The Making of the Bible, 400-1700


Arguably, no book in the world has a greater cultural presence than the Bible. Today, the central religious text of Christianity can be found all over the world, from churches and classrooms to hotel rooms and street corners. By a considerable margin, the Bible is also the most available book on the planet; hundreds of millions of copies are sold every year in more than 450 languages.

…the notion of the Bible as a book – that is, a single, bound volume containing a single, standardized text – is a fairly recent development. For much of its history, readers thought of the Bible as a coherent yet diverse collection of many different genres of books…

These staggering statistics, however, overshadow the fact that the notion of the Bible as a book – that is, a single, bound volume containing a single, standardized text – is a fairly recent development. For much of its history, readers thought of the Bible as a coherent yet diverse collection of many different genres of books (history, poetry, prophecy, law, and so on); indeed, its name was derived from the Greek word biblia, meaning “library.” The idea of the Bible as a book, on the contrary, first arose only in the sixteenth century, and only became dominant since the nineteenth.

This collection will introduce you to how the Bible was made from a “library” (that is, a series of related but distinct religious texts) into a “book.” This transformation occurred gradually over nearly a millennium of human history. The books and documents gathered below reflect important turning points in this long transformation, and provide a snapshot of how major cultural developments in religion, politics, technology, and society changed the ways in which people thought about the Bible as a material object. Taken together, these snapshots tell a story of how the Bible was remade from a “library,” into the global, adaptable, and culturally significant book it is today.

Essential Questions:

  • How did the creators of the various books and documents below define the Bible? How do these definitions change over time?
  • Who is the intended audience for the materials below? What clues from the materials help you answer this question?
  • The story of the making of the Bible is, in many ways, a story of changing media. How does this story reflect on the changing media landscape today?

The Biblical “Library”

The London Polyglot, 1667

By the fourth century, the “library” of biblical texts was extremely diverse, including a range of religious texts from different cultural and intellectual traditions. Among its contents, for instance, was the Torah, the central religious text of Judaism, which consisted of the first five books of the Christian Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Chronicles). Jewish rabbis and scribes had carefully copied these texts in Hebrew for thousands of years. On the other hand, the four Gospels that begin the New Testament were much more recent, only written down in Greek after decades of oral transmission.

The evangelical nature of Christianity led to a great linguistic diversity in the biblical “library.” As the young religion spread throughout the Near East, Africa, and the Mediterranean, Christians translated biblical sources into a number of languages in order to fulfill Christ’s command to “make disciples of all nations.” Very early on, for instance, the Gospels were translated into Syriac, a common language spoken by the general population in Palestine and Syria at the turn of the millennium. Scribes continued to copy manuscripts of the Syriac Bible for over a thousand years.

Centuries later, early modern biblical scholars used manuscripts like these to recover the linguistic diversity of the ancient biblical “library,” so that contemporary readers could uncover as much of the divine mystery of Scripture as possible.

We can see this diversity on display in these pages from the London Polyglot Bible of 1657, the most ambitious of the great polyglot Bibles in the early modern period. After years of research and technical development, its editors were able to reproduce the Bible in nine ancient languages.

Questions to Consider:

  • What does the linguistic diversity of the Biblical library tell us about what Christianity was like in its early years?
  • What does the Syriac Gospel manuscript tell us about the place of literacy in late antique Christianity?
  • Why did early modern Bible scholars think that showing the Bible in multiple languages at the same time would give readers a deeper understanding of its message?

The Vulgate: An Early Step Towards Standardization

Franciscan Bible, 1275

The first step towards making the Bible into a single, standardized book began with the cultural uniformity of the Roman Empire. As soon as Christianity began to spread throughout Roman society, church leaders were compelled to translate all of the biblical texts into Latin, the official language of the Empire and the one that most new Christians would understand. By the fourth century, Christians used a variety of conflicting “Old Latin” versions, which caused no small amount of confusion.

In the 380s, Pope Damasus I ordered St. Jerome, an accomplished scholar who was familiar with both Hebrew and Greek, to produce a revised version of the Latin Bible from its original languages. Completed in the early fifth century, Jerome’s version came to be called the “Vulgate,” a nickname derived from the Latin word vulgaris (“commonplace” or “shared”). After the fall of the Western Empire in the fifth century, the medieval church became the unifying cultural force in Europe. By the seventh century, most Christians had adopted the Vulgate as their preferred Bible. For nearly a millennium, the Vulgate was the only version of the Bible Europeans ever encountered, whether in academic study, personal devotions, visual art, music, or at Mass. Centuries later, German printer Johannes Gutenberg confirmed the Vulgate’s dominance by choosing to make a deluxe edition of the Vulgate to show off the capabilities of his new printing press.

