Complutensian Polyglot Bible: narrow-mindedness in humanists

European Renaissance humanists sought to recover ancient learning and literature. Textual reasoning — collecting different textual sources, analyzing historical records of textual transmission, considering textual variants, studying words, languages, and translations, arguing about the best representative of the original text — was at the center of humanist activity.  Religions that highly valued ancient texts had great interests in humanist activity.  Not surprisingly, even before the Reformation, Christians participated in humanist activity.[1]

Complutensian Polyglot Bible

Within the Renaissance flourishing of humanist activity, a Spanish cardinal in 1502 commissioned and funded leading scholars to produce a polyglot bible based on the most accurate and oldest manuscripts.  The work, known as the Complutensian Polyglot Bible, was completed in 1517.  The cardinal’s dedicatory preface to the first volume declared:

Words have their own unique character, and no translation of them, however complete, can entirely express their full meaning. … Indeed, there can be no language or combination of letters from which the most hidden meanings of heavenly wisdom do not emerge and burgeon forth, as it were.  Since, however, the most learned translator can present only a part of this, the full Scripture in translation inevitably remains up to the present time laden with a variety of sublime truths which cannot be understood from any source other than the original language.[2]

The Complutensian Polyglot Bible presented the Old Testament in the Hebrew of the Hebrew Bible, in the Greek of the Septuagint, and in the Latin of the Vulgate.  In Europe in the Middle Ages, Latin was the common language of scripture, liturgy, and scholarship.  Placing the Latin Vulgate in the context of the Hebrew Bible and the Greek Septuagint encouraged broader textual reasoning.

The Complutensian Polyglot has a surprising arrangement of the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin texts within its Old Testament openings.  Based on humanistic thinking, one might expect to find the Hebrew text at the center of the opening, surrounded by the Greek Septuagint, with the Latin Vulgate outward further.  But major humanistic work is an activity of humans with organizational support.  Recognizing common human and organizational propensities, one might expect to find, in this major work of church officials in the Middle Ages, the Vulgate at the center of the Bible’s openings, surrounded by the Septuagint, with the Hebrew pushed to the edges.  The Complutensian Polygot has neither of these textual arrangements. The Septuagint is at the center of the openings, moving outward to the Vulgate, and then to the Hebrew. What was the reasoning for this arrangement?

The commonly cited reason for the Complutensian Polyglot’s textual arrangement is a crucifixion allegory.  The Complutensian Polyglot’s second volume, which was the first volume of the Old Testament, included a second preface in addition to the first preface.  The second preface purportedly explained the arrangement of the Old Testament texts:

We have placed the Latin translation of the blessed Jerome as though between the Synagogue and the Eastern Church, placing them like the two thieves one on each side, and Jesus, that is the Roman or Latin Church, between them. [3]

This explanation contradicts the first preface’s respect for the original language of the text, which in most cases was Hebrew.[4]  Moreover, the Latin translation was at the center only in the narrow perspective of the page.  Across the full openings of the Old Testament volumes, the Septuagint was at the center.

The crucifixion allegory’s page-centric perspective creates topological incoherence.  The Gospel of Luke significantly distinguished between the two thieves.  One thief reviled Jesus. The other sought Jesus’ favor.  Jesus declared that one of the thieves will be with him in paradise.[5]  To which thieves do the Synagogue and the Eastern Church correspond?  Given the horrid anti-semitism in the Christian church in the Middle Ages, one might assume that the bad thief meant the Synagogue.  Probably based on the position of the goats in a Gospel parable of the final judgment, Christian tradition placed the bad thief on the left of Jesus.[6]  Hebrew, however, was both to the left and to the right of the Latin in the Complutensian Polyglot.  That’s because each page did not have an identical textual arrangement.  Instead, each codex opening had a symmetrical textual arrangement.  That textual arrangement doesn’t allow for a coherent crucifixion allegory.

The crucifixion allegory is an irrational explanation of the Complutensian Polygot’s textual arrangement.  Producing the Complutensian Polygot was a huge, expensive project.  That project makes no sense as a means to identify Jesus with the Vulgate and the Roman Church.[7]  Moreover, Christians strongly opposed to the Roman Church and in favor of translating scripture into vernaculars adopted the Complutensian Polygot’s textual arrangement.  For example, a folio-sized bible with parallel columns of Hebrew, Latin, and Greek, arranged as in the Complutensian Polyglot, was printed in Heidelberg in 1599.  Heidelberg was a center of Reformation thinking.  John Rainolds, head of the Puritan faction at the Hampton Court Conference and a leader of the King James bible translation, owned a copy of the 1599 Heidelberg polyglot bible.  Neither he nor the Church of England identified Jesus with the Vulgate and the Roman Church.

The reason for the Complutensian Polygot’s textual arrangement isn’t clear.  A recent scholarly book explains:

At the Council of Trent (1545-1563), in response to Protestant interest in vernacular translations of the original texts, the Vulgate was declared the “repositiory of orthodox Christian biblical doctrine.”  To make the point graphic, the great Catholic Complutensian Polyglot Bible (1514-1517) places the Vulgate in the center of the folio, with the Septuagint version to the left, and the Hebrew to the right, “placing them,” as the “Prologue to the the Reader” says, “like the two thieves one on each side, and Jesus, that is, the Roman or Latin Church, between them.” [8]

That humans are prone to narrow-mindedness and irrationality, before and after the Enlightenment, among religious and secular thinkers, is obvious.

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[1] Early in the third century GC, Origen of Alexandria directed the production of the Hexapla, which presented six texts of the Old Testament, including Hebrew, Greek, and Latin texts.  Late in the third century, Eusebius of Caesarea created a biblical omasticon and canon tables.  Such tools facilitated the textual reasoning associated with humanists.

[2] Trans Olin (1990) p. 62.

[3] Trans Hall (1963) p. 51.

[4] Hefele and Dalton (1885), pp. 151-2, recognized this contradiction and attempted to explain it away.

[5] Luke 23: 32-33, 39-43.

[6] Matthew 25:31-33.  The traditional positions of the two thieves is attested in artistic depictions of the crucifixion.

[7] Katz (2004), p. 6, insightfully observes:

This proclamation of reliance on the primary text of Scripture, and the need to look at the Bible as one would do any other ancient document, is probably more representative than the oft-quoted remark of the preface {putting forth the crucifixion allegory}

[8] Soulen (2010) p. 33, footnotes omitted.  Among other weaknesses, this explanation mischaracterizes the Complutensian Polyglot’s textual arrangement.

[image] Opening of Complutensian Polyglot Bible. Thanks to U.S. Library of Congress, Bible Collection page.


Hall, Basil. 1963. “Biblical scholarship: editions and commentaries.”  Chapter 2, pp. 38-93, in The Cambridge History of the Bible.  Vol. 3, edited by S. L. Greenslade. The West from the Reformation to the Present Day.  Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Hefele, Karl Joseph von, and John Dalton. 1885. The life and times of Cardinal Ximenez or, The Church in Spain in the time of Ferdinand and Isabella. London: T. Baker.

Katz, David S. 2004. God’s last words: reading the English Bible from the Reformation to fundamentalism. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Olin, John C. 1990. Catholic reform: from Cardinal Ximenes to the Council of Trent, 1495-1563 : an essay with illustrative documents and a brief study of St. Ignatius Loyola. New York: Fordham University Press.

Soulen, Richard N. 2010. Sacred Scripture: a short history of interpretation. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

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