Eager to accomplish for the Latin Bible what had already been done for the Latin classics, Estienne set out to reestablish as nearly as possible the original fifth-century text of Jerome’s Latin Vulgate Bible.
A Refined Vulgate
Jerome had translated from the Bible’s original Hebrew and Greek, but by Estienne’s day, the Vulgate had been in existence for a thousand years. Many errors and corruptions had slipped in as a consequence of generations of transcribing the Vulgate. Moreover, during the Middle Ages, the Bible’s divinely inspired words had become overlaid with a tangled skein of medieval legends, paraphrased passages, and spurious interpolations. These had become so mingled with the Bible’s text that they began to be accepted as inspired writings.
To clear away all that was not original, Estienne applied the methods of textual criticism that were used for the study of classical literature. He sought out the oldest and best manuscripts available. In the libraries in and around Paris and in such places as Évreux and Soissons, he uncovered several ancient manuscripts, one apparently dating from the sixth century. Estienne carefully compared the different Latin texts passage by passage, selecting only the passages that seemed to have the most authority. The work that resulted, Estienne’s Bible, was first published in 1528 and was a significant step forward in refining the Bible’s textual accuracy. Improved editions by Estienne followed. Others before him had attempted to correct the Vulgate, but his was the first edition to provide an effective critical apparatus. In the margins, Estienne indicated where he had omitted certain doubtful passages or where more than one reading was possible. He also noted the manuscript sources that gave authority for these corrections.
Estienne introduced many other features quite novel for the 16th century. He made a distinction between the Apocryphal books and God’s Word. He placed the book of Acts after the Gospels and before the letters of Paul. At the top of each page, he supplied a few key words to help readers locate specific passages. This was the earliest example of what today is commonly called a running head. Instead of using the heavy Gothic, or black letter, type that originated in Germany, Estienne was one of the first to print the entire Bible in the lighter and easier-to-read roman type now in common use. He also provided many cross-references and philological notes to help clarify certain passages.
Many nobles and prelates appreciated Estienne’s Bible, for it was better than any other printed edition of the Vulgate. For beauty, workmanship, and utility, his edition became the standard and was soon being imitated all over Europe.
The Sorbonne’s censors opposed all critical editions and vernacular translations of the Vulgate, considering such as being not only “useless to the church but harmful.” This was not surprising at a time when Reformers were calling into question church doctrines, ceremonies, and traditions that were not based on the authority of Scripture. However, many theologians at the Sorbonne considered the church’s venerated doctrines to be more important than an accurate reading of the Bible itself. One theologian said: “Once the doctrines are acquired, the Scriptures are like scaffolding that is removed after a wall is built.” Most of the faculty were ignorant of Hebrew and Greek, yet they disdained the studies of Estienne and other Renaissance scholars who were delving into the original meanings of the words used in the Bible. One Sorbonne professor even ventured that “to propagate a knowledge of Greek and Hebrew would operate to the destruction of all religion.”
The Sorbonne Attacks
Although the early editions of Estienne’s Vulgate passed the faculty’s censors, it had not been without controversy. Back in the 13th century, the Vulgate had been enshrined as the university’s official Bible, and to many people its text was infallible. The faculty had even condemned the respected scholar Erasmus for his work on the Vulgate. That a local layman printer would have the audacity to correct the official text was alarming to some.
Perhaps more than anything, it was Estienne’s marginal notes that worried the theologians. The notes cast doubt on the legitimacy of the text of the Vulgate. Estienne’s desire to clarify certain passages resulted in his being accused of intruding into the realm of theology. He denied the charge, claiming that his notes were merely short summaries or philological in nature. For example, his note on Genesis 37:35 explained that the word “hell” [Latin, infernum] could not there be understood to be a place where the wicked are punished. The faculty charged that he denied the immortality of the soul and the intercessory power of the “saints.”
Estienne, however, had the favor and protection of the king. Francis I showed great interest in Renaissance studies, particularly the work of his royal printer. Reportedly, Francis I even visited Estienne and once waited patiently while Estienne was making some last-minute corrections to a text. With the king’s support, Estienne withstood the Sorbonne.
Theologians Ban His Bibles
In 1545, though, events caused the full fury of the Sorbonne’s faculty to be focused upon Estienne. Seeing the benefit of presenting a united front against the Reformers, the Catholic universities of Cologne (Germany), Louvain (Belgium), and Paris had earlier agreed to collaborate in the censorship of unorthodox teachings. When the theologians of Louvain University wrote the Sorbonne expressing their surprise that Estienne’s Bibles had not appeared on Paris’ list of condemned books, the Sorbonne lyingly replied that they would indeed have condemned them if they had seen them. Estienne’s enemies within the faculty now felt confident that the combined authority of the faculties of Louvain and Paris would be sufficient to convince Francis I of the errors of his printer.
Meanwhile, having been warned of his enemies’ intentions, Estienne got to the king first. Estienne suggested that if the theologians would produce a list of any errors they had found, he was quite willing to print these along with the theologians’ corrections and to include them with each Bible sold. This solution won the king’s favor. He asked Pierre du Chastel, his royal lector, to see to the matter. In October 1546 the faculty wrote to Du Chastel protesting that Estienne’s Bibles were “food for those who deny our Faith and support the current . . . heresies” and were so full of errors as to merit in their “entirety to be extinguished and exterminated.” Unconvinced, the king now personally ordered the faculty to produce the censures so that they could be printed with Estienne’s Bibles. This they promised to do, but actually they did all they possibly could to avoid having to produce a detailed list of supposed errors.
Francis I died in March 1547, and with him went Estienne’s most potent ally against the power of the Sorbonne. When Henry II ascended the throne, he renewed his father’s command that the faculty produce their censures. Yet, observing how the German princes were using the Reformation for political ends, Henry II was less concerned with the supposed advantages or disadvantages of the royal printer’s Bibles than with keeping France Catholic and united under its new king. On December 10, 1547, the king’s Privy Council decided that sales of Estienne’s Bibles should be prohibited until the theologians could produce their list of censures.
Again the king ordered that the list of the faculty’s censures be turned over to his Privy Council. Intractable, the faculty answered that ‘the theologians are not in the habit of putting in writing the reasons for which they condemn something as heretical but answer by spoken word only, which you must believe, or else there will be no end of writing.’ Henry acquiesced. The final ban was imposed. Almost every Biblical work Estienne had ever produced was condemned. Although he had escaped the flames of Place Maubert, he decided to leave France in the face of a total ban on his Bibles and the likelihood of further harassment.
The Expatriate Printer
In November 1550, Estienne moved to Geneva, Switzerland. The faculty had made it illegal in France to publish any Bible except the Vulgate. Now at liberty to publish what he wished, Estienne reprinted his Greek “New Testament” in 1551, with two Latin versions (the Vulgate and Erasmus’) in parallel columns.