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History of the Catholic Bible

Vernacular Scriptures Plentiful before Wycliff

The Bible was provided in the "common tongue" for centuries

I HAVE said that people who could read at all in the Middle Ages could read Latin: hence there was little need for the Church to issue the Scriptures in any other language. But as a matter of fact she did in many countries put the Scriptures in the hands of her children in their own tongue.

1. We know from history that there were popular translations of the Bible and Gospels in Spanish, Italian, Danish, French, Norwegian, Polish, Bohemian and Hungarian for the Catholics of those lands before the days of printing, but we shall confine ourselves to England, so as to refute once more the common fallacy that John Wycliff was the first to place an English translation of the Scriptures in the hands of the English people in A.D. 1382.

To anyone that has investigated the real facts of the case, this fondly-cherished notion must seem truly ridiculous; it is not only absolutely false, but stupidly so, inasmuch as it admits of such easy disproof; one wonders that nowadays any lecturer or writer should have the temerity to advance it.

Now, observe I am speaking of the days before the printing-press was invented; I am speaking of England; and concerning a Church which did not, and does not, admit the necessity of Bible-reading for salvation; and concerning an age when the production of the Scriptures was a most costly business, and far beyond the means of nearly everybody. Yet we may safely assert, and we can prove, that there were actually in existence among the people many copies of the Scriptures in the English tongue of that day.

To begin far back, we have a copy of the work of Caedmon, a monk of Whitby, in the end of the seventh century, consisting of great portions of the Bible in the common tongue. In the next century we have the well-known translations of Venerable Bede, a monk of Jarrow, who died whilst busy with the Gospel of St. John. In the same (eighth) century we have the copies of Eadhelm, Bishop of Sherborne; of Guthlac, a hermit near Peterborough; and of Egbert, Bishop of Holy Island; these were all in Saxon, the language understood and spoken by the Christians of that time. Coming down a little later, we have the free translations of King Alfred the Great who was working at the Psalms when he died, and of Aelfric, Archbishop of Canterbury; as well as popular renderings of Holy Scripture like the Book of Durham, and the Rushworth Gloss and others that have survived the wreck of ages.

After the Norman conquest in 1066, Anglo-Norman or Middle-English became the language of England, and consequently the next translations of the Bible we meet with are in that tongue. There are several specimens still known, such as the paraphrase of Orm (about 1150) and the Salus Animae (1050), the translations of William Shoreham and Richard Rolle, hermit of Hampole (died 1349). I say advisedly "specimens" for those that have come down to us are merely indications of a much greater number that once existed, but afterwards perished.

We have proof of this in the words of Blessed Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England under Henry VIII who says: "The whole Bible long before Wycliff's day was by virtuous and well-learned men translated into the English tongue, and by good and godly people with devotion and soberness well and reverently read" (Dialogues III). Again, "The clergy keep no Bibles from the laity but such translations as be either not yet approved for good, or such as be already reproved for naught (i.e., bad, naughty) as Wycliff's was. For, as for old ones that were before Wycliff's days, they remain lawful and be in some folks' hand. I myself have seen, and can show you, Bibles, fair and old which have been known and seen by the Bishop of the Diocese, and left in laymen's hands and women's too, such as he knew for good and Catholic folk, that used them with soberness and devotion."

2. But you will say, that is the witness of a Roman Catholic. Well, I shall advance Protestant testimony also.

The translators of the Authorized Version, in their "Preface," referring to previous translations of the Scriptures into the language of the people, make the following important statements. After speaking of the Greek and Latin Versions, they proceed:

"The godly-learned were not content to have the Scriptures in the language which themselves understood, Greek and Latin ... but also for the behoof and edifying of the unlearned which hungered and thirsted after righteousness, and had souls to be saved as well as they, they provided translations into the Vulgar for their countrymen, insomuch that most nations under Heaven did shortly after their conversion hear Christ speaking unto them in their Mother tongue, not by the voice of their minister only but also by the written word translated."

As all these nations were certainly converted by the Roman Catholic Church, for there was then no other to send missionaries to convert anybody, this is really a valuable admission. The Translators of 1611, then, after enumerating many converted nations that had the Vernacular Scriptures, come to the case of England, and include it among the others:

"Much about that time [circa 1360], even in our King Richard the Second's days, John Trevisa translated them into English, and many English Bibles in written hand are yet to be seen that divers translated, as it is very probable, in that age... So that, to have the Scriptures in the mother tongue is not a quaint conceit lately taken up, either by the Lord Cromwell in England [or others] ... but hath been thought upon, and put in practice of old, even from the first times of the conversion of any nation."

The foregoing testimony, from the Preface (too little known) of their own Authorized Bible, ought surely to carry some weight with well disposed Protestants.

