A History on the Printing of the Bible

Yes, it is a press, certainly, but a press from which shall soon flow in inexhaustible streams the most abundant and most marvelous liquor that has ever flowed to relieve the thirst of man! Through it God will spread His Word. A spring of pure truth shall flow from it! Like a new star, it shall scatter the darkness of ignorance, and cause a light heretofore unknown to shine among men.”
~ Johannes Gutenberg

The Word of God is at the center of our Christian faith. The Scriptures have been read for thousands of years in various languages all across the globe. They contain the genealogical and spiritual lineage of our faith, a history or knowledge which should be given to all and known by all. The gift of being able to hold God’s Word in our hands and hearts is without price.

Perhaps in our current culture, we forget that books, let alone the Scriptures, were once found in few numbers and typically found only in places of learning or wealth. While diverse translations existed at various points in time, complete manuscripts were scarce and each one had to be copied by hand. Moreover, most complete copies of the Scriptures were written in Latin or Greek, as they were the lingua franca, or common tongue of trade and cross-national communication at certain periods of time. Thus, when books and especially the Scriptures could be mass-produced through the movable type, people were excited about what this meant for the world and the Church. The above quote by Gutenberg captures the awe and excitement of a man recognizing a great thing: that God’s Word now had a greater opportunity to be read and owned by all.

The printing of the Bible was important to history, culture, language, and spirituality in many ways. The Scriptures printed in the vernacular for various tongues not only allowed readers to understand without an interpreter, but also established and stabilized the languages they were written in. The printing press opened doors for more people to learn to read and to raise up the common man to an educated one. But first, a short history on the various translations and history of the Bible must be established. While some of these events and dates may already be known by some, I hope that they will demonstrate the blessings of the printing press and the dedication of Christians before us who strove to bring the Word of God to all nations, from the Great Commission, to the Reformation, and into the present.

A Condensed History of the Bible

1400-400 B.C. – the Old Testament is written in Hebrew and Aramaic

3rd century B.C.-132 B.C the Translation of the Old Testament into Greek, the Septuagint

A.D. c. 45-85 – The New Testament is written in Greek

4th century – Coptic translations of the Old Testament

303-306 – Diocletian destroys copies of the New Testament during Christian persecution

305-310 – Lucian’s Greek New Testament becomes foundation for later Bibles

311-380 – Gothic translation of part of the Bible

367 – Athanasius’ Festal Letter lists the complete New Testament Cannon of 27 books, which is established thirty years later

407 – Jerome’s Vulgate, though there were Latin texts before his complete translation

411 – Armenian translation of the Scriptures

640 – Partial Bible translation into Chinese, for the Emperor

650 – Caedmon puts the Bible into Verse

735 – Bede translates the Gospel of John, Old English

748 – Gospel of Matthew translated into Old High German. Other German translations of the Bible were made before Luther’s, but they were burned by the Inquisitors

863 – The Bible is translated into Old Church Slavonic

9th Century translation of the Old Testament and Gospels into Arabic

900 – King Alfred, who began to “standardize” English, translates the Pentateuch and perhaps the Psalms into Old English

1150 – The Ormulum – parts of the Gospels and Acts translated into Middle English

1226-50 – First French Translation of the Bible

1287-90 – First Catalonian translation of the Bible

1325 – Psalms translated into metrical verse

1360 – The first full Bible translated into Czech. Later, the Prague Bible was published in 1488.

1380-95 – John Wycliffe completes his English translation of the New Testament, with the Old Testament following shortly after. People who read it were called Lollards and were persecuted.

1420 – the Hussite Bible, the oldest known Hungarian and Uralic Bible translation

1430 – the Alba Bible, a translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew into medieval Castilian by Spanish Jews

1454 – Johannes Gutenberg, in Germany, prints the first book mass-produced using the movable metal type. The Old Testament is in Latin and the New Testament in Greek.

1466 – Johannes Mentelin prints the first German Bible

1476 – First French translation and printed version of the New Testament

1516 – Desiderius Erasmus prints the Greek New Testament

1526 – Tyndale’s Translation of the New Testament into Early Modern English. He is martyred roughly ten years later.

1534 – Luther’s German Bible, a translation with influence of the German Language on a scale to that of the KJV on English.

1537 – Miles Coverdale completes Tyndale’s work on the Old Testament

1538 – The Great Bible, by John Rogers, is the first complete Bible in English which the public are authorized to use

1560 – The Geneva Bible is published. This translation was used by Shakespeare, Knox, Donne, and Bunyan, and was brought on the Mayflower.

1567 – New Testament translated into Welsh

1569 – First Bible printed in Spanish

1578 – First complete Bible translated into Slovene

1611 – King James Version printed

1663 – Complete translation of the Bible into Wampanoag

1735 – The full Bible is translated, prinited, and published in Lithuanian

2016 – The full Bible has been translated into 636 languages (at least some portion of the Scriptures have been translated into 3,223 languages).

