The French Bible’s Fight for Survival
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN FRANCE
OVER one hundred million people in the world speak French. Even if you are not one of them, the French Bible’s fight for survival makes fascinating reading, partly because of its connection with religious freedom. Over the centuries many French Bibles met a cruel end at the hands of enemies and false friends. Against intimidating odds, translators and printers risked their lives to win the fight.
During the 12th century, translations of parts of the Bible were available in a number of vernacular tongues, including French. Groups considered to be heretics by the Catholic Church encouraged their use. But it was not until the 19th century that the Bible started to be distributed widely in French. This long lapse of centuries reflects the perilous trials that the French Bible went through to see the light of day.
One of the first books in French was a Bible dictionary published about 900 C.E. It was designed to help readers understand the Bible in Latin, the language used by the Catholic Church. But by that time Latin was no longer spoken by the common people, who used a number of dialects. Thus they were denied access to the Word of God. This remained the prerogative of the Latin-versed clergy, who could read it.
In 842 C.E., the first official state document in French made its appearance. This was tacit recognition that the majority of the people were no longer speaking Latin. Religious poems in the common tongue started to appear in France around 880 C.E. Bible translations, however, did not appear for another two centuries. Among the earliest were the Norman-French translations of parts of the Bible, produced at the beginning of the 12th century.
The Battle Begins in Earnest
The first sustained effort to make the Holy Scriptures available to the people of France in a form that they could read came from Peter Waldo, a 12th-century merchant from Lyons, in central France. Waldo commissioned the translation of parts of the Bible into Provençal, a dialect spoken in southeastern France. In 1179, at the Third Lateran Council, he had his partial Bible translation presented to Pope Alexander III.
Later on, the church condemned Waldo and his followers as heretics, and monks burned the translations he had commissioned. From then on, the church resisted every effort to put the Word of God into the hands of the common people.
The church made its strategy clear in 1211 by burning Bibles in the city of Metz, in the east of France. In 1229 the Council of Toulouse expressly forbade the use by the laity of vernacular Bibles in any language. This was followed in 1234 by the Council of Tarragona, Spain, which forbade possession of Bibles in any Romance language (language derived from Latin), even by the clergy.
Despite such relentless opposition, the first complete French-language translation of the Bible appeared in the second half of the 13th century. Translated anonymously, this Bible received only scant distribution. At this time the Bible was not available to the common people in any form. Copies were made by hand. The high price and limited availability restricted possession of the Bible almost exclusively to the nobility and the clergy.
Defense of the Bible Mobilizes
With the invention of the printing press and movable type by Johannes Gutenberg about 1450, France was swept along by the printing revolution in Europe. Three French cities—Paris, Lyons, and Rouen—became important centers of printing, bulwarks in the defense of the Bible.*
Until this stage of the struggle, French Bible translations had been based on the Latin Vulgate. The Latin text had become tainted with numerous errors after a thousand years of repeated copying, but the church clung to the Vulgate. However, French Catholic Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples decided to make the Bible accessible to the people. In 1530 he translated the Vulgate into French, correcting some of its errors by referring to Hebrew and Greek manuscripts that had recently become available. He also removed the confusing doctrinal explanations that the church had inserted into the text.
Lefèvre’s translation quickly came under attack. Some versions had to be printed outside France. These were put on the list of books banned by the church. For a time Lefèvre had to seek refuge in Strasbourg, then a free imperial city to the east of France. Nevertheless, his translation was a success.
The first French translation of the Bible based on the original language texts was published in 1535. The translator was French Protestant Pierre-Robert Olivétan, a cousin of Reformer John Calvin. Because of the opposition of the church, it could not be printed in France, so this translation was printed in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, a fledgling Protestant community. Olivétan’s French Bible translation served as the standard for many subsequent revisions and Bible translations into other languages.
A Perilous Fight
In France some brave printers, like Étienne Dolet in 1546, were burned at the stake for printing the Bible. The Council of Trent, in 1546, reaffirmed the “authenticity” of the Vulgate, despite its errors, and from then on the church took an increasingly firm position against vernacular translations. In 1612 the Spanish Inquisition embarked on a fierce campaign to eradicate vernacular Bibles.
Persecution at times led to ingenious innovations. “Chignon,” or “bun,” Bibles were produced, which were small enough to be hidden in the bun of a woman’s hair. And in 1754, extracts of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures were printed in a book measuring only one and one quarter inches by two inches [3 x 5 cm].
In time, though, the tide changed. After the Bible had withstood centuries of vicious attacks, decisive blows were delivered in its favor. New ideas and freedom of worship, granted following the French Revolution, struck at the heart of the church’s opposition. Thus, in 1803 a Protestant New Testament was printed in France, the first in 125 years!
Help also came from Bible societies. In 1792 the French Bible Society was formed in London, England, “to obtain, to the extent possible, French Bibles for the French who do not possess this divine treasure in a language understandable to them.” Other Bible societies joined the fray. Their goal of producing and distributing the Bible in French enjoyed success.
The Coup de Grace
The Catholic Church resisted any change in its tactics, but it was fighting a losing battle. Throughout the 19th century, popes issued a series of decrees relentlessly opposing vernacular Bibles. As late as 1897, Pope Leo XIII reaffirmed that “all versions of the Holy Books made by any non-Catholic writer whatsoever and in any common language are prohibited, especially those published by Bible societies, which have been condemned by the Pontiff of Rome on several occasions.”
However, because of the availability of inexpensive Protestant Bibles published by the Bible societies, the Catholic Church allowed Catholic scholars to translate the Bible into French. Augustin Crampon’s translation, first published in seven volumes (1894-1904) and then in one volume (1904), was the first French Catholic translation based on the original texts. Noteworthy were the numerous scholarly footnotes and the fact that Crampon used Jéhovah, the French form of God’s name, extensively.
Making an about-face, the Vatican, in its encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, of 1943, finally set the rules for translation of the Bible into vernacular languages. Many Catholic translations have been published since then, including the popular Jerusalem Bible, first published in French and later translated into several other languages, including English.
One Bible that has helped French-speaking people the world over is the French edition of the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures. First published in its complete form in 1974, it was revised in 1995. In the many languages in which it has thus far been published, the New World Translation gives credit to the Bible’s Author by restoring his name, Jehovah, in the Hebrew Scriptures and, where appropriate, in the Greek Scriptures. To date, over five million copies of the French edition have been printed. Undoubtedly, the Bible has won its fight to survive in French.
So successful was French printing that when the Spanish Inquisition ordered the roundup of foreign Bibles in 1552, the tribunal of Seville reported that some 90 percent of those confiscated had been printed in France!
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Lefèvre d’Étaples’ 1530 Bible
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Olivétan’s 1535 Bible
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A rare example of the “13th-Century Bible”
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Bibles: Bibliothèque Nationale de France