English Bibles from the Middle Ages to the Reformation
The history of the text of the Bible begins with the Jewish Scriptures. The 39 books of the Old Testament were written in Hebrew between approximately 1500 and 400 BC. The Hebrew Bible was first translated into Greek during the third century BC – a translation known as the Septuagint, from the Latin word for 70, since the translation was traditionally said to be the work of 70 Jewish scholars in Alexandria, Egypt. Early Christians would have used this version of the Old Testament.
The 27 books which we now know as the New Testament were written in Greek during the first and second century AD and canonized by the early Christian church in 397. As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire (which legalized the religion in the year 313), believers needed to access the scriptures in their everyday language – Latin. Several different versions of biblical texts had been produced for non-Greek speakers, but these “Old Latin” versions were of inconsistent quality and accuracy. In 382, Pope Damasus asked Eusebius Hieronymus – better known as Saint Jerome – to revise the biblical text into a standard Latin version. Jerome began translating the New Testament from Greek sources and the Old Testament from the Greek Septuagint, but around 390, he decided to translate directly from the Hebrew. Jerome’s translation, known as the Vulgate (from the Latin word for “popular”), gradually replaced the Old Latin versions until it was adopted by all of Western Christianity. During the Middle Ages, the Vulgate was the Bible used throughout Western Europe.
NOTE: L. Tom Perry Special Collections has a number of original and facsimile Bibles which illustrate the history of the Bible in England, Europe, and the world. Students and faculty with demonstrated research interests may access these collections. Patrons can request reading privileges in person at the Special Collections reference desk. University faculty may also arrange for class presentations of these and any other materials in Special Collections.