Moreover, the "Reformed" Archbishop of Canterbury, Cranmer, says, in his preface to the "Great Bible" of 1540:

"The Holy Bible was translated and read in the Saxon tongue, which at that time was our mother tongue, whereof there remaineth yet divers copies found in old Abbeys, of such antique manner of writing and speaking that few men now be able to read and understand them. And when this language waxed old and out of common use, because folks should not lack the fruit of reading, it was again translated into the newer language, whereof yet also many copies remain and be daily found."

Again, Foxe, a man that Protestants trust, says:

"If histories be well examined, we shall find, both before the Conquest and after, as well before John Wycliff was born as since, the whole body of Scripture by sundry men translated into our country tongue."

And these words are from the pen of Rev. J. H. Blunt, a Protestant author, in his History of the English Bible:

"But as of the earlier period, so of this, there are none but fragmentary remains, the 'many copies' which remained when Cranmer wrote in 1540 having doubtless disappeared in the vast and ruthless destruction of libraries which took place within a few years after that date."

Another Anglican dignitary, Dean Hook, tells us that:

"Long before Wycliff's time there had been translators of Holy Writ."

One more authority on the Protestant side, and I am done. This from Mr. Karl Pearson (Academy, August, 1885), who says:

"The Catholic Church has quite enough to answer for, but in the 15th century it certainly did not hold back the Bible from the folk: and it gave them in the vernacular (i.e. their own tongue) a long series of devotional works which for language and religious sentiment have never been surpassed. Indeed, we are inclined to think it made a mistake in allowing the masses such ready access to the Bible. It ought to have recognized the Bible once for all as a work absolutely unintelligible without a long course of historical study, and, so far as it was supposed to be inspired, very dangerous in the hands of the ignorant."

We do not know what Mr. Pearson's religious standpoint may have been, but he goes too far in blaming the Church for throwing the Bible open to the people in the 15th century, or indeed in any previous age. No evil results whatsoever followed the reading of that precious volume in any century preceding the 16th, because the people had the Catholic Church to lead them and guide them and teach them the meaning of it. It was only when the principle of "Private Judgment" was proclaimed that the Book became "dangerous" and "unintelligible," as it is still to the multitudes who will not receive the true interpretation of it at the hands of the Catholic Church, and who are about as competent to understand and explain it by themselves as they are to explain or prophesy the movements of the heavenly bodies.

3. There is no need to waste further time and space in accumulating proofs that the Bible was known, read and distributed by the Catholic Church in the common language of the people in all countries from the 7th down to the 14th century. I have paid more attention to the case of England because of the popularity of the myth about Wycliff having been the first to translate it, and to enable the poor, blinded Papists, for the first time in their experience, to behold the Figure of the Christ of the Gospels in 1382.

Such a grotesque notion can only be due either to ignorance or concealment of the now well-known facts of history. One would fain hope that, in this age of enlightenment and study, no one valuing his scholarship will so far imperil it as to attempt to revive the silly fable. But supposing it were as true as it is false, that John Wycliff was the first to publish the Bible in English, how in the name of reason can it be true at the same time that Luther, more than 100 years afterwards, discovered it? Really, people must decide which story they are going to tell, for the one is the direct contradictory of the other. Wycliff or Luther, let it be; but Wycliff and Luther together—that is impossible.

4. Now, it may seem somewhat irrelevant to wander off to foreign lands and see how matters stood there at the date at which we have now arrived when our present subject is simply "where we got the Bible,"; but I should not like to pass from this part of the inquiry without setting down a few facts which are generally unknown to our separated brethren, as to the existence of plenty of Bibles in those very countries which they think were, and of course still are, plunged in the depths of superstition, illiteracy and degradation. They flatter themselves with the idea that it was the knowledge of the Scriptures which produced the blessed Reformation the world over; and will tell you that it was all because the Holy Book was scaled and locked and hidden away from the benighted Papists in Continental countries that the glorious light of the Reformation never broke, and has not yet broken, upon them.

There are, however, unfortunately for them, facts at hand, facts unquestioned, which explode this pious notion. The facts are these:

(i) As was shown long ago in the Dublin Review (October, 1837), "it was almost solely in those countries which have remained constant to the Catholic Faith that popular versions of the Bible had been published; while it was precisely in those kingdoms, England, Scotland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway, where Protestantism acquired an early and has maintained a permanent ascendancy, that no printed Bible existed when they embraced Protestantism. Holland alone and a few cities in Germany were in possession of the Bible when they adopted the Reformed Creed." Is it really the case then, you ask with open eyes, that these Latin countries allowed the Bible to be read and translated and printed before Luther? Listen and judge for yourself what rubbish is crammed into people's heads.