The Original Languages and Divisions of the Bible

To begin, the languages that the Scriptures were written in were Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Hebrew is obvious, as it was the language of the Israelites. During the latter part of the 1st millennium B.C., Aramaic was the lingua franca of the Middle East, especially in the northern areas. It largely replaced Akkadian, Assyrian, Persian, and various other smaller language groups in regard to communication between nations and people. During the time of the New Testament, though Rome was the empire in power, it was Greece which had done most of the leg work and spread Greek through the entire “known” world, thus becoming the lingua franca for hundreds of years. It is for these reasons, among various others, that the Bible was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

The divisions of the Bible, by chapter and verse, came at a much later point. Though both the Old and New Testament already had paragraph divisions, these were eventually adapted to chapters and verses in order to simplify study. For example, the Hebrew texts organized the books by paragraphs with the letters Peh and Samekh, the letters that begin the words patuach (open) and sagoor (closed). One navigational tool used in manuscripts, notably illuminated ones, was the large, decorative letters that opened each chapter (Pitts). The New Testament has been divided into topical sections since the 4th century. Eusebius of Caesarea divided the Gospels into tables or canons. Verses were established around the time of the 10th century, based off of the Hebrew sof passuq, a marking, which appears like the English colon but ends the sentence (Pitts).

The chapter divisions of the Scriptures universally utilized were established in the thirteenth century (Moore 17). Around 1550, a man named Robert Estienne made divisions in a Greek New Testament translation that were used widely during his time and continued into the present, including putting the verse numbers within the text rather than the margins (Smith; Pitts). There were others who had used numbers for the verses beforehand, but they were too long and oftentimes the divisions did not make sense. The Geneva Bible was the first English text to use the verse and chapter divisions (Pitts). Thus, even though the printing press, in many ways, standardized the way the Bibles were written, it took a long time for numbered verses and chapters to be established.

Latin and the Church

As can be seen from the above timeline, the Bible, in differing forms and sections, had been translated into various languages throughout Europe long before the Reformation even began. Throughout this time, the Church continued to copy the Scriptures mainly in Greek and Latin. Jerome is known for translating the first complete Bible into Latin, and he translated from the Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek texts. While Greek was the language of trade in a vast scope of the world, the Romans and then later the Church wrote their documents mostly in Latin. Latin was the language of the Romans and their Empire, which encompassed a huge part of the globe. So when Jerome “wrote” the Vulgate, he was writing in vulgar or common Latin – the language of the people.

While the Church fathers generally wrote in Greek or Latin, there was no specific ban on translating the Scriptures into other languages. However, some versions were banned due to fear that the text may be or was corrupted by poor translators or because of teachings that were in opposition to Catholic doctrine. Additionally, while it was not strictly forbidden, the Roman Catholic Church worked against translators, a policy which mainly began under Pope Gregory VII. One author wrote that during Gregory’s time, “orthodox prejudice against lay knowledge of the Biblical text hardened.”

One of the early Church fathers, named Waldo, tried to share the word of God to the masses. However, he did not try to reform the church, he simply wanted to have the Word of God in a language understood by him and the people around him. He read translated passages of Scripture to the people, but the Church looked negatively toward his actions, saying that,

“We saw the Waldensians [supporters of Waldo] at the council celebrated at Rome under pope Alexander III. They were simple and illiterate men … and they presented to the lord pope a book written in the French tongue, in which were contained a text and gloss on the psalter, and on very many other books of both testaments. These besought with great urgency that authority to preach should be confirmed to them, for they thought themselves expert, when they were scarcely learned at all.” (Reed)

And it is not as though the apprehension of the Pope was without warrant, as he wrote,

“It is clear to those who reflect upon it, that not without reason has it pleased Almighty God that holy scriptures should be a secret in certain places, lest, if it were plainly apparent to all men, perchance it would be little esteemed and be subject to disrespect; or it might be falsely understood by those of mediocre learning, and lead to error.” (Reed)

And even now translations are done in a careful and studious manner, attempting to correct errors and keep from making more. And yet, keeping the Scriptures from the people is in itself an error.

During this time, the misinterpreted passage of Scripture of throwing “pearls before swine” began to be used, saying that the Scriptures should be so “carelessly” given to the masses. Many of them were killed as heretics. A similar view was taken a couple hundred years later with Wycliffe and his Lollards, the mumblers and uneducated masses who read the Scriptures in Middle English. Even years later, Tyndale was strangled and burned as a heretic, yet it was only a couple of decades after that the King James Bible was published.

Tyndale once said to a man in opposition to his teachings and translating,

“If God spare my life, ere many years pass, I will cause a boy that driveth the plow shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.”

