Skip to content

Skip to table of contents

Jehovah’s Witnesses

Select language English

The Complutensian Polyglot—A Historic Translation Tool

The Complutensian Polyglot—A Historic Translation Tool

 The Complutensian Polyglot​—A Historic Translation Tool

IN ABOUT 1455, there was a revolution in Bible publishing. Johannes Gutenberg used a printing press to produce the first Bible ever printed using movable type. Finally, the bonds that had tied the Bible to scarce handwritten documents were broken. At last, Bibles could be produced in large quantities and at relatively little expense. Before long, the Bible would become the most widely distributed book in the world.

Gutenberg’s Bible was in Latin. But European scholars soon realized that they needed a reliable text of the Bible in its original languages​—Hebrew and Greek. The Catholic Church considered the Latin Vulgate the only acceptable version of the Bible, yet there were two major drawbacks. In the 16th century, most people could not understand Latin. Furthermore, over a period of a thousand years, the text of the Vulgate had accumulated a notable number of copyist errors.

Both translators and scholars needed a Bible in the original languages, as well as an improved Latin translation. In 1502, cardinal Jiménez de Cisneros, political and spiritual adviser to Isabella I of Spain, decided to satisfy their needs with just one publication. This historic translation tool became known as the Complutensian Polyglot. Cisneros aimed to have a Polyglot, or multilingual Bible, containing the best text in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, along with some portions in Aramaic. Printing was still in its infancy, so this achievement would also turn out to be a milestone in the art of printing.

Cisneros began his formidable task by buying up ancient Hebrew manuscripts, of which there were many in Spain. He also collected diverse Greek and Latin manuscripts. These would provide the basis for the Polyglot text. Cisneros entrusted the actual compilation to a team of scholars whom he organized at the newly founded University of Alcalá de Henares, Spain. Among the scholars asked to collaborate was Erasmus of Rotterdam, but this famous linguist declined the invitation.

The scholars took ten years to compile the monumental work, after which the actual printing took another four years. Technical difficulties abounded, since Spanish printers had no Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic type fonts available. Thus, Cisneros enlisted the services of a master printer, Arnaldo Guillermo Brocario, to prepare the type fonts in these languages. Finally, the printers began production in 1514. The six volumes were completed on July 10, 1517, just four months before the death of the cardinal. Some six hundred copies of the complete work were published, paradoxically at the very time when the Spanish Inquisition was at its height. *

 Composition of the Work

Every page of the Polyglot provided a wealth of information. In the four volumes corresponding to the Hebrew Scriptures, the text of the Vulgate appeared in the center of each page; the Hebrew text formed the outer column; and the Greek text, along with an interlinear translation into Latin, the inside column. In the margins, the roots of many Hebrew terms appeared. And in the lower part of each page corresponding to the Pentateuch, the editors also included the Targum of Onkelos (an Aramaic paraphrase of the first five books of the Bible) together with a Latin translation.

The fifth volume of the Polyglot contained the Greek Scriptures in two columns. One presented the Greek text, and the other the equivalent Latin text from the Vulgate. The correspondency between the texts in both languages was established by means of small letters that directed the reader to the equivalent word in each column. The Greek text of the Polyglot was the first complete collection of the Greek Scriptures, or “New Testament,” ever printed, followed soon thereafter by the edition prepared by Erasmus.

The scholars exercised such care in the proofreading of the text of the fifth volume that only 50 printing errors appeared. Because of such scrupulous care by these scholars, modern critics have judged it superior to the famous Greek text of Erasmus. The elegant Greek characters matched the simple beauty of the older uncial manuscripts. In his book The Printing of Greek in the Fifteenth Century, R. Proctor states: “To Spain belongs the honour of having produced as her first Greek type, what is undoubtedly the finest Greek fount ever cut.”

The sixth volume of the Polyglot contained various aids for Bible study: a Hebrew and Aramaic dictionary, an interpretation of Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic names, a Hebrew grammar, and a Latin index for the dictionary. Not surprisingly, the Complutensian Polyglot has been acclaimed as a “monument to typographical art and to Scriptural science.”

Cisneros intended this work “to revive the hitherto dormant study of the scriptures,” yet he had no desire to make the Bible available to the public at large. He thought that “the Word of God had to be enveloped in discreet mysteries far from the reach of the common man.” He also believed that “the Scriptures ought to be restricted to the three ancient languages that God permitted on the inscription written above the head of his crucified Son.” * For this reason, the Complutensian Polyglot did not include any translation into Spanish.

