The Bible—Victim of Savage Attack
HOW could you destroy a book? In several ways. To illustrate, consider how you could ruin a glass of pure water. You could (1) take a rock and smash it or (2) simply add some dirt or other impurity to the water, changing its content.
A similar two-pronged assault threatened to deal a deathblow to the Bible. A fierce attack against the book itself was coupled with attempts to tamper with its contents, to change its message. Either effort, if successful, would render the book useless and prove God incapable of preserving his own Word.
You may feel that it is very strange that the Bible has been so intensely opposed. Since it teaches high morals and love, why should anyone want to destroy it? Often, too, those who unleashed the greatest fury against the Bible claimed to hold it dear. It is almost as if some power, higher than mankind, was maneuvering matters.
This is precisely what the Bible shows. It identifies a wicked spirit creature as the one who will stop at nothing to prevent God’s Word from reaching appreciative hearts. Undoubtedly this opposer of God, namely, Satan the Devil, masterminded the whole scheme to suppress the Bible.—2 Cor. 4:4.
Of course, some readers may object to such a conclusion. But what else could explain the sustained fight, through centuries, to prevent or discourage the common man from using the Bible and making it a living force in his life? No other book in history has been subjected to such prolonged onslaughts.
Brutal Attack in the Roman Empire
Though Christians had been persecuted by Rome for many years, the first assault against their sacred writings came in the year 303 C.E. Emperor Diocletian then decreed that all Christian books be handed over and burned. Refusal would bring death! Sadly, scores of precious Bible manuscripts were burned in the streets. However, some, like Felix of Thiabara (Africa), refused to turn over the Scriptures. He said: ‘It is better for me to be burned than the divine Scriptures.’ He paid with his life.
For almost a decade this savagery was vented against the Bible. Yet all the might of the Roman Empire could not destroy this book. Copies were carefully hidden until the persecution stopped. But this was a mere foregleam of what was yet to occur.
Living Book Among First Christians
The early Christians kept the Bible alive by using it extensively in their religious meetings and at home. Some Jews who later became Christians were commended for “carefully examining the Scriptures daily.” Even in the second century, Irenaeus urged all to “diligently read the scriptures.” And Clement of Alexandria suggested that all have “readings in the Scriptures before meals.”—Acts 17:11; 1 Tim. 4:13; 2 Tim. 3:15.
All were urged to obtain their own copies. Wealthier Christians even made gifts of Scripture to others, as did a certain Pamphilus, of whom Eusebius says:
“He was also ever ready to distribute copies of the Sacred Scriptures not only for reading, but even for private keeping. Not only to men, but even to the women whom he found to be interested in reading them. Thus he prepared many copies so that he might present them as gifts.”
Nevertheless, in time there was a development that adversely affected the influence of the Bible in the lives of those who professed faith in it.
Religious Apostasy Almost Dooms Bible
The apostle Paul foretold a falling away from the true Christianity, an “apostasy,” and the development of a religious “man of lawlessness” group that would highly exalt itself. (2 Thess. 2:3, 4) He showed that this “man of lawlessness” would develop from some elders or overseers (“bishops,” American Standard Version) who would “rise and speak twisted things to draw away the disciples after themselves.”—Acts 20:28-30.
True to prophecy, after the death of Jesus’ faithful apostles, false, imitation Christians, “weeds,” became manifest. (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43) Some formed splinter groups, and they twisted the meaning of the Scriptures. (2 Pet. 3:16) This led to what some might view as an inconsequential maneuver, but it was one that had ruinous effects.
“The Holy Scriptures themselves, which inspire us with faith, the forerunner of knowledge, can be of no use to you unless you understand them rightly,” said Augustine, a church leader of the fourth century. He added in his work, De Principiis:
“Since the teaching of the Church transmitted in orderly succession from the apostles and remaining in the churches to the present day is still preserved, that alone is to be accepted as truth, which differs in no respect from ecclesiastical and apostolical tradition.”
