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A Refuge for Bible Printing

A Refuge for Bible Printing

 A Refuge for Bible Printing


Nearly 500 years ago, early printed copies of the complete Bible were produced in Antwerp, Belgium. What attracted Bible printers to that city? What risks did they take by printing the Bible? To find out, we must go back to the early part of the 16th century.

ANTWERP lies at the mouth of the Scheldt River, 55 miles [89 km] from the North Sea. In the 16th century, during its so-called golden age, Antwerp experienced unprecedented economic prosperity. In fact, the city expanded rapidly and became Europe’s largest port and one of the few cities in Western Europe with over 100,000 inhabitants.

Antwerp’s growth attracted merchants from all over Europe. This and increasing prosperity contributed to a more tolerant attitude on the part of the city authorities, allowing Antwerp to become a nursery for new ideas. The relaxed climate attracted printers who felt that there it was safe to print and spread these new ideas. Before long, 16th-century Antwerp was the home of 271 printers, publishers, and booksellers. The magistrates back then proudly described their city as “a refuge and hothouse for all arts, sciences, nations and virtue.”

Burning Books and Monks

Among the new ideas that were printed and circulated were those of Martin Luther (1483-1546). He was the leader of the Reformation, a religious movement that led to the birth of Protestantism. Only six months  after the Reformation began, Luther’s works were already appearing in Antwerp’s bookshops. Not surprisingly, the Catholic Church was not pleased. In July 1521 the church encouraged the public burning in Antwerp of 400 so-called heretical books. Two years later, two Augustinian monks from Antwerp who sympathized with Luther’s ideas were burned alive at the stake.

These attacks did not stop a group of bold printers in Antwerp. The courage of those printers played a vital role in making the Bible available to the common man. Who were some of those printers?

From Printer to Martyr

Adriaen van Berghen was a printer and a bookseller. In 1522 he was put in stocks for selling Lutheran books and was sentenced to prison shortly thereafter. He received a pardon but immediately returned to his work. He began printing again​—this time a partial Dutch translation of Luther’s “New Testament.” It was published in 1523, only a year after Luther’s “New Testament” in German was first published.

However, in 1542 when a large quantity of proscribed books were found in his house in Delft, the Netherlands, Van Berghen was arrested again. First, a judge handed him a light sentence​—two hours on the scaffold with “some of the forbidden books around his neck.” But later, Van Berghen’s sentence was changed to the death penalty, and the courageous printer was beheaded with a sword.

A Marginal Note Cost Him His Life

In those days the most prolific printer of Dutch-language Bibles was Jacob van Liesvelt. He published a total of 18 Bible editions in Dutch. In 1526 he printed a complete Dutch Bible. That Bible appeared four years before the first complete printed Bible in French and nine years before the publication of the first complete printed Bible in English! Van Liesvelt’s Bible was mainly based on Luther’s as-yet-unfinished German Bible.

Van Liesvelt’s final Dutch edition, of 1542, contained woodcuts and new marginal notes. For instance, next to Matthew 4:3, a woodcut pictured the Devil as a bearded monk with a rosary and goat’s feet. However, it was the marginal notes in particular that aroused the ire of the Catholic Church. One note​—which read “Salvation comes through Jesus Christ alone”—​was used as a basis for condemning Van Liesvelt to death. Although Van Liesvelt argued that his Bible had been printed with the ecclesiastical imprimatur Cum gratia et privilegio, he was beheaded in Antwerp in 1545.

First Approved, Then Banned

Meanwhile, in France the well-known Catholic humanist Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples was busy translating the Bible from Latin into French, although he also consulted the original  Greek text. D’Étaples wanted to make the Bible available to the common man. He wrote: “The time is coming when Christ will be preached in a pure way and not mixed with human traditions, which is not yet the case.” In 1523 he published a French translation of the “New Testament” in Paris. The theologians of the prestigious Sorbonne University disapproved of his translation because it was in the vernacular. In the face of their attack, D’Étaples fled Paris and went to Strasbourg in northeast France.

As a result of this opposition, printers in France no longer dared to print the Bible in French. Where, then, could D’Étaples print his Bible? Antwerp was the logical choice. D’Étaples’ Bible edition of 1530, printed in Antwerp by Merten de Keyser, was the first French translation of the Bible in one volume. Interestingly, De Keyser printed this translation with the approval of the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium’s oldest university, and the approval of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V himself! Nonetheless, in 1546 the translation of D’Étaples was added to a list of books banned for Catholic readers.

