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They Tried to Keep God’s Word From the Masses

They Tried to Keep God’s Word From the Masses

They Tried to Keep God’s Word From the Masses

AS TIME passed, efforts were made to translate the Bible into the languages that people commonly spoke. Few could read the Bible in the Hebrew or Greek in which it was written. Most of us would have difficulty understanding God’s Word if today it were available only in ancient forms of those languages.

Almost 300 years before Jesus lived on earth, work began on translating the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. That translation is known as the Greek Septuagint. Some 700 years later, Jerome produced a famous translation known as the Vulgate. This was a rendering of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures into Latin, which was the common tongue of the Roman Empire of that time.

Later, Latin began to fade as a common language. Only the well-educated maintained familiarity with Latin, and the Catholic Church resisted efforts to translate the Bible into other languages. Religious leaders argued that Hebrew, Greek, and Latin were the only suitable Bible languages. *

Church Divisions and Bible Translation

In the ninth century C.E., Methodius and Cyril, Thessalonian missionaries acting on behalf of the Eastern Church in Byzantium, promoted the use of Slavic as a church language. Their goal was to enable the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe, who understood neither Greek nor Latin, to learn about God in their own language.

These missionaries, however, met with fierce opposition from German priests, who sought to impose Latin as a defense against the expanding influence of Byzantine Christianity. Clearly, politics were more important to them than people’s religious education. Increasing tensions between the Western and Eastern branches of Christendom led to the division between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy in 1054.

The Fight Against Bible Translation

Roman Catholicism eventually came to view Latin as a holy language. Thus, in response to the request made in 1079 by Vratislaus, duke of Bohemia, seeking permission to use Slavonic in local church services, Pope Gregory VII wrote: “We cannot in any way grant this petition.” Why not?

“It is evident to those who consider the matter carefully,” said Gregory, “that it has pleased God to make Holy Scripture obscure in certain places lest, if it were perfectly clear to all, it might be vulgarized and subjected to disrespect or be so misunderstood by people of limited intelligence as to lead them into error.”

The common people were given severely limited access to the Bible, and it had to stay that way. This stand afforded the clergy power over the masses. They did not want the common people dabbling in areas they considered to be their own domain.

In 1199, Pope Innocent III wrote concerning “heretics” who had translated the Bible into French and dared to discuss it among themselves. To them, Innocent applied Jesus’ words: “Do not give what is holy to dogs, neither throw your pearls before swine.” (Matthew 7:6) What was his reasoning in this matter? “That no simple and unlearned man presumes to concern himself with the sublimity of sacred Scripture, or to preach it to others.” Those who resisted the pope’s order were often delivered to inquisitors who had them tortured into making confessions. Those who refused to recant were burned alive.

During the long battle fought over possession of the Bible and the reading of it, Pope Innocent’s letter was often appealed to for support in forbidding use of the Bible and its translation into other languages. Soon after his decree, the burning of Bibles in the vernacular began, as did the burning of some of their owners. In the centuries that followed, the bishops and rulers of Catholic Europe used all possible means to ensure that the ban imposed by Pope Innocent III was observed.

The Catholic hierarchy certainly knew that many of its teachings were based, not on the Bible, but on church tradition. Doubtless, this is one of the reasons for their reluctance to allow their faithful to have access to the Bible. By reading it, people would become aware of the incompatibility between their church doctrine and Scripture.

Effects of the Reformation

The arrival of Protestantism transformed Europe’s religious landscape. Martin Luther’s attempts to reform the Catholic Church and his eventual break with it in 1521 were based essentially on his understanding of Scripture. So when that break was complete, Luther, a gifted translator, endeavored to make the Bible available to the public.

Luther’s translation into German and its wide distribution got the attention of the Roman Catholic Church, which felt that Luther’s Bible ought to be offset by one accepted by the church. Two such translations in the German language soon appeared. But then, in 1546, less than 25 years later, the Roman Catholic Council of Trent, in effect, placed any printing of religious literature, including translations of the Bible, under the control of the church.

The Council of Trent decreed “that henceforth sacred Scripture . . . be printed in the most correct manner possible; and that it shall not be lawful for any one to print, or cause to be printed, any books whatever on sacred matters without the name of the author; or in future to sell them, or even to possess them, unless they shall have been first examined and approved of by the [local bishop].”