Medieval people still thought of the Bible primarily as a “library” of different texts (the entirety of which many learned Christians memorized), but they also produced the earliest surviving examples of pandects—single volumes containing all the canonical books of the Bible. Producing such a manuscript took considerable time, effort, and money. Consequently, pandects were often made into works of art worthy of devotion in their own right, as this lavishly-illustrated thirteenth-century pandect shows.

Questions to Consider:

  • How did the fall of the Roman empire in Western Europe help explain the medieval church’s reliance on the Vulgate translation of the Bible?
  • What sort of statement does the look of Gutenberg’s Bible—its layout, decorations, typeface, etc.—make about the new technology that produced it? How does the fact that the book is a Bible affect that statement?
  • Gutenberg’s printing press has often been described as a ground-breaking, revolutionary invention that helped build the modern world. Yet, his Bible looks strikingly similar to the Franciscan pandect produced centuries earlier. How do these similarities help us think differently about major technological developments like Gutenberg’s press?

The Bible Becomes a Book

The making of the Bible into a standard, single book accelerated during the religious upheavals of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, when Scripture became a major point of contention between Catholics and Protestants. Catholics maintained that the Bible could only be read in Latin (specifically, the Vulgate), and only by clergy. Against this, the various Protestant sects insisted that Christians needed to read the Bible for themselves. As a result, Protestant churches strongly encouraged their members to acquire Bibles that they could use at home. This led to an explosion of Bibles in the vernacular, that is, the languages spoken by people without formal education. Throughout Europe, pious scholars and printers worked feverishly to supply the new demand for Bibles in German, French, English, and so on. The Bibles they developed were designed to be as easy to use as possible, with marginal notes, introductions, illustrations, maps, and other material to help people without much theological training learn how to be biblical scholars on their own. They were a massive success.

Perhaps the best example of this new, more popular Bible is one devised by the German reformer Martin Luther and his colleagues. This became his most popular work, with around 250 editions produced between 1522 and 1546. Eventually, a single-volume Bible became a visual symbol of Protestant faith. We can see this in the engraved image at the top of this eighteenth-century Dutch broadside, which shows Martin Luther and the “Roman pope” with their most distinguishing iconography. Next to Luther stands an unrealistically massive bound book, almost surely a copy of the vernacular Bible he worked so hard to disseminate.

Questions to Consider:

  • What sorts of challenges did lay Christians face when they were suddenly invited to read the Bible for themselves? How does the design of Luther’s Bible help readers meet those challenges?
  • According to the image of the pope in the broadside, what are the defining characteristics of the Catholic church during the Reformation? How do these characteristics shed light on the place of the Bible in the lives of early modern Catholics?

The Bible in Translations

Croatian New Testament, 1562

The proliferation of single-volume Bibles during the Reformation brought back, to some extent, the linguistic diversity of the ancient biblical “library.” The printing press was essential to this process. As print became more widespread, the number of vernacular languages being printed grew rapidly. In large part, religion was the driving force of this growth. As Protestantism moved into different regions in central and eastern Europe, the need to create Bibles in more vernacular languages increased. Reformers from central and eastern Europe traveled to established printing centers in Germany and elsewhere to learn how to use this essential technology. Bibles were often one of the first books printed in new vernaculars, and they routinely played a major role in standardizing these languages. Early editions of these translations, such as the 1562 Croatian New Testament (shown here), were fairly humble, as the emphasis was on getting the Bible to people as quickly as possible. Later editions and translations, like the Slovenian Bible below, were far grander, emphasizing the cultural importance of the book.

Catholics were not immune to the fervor for translation, despite the papacy’s insistence on the Vulgate as the definitive version of the Bible. Many Catholics, mindful of the success of vernacular Bibles, resolved to make their own to combat Protestantism. Catholics from England were especially committed to this task. They collectively produced their own English version of the Bible while living in as religious refugees in France. These English translations openly compete on the pages of the unique 1601 Bible below, in which the state-sanctioned Protestant translation of the New Testament stands directly next to the more recent and controversial Catholic version, completed in Rheims, France, in 1582.

Questions to Consider:

  • Why were Bibles so influential in standardizing vernacular languages?
  • William Fulke felt that a dual-translation Bible was the best way to teach English people that the Catholic translation was evil and to be avoided at all costs. In what ways did the format of the book help him accomplish that goal? How did it hinder him?

