"Remember, I am with you always to the end of the age" (Mt 28:20)


500-Years-Old Complutensian Polyglot Bible: Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin Authoritative Edition (1520)

It took fifteen years from 1502 to 1517 to publish the first complete six-set edition of the Old and New Testaments not only in the Latin Vulgate (common Latin version) but also in their original languages Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew.

Prior to the advancement of the printing press using a mechanized transfer of ink from the movable type to paper by Johannes Gutenberg copying of manuscripts were done by hand which was a main cause of copyists' errors in early manuscripts. To cite as an example let us take the phrase "Pandora's Box" which came from a mistranslation of the greek word pithos, meaning, "jar," to pyxis, meaning, "box." This error is usually attributed to the 16th century humanist Desiderius Erasmus in his Latin account of the story of Pandora. Apart from this, the bible was a highly guarded book by the Catholic church that such privilege of reproducing, studying and translating it was only entrusted to the very select [e.g., Council of Sens in 1528 had forbidden printing the Holy Scriptures and works of the fathers without the consent of the diocesan]. This became one of the main seedbeds of the Reformation controversies that opened the pandora's box, so to speak, and led to the division within the church between Catholics and Protestants. Any unauthorised publication of the Sacred Scriptures, let alone translating it, was an act deemed as heretical in itself and deserving of death by hanging at the public gallows.

A facsimile edition was published in Valencia 1984–87,
reproducing the Bible text (vol 1-5) from the copy in the
Library of the Jesuit Society at Rome,
and the rarer sixth volume of dictionaries from
the copy in the Complutense University Library.
Although the bible printing was already completed between 1514-1517, Desiderius Erasmus received in 1516 from Pope Leo X a four-year exclusive privilege to publish the Greek New Testament. The formal publication of the Polyglot Bible could not happen until the privilege expired in 1520. Unfortunately, the brainchild behind the project, religious reformer Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, died on November 8, 1517 and he never saw its eventual publication. Erasmus published in 1516 his pioneering edition of the Greek New Testament, albeit, a version that was hastily edited.

Jiménez wrote to Pope Leo X about the choice of available manuscripts to use in the bible edition: "We are impelled by many reasons to print the original text of holy Scripture. First, since no version can translate faithfully all the force and naturalness of the original, especially when it treats of the language in which God Himself has spoken, whose words were, to speak thus, taken from the senses and fountains of mysteries which can only be glimpsed or known from the original in which the holy Scriptures were written." Jiménez de Cisneros and his editors felt compelled to justify the decision to use linguists rather than theologians as editors of the Sacred Scriptures: "We have tried above all to use the work and studies of the most brilliant linguists. We have taken as our archetype and mold of our edition the oldest and most correct manuscripts. Our purpose, on taking on this project has been to reanimate and allow to flourish anew biblical studies that now lie almost dead" (Prologue to the Reader). He himself had had many plans for his group of linguists, Antonio de Nebrija, Alfonso de Zarnora, Núñez de Guzmán, which included among these a two-column edition of Aristotle's complete works. Upon his death all these projects were discontinued and forgotten towards the end of the sixteenth century. According to Jerome Friedman, "The Complutensian Polyglot Bible was a fine example of what might be produced with strong royal financial support, positive Church leadership, interreligious intellectual communication and the miracle of printing" (Friedman, Jerome, The Most Ancient Testimony, Ohio University Press 1983, p. 29). However, not everyone within the church welcomed Complutensian Polyglot Bible, e.g., a Dominican friar considered it the work of heretics, Jews and madmen. And these most famous scholars were at some point held suspect and in contempt.

Biblia polyglotta. Alcalá de Henares.
Spain: Arnaldi Guillelmi de Brocario, 1514-17
[but not published before 1520].
Nevertheless, the Complutensian Polyglot is the first printed multilingual bible of incredible scholarship and typographic design. Only six hundred copies were printed, of which approximately sixteen percent are known to exist today. This landmark publication five hundred years ago was a necessary development that paved the way for the Word of God to be brought a step closer to many people who crave daily for their spiritual food. Fr. JM Manzano, SJ

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