In 1559, Pope Paul IV published the first index of books prohibited by the Roman Catholic Church. It forbade possession of Bible translations in Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish, as well as some in Latin. Any who wanted to read the Bible were told to obtain written permission from bishops or inquisitors​—not an appealing prospect for those who wanted to remain above suspicion of heresy.

People who dared to possess or distribute Bibles in the common languages of their region had to contend with the ire of the Catholic Church. Many were arrested, burned at the stake, roasted on spits, sentenced to life in prison, or sent to the galleys. Confiscated Bibles were burned. Indeed, Catholic priests continued to confiscate and burn Bibles well into the 20th century.

This is not to say that Protestantism has been a real friend and defender of the Bible. In the 18th and 19th centuries, some Protestant theologians championed techniques of study that came to be known as higher criticism. In time, many people accepted teachings influenced by Darwinian theories that life was not created but somehow appeared by chance and evolved without a Creator.

Theologians, and even many clergymen, taught that the Bible is largely based on legend and myth. As a result, it is not uncommon today to hear Protestant clergymen, as well as many of their parishioners, disavow the Bible, saying it is unhistorical.

Perhaps you have noted attitudes critical of the Bible’s authenticity, and maybe you are surprised at the attempts that were made to destroy it in centuries past. The attacks, however, failed. The Bible has survived them all!

Why It Has Survived

True, many have loved the Bible and have been willing to lay down their lives to defend it. The key to its survival, however, lies in a force greater than human love. The simple reason for the survival of the Bible is that all those who contributed to the writings that make up the Bible wrote under inspiration by God.​—Isaiah 40:8; 1 Peter 1:25.

Reading and applying what the Bible teaches will enable us to improve our lives, health, and family life. God wants the Bible to survive and to be translated into as many languages as possible so that all can have the opportunity to learn to love him, to serve him, and eventually to enjoy his eternal blessings. Surely, that is what we all want!

Jesus, in prayer to his heavenly Father, said: “Your word is truth.” (John 17:17) The Bible​—the Scriptures Jesus read and taught—​is God’s means of providing answers to the questions that sincere people ask.

You are warmly encouraged to learn more about God’s message to mankind as found in the Bible. Jehovah’s Witnesses, the distributors of this magazine, would be happy to help you. *


^ par. 4 The idea seems to have come from the writings of the Spanish bishop Isidore of Seville (560-636 C.E.), who argued: “There are three sacred languages, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, and they are supreme through all the world. For it was in these three languages that the charge against the Lord was written above the cross by Pilate.” Of course, the decision to post the charge in those three languages was made by the pagan Romans. The decision was not directed by God.

^ par. 28 You may contact them, without obligation, at one of the addresses found on page 5 of this magazine or at

[Blurb on page 6]

The common people were given severely limited access to the Bible, which afforded the clergy power over the masses

[Blurb on page 8]

When caught, people who dared to possess or distribute Bibles were burned at the stake or sentenced to life in prison

[Box on page 9]


The Creator wants us to be able to answer these fundamental questions:

● Why are we here?

● Why is there so much suffering?

● Where are the dead?

● Where is mankind going?

The Bible provides answers to these questions as well as practical advice on how to find true happiness.

[Chart/​Pictures on pages 6, 7]


c. 636 C.E.

Isidore of Seville contends that Hebrew, Greek, and Latin are “sacred” languages and therefore the only languages suitable for the Holy Bible


Pope Gregory VII adamantly refuses Vratislaus’ request to use Slavonic in church, stating that the Scriptures should be inaccessible to those of “limited intelligence”


Pope Innocent III views as heretics any who dare to translate and discuss the Bible. Those who defy the pope’s order are often tortured and killed


By decree of the Council of Trent, any printing of Bible translations must first be approved by the Catholic Church


Pope Paul IV forbids possession of Bibles in the common languages. Vernacular translations are confiscated and burned, and often their owners are burned with them

[Credit Lines]

Pope Gregory VII: © Scala/​White Images/​Art Resource, NY; Pope Innocent III: © Scala/​Art Resource, NY; Council of Trent: © Scala/​White Images/​Art Resource, NY; Pope Paul IV: © The Print Collector, Great Britain/​HIP/​Art Resource, NY

[Picture Credit Line on page 8]

From Foxe’s Book of Martyrs