The “teaching of the Church” and “ecclesiastical and apostolical tradition” were placed on the same level as the Scriptures, to prevent heresies or the teaching of alleged religious error.
At the same time, the ceremonies and rituals of the church were stressed. It was felt that these would be of greater benefit to the members than having them become confused by probing into the “depth of Holy Scripture.” Magnificent church buildings, with Biblical scenes carved on their walls and housing images of Bible characters, were considered ‘books of the ignorant.’
Some religious leaders, like Chrysostom of the fourth century, still were champions of personal Bible reading by all. But the die was cast! The people themselves, for the most part, no longer saw the importance of personally reading and studying the Bible. Some argued with Chrysostom, saying:
“We are not monks. I have to give my attention to public business; I carry on a trade; I must look after my wife and children and servants; in short I am a man of the world; it is not my business to read the Bible; that is the business of people who have renounced the world and devote themselves to a lonely life upon the top of the mountains.”
So, gradually the feeling prevailed that Bible reading and study were only for the clergy and highly trained intellectuals.
A Sacred Relic?
In time, the Bible was translated into Latin, the language of the common man. It was decided by the religious authorities that Latin be considered a sacred language. The Bible was to remain in Latin. But later a change gradually took place, and few common persons could then read Latin. No longer willing to put forth effort to understand the Bible, many found it easier simply to revere its pages. The Bible was used as a magical charm. If a person was about to engage in some important or hazardous undertaking, he would open the Bible and interpret the first passage that met his eye as a divine message to him. Magnificently bound copies, written on purple parchment with letters of silver and gold, were made. Sadly, these books became mere showpieces and were hardly read. Yes, the Bible was slowly becoming a “sacred relic” rather than a living, meaningful book.
No doubt you can see that the Bible was in danger. Even some of the priests or ministers could no longer read the Bible in Latin. What happened to some “sacred” writings of ancient Rome illustrates what could occur in the case of the Bible. The New Catholic Encyclopedia explains:
“For centuries pagan Rome preserved certain old sacred texts, even when the priest no longer understood them.” (Italics ours)
Yes, no one could read them. Sacred and highly esteemed—but dead! Could the same fate overtake the Bible?
Translations into Languages of the Common Man
Though vernacular translations were made by the Roman Catholic Church for many centuries, these were not intended for the masses. Concerning the attitude of the Church authorities during the Middle Ages, the book The Lollard Bible says:
“If this translation were made for some king or exalted personage, or by some solitary student, and remain a hallowed but practically unused volume in a royal or monastic library, no objection was taken to the translation of such; but if the translations was used to popularize a knowledge of the biblical text among lay [common] people, prohibition immediately followed.”
Such a translation was not made until the 12th century. And when that occurred, sparks flew!
The Waldensians of France
In the beautiful valleys of southern France lived a religious group called Waldensians. Shortly before 1180, an outstanding member of this group, Peter Waldo, reportedly paid two priests to translate portions of the Bible into the vernacular. Its readers made real changes in their lives. Even one of their fiercest enemies acknowledged a striking contrast between their conduct and that of the people in general. He said:
‘The heretics [Waldensians] are known by their manners and words; for they are orderly and modest in their manners and behaviour. They are free from falsehood and deceit. They are chaste, temperate, sober, and abstain from anger.’
Infused with zeal from personally reading the Scriptures, they went up and down the countryside of France in pairs reading and teaching others the Scriptures. So zealous were they that one reportedly “swam over a river in the night and in the winter, to come to [a certain person] and teach him.” What was found in the Scriptures had become to them a “living power”!
Filled with enthusiasm, they traveled to Rome, Italy, to obtain official approval from Pope Alexander III to use their Bible to teach others. Permission denied! One of the religious dignitaries at this Third Lateran Council, Walter Map, exclaimed:
“Shall not therefore the Word given to the unlearned be as pearls before swine!”