National Bibles

In early modern Europe, politics and religion became more closely intertwined than ever before. At this time, political authorities of all kinds (including kings, queens, and town councils) played a more active role in attempting to control religious practice, usually in an effort to uphold a particular Protestant or Catholic identity. Nearly all these authorities recognized the great potential of print to achieve these goals. Early modern states supported a wave of different types of publications, particularly the Bible, to ensure that the religion in their territories was aligned with the interests of the state. Because of their cultural significance, single-volume, standardized Bibles functioned as physical symbols of a nation’s religion, language, and character.

The clearest example of this was the appropriately named States’ Bible, the first official Dutch translation of the Bible from the Greek and Hebrew, completed in 1637. The Bible was a joint production of the seven Protestant provinces of the Netherlands, which were then engaged in a long war of independence against Catholic Spain. As such, leaders wanted the States’ Bible to create a unified political and religious identity for Dutch Protestants during the war. It did precisely that; though it was developed for the use only of the Reformed church, all the Protestant sects in the Seven Provinces adopted it soon after it appeared in 1637.

Questions to Consider:

  • Based on the title page, what kind of Dutch identity does the State’s Bible promote?
  • Why would early modern political authorities think Bibles would be effective tools for promoting a particular kind of national identity?

Colonization and the Global Bible

Eliot Bible, 1663

The Bible had long been one of the most important cultural foundations of European society, but it did not become a truly global book until the colonial period. As Europeans expanded their political influence and culture into the Americas, Asia, and Africa, they brought their Bibles with them. In these colonial contexts, Bibles functioned simultaneously as tools for conquest and conversion. Throughout the Americas, European missionaries and political leaders aimed to replace Indigenous peoples’ beliefs and cultures, thus making them “more European”, and Bibles were an important tool in this effort.

This goal was clearly on the minds of members of England’s Parliament in 1649, who voted to create the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England, an organization dedicated to providing material support to Puritan missionaries in the British colony. As the published act makes clear, the project of producing a Bible was part of the larger process of “instructing and civilizing” Indigenous people. The Society’s efforts eventually led to the production of the first Bible of any kind in the Americas: a complete translation of the Bible into Massachusett, most commonly known today as the “Eliot Bible.” Despite its colonial origins, however, this landmark Bible could only have been made in collaboration with Indigenous people. Most of the work required to translate, transliterate (that is, write Massachusett words in English letters), edit, and print the book was done by Indigenous converts to Christianity, such as James Printer and Job Nesuton.

In this way, the Eliot Bible is also evidence of the Bible’s flexibility, a critical factor in its cultural staying power. The book took on new forms and served different functions as the various cultures which encountered it translated, interpreted, and physically reproduced the text. Indeed, the Eliot Bible served as a launching point for the Indigenous converts to Christianity, also known as “praying Indians,” to shape Christianity according to their traditional religious and cultural practices, rather than adopting English religious practices wholesale. The Eliot Bible, then, occupied a cultural space between European colonial imposition and creative Indigenous resistance, which ensured that it remained central to both European and Indigenous audiences in the future. In this way, colonialism not only (often forcibly) established the single-volume Bible in new environments around the world, it also invited non-European cultures to refashion the material form of the Bible according to their own needs—two qualities that helped ensure the Bible would remain a truly global book in the centuries to come.

Questions to Consider:

  • According to the Act of Parliament, what aspects of Indigenous life will change once the Gospel is firmly established in New England? What role would a Bible play in this process?
  • How does the Eliot Bible show the difficulties in translating an unfamiliar religious text into a new cultural context? How did Eliot and his Indigenous collaborators try to overcome these difficulties?

About the Author

Christopher Fletcher is Assistant Director of the Center for Renaissance Studies at the Newberry Library. A medievalist by training, he is interested in studying and teaching the history of religion and public communication before 1800 and developing new opportunities to make the humanities more engaging for the general public.

Selected Sources

Bross, Christina. Dry Bones and Indian Sermons: Praying Indians in Colonial America. New York: Cornell University Press, 2004.

Cameron, Euan, ed. The New Cambridge History of the Bible. Volume 3: From 1450-1750. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

De Hamel, Christopher. The Book: A History of the Bible. London: Phaidon, 2001.

Marsden, Richard and E. Ann Matter, eds. The New Cambridge History of the Bible. Volume 2: From 600 to 1450. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.