The Vulgate Versus the Original Languages

The very nature of the Polyglot produced some disagreements among the scholars involved. The famous Spanish scholar Antonio de Nebrija * was put in charge of revising the  text of the Vulgate that would appear in the Polyglot Bible. Although the Catholic Church considered Jerome’s Vulgate to be the only authorized version, Nebrija saw the need to compare the Vulgate with the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. He wanted to correct the evident mistakes that had crept into the existing copies of the Vulgate.

To resolve any discrepancies between the Vulgate and the original tongues, Nebrija urged Cisneros: “Light up once more the two unlit torches of our religion, the Hebrew and the Greek languages. Reward those who devote themselves to this task.” And he also made the following suggestion: “Each time that a variation appears in the Latin manuscripts of the New Testament, we ought to go back to the Greek manuscripts. Every time there is a disagreement between various Latin manuscripts or between Latin and Greek manuscripts of the Old Testament, we ought to search for accuracy in the authentic Hebrew source.”

How did Cisneros respond? In his prologue to the Polyglot Bible, Cisneros left no doubt as to his opinion. “We have placed the Latin translation of the blessed Jerome between that of the Synagogue [the Hebrew text] and that of the Oriental Church [the Greek text], just as the thieves were hung, one on each side of Jesus, who represents the Roman, or Latin, Church.” Thus, Cisneros did not allow Nebrija to correct the Latin Vulgate in accord with the text of the original languages. Finally, Nebrija decided to abandon the project rather than put his name to a deficient revision.

Comma Johanneum

Although the Polyglot Bible of Alcalá de Henares did prove to be a gigantic step forward in producing a refined text in the original languages of the Bible, tradition occasionally prevailed over scholarship. The Vulgate was held in such high esteem that the editors felt obliged on several occasions to correct the Greek text of the “New Testament” to ensure that it corresponded to the Latin rather than the other way around. One of these examples is the famous spurious text known as the comma Johanneum. * None of the early Greek manuscripts contained this phrase, which evidently was inserted several centuries after John wrote his letter; nor did it appear in the oldest Latin manuscripts of the Vulgate. So Erasmus eliminated this interpolation in his Greek “New Testament.”

The editors of the Polyglot felt loath to  part with a verse that had been a part of the traditional Vulgate text for centuries. Thus, they maintained the spurious reading in the Latin and decided to translate it and insert it into the Greek text so that the two columns would harmonize.

A Basis for New Bible Translations

The value of the Complutensian Polyglot does not depend merely on the fact that it contained the first printed edition of the complete Greek Scriptures with that of the Septuagint. Just as the Greek “New Testament” of Erasmus became the Received Text of the Greek Scriptures (the basis for many translations into other languages), the Hebrew text of the Polyglot provided a master text for the Hebrew-Aramaic Scriptures. * William Tyndale used this Polyglot as the basic Hebrew text for his translation of the Bible into English.

Thus, the scholarly work of the team that produced the Complutensian Polyglot contributed notably to the progress of Scriptural scholarship. The publication of it came at a time when a growing interest in the Bible throughout Europe had begun to encourage its translation into the common language of the people. The Polyglot proved to be one more link in a chain of initiatives that contributed to the refinement and preservation of the Greek and Hebrew text. All of this is in harmony with the divine purpose that ‘the refined saying of Jehovah,’ ‘the word of our God, will last to time indefinite.’​—Psalm 18:30; Isaiah 40:8; 1 Peter 1:25.


^ par. 6 Six hundred copies were made on paper, and six copies on parchment. In 1984 a limited facsimile edition was printed.

^ par. 12 Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.​—John 19:20.

^ par. 14 Nebrija is considered the pioneer of the Spanish humanists (liberal scholars). In 1492 he published the first Gramática castellana (Grammar of the Castilian Language). Three years later he decided to devote the rest of his life to the study of the Holy Scriptures.

^ par. 18 The spurious addition found in some translations of the Bible at 1 John 5:7 reads “in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.”

^ par. 21 For an account of the work of Erasmus, see The Watchtower, September 15, 1982, pages 8-11.

[Picture on page 29]

Cardinal Jiménez de Cisneros

[Credit Line]

Biblioteca Histórica. Universidad Complutense de Madrid

[Picture on page 30]

Antonio de Nebrija

[Credit Line]

Biblioteca Histórica. Universidad Complutense de Madrid

[Picture Credit Line on page 28]

Biblioteca Histórica. Universidad Complutense de Madrid