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Making Known the Word of God in Medieval Spain

Making Known the Word of God in Medieval Spain

“When I journey to Spain, I hope that I will see you and be accompanied partway there by you after I have first enjoyed your company for a time.”​—Romans 15:24.

THE apostle Paul wrote those words to his fellow Christians in Rome in about the year 56 C.E. Whether Paul actually made the journey to Spain, the Bible does not say. In any case, through the efforts of Paul or other Christian missionaries, the good news from God’s Word, the Bible, did reach Spain by the second century C.E.

Soon, Christian communities began to develop and flourish in Spain. With that, there arose the need for the people there to have the Bible translated into Latin. This was because by the second century, Spain had long been under Roman rule and Latin had become the common language throughout the vast Roman Empire.


Early Spanish Christians produced several Latin translations known collectively as the Vetus Latina Hispana. These Latin Bibles circulated in Spain for many years before Jerome completed his renowned Latin Vulgate early in the fifth century C.E.

Jerome’s translation​—which he completed in Bethlehem, Palestine—​reached Spain in record time. When Lucinius, an affluent Bible student, learned that Jerome was preparing a Latin translation, he wanted to have a copy of this new translation as soon as possible. He dispatched six scribes to Bethlehem to copy the text and take it back to Spain. In the following centuries, the Vulgate gradually supplanted the Vetus Latina Hispana. Those Latin translations enabled the people of Spain to read the Bible and understand its message. But as the Roman Empire came to an end, new linguistic needs arose.


In the fifth century, the Visigoths and other Germanic tribes invaded Spain, and a new language​—Gothic—​arrived on the peninsula. The invaders practiced a form of Christianity known as Arianism, which rejected the Trinity doctrine. They also brought with them their own translation of the Scriptures​—Ulfilas’ Gothic Bible. This Bible was read in Spain until the end of the sixth century, when Reccared, the Visigothic king, became a Catholic and renounced Arianism. He had all Arian books collected and destroyed, including Ulfilas’ Bible. As a result, all Gothic texts disappeared from Spain.

A slate slab with Bible text in a Latin dialect, sixth century C.E.

Yet, the Word of God continued to spread in Spain during this period. Apart from Gothic, there was still a Latin dialect widely spoken in Spain, which later gave birth to the Romance languages spoken on the Iberian Peninsula. * The oldest documents in this Latin dialect are known as Visigothic slates, since they were written on pieces or slabs of slate. They date from the sixth and seventh centuries, and some contain passages from the Psalms and the Gospels. One slate contains the entire 16th Psalm.

The existence of Scriptural texts on humble slates shows that ordinary people both read and copied the Word of God at that time. Apparently, teachers used these Bible texts as exercises for pupils who were learning to read and write. The slates were a cheap writing material, in contrast with the expensive parchment that the medieval monasteries used to produce their illustrated Bibles.

A detail from the highly illuminated León Bible. Precious as they are, such Bibles did little to spread the message of God’s Word among the people

One priceless illustrated Bible is housed in the church of San Isidoro in León, Spain. Dated 960 C.E., it has 516 leaves measuring about 18 inches (47 cm) by 13 inches (34 cm) and weighing some 40 pounds (18 kg). Another, now in the Vatican Library, is the Bible of Ripoll, dated about 1020 C.E. It is one of the most profusely illuminated Bibles of the Middle Ages. To produce such works of art, a monk might have spent a whole day creating one initial letter or a whole week preparing a title page. Precious as they are, those Bibles, however, did little to spread the message of God’s Word among the people.


By the eighth century, another language began to take root in Spain as a result of the Islamic invasion of the peninsula. In the areas that the Muslims colonized, Arabic gained ground over Latin and the need arose for a Bible in this new language.

From the fifth to the eighth century C.E., the Bible in Latin and Arabic enabled the Spanish people to read God’s Word

Many Arabic translations of the Bible​—especially of the Gospels—​doubtless circulated in medieval Spain. Apparently, in the eighth century, John, a bishop of Seville, translated the entire Bible into Arabic. Sadly, most of those Arabic translations have been lost. One Arabic translation of the Gospels from the middle of the tenth century is preserved in the cathedral of León, Spain.

