ON A Sunday morning in the early 1520’s, the inhabitants of Meaux, a small town near Paris, could not believe what they heard in church. They had listened to the reading of the Gospels in their mother tongue—in French instead of Latin!
The Bible translator who was behind this initiative, Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples (Latin, Jacobus Faber Stapulensis), later wrote to a close friend: “You can scarcely imagine with what ardor God is moving the minds of the simple [people] in some places to embrace his Word.”
At that time, the Catholic Church and the theologians in Paris opposed the use of translations of the Bible in common languages. So, what moved Lefèvre to translate the Bible into French? And how did he manage to help the common people to understand God’s Word?
SEEKING THE TRUE MEANING OF THE SCRIPTURES
Before becoming a Bible translator, Lefèvre had dedicated himself to restoring the original meaning of classical works of philosophy and theology. He noted that ancient texts had often been corrupted by centuries of misleading renderings and errors. In his search for the true meaning of ancient writings, he started studying closely the standard Bible of the Catholic Church, the Latin Vulgate.
His earnest study of the Scriptures led him to the conclusion that “study of divine truth alone promises . . . the highest happiness.” Therefore, Lefèvre turned away from studying philosophy and devoted all his energy to translating the Bible.
In 1509, Lefèvre published a comparative study of five different Latin versions of the Psalms, * including his own correction of the Vulgate. Unlike theologians of his time, he endeavored to find the “natural sense” of Bible passages. His method of interpreting the Scriptures had a strong influence on other Bible scholars and reformers.—See the box “How Martin Luther Was Influenced by Lefèvre.”
Born a Catholic, Lefèvre was convinced that a renewal of the church could be possible only if the Scriptures were properly taught to ordinary people. But how would the common people benefit from the Scriptures at a time when those sacred writings were mostly in Latin?
A BIBLE TRANSLATION ACCESSIBLE TO ALL
Lefèvre’s deep love for God’s Word made him determined to make it accessible to the greatest number of people. To achieve that goal, in June 1523, he published a French translation of the Gospels in two pocket-size volumes. This small format—which cost half the price of a standard edition—made it easier for people with little means to obtain a copy of the Bible.
The response of the common people was immediate and enthusiastic. Both men and women were so eager to read Jesus’ words in their mother tongue that the first 1,200 copies printed were out of stock after just a few months.
A COURAGEOUS STAND FOR THE BIBLE
In the introduction to the Gospels, Lefèvre explained that he had translated them into French so that “the simple members” of the church “can be as certain of evangelical truth as those who have it in Latin.” But why was Lefèvre so eager to help the common people to get back to what the Bible teaches?
Lefèvre was well-aware that human teachings and philosophy had corrupted the Catholic Church. (Mark 7:7; Colossians 2:8) And he was convinced that the time had arrived for the Gospels to be “purely proclaimed throughout the world, so that people may no longer be led astray by alien doctrines of men.”
Lefèvre also endeavored to expose the faulty arguments of those who opposed the translation of the Bible into French. He denounced their hypocrisy, saying: “How will they teach [the people] to observe all that Jesus Christ commanded, if they are quite unwilling that the simple folk should see and read the Gospel of God in their own language?”—Romans 10:14.
Not surprisingly, theologians at the University of Paris—the Sorbonne—soon attempted to silence Lefèvre. In August 1523, they objected to vernacular translations of and commentaries on the Bible, considering them “harmful to the Church.” Had it not been for the intervention of French King Francis I, Lefèvre would have been condemned as a heretic.
THE “SILENT” TRANSLATOR COMPLETED HIS WORK
Lefèvre did not allow heated debates on his works to distract him from translating the Bible. In 1524, after completing his translation of the Greek Scriptures (the so-called New Testament), he released a French version of the Psalms so that believers might pray “with greater devotion and deeper feeling.”
Theologians at the Sorbonne lost no time in going through Lefèvre’s works with a fine-tooth comb. They soon ordered that his translation of the Greek Scriptures be burned publicly, and they denounced some other writings as “favoring the heresy of Luther.” When the theologians summoned him to justify his views, Lefèvre decided to remain “silent” and fled to Strasbourg. There, he discreetly continued translating the Bible. Even though some considered his stance to be lacking courage, he believed that it was the best way to respond to those who had no appreciation for the precious “pearls” of Bible truth.—Matthew 7:6.
Almost one year after his flight, King Francis I appointed Lefèvre tutor of his four-year-old son, Charles. This assignment gave Lefèvre plenty of time to finish his translation of the Bible. In 1530, his translation of the complete Bible was printed outside France, in Antwerp, with the approval of Emperor Charles V. *
GREAT HOPES, LAST REGRETS
Throughout his life, Lefèvre hoped that the church would abandon human traditions and return to the pure knowledge of the Scriptures. He strongly believed in “the right, indeed, the duty, of every Christian to read and learn the Bible personally.” That is why he worked so hard to make the Bible accessible to all. Although his desire to see the church reform itself failed to materialize, Lefèvre’s legacy is undisputed—he helped the common people to know God’s Word.
^ par. 8 The Fivefold Psalter gave five versions of the Psalms in separate columns and included a table of titles applying to God, including the Tetragrammaton, the four Hebrew letters representing God’s name.
^ par. 21 Five years later, in 1535, French translator Olivétan released his version of the Bible based on the original languages. He relied heavily on Lefèvre’s works when translating the Greek Scriptures.