Letter: Bible translations before Luther

From The Rev Gilbert Markus, OP

Sir: It is exciting to read ("Luther's Bible found after 200 years", 23 November) that Martin Luther's Bible has been discovered. It is a pity, however, that you describe it as "the Bible that broke the monopoly of the Catholic Church and consigned Latin to antiquity". This suggests that old, and rather anti-Catholic, prejudice - that the old Vulgate Latin Bible was part of a Catholic conspiracy to keep the Bible out of the hands of Christians, a conspiracy finally overcome at the "Reformation".

The Vulgate was so called precisely because it was written in the common tongue of all literate people in western Europe. If one could read at all, one could read Latin; so a Latin Bible, far from restricting medieval readers, made it universally legible.

Secondly a great many local vernacular translations of the Bible were made long before Luther produced his own. In the fourth century, Ulfilas made a Gothic translation, a bishop of Seville produced an Arabic bible during the Moorish occupation of Spain, and most countries produced manuscripts of large sections of the Bible in their own tongues - in this country beginning with the seventh century Anglo-Saxon of Caedmon. The Norman- French Bible made at the University of Paris was widely used around 1250.

With the invention of printing, vernacular bibles multiplied. Of one German version alone, first printed in 1466, 16 editions had been printed before Luther's New Testament appeared in 1522. The first French New Testament appeared in 1478, five years before Luther's birth, and the complete French Bible in 1487. The Italians had theirs in 1471, the Dutch in 1477. The Swedes, the Bohemians, Slavs, Russians and Danes all had vernacular Bibles, circulated with full ecclesiastical support.

Whatever was going on in the 16th century, whatever the importance of Luther's own translation, it was not about putting the Bible in the hands of the people.

Yours sincerely,

Gilbert Markus

Holy Cross Priory


24 November