(ii) Luther's first Bible (or what pretended to be the Bible, for he had amputated some of its members) came out in 1520. Now, will you believe it, there were exactly 104 editions of the Bible in Latin before that date; there were 9 before the birth of Luther in the German language, and there were 27 in German before ever his own saw the light of day. Many of these were to be seen at the Caxton Exhibition in London, 1877: and seeing is believing.

In Italy there were more than 40 editions of the Bible before the first Protestant version appeared, beginning at Venice in 1471; and 25 of these were in the Italian language before 1500, with the express permission of Rome. In France there were 18 editions before 1547, the first appearing in 1478. Spain began to publish editions in the same year, and issued Bibles with the full approval of the Spanish Inquisition (of course one can hardly expect Protestants to believe this). In Hungary by the year 1456, in Bohemia by the year 1478, in Flanders before 1500, and in other lands groaning under the yoke of Rome, we know that editions of the Sacred Scriptures had been given to the people. To quote from M.C.L's useful pamphlet on the subject:

"In all 626 editions of the Bible, in which 198 were in the language of the laity, had issued from the press, with the sanction and at the instance of the Church, in the countries where she reigned supreme, before the first Protestant version of the Scriptures was sent forth into the world."

England was perhaps worse off than any country at the time of the Reformation in the matter of vernacular versions of the Bible: many Catholic kingdoms abroad had far surpassed her in making known the Sacred Word. Yet these lands remained Catholic; England turned Protestant; what, then, becomes of the pathetic delusion of "Evangelical" Christians that an acquaintance with the open Bible in our own tongue must necessarily prove fatal to Catholicism? The simple truth of course is just this, that if knowledge of the Scriptures should of itself make people Protestants, then the Italian and French and Spanish and Hungarian and Belgian and Portuguese nations should all have embraced Protestantism, which up to the moment of writing they have declined to do. I am afraid there is something wrong with the theory, for it is in woeful contradiction to plain facts, which may be learned by all who care to take the trouble to read and study for themselves.

5. Now, with the brief historical review fresh in your memory, and before passing on to another part of the subject, I should like you to pause for a moment; and I would simply ask this: How can anyone living in the light of modern education and history cling any longer to the fantastic idea that Rome hates the Bible—that she has done her worst to destroy it—that she conceals it from her people lest it should enlighten their blindness, and that the Holy Book, after lying for many long dark ages in the dungeons and lumber rooms of Popery, was at last exhumed and dragged into the light of day by the great and glorious discoverer, Martin Luther?

O foolish Scotchmen, who hath bewitched you? Do you not see that Rome could have easily destroyed it if she had been so disposed during all those centuries that elapsed between its formation into one volume in 397 A.D., and the sixteenth century? It was absolutely, exclusively in her power to do with it as she pleased, for Rome reigned supreme. What more simple than to order her priests and monks and Inquisitors to search out every copy and reduce it to ashes? But did she do this?

We have seen that she preserved it and multiplied it. She saved it from utter destruction at the hands of infidels and barbarians and pagan tribes that burned everything Christian they could come across; she saved it and guarded it from total extinction by her care and loving watchfulness; she, and she alone. There was no one else to do it; she only was sent by God to defend His Blessed Word. It might have perished, and would have perished, were it not that she employed her clergy to reproduce it and adorn it and multiply it, and to furnish churches and monasteries with copies of it, which all might read and learn and commit to memory, and meditate upon.

Nay, she not only multiplied it in its original languages (Greek and Hebrew), which would have been intelligible and useful only to the learned few, but she put it into the hands of all her people who could read, by translating it into Latin, the universal tongue; and even for those less scholarly she rendered it into the common languages spoken in different countries. Truly she took a curious way of showing her hatred of God's Holy Word and of destroying it.

Many senseless charges are laid at the door of the Catholic Church; but surely the accusation that, during the centuries preceding the sixteenth, she was the enemy of the Bible and of Bible reading must, to any one who does not willfully shut his eyes to facts, appear of all accusations the most ludicrous; and to tell the truth, it is ridiculed and laughed out of court by all serious and impartial students of the question.

With far more justice, it humbly seems to me, may the charge of degrading and profaning the Sacred Scriptures be brought against those highly-financed Bible Societies which, with a recklessness that surpasses comprehension, scatter among savages and pagans utterly uninstructed, tons of Testaments, only to be used for making ball cartridges or wadding, for wrapping up snuff, bacon, tobacco, fruit and other goods; for papering the walls of houses; for converting into tapestry or pretty kites for children; and for other and fouler uses which it makes one ashamed to think of. True, the versions thus degraded are false and heretical, which may mitigate the horror in the eyes of Catholics; but those who thus expose them to dishonor believe them to be the real Words of Life. On their heads, then, falls the guilt of "giving that which is holy to the dogs."

by:
The Right Rev. Henry G. Graham

______________________
Nihil Obstat
and
Imprimatur
Rev. John Ritchie, Vicar General, Glasgow.