In important ways, the Protestant Reformation was about making the Bible available to people in the pews in their own language.
Until then, the Bible was mostly either in its original Hebrew and Greek or in a Latin translation from those languages, and the clergy seemed to keep fairly tight control over what was read and how it was understood.
But beginning with such pre-reformers as Erasmus, a movement got started to get sacred texts into the hands of people to read it for themselves.
The traditional starting date of the Protestant Reformation is Oct. 31, 1517, when a German Catholic monk and teacher, Martin Luther, challenged the hierarchy of the Catholic Church with 95 theses that outlined his grievances about doctrine and tradition and practice.
Luther eventually translated the Bible into German for his followers. And before long various English translations began to appear.
The one that found itself at the center of the Protestant movement was the Geneva Bible of 1560, translated into English by English scholars who had fled to Geneva when Mary I, a Catholic, became queen of England and cracked down on Protestants, including those in the Church of England who had moved outside the Cathlic realm when Henry VIII in 1534 split the English church off from Rome.
Recently I received an anonymous gift of a facsimile copy of the 1560 Geneva Bible, which contained in its margins various text notes and explanatory information to help readers understand what they were reading. Naturally, one doesn't write such notes from a vacuum. Inevitably the study notes in any Bible reflect the theology of the authors.
And that was certainly the case with the Geneva Bible.
For example, Isaiah 32:1, which begins, "Beholde, a King (s)hal reigne in (j)ustice. . .", carries next to it this note: "This prophecie is of Hezekiah who was a figure of Chri(s)t, & therefore it o(u)ght chiefly to be referred to hi(m)." This note reads Jewish texts through prophetic Christian eyes, in other words.
The 16th Century was a time of considerable religious turmoil and dynamism, as the Catholic Church split apart and what eventually became the atomization of the Protestant movement began. People like William Tyndale, Miles Coverdale and Thomas Matthew began to translate the Bible into English. Often the ruler or this or that land would have to grant a license for such Bible translation work to be done and published, but the people were hungry to read and hear what they considered the word of God in their own language. In some cases countries went from rules that prohibited anyone but church leaders from owning Bibles to rules that required anyone who could afford one to own a Bible.
Such prominent reformers as John Calvin and John Knox were either aiding in some of these translations or offering scholarly reviews of them and encouraging use of the Bibles.
My new facsimilie copy of the Geneva Bible has quite a thorough introduction that describes all of this, but what particularly struck me was how vital the Bible was to daily life and how much the Protestant Reformation depended on a Bible that could be interpreted by its own leaders and followers.
Today the Bible remains a best-seller but I've found it to be one of the most widely owned but little read or understood books around today. Biblical illiteracy is rampant. And when you find communities of people who are well-versed in scripture, they're often people who read it quite literally, thus missing, dismissing or misunderstanding its profound metaphorical language.
New Bible translations in English come out regularly -- especially since the 1940s. And some of them are quite good and helpful. But none of them seems to have filled anything like the role that the Geneva Bible played in the Protestant Reformation.
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SAYING NO TO TERRORISM
It's hard to know what to say about the despicable thugs who murdered children in Pakistan. There is no world anywhere in which such behavior can be justified. Although it's painfully disheartening to learn about such violence continuing around the world in the name of Islam, people of all faiths still are called to stand against it and say over and over that it doesn't have to be this way. That may seem useless and even foolish, but our task is to show an affirming light in the darkness.