Because of what each of these translators did, the plow boy, the weaver, the miller, the seamstress, and so many more did get to learn the Scriptures. From those early Gothic translators, to those who studiously learned Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, to Jerome and Luther, and even the Wycliffe Bible translators of today, each of these translators has fulfilled the calling of God to spread the Gospel to all nations and tongues. As in the Day of Pentecost when each man heard them “in his own native language”, so too did each of these nations and people get to hear the Word of God in their own language because these laymen and monks took it upon themselves to translate (Acts 2:8).

The ironic thing was that the Latin used by the Roman Catholic Church was not the Classical Latin used by the Romans. The Latin used by the Catholic Church was Ecclesiastical Latin, similar to both Classical Latin and Italian but was never spoken by a specific nation or people. Instead, it was created and utilized solely by the Church. It was and is still used by more denominations than just the Catholic Church, as it was created for liturgical purposes. Ecclesiastical Latin is the only form of Latin still spoken today and it is the official language of the Holy See. Though it is no longer the sole language used by the Vatican, most official documents are still produced in Latin.

The Offspring of the Printing Press

With the dawn of the printing press, not only could the Bible be read in various languages, but it could also be read more widely. As understood by the condensed timeline above, the Bible had already been translated into various languages long before Gutenberg, Tyndale, or even Luther. For the latter two, the Scriptures had already been translated into English and German at various times and in multiple dialects.

Along those lines, the printing press and the translations done by people such as King Alfred, Wycliffe, Tyndale, King James, Luther, and many others helped to standardize writing and spelling. While measures to standardize languages had been done before, such as by King Alfred with English and the Church with Monasteries and Universities, having books that would be read by all truly helped standardize language for both the learned and “unlearned” alike. This was furthered by the printing of the Bible.

Additionally, having more printed Bibles helped people learn to read. One of the reasons the leaders in the Church were reluctant to have laypeople have the Scriptures was because they were unlearned and either could not read or did not read well. According to some, they did not have the training to interpret or understand the Bible. That was why teachers such as Luther and other reformers, whether intentionally or otherwise, were so helpful in spreading the Scriptures and aiding laypeople in understanding them. As time went on, the Bible was used as a textbook to teach people, young and old, how to read.

One great reason why all of this was possible was because of the printing press. Before, each manuscript had to be copied by hand; if any part were done incorrectly, the copier had to start again. This process was typically done by monks and other church leaders. While these manuscripts were beautiful, as many were illuminated, and the Church did well to preserve the text, the Scriptures were expensive. With the dawn of the printing press, the Scriptures, dropped in price as production was quicker, more efficient, and more copies were able to be made. And in some cases, a particular patron or buyer could still have their Bible illuminated according to their taste or ability to pay.


While the Bible was known to many and could be heard by many since the sending out of the early Christians, it was during the reformation that the Scriptures truly began to be read and known by all. Though various other translations existed, they were few in number to begin with and fewer yet survived persecution and the passage of time. Because of the Church Reformers and those who sought not to reform but only spread the Gospel, God’s Word was brought further to all men. Leaders like Tyndale, Wycliffe, Waldo, Luther, and so many others are to be commemorated for their dedication to spreading the Gospel through the vernacular tongue.

These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
~ Deuteronomy 6:6-9 ~

Blessings to you and yours this 500th anniversary of the Reformation.


Works Referenced

Abi, Charles. “Bible in American Scools 1700-1900.” http://barlowvincentchurchofchrist.com/hp_wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/THE-BIBLE-USE-IN-AMERICAN-SCHOOLS-1700-1900.pdf. Accessed 30 Oct. 2017.

Comfort, Philip W. “How We Got our Bible: Christian History Timeline.” Christianity Today, 1994. No. 43. Accessed 27 Oct. 2017.

Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: Volume 2: The Reformation to the Present Day. New York: HarperCollins. 2010. Accessed 30 Oct. 2017. 10.

Moore, G F. “The Vulgate and Numbered Verses in the Hebrew Bible.” The Society of Biblical Literature, vol. 12, no. 1, 1893, pp. 73-78. Accessed 27 Oct. 2017.

Reed, Lenet H. “How the Bible Came to Be: Part 5, Glimmers of Light in Darkness.” https://www.lds.org/ensign/1982/06/how-the-bible-came-to-be-part-5-glimmers-of-light-in-darkness?lang=eng&clang=ara. Accessed Oct. 30. 2017.

Smith, Christopher R. “Chapters & Verses; Who Needs Them?” Bible Study Magazine, 4 Nov. 2014. Accessed 27 Oct. 2017.

The Holy Bible: New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 2001.

Waterworth, J, translator. The Canons and Decrees of the Sacred and Œcumenical Council of Trent, Celebrated Under the Sovereign Pontiffs, Paul III., Julius III., and Pius IV. London: C. Dolman. 1848. Accessed 30 Oct. 2017. 19-20.

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