An Arabic translation of the Gospels, tenth century C.E.


During the late Middle Ages, Castilian, or Spanish, began to take shape on the Iberian Peninsula. This new tongue was destined to become an important vehicle for spreading the Word of God. * The earliest translation of Bible text into Spanish appeared in La Fazienda de Ultra Mar (Deeds From Across the Seas), of the early 13th century. This work contains an account of a journey to Israel, and it includes material from the Pentateuch and other books of the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the Gospels and the Epistles.

King Alfonso X supported Bible translation into Spanish

Church authorities were not pleased with this translation. In 1234, the Council of Tarragona decreed that all Bible books in the vernacular must be handed over to the local clergy to be burned. Happily, this decree did not put a stop to further Bible translation. King Alfonso X (1252-1284), considered to be the founder of Spanish prose, wanted the translation of the Scriptures into the new language and supported it. Spanish translations from this period include the so-called Pre-Alfonsine Bible and the Alfonsine Bible that appeared shortly thereafter, which was the largest translation into Spanish of its time.

Pages of the 13th-century Pre-Alfonsine (left) and Alfonsine (right) Bibles

Both of those works helped to establish and enrich the nascent Spanish language. Scholar Thomas Montgomery says regarding the Pre-Alfonsine Bible: “The translator of this Bible produced an admirable work with regard to accuracy as well as elegant language. . . . The language is simple and clear, as was needed for a Bible prepared for people unversed in Latin.”

Those early Spanish Bibles, however, were translated from the Latin Vulgate rather than from the original languages. Starting in the 14th century, Jewish scholars produced several Spanish translations of the Hebrew Scriptures directly from the Hebrew. At the time, Spain had the largest Jewish community in Europe, and Jewish translators had access to good Hebrew manuscripts for making their translations. *

One outstanding example was the Alba Bible, completed in the 15th century. A prominent Spanish nobleman, Luis de Guzmán, commissioned Rabbi Moisés Arragel to translate the Bible into castizo (pure) Spanish. He gave two reasons for requesting this new translation. First, he said: “The Bibles that today are found in the Romance language are very corrupt,” and second, “People like us very much need the marginal notes for the obscure passages.” His request reveals that people of his day had a keen interest in reading and understanding the Bible. It further indicates that the Scriptures in the vernacular language already had quite a wide distribution in Spain.

Thanks to the medieval translators and copyists, educated people in Spain could read the Bible in their own language without great hindrance. As a result, historian Juan Orts González observed that “the Spanish people knew the Bible much better than the people of Germany or England before the time of Luther.”

“The Spanish people knew the Bible much better than the people of Germany or England before the time of Luther.”​—Historian Juan Orts González

By the close of the 15th century, however, the Spanish Inquisition forbade the translation and possession of the Scriptures in any vernacular language. A long night for the Bible descended on Spain. Three centuries passed before the ban was finally lifted. During that difficult time, a few valiant translators produced new Spanish versions abroad and had them smuggled into Spain. *

As this history of the Bible in medieval Spain reveals, opposers have endeavored to suppress the Word of God in many ways. Nonetheless, they were unable to silence the sayings of the Almighty.​—Psalm 83:1; 94:20.

The tireless work of many scholars enabled the Bible to take root and spread in medieval Spain. Modern translators have followed in the footsteps of those pioneers who translated the Scriptures into Latin, Gothic, Arabic, and Spanish. As a result, millions of Spanish-speaking people today can read God’s Word in the tongue that touches their heart.

^ par. 10 These include Castilian, Catalan, Galician, and Portuguese.

^ par. 17 Today, Spanish is the first language of some 540 million people.

^ par. 20 See the article “The Divine Name and Alfonso de Zamora’s Quest for Textual Accuracy,” in the December 1, 2011, issue of this magazine.

^ par. 23 See the article “Casiodoro de Reina’s Fight for a Spanish Bible,” in the June 1, 1996, issue of this magazine.