Just think! To enable the common person to read the Bible in a language he could understand was considered to be ‘throwing pearls to pigs’!
A crusade was organized by Pope Innocent III to “exterminate” the heretics. Reports from those who led the crusade indicate that hundreds of men, women and children were cruelly butchered and copies of their Bibles were burned because, as one religious judge or Inquisitor at the time put it,
“They have translated the Old and New Testament into the vulgar [common] tongue, and thus they teach and learn it. I have heard and seen a certain ignorant rustic who recited Job, word for word; and many who knew perfectly the whole New Testament.”
Bibles Spread in the Common Tongue
Fire and sword caused the Waldensians to flee to other countries. Shortly thereafter translations of the Bible that the common man could read appeared in Spain, Italy, Germany and other countries. Wherever they appeared, bans and harsh persecution usually followed. Several official prohibitions of the Bible are shown on the opposite page. To violate these religious and secular laws often meant death by burning!
In England around 1382, John Wycliffe and his associates finished the first complete Bible in English. But many of the common people could not read. So he organized a group of men called Lollards to go and read the Bible to the people.
Those “Biblemen,” as they were sometimes called, created quite a stir. The religious authorities in England responded with unbelievable persecution. In 1401 the English Parliament stated that any who possessed the Bible in the common language should be “before the people, in a high place caused to be burnt, that such punishment may strike fear to the minds of others.”
And indeed this caused such fear! One possessor of an English Bible, out of fear that this would incriminate him, remarked that “he would rather burn his books, than that his books should burn him.” Yet many were not that easily deterred from reading the Word of God. Hundreds of these persons were burned alive for simply, as the court records show, “having a certain little book of scripture in English.” Oftentimes these individuals were burned “with the books of their lore [the Scriptures] hanging about them.”
This persecution raged through one country after another. In some lands, whole villages were massacred where persons persisted in reading the Bible in the vernacular. No man was safe from his neighbors, his employees or even his own children, as all, under fear of severe reprisals, were urged to report anyone seen reading the Bible in his own tongue. Needless to say, to avoid detection, there were many midnight Bible readings.
What would you have done under such circumstances? Would you have treasured the message of the Bible so much that you would have risked your life to read it?
Still, vernacular Bibles were being destroyed faster than they could be made, since they had to be copied by hand. This arduous task also made the Bible extremely expensive, surely out of reach of all but the wealthy. A complete German Bible reportedly cost 70 Florentine gold gulden. At the time, for one or two gulden a person could buy a fat steer. So a Bible was equal in value to a herd of cattle! Some poor persons even ‘gave a load of hay for a few chapters of James or Paul in English,’ according to historian John Fox.
Slowly, it appeared, the Bible would die as a living force among people in general. But at the darkest hour something was invented that greatly changed the picture.
Printing Press with Movable Type
With the printing press, Bibles could be reproduced faster than they were being destroyed. Reportedly, the first book off the press was the Latin Bible. Soon, however, copies in what was then the common language were rolling off presses.
Because the Bible could now be mass-produced the price of a copy was so low that the average man could afford having his own. Martin Luther and William Tyndale, who translated from the original languages, not merely from Latin, made the Bible easier to read. Tyndale used words that even ‘a boy that drives a plow’ could comprehend. Instead of “charity” he used “love”; instead of “church,” “congregation”; instead of “penance,” “repentance.” This helped to make the Bible live for the ‘man in the street.’
However, the fight against such Bibles was far from over. For decades after the first Bible began to be produced on the printing press in 1456, there was a virtual war to destroy copies in the vernacular. Tyndale’s Bibles were burned as fast as they could be confiscated by the bishop of London. So intent was he on destroying all of Tyndale’s Bibles that this cleric reportedly paid for copies so that he could burn them! On one occasion, through a friend, Tyndale sold him some defective copies and used the money to finish his revision. This resulted in a greater flood of his version into England!
