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Church History Forum: Scripture readings in church history

by Catherine Frakas 05 Dec 2001

Scripture readings in church history QUESTION from Joe Magee September 30, 2001 I am a Catholic involved in a discussion with an Adventist. I have been reading about the Bible and the translations in the Middle Ages.
My questions concern the availability of Scripture to the people. I am aware that at that time few were literate, and that the language that most literate people read was Latin. But my questions concern what Scripture the people heard. At mass, did the people hear the readings in the vernacular or only Latin? If only in Latin, did the people only hear translations by the priest - with translations and interpretations of varying quality? And also what readings did they hear? They did not use the cycle that we use now.
Translations (into the vernacular) in most countries were not readily available although occasionally partially existent. As I read the Catholic Encyclopedia (section on Versions of the Bible) it is fairly clear that in most countries, most Christians could not have been exposed the actual words of scripture in their language until the 15th or 16th Centuries. As for English translations, about 200 Wycliff bibles were apparently produced in the late 14th Century (prior to the printing press) and rapidly distributed, but the Church in England tried to suppress their use because of inaccuracies and heretical footnotes. But if there were already translations available in English why did the Church not produce more copies of its own? The Douai-Reims version was not produced until 200 years later. That's a long time - 10 generations. It gives the appearance that distribution of Scripture was also a concern of the Church of the Middle Ages, as well as the quality of a translation.
Let me clarify my orthodoxy by stating that I do not believe that one must read or hear Scripture to be saved. One only needs to hear the Gospel and follow Christ as the Church teaches. But I get the sense that, in the defense of the Catholic practice in the Middle Ages, Catholic Apologeticists are not admitting that there was a long period in Catholic history when Scripture was not adequately given to members of the Body of Christ. Is it not unreasonable to attribute this (effective) restriction of the words of Scripture to over-control of the people by the Church leaders? The Reformation definately changed this situation.
That sounds harsh, but I would like your inciteful thoughts on this issue. If you do not have a good answer please direct me or give me some internet references.
In Christ,
Joe Magee
ANSWER by Q & A Staff on September 17, 2001 Dear Joe,
One important point you are making is that in the 15th and 16th centuries, most Christians could not have been exposed to the actual words of Scripture in their language. There is an important qualifier to this statement, which you have alluded to, and that is, they could not be exposed to the written words of Scripture because many people were illiterate. It is important to remember that very few people at this time could read or write. The readings at Mass were in the Latin Vulgate. However, stories from the Bible were recounted in the vernacular also, and in fact there were many vernacular translations dating from pre-Reformation times.
The following quote is from Dave Armstrong's
Biblical Evidence for Catholicism: Catholic Reverence for the Bible
The famous preface of the translators of the King James Bible (1611) tells of the history of English translations, most of which predated Protestantism: To have the Scriptures in the mother tongue is not a quaint conceit lately taken up . . . but hath been . . . put in practice of old, even from the first times of the conversion of any nation.
This same link also has a list of pre-Reformation vernacular translations. As the reader will see, there were in fact dozens of these translations in circulation.
Regarding the liturgical cycle, the medieval lectionary was not organized. It is only since Vatican II that the three-year liturgical regarding cycle that we know today came into being.
Regarding your point on the 200 Wycliff bibles which were produced in the late 14th Century, the English Church tried to suppress their circulation because of inaccuracies and heretical footnotes. This is correct. It should be noted, however, in contrast to the erroneous viewpoints that are often heard suggesting that the Catholic Church banned all translations all through the Middle Ages, in actual fact there were only three instances where a vernacular translation was banned. The first one was in England with the Wycliff footnotes, the other two instance being in southern France and Northern Spain, again in the 14th century, regarding the Albigensian heretics, who were themselves using a heretical translation. And that is the sum total of the restrictions the Catholic Church put on vernacular translations: three temporary restrictions in places where there were heretical copies doing the rounds. As I have already mentioned, there were many vernacular translations in use which the Catholic Church had no problem with, so there can be no question that the Church was exercising “over-control†of the people.
As to why the Church did not make an effort to produce more copies of vernacular Bibles, remember my earlier point that the majority of the populace was illiterate and so the effort in terms of cost (i.e. first the effort to translate, then the effort to manually copy) to produce vernacular Bibles probably did not make a lot of sense.
You are not correct in suggesting that perhaps Catholic Apologists are not admitting that there was a long period in Catholic history when Scripture was not adequately given to members of the Body of Christ. As mentioned above, the Church only restricted those translations which were heretical or which contained heretical footnotes. The Church did not restrict the translation of the Scriptures into the vernacular. Remember also that the Church used to have a copy of the Latin Vulgate chained at the church entrance during these times, not so that people could not read it, but, in contrast, so that it would always be available for anyone who wanted to read it!
Here is another interesting point: it is quite interesting to discover where the first Wycliff Bible (without footnotes) came from. It was the work of Peter Waldo who produced it as a result of dealings with two priests: Bernard Ydros and Stephen Anse. This was reported by Stephen of Bourbon, the famous historian of medieval heresies, in the 13th century. (Note: the heretical footnotes were added by Wycliff et al. and this led to their copies being restricted). So it can hardly be claimed that the was trying to keep the Scriptures from the people.
For further reading on the circumstances that led to the Churchs restriction of the vernacular (in the three cases cited above), see the following links:
Catholic Encyclopedia: Waldenses
Catholic Encyclopedia: Lollards (i.e. the followers of Wycliff)
Catholic Encyclopedia: Albigenses
Thanks Joe,
God bless,
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