Were Lay People Prevented From Reading the Bible Before the Modern Times?

This is one of the few big misconceptions both Catholics and Protestants alike have had. This is a baseless belief as the Church in no way prevented the lay faithful from acquainting themselves with the Scriptures.

Taking a look at the event of the 16th century when the Protestant reformers renounced the teaching authority of the Church and declared the Bible, the only determinant of their faith; That is, the sole rule of their faith (Sola scriptura) despite the fact that their claim had no scriptural backing itself.

The after-effect of this event was that many Catholics lessened their grip of the Bible, leaving it to scholars and Church officials while Protestants who deserted the mass turned to the Bible for spiritual support. The Church in no way condoned this displeasing act (as many people including Catholics think) but tried its best to encourage Catholics to hold firm to the Scriptures and to study it fervently.

As seen in Pope Leo XIII’s 1893 encyclical on the study of Scripture and Pope Pius XII’s 1943 encyclical on Promoting biblical studies, Catholics were enjoined to engage themselves with the Bible. Similarly, scholars, Saints, popes and ecclesiastical councils have advised the same.

True, in the medieval ages, Bibles were chained to tables in parishes. This is how it was made available to lay faithful but this was not done to deter lay Catholics from accessing the Scriptures as many people claim. On the contrary, this was done to make the Bible accessible to the large number of lay people. You see, in the middle ages, Bibles were scarce and highly costly (worth thousands of dollars in today’s currency) there was no printing press then hence, copies of the Bible were handwritten and handmade. Only a few people could afford it. Due to this, only a few copies were accessible and just one copy was allocated a whole town at that time.  But this was done to make the Bible accessible to the large number of people.

Also, the notion that the Bible was initially written in Latin to prevent Catholics from reading it and was first translated to vernacular by Martin Luther is completely wrong. Right from 1455 when the first printed Bible was made by Johan Gutenberg, a German Catholic with the approval of the Church (years before Luther was born in 1483), several editions were made in local dialect such as the first German edition which was printed in 1466, two Italian versions in 1471, the Flemish edition in 1477 and many others. Paleographs of some parts of the Bible were also written in vernacular in early centuries such as the Anglo-Saxon translation of the Gospel of John by Bede in 735 and others.

Obviously, Luther was not the first to translate the Bible to vernacular. Moreover, people did not really see the need to translate the Bible to vernacular because at that time, almost every educated person in the West could read Latin until the 19th century.

So, you see, Lay people were never prevented or denied access to the Bible. Unfortunately, as it is, the events of the 16th century concealed this truth.

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