“The Bishop Had the Books . . . Tyndale Had the Money”

In England during this same period, ordained priest William Tyndale wanted to translate the Bible into English. However, the bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, rebuffed him. When Tyndale realized that he could not translate the Bible in England, he fled to Germany. Finally, in February 1526, he succeeded in having his first complete English translation of the “New Testament” printed. Before a month passed, the first copies of this translation had already appeared in England.

Bishop Tunstall, though, was determined to prevent the common people from reading the Bible. Hence, he burned every copy of Tyndale’s version he could find. Still, they kept circulating. So the bishop arranged, through a merchant named Packington, to buy Tyndale’s entire stock of Bibles before they left the continent and reached England. Tyndale accepted the offer and used the earned funds to improve his translation and print a revised edition. “And so forward went the bargain,” comments one source of the time. “The Bishop had the books, Packington had the thanks, and Tyndale had the money.” Thus, the bishop of London unwittingly financed Tyndale’s work of translating the Bible!

Tyndale’s Antwerp Connection

But even after all these copies had been bought and  burned, Tyndale’s “New Testament” continued to pour into England. How was that possible? Two daring printers in Antwerp, Hans and Christopher van Ruremond, had printed several clandestine editions of Tyndale’s “New Testament.” Although these Bibles contained numerous typographical errors, people in England were only too willing to buy them.

However, in 1528, Hans was imprisoned in London for printing 1,500 copies of Tyndale’s “New Testament” and for bringing 500 copies into England. He probably died in an English prison. In 1531, Hans’ brother Christopher was also imprisoned in England for selling the “New Testament.” Christopher likely died as a prisoner too.

“Tyndale’s Noblest Monument”​—Printed in Antwerp

From 1529 through 1535, Tyndale spent most of his time in Antwerp, where the environment was more conducive to his work. There, in 1530, Merten de Keyser printed Tyndale’s translation of the Pentateuch, in which the name Jehovah appeared for the first time in English.

In May 1535, Tyndale was arrested in Antwerp. While he languished in prison, one of his pupils, Miles Coverdale, completed Tyndale’s translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. On October 6, 1536, in Vilvoorde, Belgium, Tyndale was tied to a stake, strangled, and burned. His last words were: “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!”

Tyndale’s Legacy

It was not long after Tyndale’s execution that King Henry VIII of England licensed a Bible translation to be read in churches. It was printed by Matthias Crom, another Antwerp printer. This Bible, commonly known as Matthew’s Bible (named after Thomas Matthew), consists essentially of Tyndale’s translation. * How ironic that the bishops now used the translation that they had burned a few years earlier​—the translation for which Tyndale was put to death!

Much of Tyndale’s translation is preserved in the King James Version. Thus, many expressions from the King James Version that have left their imprint on the English language were coined by Tyndale and originally printed in Antwerp. Such well-known expressions as “the signs of the times” and “the powers that be” as well as “Am I my brother’s keeper?” were all taken directly from Tyndale by the translators of the King James Version. (Genesis 4:9; Matthew 16:3; Romans 13:1) According to Professor Latré, Tyndale’s influence on the English language is even greater than that of Shakespeare!

In the second half of the 16th century, Antwerp lost its climate of religious tolerance and its position as a refuge for Bible printing. This change was mainly caused by the persecution unleashed by the Counter Reformation of the Catholic Church. Even so, the courage and sacrifices of those early Bible printers in Antwerp have contributed greatly to making God’s Word available to Bible readers around the world today.


^ par. 28 Thomas Matthew was probably an alias for John Rogers, a friend and fellow worker of Tyndale.

[Pictures on page 19]

Above: Setting type by hand; Martin Luther translating the Bible; ancient city map of Antwerp

[Picture on page 20]

Jacob van Liesvelt’s book stand

[Pictures on page 21]

Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples and the title page of his Bible edition of 1530, printed in Antwerp

[Picture on page 21]

Public burning of English Bibles in London

[Pictures on page 22]

William Tyndale, a page from his Bible, and Miles Coverdale

[Picture Credit Lines on page 20]

Page 19: Typesetter: Printer’s Ornaments/by Carol Belanger Grafton/Dover Publications, Inc.; Luther: From the book Bildersaal deutscher Geschichte; map: By courtesy of Museum Plantin-Moretus/Stedelijk Prentenkabinet Antwerpen; page 21: Portrait: From the book Histoire de la Bible en France; Bible page: © Cliché Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris; burning Bibles: From the book The Parallel Bible, The Holy Bible, 1885; page 22: Tyndale: From the book The Evolution of the English Bible; Coverdale: From the book Our English Bible: Its Translations and Translators