Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Protestant Bible translations were not the first

As I argue in "Luther's Bible translation" (on my Musings of a Pertinacious Papist blog), Martin Luther's translation of the Bible was far from being the first. Catholics published many translations prior to Luther's. There were 18 German translations of the entire Bible prior to Luthers.

In response to this post, I received the following communication from a respected colleague:
Thanks for the information ... I wonder about two things:

First, as to whether Luther (pictured left) gets the credit he does on account of stumping for the Bible to be not only in the common language but also commonly available to those who were not priests and scholars. My guess is that Luther's translation was fairly shortly made available to all who could read and purchase ... perhaps the earlier editions had a more narrow circulation.

Second, though I do not doubt that there were earlier linguistic and philological scholars Luther's equal and superior (Erasmus, for one, comes to mind) ... Zwingli's critique is tainted by his widely known contempt for -- and perhaps jealousy of -- Luther. Zwingli's zeal for his own cause yielded a violent end. Theirs was not a time for civil academic exchange between scholars, but for diatribes and invective ... in which Zwingli, Luther, and Eck, among others, were now and again active participants.
To which I responded thus:
Good questions. The chief warrant for the association of Luther and the Protestant Reformation in general with the popular circulation of the Bible, in my opinion, comes from the rough historical coincidence of Protestantism with the advent of printing. What is also often overlooked is the fact that there was no widespread literacy among the laity until well into modern times, so that even when the Protestant biblical translations were first made, they were not read far beyond a small circle of literate academic intellectuals.

Zwingli (pictured left) was not only a pugnacious opponent of Luther but a philanderer and adulterer, though I do not know whether it follows that on this account what he said about Luther here is false. My main point in this post was to offer a corrective to the wide-spread assumption that the Catholic Church tried to keep the laity biblically illiterate. The laity were virtually all illiterate for the fist sixteen centuries to begin with, but this hardly meant that they were ignorant of the Gospel. Eamon Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, c. 1400-1580 (pictured right) has pretty well debunked that assumption in British scholarship. There were numerous of vernacular translations of parts of the Bible in existence from Anglo-Saxon times (Venerable Bede, etc.) up until Wycliffe, though their circulation naturally was confined to the literate minority (mostly priests). From Wycliffe until the Douay-Rheims (the authorized Catholic translation published by English exiles in Belgium and France before the KJV appeared), the Church did adopt a cautious stance toward Bible translations, not because it was afraid of the laity knowing the liberty of the Gospel (as Fundamentalists often suppose), but because of the proliferation of heresy (such as Wycliffe's).

Though it may not be quite "heresy," once can still see "de-Catholicizing" tendencies in many translations of Scripture today. To take just one example, there are thirteen instances of the term paradosis (usually in its plural form, paradoseis) in the NT, of which ten are critical of human traditions that have departed from God’s Word. In the other three cases, Paul commends traditions to the churches to whom he writes (1 Cor 11:2; 2 Thes 2:15; 3:6). Significantly all ten of the negative references are translated by the NIV (pictured left) as "traditions," while all three of the positive references are deliberately mistranslated as "teachings" -- the translation for didaskalia or didachĂȘ, not paradosis. Such a translation is regrettably tendentious and parochial, slanted in ways that North American evangelicalism's tastes are not offended and its predilictions are confirmed.

But perhaps this latter bit is a discussion for another time.