Why the Latin Bible?



Q. What about keeping the Bible in Latin? This greatly diminished the audience that would be able to read the Word of God for themselves.

A. But, as a matter of fact, anyone who could read, could read Latin; so, there was no diminishment of the audience. And the reason for Latin being kept even though it became a dead language was, precisely because, as a dead language it would remain stable and the meanings would not evolve as they do in living languages. Thus the word of God was preserved more precisely. The use of Latin was not a way for the Catholic Church to keep the Bible away from the faithful.

Q. Perhaps this was true at one time, but it was not true throughout church history otherwise Tyndale and the others who translated the Bible into the common man’s language wouldn’t have felt this so necessary or have had to do this at the great risk of peril from the Catholic Church for making these translations which the Catholic Church was so strongly against. I don’t believe your explanation stacks up with the history of this subject.

A. What the Catholic Church objected to, contrary to what many have heard, was the quality of Tyndale’s translation. The Church did not object to an English translation. The Church has historically made many translations into vernacular languages. I would recommend Where We Got the Bible by Henry Graham, son of a Presbyterian minister. A few quotes below:

“There were Bibles and Gospels in Spanish, Italian, Danish, French, Norwegian, Polish, Bohemian, and Hungarian before the invention of the printing press. In English Caedmon translated much of the Bible into English at the end of the 7th century. Other translations were made by several different people in the 8th century.

And St. Thomas Moore said,

“The whole Bible, long before Wycliff’s day, was by virtuous and well-learned men translated into English and by good and godly people with devotion and soberness well and reverently read. 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 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 hand and the women’s too, such as he knew for good and Catholic folk, that used them with soberness and devotion”

In the Preface of the King James Version, we find this:

“The godly-learned were not content to have the Scriptures in the language which themselves understood,…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 only by the voice of their minister but also by the written word translate.

After the translators enumerated the many converted nations that had vernacular Scriptures, they come to the land of England…

“Much about that time (1360), even in King Richard the seconds 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 other countries…but hath been thought upon, and put in practice of old, even from the first times of the conversion of any nation.”

Graham goes on to quote Cranmer, Foxe, and Mr. Karl Pearson who speak about the fact that there were English Bibles and other vernacular Bibles before Wycliff.

“The Catholic Church has much to answer for, but in the fifteenth century it did not hold back the Bible from the folk…” (Karl Pearson, Academy, August 1885)

Where We Got The Bible

Since English Bibles existed, although not abundantly due to the high cost of hand lettering before the invention of the printing press, one wonders why a Wycliffe would go to all the trouble of doing his own translation. Perhaps he just wanted to make them more available and if he wrote it he could control its printing and circulation. But there might have been another reason.

Due to problems/abuse/corruption in the Church with regard to the wealth of some clergy and monasteries, Wycliffe rightly called for reform. However, his views were very extreme. He believed and proclaimed that it was a sin for anyone, who took the vow of poverty, to own any property at all, including monasteries. Naturally this was contested by the opposition but the Church ruled in favor of a more moderate approach aimed at eradicating luxury and unnecessary wealth but allowing those in the vowed life to have places to live and work for self support.

From this extreme position he then denounced the leadership of the Pope and finally descended into, the teaching of outright heresy in regard to the Eucharist, the source and summit of our Faith. So another reason to handwrite his own translation may very well have been to put into people’s hands the authority of a Bible that was translated in such a way that it would support his theology.

Anyway, it is a Protestant Urban Legend that the Catholic Church tried to keep the Bible from being read by the laymen by keeping it in Latin or Chaining Bibles in the churches.

Q. Then why were the Bibles chained in the churches?

A. To Keep them in the Church. Before the invention of the printing press all books were handwritten and thus very expensive. At the universities there was only one or two books for all the students to use in each subject. Because of their value, these books were chained to tables in the library. The students had to read the books in the library. So too, the Bible was chained in the church so it would not be stolen. Even today phone books are often chained to public phone booths not in order to keep it from the people, but to keep it for the people’s use.

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