive translation efforts.
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