The Catholic Church, so the old stories claim, kept the Bible in Latin so ordinary Catholics couldn’t read it, burned copies of the Bible that had been translated into English and added books to the Bible that had no business being there.
Like the myth about “Pope Joan,” these stories have been circulating for centuries. In fact, they are so widespread that it’s not unusual to hear churchgoing Catholics repeat them.
So is there anything to them? Is the Catholic Church anti-Bible or afraid of the Bible?
The idea is absurd. It was Christ’s disciples – all members of the Catholic Church -who wrote the books of the New Testament. Catholic bishops, priests and laity kept copies of the Bible safe during the centuries of persecution when Roman emperors decreed that all the sacred books of the Christians should be burned.
Catholic councils identified which books belong in the inspired canon of Scripture, and Catholic monks lovingly preserved the scriptural texts over centuries by handwriting copies.
In every way, then, we actually owe a debt of gratitude to the Catholic Church for the great gift we call the Bible.
Only in Latin?
Let’s begin with the charge that the Church kept the Bible in Latin so that the Catholic laity couldn’t read it.
In the first place, the Catholic Church has never been hostile to vernacular versions of the Bible. It was Pope St. Damasus I (pope 366-384) who commissioned St. Jerome to produce a new Latin translation of the entire Bible that would be faithful to the ancient Greek and He-brew manuscripts.
When he did this, he was in fact ordering a vernacular translation. At the time, Latin was spoken throughout the Roman Empire, from Britain to Persia.
One effect of the collapse of the Roman Empire was the loss of a single unifying language. As a babble of local dialects sprang up across Europe, Asia Minor and North Africa, Latin became the language of the schools, the professions such as law and medicine, and, of course, the Church.
During this period few people could read, but those who could learned to read and write in Latin first, and in their own languages later. Latin, then, was the language of the literate.
Even so, while St. Jerome’s Latin Bible, known as the Vulgate, remained the standard text, a host of vernacular versions of the Scriptures came to be in circulation. By the time of the Protestant Reformation, there were already popular translations of the Bible, or portions of it, in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and other European languages, some of them in existence for centuries.
The Church did not object to these translations, but it did insist that Catholics who had no formal training in the Bible be guided in their reading of the Scriptures by the commentaries of the Fathers of the Church or by well-educated priests.
It’s sometimes said that the translation of the Bible into English by John Wycliffe (c. 1324-1384) brought the Catholic Church to its knees. But Wycliffe’s English Bible was by no means the first translation for the peoples of the British Isles.
In fact, this Bible is a perfectly orthodox translation of St. Jerome’s Vulgate. It was the “explanatory”material included in later editions of the English Bible by Wycliffe’s followers that caused trouble.
Wycliffe had rejected the doctrine of the Real Presence in the Eucharist and the spiritual authority of the pope. After Wycliffe’s death his followers rejected celibacy of the clergy, religious orders and what they called the “feigned power of absolution.”
These unorthodox opinions, routinely included in the prologue or notes of Wycliffe Bibles, are what disturbed Catholic churchmen and Catholic statesmen in England. They saw clearly that Wycliffe’s followers were not trying to put the plain word of God into the hands of ordinary people; they were trying to lead ordinary people away from the Catholic faith.
A century later, William Tyndale (1492-1536) produced an English translation of the Bible in which he included a large portion of the unorthodox prologue and notes from Martin Luther’s German Bible. St. Thomas More spotted the deception and charged Tyndale with trying to mislead the faithful by misrepresenting “the good and wholesome doctrine of Christ.”
Even England’s King Henry VIII denounced Tyndale’s version for its “many corruptions of the holy text, as certain prefaces and other pestilent glosses in the margins advance and set forth his abominable heresies.” For these reasons Archbishop William Warham of Canterbury had Tyndale’s Bible burned.
To us the idea of burning a Bible is chilling. But we must keep in mind that Archbishop Warham, St. Thomas More and Henry VIII lived in an age when unorthodox religious doctrine was regarded as a difference of opinion not only dangerous to souls, but also potentially dangerous to the stability of the nation.
Non-Catholics of the period thought the same way. For example, John Calvin, one of the fathers of the Reformation, burned copies of the Bible annotated by Michael Servetus, a Spanish theologian who denied the Trinity and the divinity of Christ.
“Extra” Catholic Books
Some non-Catholics claim that at the Council of Trent in 1546 the Church added to the Bible books and texts that do not belong there, specifically Wisdom, Sirach (or Ecclesiasticus), Judith, Tobit, Baruch, and First and Second Maccabees, as well as portions of Daniel and Esther. This charge is not only bad history, it’s plain nonsense.
The technical name for these books is “deuterocanonical” (liter-ally, “second canon”) and they are all found in the Septuagint, the most ancient vernacular translation of the Old Testament. It was created about 250 B.C. for Greek-speaking Jews who no longer understood Hebrew.
This Greek translation of the Jewish Bible was known and used by Jews throughout the Roman Empire. Certainly, the earliest Fathers of the Church regarded the deuterocanonical books as divinely inspired and an authentic part of the Bible. We know that ordinary Christians revered them, too, because some of the oldest paintings in the catacombs depict scenes from these books along with scenes from other biblical books.
Protestants claim that they omit the deuterocanonical books because they do not appear in the Jewish Bible. But consider this: When Our Lord was on Earth the Jews had no canon, or official list, of biblical books.
It is true that a group of Pharisees met at the Palestinian town of Jamnia between A.D. 80 and 100 to create a canon, and they did in fact exclude the seven contested books. But the authority of this particular council to issue such rulings was disputed among the Jews, and many other rabbis of the time rejected the Jamnia list.
In any case, since the Christian Church was already established by this time, the ruling of a group of non-Christian Pharisees certainly had no authority for Christians.
The question of the Jewish canon has never been officially settled. To this day, the Jews of Ethiopia use a Bible that contains all the books found in the Catholic Old Testament.
Clearly, then, the Catholic Church did not add books to the Bible. It preserved sacred texts that were revered by the Jews as well as by the first Christians.
Furthermore, the Catholic canon of 46 Old Testament books and 27 New Testament books was fixed at the Council of Rome in 382. The Council of Trent, responding to Protestant challenges, found it necessary to confirm what had been established almost 1,200 years earlier.
The Church encourages Catholics to study the Bible. But it insists upon reliable translations and the guidance of sound teachers. In this the Church is especially blessed, since it can draw upon 2,000 years of biblical scholarship.