Recently I was at my parents’ house and paged through the KJV family Bible. In this particular volume, rather than printing the Apocrypha between the testaments as it should be, the editors put supplementary material there. Essays on the inter-testamental period, touching on the Apocrypha, as well as a history of English Bibles. I was struck by a number of inaccuracy’s some of which come off as outright lies. I have decided to lay out a number of these myths with more historical detail in hopes of balancing them.
The mythology- is a cohesive narrative which goes something like this. “The evil Roman Church intentionally kept man in darkness and ignorance during the middle ages. The Roman Church suppressed the Bible by only allowing it in a corrupt Latin version which no one could understand. Additionally these Latin Bibles were physically chained to lecterns in churches so they couldn’t be read.
Additionally the Church killed anyone who tried to make the Bible accessible to people. When they could no longer keep the Bible from people they then added books to it to justify their unbiblical doctrines.”
The mythology is set up such so as to have clear good guys and bad guys. This set up, generalizes in such a way as to ignore the nuances of historical realities. This distorts an accurate understanding of the history of both the protestant reformation and the origin of translations of the Bible into English. What I’m going to do is lay out a number of myths which are typically presented as historical details.
- “The Latin Vulgate was a horribly corrupt version of the Bible which should be rejected out of hand.” Fact- All the translations being lauded by the myth-holder for replacing the Vulgate (Luther’s German Bible, Wycliffe, Coverdale, Geneva and, oh yes though often denied, the Authorized Version). Relied heavily on the Vulgate and in most cases used it as the primary base text. Consult any standard (Oxford or Cambridge) King James Version New Testament and you will find ample evidence of the Vulgate influence, (most readily this can be seen in the form of Latinized spelling, Esaias for Isaiah, for example). Modern translators consult it also, as a valuable witness to manuscripts no longer available.
- “The Church kept the Scriptures in Latin to keep them from people.” Fact- Anyone in this period who could read could also understand Latin. Latin was the universal language of western Europe prior to the modern era, understood by all educated people.
- “The Bibles that did exist were chained to keep them from people.” Fact- Prior to the printing press Bibles had to be hand copied over the course of years. Public Bibles (and other books) were chained to lecterns for the same reason banks chain pens in their teller areas today, to keep them from growing legs and walking off. Protestants themselves did this but modern evangelicals have little historical awareness, it seems the mythologists just can’t resist this one.
- “Erasmus produced his Greek/Latin new testament to expose the Roman Church and her twisted Vulgate by exposing the errors in the Vulgate.” Fact.- Erasmus desired to produce a new improved Latin New Testament. He publishes a number of editions containing the Greek text, with his text and the Vulgate text for comparison. Many protestants like to make him one of their own but he lived and died a Papist, kept his distance from Luther and (as a humanist) militantly believed in free will. To be opposed to corruption in an institution and in favor of reform does not equate to protesting the thing itself.
I think this addresses the general myth. A perusal of any Evangelical or Fundamentalist account of the history of the English bible (they are out there, museums, films or essays) will be some version of what I covered along with the false facts.