For years, Tyndale was hunted down like an animal. Finally, he was betrayed and captured. His efforts cost him his life, as he was strangled and burned at the stake.
Why Translations Were Opposed
Do you find it difficult to understand why many religious officials opposed translating the Bible into the language of the common man? It was not that all these men were directly against the Bible. Some held it in high esteem. These mistakenly feared that unauthorized persons would make faulty translations and, hence, abuse the Word of God. Keeping it in the dignified, stable Latin language was their way of protecting the Bible from being “profaned” by loose translations into the developing vernacular languages.
Why, then, did they not produce an “authorized” translation? In time they did. A German version by Emser was published around 1527, and the English Rheims New Testament was issued in 1582. The reason given for slowness is expressed by Roman Catholic official Geiler of Kaysersberg (Germany), who said around 1500:
“It is dangerous to put knives into children’s hands, for them to cut bread with themselves, for they may cut themselves. So also holy scripture, which contains the bread of God, should be read and explained by such as are already far advanced in knowledge and experience, and will set forth the undoubted meaning. For inexperienced people will easily take harm from their reading. . . . Therefore, if you wish to read the Bible, beware of falling into error.”
But was fear that the unlearned reader might ‘fall into error’ the only reason for not encouraging Bible reading? No, for noted Catholic scholar Erasmus candidly offered others, saying:
“The woman who is occupied in reading the sacred volumes neglects her domestic duties, . . . and perhaps the soldier will be slower to go forth to fight! and a great danger that would be! . . . In many places in the sacred volumes the vices of pastors and princes are reproved, and if the people were to read them, they would murmur against those set over them.”
Regardless of the reason, the effect was that the Bible was almost destroyed as a living force in the life of the common man. Had such attitudes prevailed, regardless of how well meaning they might have been, the Bible would indeed have become a “sacred relic.”
How thankful we can be that through the efforts of some very devoted men, as well as the use of the printing press, the Bible was published in a living language and was made available for use by the common man! And at a cost that the majority could afford. Indeed, the Bible had withstood a most savage attack.
But what about the second method of attack—tampering with the contents? Dirt added to a glass of pure water can ruin it. How did the Bible fare against this subtle attack?
[Blurb on page 8]
What could explain the sustained fight, through centuries, to prevent the common people from having the Bible?
[Blurb on page 13]
What would you have done if your life was threatened because you read the Bible?
[Blurb on page 13]
‘Inexperienced people will easily take harm from reading the Bible,’ explained one church official. But the scholar Erasmus candidly stated: “In many places in the sacred volumes, the vices of pastors and princes are reproved, and if the people were to read them, they would murmur against those set over them.”
[Box on page 10]
THE BIBLE PROHIBITED
“No man shall possess books of the Old or New Testament in Romance [the common language].”—JAMES THE FIRST, KING OF ARAGON (SPAIN), A.D. 1223
“Lay [common] people shall not have books of scripture, . . . moreover we prohibit that lay people should be permitted to have books of the Old or New Testament.”—RELIGIOUS SYNOD OF TOULOUSE (FRANCE), A.D. 1229
‘Wherefore, we strictly command all Archbishops, Bishops and all clerics, and all dukes, princes, etc., that you assist the said inquisitors and confiscate such books, written in the vulgar tongue, from all men. And all these are to be taken from all persons, secular and chiefly from lay [common] people (and the more especially, since it is not lawful, according to canon law, for lay people of either sex to read any books whatsoever of Holy Scripture written in the vulgar tongue).’—KING CHARLES IV, EMPEROR OF GERMANY, A.D. 1369
[Picture on page 8]
The Roman emperor decreed that Bibles be seized and burned
[Picture on page 9]
Bible reading came to be viewed as something only for the clergy
[Picture on page 9]
Magnificent, costly Bibles were produced, but were treated as if they were “sacred relics”
[Picture on page 12]
Officials decreed that any who possessed a Bible in the common language should be burned to death