Why Were Bibles So Scarce in Middle Age Europe?

Why Were Bibles So Scarce in Middle Age Europe?

How could the Holy Bible - the most revered book, recognized the world over as the Word of God by devout Jews and Christians, have taken over 1000 years to reach the European people? Today, especially in the United States, Bibles are available in many places - from churches, libraries, and bookstores. But what were the main reasons the Bible took centuries to change the hearts and minds of people?

Constantine became the first Roman Emperor in 306 AD to recognize Christianity as an official religion. But before and after 325 AD the scrolls that became the “books” that compose our modern bible were still in the process of being compiled. By 382 AD all of the books were compiled and St. Jerome was chosen to translate the Greek Septuagint of the Old Testament and of the New Testament into Latin. In 405, he finished translating the Bible, and it became known as the “Vulgate” Bible, used commonly throughout the Roman Empire.

Obtaining a personal copy was nearly impossible, unlike now, when you can go to the local bookshop and buy one, or read it free online. But, between 400 - 1450 AD, the only way to duplicate a Bible was by monks who took a lot of time to copy them by hand. Even as time continued, Bibles proliferated but were not allowed to be taken out of monasteries and churches. They were literally “chained” to them so they wouldn’t be stolen because it took a great deal of money and time to create even one. Even if they were stolen, almost nobody could read them because the majority of Europeans were illiterate. Only the Roman Catholic clergy had been instructed in reading and writing Latin. However, in 1436 AD the printing press was invented and the first Bible was manufactured using movable metal type. The Gutenberg Bible was born and more Latin bibles could be replicated.

A century before the printing press was invented, there were certain people in England and France who disagreed with the interpretation of the Bible by the Roman Catholic Church. These groups called “Lollards” or, later, called Protestants owned manuscript copies of Bibles and used them to argue against many false conceptions by the church. To counteract these deceptive practices by the church, a Lollard named John Wycliffe wanted every person in England to own a copy of the Bible. Wycliffe translated the Latin Vulgate into English, so the people of England could read it for themselves.

Between 1229 and 1234, after Wycliffe translated the Vulgate into English without the expressed approval of the church, laws were enacted by the church forbidding the translation of the Vulgate Bible into any other languages. It seemed the church wanted to be the only institution to interpret the bible, so they didn’t want a lot of people reading it. Ultimately, after Wycliffe died, a group of Roman Catholic clergy burned his bones to put a curse on him.

The laws forbidding translations didn’t stop reformers from their work to give people the Word of God. Another well-known Englishman, William Tyndale translated part of the Old and all of the New Testament. Although he was burned at the stake in 1536, many English Bibles continued to be translated, although agents of the Catholic Church burned most of them. By 1611, the King James Bible rolled off the printing press and, today is the most popular English Bible. In Germany, Martin Luther translated the Bible into German. Beginning in 1450, many Bibles could be copied when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press which replaced the tedious process of copying by hand, using the movable type of letters and numbers.

In addition, according to a book by columnist Bernard Starr - Jesus Uncensored: Restoring the Authentic Jew, another reason to keep the Bible out of the hands of Christians was to hide the fact that Jesus was Jewish and that Christianity was founded on the practice of Judaism. Many European Christians were anti-Semitic in the Middle Ages, and false tales of Jews killing Christians were rampant.

Today, the Bible has been translated into every conceivable language and copies have distributed and read throughout the world. If it weren’t for reforming Christians such as Wycliffe, Tyndale and Luther, the Bible might still belong to the Catholic Church and read only in Latin.

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